IIT – the elusive El Dorado

IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) is arguably the most-sought-after institution in our country.  It’s the dream of many a student to reach this El Dorado.  They believe that it is the ultimate destination in terms of academic achievement.  It’s the be-all and end-all for the aspiring young ones and their parents.  A place in the IIT is a passport to a dream career with the best pay packets in any part of the world.  That’s the magnetic appeal of IITs.

Every year, more than two lakh students vie at the IIT–JEE, the entrance test seeking admission to the IITs.  Only around 5% of them qualify for admission. There were only 10 IITs until recently.  We have now added another dozen IITs.  One can imagine the tough competition involved in this arduous pursuit.

Ironically, coaching institutions are the only ones who enjoy this desperation of the students and their families. They make a ‘killing’ thanks to this rat-race undertaken by lakhs of families every year, charging exorbitant fees. The rigorous coaching does help a small percentage of them. Interestingly, most of them whom they select and coach are high scorers already and they crack the IIT-JEE chiefly on their own capability.  The ‘teaching shops’ promptly take credit for their success splashing their photographs in the media.

This charade goes on, unchecked. Nobody takes a serious note of this, including the authorities who should fix this problem, choosing to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear.

Another fall-out of this craze for IIT admissions was reported recently in the press.  An RTI query revealed that over the past 5 years, a whopping 7248 students dropped out of the IITs, and 27 of them committed suicide.  This is from the 10 IITs then in existence.  This is alarming. At least this should wake up the authorities to address this malaise.

What are the possible reasons for this large-scale drop-out and the number of suicides year after year?  I made an attempt to look into the issue by gathering the feedback of my own students who are IITians and a few educationalists.  Let me share the findings.

A stressful environment: The young students who reach the IIT with great excitement and gusto find the environment very unfriendly.  A student sees an opponent in every classmate.  Thus friendship, which should be the bedrock of youth-hood, is the first casualty in this environment.

Tough competition and increasing isolation: Competition becomes a highly individualistic option. Everyone has to wage a lonely battle.  ‘There is an inevitable isolation’, says Karthik Ramkumar, a US based IITian.  Students who were cocooned in the nuclear families feel lost in this vast wilderness of unfamiliarity and indifference.  It becomes threatening and suffocating to most of the youngsters. Some brave it, while some slug it out and a few fall by the wayside, depending on the relative mental fibre of each of them.

A caring culture is missing: The climate of tough competition creates a huge stress on students.  Dr Valson Thampu, former Principal of St. Stephen’s College says that institutions of higher education should see students as a national asset and nurture them carefully.  “A caring culture should be enunciated in these institutions. Regrettably, the more prestigious and high-profile an institution, the weaker its caring culture.”

Dr Thampu also has something to say about the quality of teachers.  Besides academic credentials, a teacher’s mental fitness, emotional intelligence and sense of empathy must be basic requirements for teachers in such institutions of repute.  Intellectual rigor tempered by humaneness and empathy should be their hallmark.

Sachin Nayak, one of our alumni and a graduate of IIT Madras presently well-placed in the US, seeks to contradict the general assumption that IITs are not doing enough to address the issues now under scrutiny.  He believes that the faculty and the students of IITs together strive hard to maintain the reputation of the institution and do their best.  He is all praise for his faculty. He is peeved that IITs are being maligned by these reports. However he doesn’t deny the reports or give any suggestions to overcome the present situation.

Angelo Pereira, a distinguished Little Rock alumnus now in the US says, the data as presented to Parliament is factually correct as multiple news outlets have reported it and the data came from the government in 2019. Given that IIT Madras was at the top of the table would seem to possibly indicate that Sachin may be unconsciously biased and unwilling to accept that things are not all right. This is not an unexpected reaction. 27 students from 10 IITs in 5 years is the headline. Isn’t that something to ponder about and ask tough questions?

Favouritism and harassment: Complaints are often heard about arbitrariness and harassment by the faculty. A single professor being given absolute freedom to take far-reaching decisions in respect of the promotion or detention of a student is a fallacy, pointed out an alumnus of IIT now in the US on condition of anonymity.  He suggests creating a student-friendly committee to be entrusted with such major decisions.

Lack of coping skills among the young: The young ones who topped his/her class or school right from Kindergarten, who has never tasted failure, cannot just accept failure. They do not have the resilience to bounce back in times of failure.  This is a serious lacuna in the young.  They are made to believe that they are born to succeed always, and never to fail.  The reality is quite different, which they come to realise to their dismay later in life.  The young need to be equipped with life skills to face even the vicissitudes of life.  Parents and school teachers have to shoulder this responsibility.

Wrong choice of career: Some of the students find themselves in the wrong place and unable to cope. A professor in the IIT system on condition of anonymity says, “From my interactions with students in the institute I can say that a large number of students are just not interested in pursuing engineering even though they are enrolled in IITs. They went through coaching centres, cleared entrance tests and got into IITs primarily to meet certain societal and parental expectations, and not because they wanted to become engineers. Two years into the programme, a large number of them just lose interest, and because of which, they also begin to perform badly in the various assessments. Those who really want to and have the option to dropout, do so. Those who are too anxious about the prospects of disappointing their parents and the expectations they have on them either just remain there and somehow get through the programme, or in worst cases, take their own lives”.

Systemic lacunae: The IITs must incorporate more vigorous remedial measures.  The existence of counselling cells is just not enough. Students who need help desperately often times do not seek out the counsellors.  It’s the counsellors who need to reach out to the ones in distress.  This calls for an attitudinal change and a systemic approach that is more humane and compassionate. ‘A batch-mate of mine committed suicide, and so I know that student support-systems are inadequate in these high-pressure institutions.

A vigorous stigma-free counselling network should be put in place’, says Shashank Rao, an IIT-Madras graduate. Allowing students more flexibility to evolve their course work is yet another suggestion. Exit options that are being contemplated must be reasonable and suitable for the students.  They should not become an impersonal device to get rid of the ones found to be ‘inadequate’.  Exit options should result in desirable and honourable alternatives.

A dynamic systemic make-over is needed desperately in our IITs.  Brushing the issue under the carpet or explaining it away in simplistic terms is just not acceptable. Realistic concrete steps to address the issue are needed urgently.  This can brook no delay as human lives are at stake.

Cover Image: IIT Rourkee (Wikimedia Commons)

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