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Makeover of JEE – will it work?

Recently the IIT Council decided to have one common engineering test for all centrally funded technical institutions. This has been endorsed by the Central Advisory Board of Education. This is purported to replace the fifty years old system of the IITs’ Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and the decade old All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE). The new test (JEE) would be conducted in two stages, main and advanced. A salient feature of the new selection system, effective from 2013, would be substantial weightage to the performance in XII level Board examinations while preparing the merit list. The objective of the drastic policy change is to wrench the focus back from coaching classes to class room teaching which, as we all know, has taken a back seat over a period of time.

The first merit list would be prepared with equal weightage to JEE (Main) and marks in XII Board examinations normalized on percentile basis. Normalisation among the plethora of State Boards would be made on percentile basis. On the basis of this, a fixed number of candidates (five times the number of seats available or on the basis of a pre-fixed cut off) would be shortlisted to appear in the JEE Advanced test. Admission to the IITs alone would be made on the basis of merit in the advanced test. Admission to all other centrally funded institutes (NITs, IIITs, etc.) would be made on the basis of a merit list prepared with 40% weightage to Board plus 30% each to JEE Main and Advanced. JEE Main would be a multiple choice objective type paper, whereas the nature and modalities of the JEE Advanced would be determined by ‘Joint Admission Board of IITs’ (JAB). It would have complete control on JEE advanced. The CBSE shall provide administrative support in conducting the examination. The states have a choice to accept this scheme or not, for admission to their engineering colleges.

The decision of the Ministry of HRD has led to widespread discussion across the country, eliciting strong views for and against. The moot question is whether the solution would help in realising the objective or the remedy would be worse than the disease. A few days back, the IIT Kanpur Senate has rejected the decision of the HRD Ministry and decided to conduct its own tests or along with other IITs who may join.

The concept of entrance examination was given by the Sarker Committee in its report for establishing four higher technical institutes. However, the first IIT, i.e. Kharagpur, started admissions based on the Board results, but soon realised that it was not the best system as there was wide variation in syllabi and standard among the Boards. Thus, in 1955, entrance test was introduced. Later, when three more IITs (Bombay, Madras and Kanpur) became functional the concept of joint entrance test was decided upon in a meeting taken by the then Union Minister for Scientific Research Humanyun Kabir in 1960. The first JEE was conducted in 1961 by IIT Kharagpur, in which 5,841 students appeared. As the IITs’ credibility got established and they became the most sought after institutions of technical education, the competition increased manifold. This year, about 4.78 lac students appeared in the JEE for about nine thousand seats (all IITs included). With time, the JEE has become a credible and respected entrance test worldwide.

As time passed, most of the States and a few well performing colleges also started their own admission tests, which resulted in mushrooming of entrance tests. This proved to be a nightmare for students and their parents. Eventually it led to the concept of AIEEE, conducted by the CBSE. The first test was held in 2002. It is used for admission to the NITs, IIITs and by several states for their colleges. Eventually the JEE and AIEEE emerged as the leading entrance examinations. More than 11 lac candidates appeared in the AIEEE this year. With so many entrance tests, the parallel education system in the form of coaching classes also kept growing.

The coaching institutes are well aware of the poor state of school education especially in government schools in rural and semi-urban areas leading to rapid increase in the number of private schools. Till now, the coaching industry primarily catered to entrance tests; with the new JEE, it would tackle both – Board examinations and entrance tests, resulting in extra financial burden on the parents and pressure on students. Improvement in school education requires other measures by the Governments.

Normalisation of the Boards’ marks on percentile basis is a good concept, but should be introduced where the system of evaluation, the curricula and the quality of schools affiliated with the Boards are more or less uniform. But this is not the situation. Except in a few pockets, good students try to take admission in well performing private schools mainly affiliated to CBSE. Under these circumstances, normalisation on percentile basis would mean comparing apples with oranges. It would be desirable to make a prior detailed analysis of marks obtained in the Boards by students admitted in recent years in IITs, NITs and IIITs using the data already with them. A simpler option for IITs is to raise the cut-off mark in the Board examination from 60% to say 75%.

There is another kind of pressure on a student brought about by a single entrance test. A small innocuous incident resulting in bad performance would ruin the year. In this respect, the two test system (JEE and AEEE) worked well for majority of the students.

Managerial aspects of conducting a test on such a huge scale across the country are as important as its conceptual framework. The proposed scheme revolves around the timely declaration of the Board results. Assuming they are all available by mid June, the merit list based on JEE Main and Board marks would be ready by late June. By today’s reckoning, about 5 lacs may take the Advanced test. When would their answer sheets be evaluated; after the declaration of the result of JEE Main or the Board examinations? In the first case, it would mean evaluating all those who appear in the Advanced, resulting in waste of enormous resources. If done after Board results, it means delay in preparing merit for the IITs, NITs and IIITs. This would also have a cascading effect on admission to other engineering colleges, which may spill over into August and September. Besides, a significant number of students who do not get good ranks take admission in UG science courses, affecting universities and colleges. Looking at the enormity of managerial issues and manpower involved, it is much simpler to work with cut-offs in Board marks with or without normalization and let the IITs conduct the Advanced test for the candidates shortlisted on the basis of the JEE Main.

The decision of IIT Kanpur Senate to go ahead and make admission of its own, rejecting the proposed JEE, has raised a vital issue, i.e. who is competent to take decision on the admission system. According to Section 33 of the Institutes of Technology Act, 1961, one of the functions of the IIT Council headed by the MHRD Minister is to advise on admission standards. According to Section 28 of the Act, the Institute has made Ordinances for admission. As per Clause 3.2 of its Ordinance, the admission to the B Tech courses shall be made on the basis of the JEE conducted jointly by the IITs. Clause 3.10 provides that the admission requirements and procedures for all categories of students shall be laid down by the Senate. Similar provisions exist in the Ordinances of older IITs. The legal aspect of the admission system was not seriously examined as none expected that the IITs’ highly acclaimed JEE would ever be questioned. Till now, they had complete control on the admission system and the proposed system is perceived to be as an infringement on their autonomy; more so as they are institutes of national importance and capable of competing with foreign universities as and when they come. In fact, a more serious question that has now been raised is how autonomous the IITs are.

The culture of coaching and lack of seriousness of class room teaching is not confined to the engineering aspirants. The same situation exists in respect of medical courses. Entrance tests are also being held for several prestigious law degrees such as offered by the National Law Universities. The list is increasing.

The JEE has worked since 1961. The IIT alumni have done extremely well worldwide and made India proud. Why tinker with the system that has worked so well and delivered? There are several other challenges that the IITs face. Some of the new IITs are struggling to acquire shape. Time has come to consolidate the system on the basis of their strengths and by removing their weaknesses so that they can compete globally. The proposed changes in the JEE are unlikely to bear the desired fruits. Instead, they are likely to give a fillip to coaching industry and increase burden on students and their parents. School education needs a holistic approach and its reform should be the prime area of focus for the States and the Central Government.

Dharam Vir is former chief secretary, Haryana.
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