Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Politics of IITs

It first came to my notice in early 2003. I was a first year student at IIT Kanpur then. On winter mornings sipping tea at MT and going through local hindi news papers like Aaj and Dainik Jagran, I would find small articles about IITK somewhere on sixth or seventh page. Usually they would be about cultural or technical festivals (Antaragini and Techkriti) or sports festivals. Or about some project that was completed or announced by a lab in collaboration with some corporation or government body.  This sort of news was not present in Lucknow newspapers. But over the course of time I could see more news about IITs in Lucknow news papers as well.

Then they during the placement season they started publishing the details of job offers students were bagging with top offers being emphasized. Over the years these top job offers news started making to front page in Kanpur and started being reported in Lucknow newspapers as well. The feel good nature of these kind of news stories was identified and exploited by mainstream media outlets nationwide. The emotions it generated in the public were similar to the likes of "Mukesh Ambani 3rd on the Forbes List of 100 richest people". Somehow media fools you into being proud of what shouldn't concern you at all and probably isn't even news worthy. IIT stories are also popular because it represents class mobility. Most lower middle class Indians consider IIT a door to upper middle class and they like to be reminded that despite their current predicament, there is a way out.

Being continuously fed stories about IITs for years, general public feels involved with them. A bit like people generally having views about the saas-bahu soaps they follow. Public is enamored with good news and disturbed by what they perceive to be bad news much more then they should be if their involvement was only at a rationally justified level. And whenever public feels strongly about something, politicians emerge on the scene to exploit those feelings.

Since becoming the Education minister Mr. Sibal took upon himself the crusade for making the IITs socially inclusive.  The entrance test was to be changed to a format which would eliminate or significantly reduce the relevance of coaching classes. Because coaching classes are an unfair advantage to a certain strata of the society and also the formal education system gets sidelined. Marks obtained in class 12th board examinations were to carry 40% weight.
Thankfully Mr. Sibal was not very successful in his bid and the final arrangement looks nothing like his original plans. Only top 20 percentile of each board will be able to appear for the JEE, which is a reasonable rule although if it were up to me, i would rather not have that as well. If you believe otherwise,  a few stories of injustices dealt by UP and Bihar boards can easily convert you.

What was amazing though was the magnitude of the effort Mr. Sibal put in his endeavors. With a population of 1.2 Billion, of which majority of households do not have access to decent primary education and the university education is in ruins, he is most worried about reforming a system which takes in less than ten thousand students an year and is probably the best performing institution in the country.

When will we see similar zeal from the minister to reform the primary education system? If he really wants to make higher education socially inclusive, shouldn't the school system be reformed first so that the quality of students increases. Instead his preferred solution is to twist the rules of the game. The JEE is in my opinion is one of the fairest systems in India (barring the externals ) and it is best if it remains fair.

But tinkering with the IITs offers Mr. Sibal much more political mileage than reforming the school system. First reason is that reforming school system could be a costly affair for the government which is already missing its fiscal targets under the weight of its welfare programs. The second and the more important in my opinion is that a shrewd politician like Mr. Sibal has recognized the irrational fancy the Indian population has taken to the IITs over the years. Populist moves regarding the IITs give him most "bang for the buck".  He is implicitly promising a bigger share of the pie to his vote bank.

I can only wish luck to the IIT system which is now on the radars of  politicians playing class and caste politics, partly due to its own success.

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