Today I found a rather peculiar email in my inbox. It was sent to IITB general mailing list, meant for notification about events on the campus. This email was written for anyone ‘who is concerned with IIT Bombay future’. Thus I read it. The sender is a member of student body. He was disappointed with the little interests shown by IIT Bombay student community for the debate on new single entrance examination proposed of Government of India. The sender was aware that this mailing list is not meant for such message but he made his case by claiming that ‘desperate times need desperate measures’. This shows how deep feelings are running in some of them.
Speaking by experience, IITs mean middle classes. These institutes are craved by them because they help them in fulfilling their material if not intellectual aspirations. Reservation might have helped a few of them who are from a poor background but its effect on class-composition of the campus are limited for the benefits of reservation usually goes to the least disadvantaged member of a disadvantaged group. This recent decision by government to give weightage to board examination while preparing merit list for IITs is perhaps formulated with the intentions that it will make IITs more accessible to larger section of lower middle-class. The coaching centers are costly and can be afforded only by upper middle class which gives them an unfair advantages over sons and daughters of lower middle and working class people who can barely afford a good school. The intentions of government are definitely of right kind.
The debate around the admission process of IIT largely a debate by middle-class with middle-class. If the opinion on JEE differs then it shows the Indian middle class have fragmented. Until a decade ago, Indian middle class has a easy ride with its opinions. When it was very small compared to total population, it spoke in one voice and without much dissent. This is not the case anymore.
Many students find it hard to be convinced that new system will take the pressure off them. On such matters, a IIT Bombay student have expressed his mind in Hindu newspaper. This has something to do with perception of examinations. In secondary school, as the pupil progresses from one class to another, the prospect of examinations begins to loom large. Indians have somewhat peculiar attitude towards examination. One of our anthropologist have noted that
For pupils and their parents, board examinations are a trial, and for the school teachers and management, they are a perennial source of vexation. Examination distract seriously from the ordinary course of teaching and learning. Testing and examining are a major function of all modern Institutes worldwide but in India, they tends to marginalize the main function of education, which are learning and teaching. One indication of this is the widespread suspicion and exposure of malpractice in examinations.
Successful performance in board examinations does not depend only on what is taught and learnt in school. In many secondary school very little teaching is done and students have to rely on external tuitions. Even those who gets into best school try to secure admission to most coveted colleges via tuitions and coaching centers. Once begin, competition for coveted colleges acquires its own momentum and it is difficult to see how competition can be abolished without abolishing the middle class, as happened, although briefly in China.
Indian middle class have always valued competitions and have admired individual agency. Various coaching centers outside schools are used to enhance the pupil’s competitive edge. But one should not overlook the role the family plays in shaping senses of a young pupil for these competitions. Not only natural abilities and aptitude, individual initiative and effort of a student are important; one’s family economical, social and cultural capital, pedagogy and practices in school, care and attention a pupil receives from school and family plays an equally decisive role. They may work against each other or reinforce each other. If the government policy to give weightage to board examinations are designed to mitigate resulting inequalities in educational performance creating by ‘elite’ coaching centers then it would be worth a shot but it would be a policy for disaster if the intentions behind such a move to wish out these inequalities. One can not remove inequality without removing family for the contribution of family in creating, reproducing and sustaining inequality in a society is immense than compared to any other social institute. But is there any other social institute which can fulfill the role of family? If this policy has not taken serious note of disparities between different schools, boards and the inequalities in wider society which they are part of, then outcome of this policy could be anything but desired. The intention of government behind such a decision may have been great but a seed sown with great intention need not bear desired fruits and often it bears poisonous fruits.
To be fair, govt. of India is not abolishing entrance examination, neither it is taking away the right to conduct such entrance examination from IITs. As far as I know, government has agreed that IIT will conduct an entrance examination which will be used by all colleges across India. The IIT council, a body consisting of government officials as well as academicians, have also proposed that a significant weightage should be given to board examinations. [PS : They have agreed on some other formula]. This model is proposed not only to check the menace of coaching centers, also to send the signal to schools that Indian institutes of professional learning are now willing to accept students who can compensate their below-expected performance in PCM (physics, chemistry and mathematics) by performing well in non-PCM subject in their schools.
Homo Indicus is a class conscious species. An Indian shows a great liking for collecting highly prized social symbols which he or she uses for upward social mobility. In villages, you can see them running after high-school diploma. In cities they hanker after foreign degrees with equal passion. This obsession may look odd to some observers but it is all too natural for in their communities a premium is put on these possessions. High-end mobiles phones, as well as branded clothes may also serve as status symbol in their peer groups, if not in larger society.
IIT entrance examination, commonly know as JEE, has become a social symbol which has a pan-Indian appeal for middle class students. Most of Indian students with mathematics as a subject in their school, who think of themselves sharp enough, try their skills in this exam. Success in such highly competitive entrance examination not only gives a sense of confidence but also a sense of social and intellectual superiority. Successful candidates who enters into IITs brands themselves IITians and often speaks on themselves in superlatives. A cursory look at the t-shirts designed by them on campus says it all. All students from respected campuses like to brand themselves. But a student of 2nd tier Indian institute perceive himself differently vis a vis a student of IIT than a student of Harvard sees himself vis a vis a student of MIT. A sense of inferiority makes other students very conscious in the presence of IITians. It was virtually unknown in the past but increasingly common in campuses these days. In addition to IITs, students of few other Institutes in India such as IIMs, also like to see themselves collectively. When such collective identities becomes a part of an individual psyche, they feel threatened whenever someone is seen to transgress or alter it. Indians have lived with shared identities based on religion, language, castes and communities for a long time. They have also shown that no matter how peaceful they normally are, they are also quite capable of protecting these identities by turning violent. And IITians can turn into reactionaries, if not violent, when their shared identities are threatened.
So it is all too natural that IIT students (read UGs) will protest against replacing JEE with something else. Recently they have protested against opening up new IITs on the ground that new IITs will devalue the brand of IITs. I fail to see how opening new IITs in a mediocre educational system can devalue IITs? Are they concerned about IIT as a symbol seen collectively? That IIT Gandhinagar might devalue IIT Bombay because they share a common first name? Not only it is hard to understand their motives when they speak in the name of quality and merit, there is little intellectual value in what they say. The noise is always that there is some evil intention or hidden hand especially when they find policy is not of their liking.
Some of the faculty members, especially if they are graduated from IITs, might also join them in their protest. It is not to say the all faculty members who have graduated from IITs are going to protest or all those who are protesting are IITs graduates. It also depends on the extent to which he or she has diluted these shared identities or replaced them with something more personal. Or whether over the time he or she have come to identify himself or herself as IITians despite of that fact he has graduated from somewhere else. One likes to replace less-valued identities with more valued one. If a person is known for his work then it is expected that he care less whether he is an IITian or not. It is far from my intention to suggest that all those who are complaining about it are solely driven by matter of identities. Some will protest on the matter of principle, ideology, rights, social justice, and last but not least, ego. But it will be hard to prove that they are not protesting because some personal feelings are hurt even if they are speaking in the name of ‘merit’, ‘efficiency’, ‘autonomy’ etc.
One can of-course put forward many sound arguments in defense and protest. Intellectual do not change their stand unless the evidence on the contrary are overwhelming. Arguments against the policy of social inclusion are anything but overwhelming. Moreover, the success in the matter of public policy need not depend on arguments only when public sympathy is on the other side. Public sympathy is not an inexhaustible commodity and it is known to change sides quite rapidly if not handled with sensitivity it deserves. Ask our Prime Minister. These days no body makes a noise in support of Manmohan Singh that his government may be corrupt but our Prime Minister is the most educated one since Jawahar Lal and the most honest since the time of Lal Bahadur Shashtri. IITs still enjoys a great public sympathy but our public intellectuals are not willing to go easy on IITians even if they are young : a species have now become notorious for serving its own interests and labs and universities of US and Europe. These young IITians sometimes shows a remarkable condescend. A better known among them have not spared even his professors. It is crass to note after snubbing the larger public in fair weather they long for their sympathy and support in rough one.
Moreover their claim of intellectual superiority by virtue of passing JEE are at best suspicious. IITs have not produced, or at least are not known to produce, a Bose or a Raman. Even a Kalam, a M. Vishweshwaraiah, a P. Sainath, or a Ramachandra Guha have not come from their ranks. Their best products, or at least the best known products, are known to prefer businesses of greenbacks rather than matter of gray cells. The almost total migration towards multinational corporation and European or American universities have only made the matter worse. The point is that even if someone is speaking in defense of IITians, he can easily be shown his place in larger scheme of social issues by pointing out these self-serving behaviors. Nonetheless, it can not be a valid argument for social inclusion for it is very unlikely that after a changed admission process, these new students whether trained in school or coaching center will not follow the same path. But such arguments serves as a great way to hush then up.
Although much better that other Indian universities in the matter of autonomy, IITs have been somewhat slow to adapt to the changing aspirations of large and ever expanding middle-class of India. In India, it is usually the government which formulates the policy. Indian university decides whether to implement it or take an evasive action. If the coaching culture is so bad for our unequal society then what was stopping IITs to check in this menace by themselves? Why wait government to act and put themselves in such an awkward situation? After all IIT senate understands academic matter much better than Indian government and is aware of social composition of the society outside India at large. If they did not consider it a serious problem or did not heed government advice then government has the right, as well as the moral authority, to force it on them.
The experience of North American universities shows that policy of social inclusion is beneficial for the society and university alike. It will great if a university look a little more like the society it is part of. Social inclusion has been used as a potent argument in defense of caste-based reservation. Many people have been discussing the ills of class-division on educational institute for a long time but it is perhaps the first time that a decision was taken to counter the class-disparities on campuses. Some have gone far to claim that right to admission should not be restricted in universities for it will is equivalent of denying the right of eduction to a large swath of population. But there is something phony about such claims that university should be all-inclusive because these claims are not strongly advocated for school and primary schools where a great majority of poor Indian children learn. Proponents of such populist pressures are usually consumer of higher education who in a society where at least half of people do not have access to education are, after all, already to some extent privileged.
Some public spirited IITians have also shown a great concern about the ‘coaching culture’ which is too costly to be accessible to anyone. This makes government funded IITs less accessible to majority of population. It is naive to expect that this can go on and on in a democracy. Indian middle-class parents are very sensitive about their children future and they see education as the most important factor contributing towards it. Governments worldwide are very sensitive to middle class demands for it is the loudest section of populace. Under this constant pressure, government may try to undermine merit for some popular demand as it has done in the past e.g. in 60s, 70s and early 80s by expanding universities without much thought of available resources. Given the level of autonomy IITs enjoys, it can give short-shrift to some of the government decision but not to all of them especially when funds it receive is public money. In democracy, no matter how much desirable to some, it is impossible not to be held accountable to public at all.
We also have to consider the idea of so called ‘merit’ while discussing academic institutes. Merit invariably points toward a genius or a potential genius. We often see a ‘genius’ as a gifted person, endowed by nature her supreme gift – intelligence. Many, however, believe that ‘practise makes a man perfect’. They argue that a person can be made ‘genius’ by giving him enough time to grow with a suitable training and education. Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, was not convinced. He once wrote, ‘A donkey goes on traveling, it does not come back as horse.’ implying that it is not necessary that a man can be changed simply because his later education or training is improved. It is very hard to change ‘pattern of minds’ of individuals, especially when one has crossed the teen-age. Different patterns of mind are cultivated in different environment and strengthened or weakened by the company one keeps.
It is worthy to note that what Adam Smith said in his book, ‘The wealth of nation’ that ".. the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porters, for example, seems to arise not so much of nature, as from habit, custom, and education’.
Also one Prof. E. Leach suggested that
If society insists that individual be segregated out into categories – first class, second class, third class, uper, middle, lower – the system will always have to waste an enormous amount of time and energy allocating individuals to the right slots and marking them with up proper labels.
Though one sympathise with Prof Leach, its hard to see how a modern institute can work with doing away such a labeling. However, in his perspective, it stands out that inequality are an artifact of social inequality. This is largely true in IITs where merit list correlates well with the parents occupations and city of their residence.
Its only in the 20th century when these ideas of natural inequality, merit, talent or ability were chased with a seriousness it deserves. It is difficult not to be impressed by the inputs that have gone into measuring intelligence in this century with US leading the way. It is doubtful that any other human quality has been measured so extensively and implicit in much of such labour is the belief that intelligence is a gift of nature, perhaps her most supreme gifts.
Still, it is true that measured intelligence today is of higher significance than ever before …. In our society there is an increasing values placed on measured intelligence as the basis on which rewards will be allocated, in preference to other characteristics such as honesty, creativity, altruism, leadership, and dramatic, painting, dancing or gradening skills. (O.G. Brim Jr. Glass, Neulinger etc al, American Beliefs and Attitides about intelligence, Russel Sage Foundation, 1969, p3)
Some have argued that anything valuable in this world is hardly measurable. What makes intelligence particularity appropriate as a quality by which individuals can be ranked? How one justify the belief that intelligence as a whole can be measured? Now we have come to a point where experts know more about measuring intelligence than about what intelligence is? To put it in the words of Arthur Jenson ‘Intelligence, like electricity, is easier to measure than to define." (How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?, A R Jenson, p5)
That the merit or intelligence can not be defined thus should not be measured will be a counsel of despair. One need not know theory of intelligence to correct an examination paper. An institute can compare its applicant by making them write an examination. True that this will only evaluate a tiny portion of human intellect and that to a limited extent but modern institutes are at peace with the idea that they give training in a very narrow domain of specializations. The are willing to prefer students who are highly skilled in a narrow domain over those who are jack of all trades. It is a fact of industrialized society where education is highly related with employment and employment in such societies are divided on narrow set of skills. IITs can not, and perhaps should not, prepare themselves to give an all-round education. This will definitely end up compromising their core competence. This is not to deny that a university usually benefit immensely by opening few other departments at the periphery of its core areas of scholarship.
Competitive Institutes should have freedom to devise their own examinations. A institute has to discriminate in one way or other when it receives a large number of applications. It is unfair to ask IITs to give admission to a student who is well versed in music but lacks mathematics. However, IITs can select one if it finds that one’s lack of mathematics can be compensated by cultural or intellectual diversity a musician might create.
If the universities have confidence in their abilities that they can remove inabilities in their students who got admission due to policy of social inclusion then it would be good. It is a well proven fact. North American universities have shown that a university can easily do it and can reap its rewards later. The experience with caste-based reservation shows that Indian universities find themselves frustrated with this ever increasing demand of social inclusion. This widespread frustration in our universities are mostly due to lack of self-confidence in their own abilities toward fulfilling these duties to a larger society. Universities can remove some of the inabilities in their students, and they should try to do it. But it would be a recipe for disaster if they were forced to admit anyone in the name of social inclusion under the impression that university should or ought to remove all of the deficiencies in their students. But this does not seem to be the case with IITs any day where number of applicants are so high and student selected are only a tiny fraction.