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Reforming the Joint Entrance Examination system

S.S. Vasan

The JEE is a time-tested mechanism that deserves full credit for keeping the IIT system well-oiled and excellent. But well-conceived reforms aimed at spreading quality and improving access are overdue.

LEADING TECHNOLOGY schools of India have very high student selectivity — a fact that has gained belated international recognition. Even Asiaweek magazine, which seldom covered India's achievements, acknowledged this in its 2000 survey of the best science and technology schools in the Asia-Pacific region. It has rated BITS Pilani in the Top 5 and the IITs in the Top 10 in terms of `student selectivity'.

This recognition is well-deserved and strongly supported by statistics. According to the websites of IIT Madras and IT-BHU Varanasi, the prestigious Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) "is attempted by over 125 thousand candidates each year [while] the total number of seats available through the JEE-2005 is [only] 4,935." This translates to an acceptance rate of 3.9 per cent — arguably one of the most stringent in the world.

BITS Pilani's student selectivity is equally high: 48,325 students have taken the BITSAT-2005 online admission test but the total number of seats in Pilani and Goa campuses of BITS is only 1,400 — this implies an acceptance rate of 2.9 per cent, which compares favourably with its 97.3 per cent normalised cut-off in 2004.

Not all international observers have praised the high quality of input, and some sceptics have dismissed it as yet another manifestation of India's over-population. For example, in The Simpsons episode `Much Apu About Nothing', Apu tells the story of how he graduated from CalTech (which apparently stands for the Calcutta Technical Institute) at the top of his class of 7 million! The satire is no doubt hilarious, but India can still be proud of the high standard of input to these institutions — population factor notwithstanding.

Comparable to the best

In many leading universities of the world, the acceptance rates are much higher. For Ivy League universities and Oxbridge, the typical acceptance rate is usually quoted to be about 10 per cent. There seems to be some truth behind this factoid. For instance, Magdalen College, Oxford, attracts 9 to 10 applicants per seat for its highly sought-after courses such as English and medicine.

However, the much-quoted 10 per cent estimate should be taken with a pinch of salt: there are considerable variations between different `top' universities, as well as between different courses and colleges within the same university. Take Oxford's well-known course in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) for instance. Oxford draws 3.2 applicants per seat on average for this course, but the competition is not the same across its constituent colleges: Balliol college attracts 5.5 applicants per place, while Mansfield college only manages 1.8.

Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the top 10-15 per cent of those who take the JEE (about 12,000 to 18,000 students) are as meritorious as those who gain admission to the Ivy League schools or to Oxbridge. The relatively low acceptance rate (of 4 per cent) means that every year about 7,000 to 13,000 good students do well in the JEE, but not well enough to secure a place in the IITs. Unfortunately, the achievement of standing 5000th among all those who took the JEE goes unrewarded in India. It cannot even get the student a merit seat in a local engineering college.

However, this is not the case in the United States or the United Kingdom. In the U.S., the SAT entrance test is recognised everywhere — from Harvard to a III-tier university. In the U.K., all universities offer places on the basis of A-levels (school leaving examinations). Some leading universities do conduct additional interviews, but the results of a standard written test are accepted nationwide in these countries.

Will a Ramanujan make it?

This brings us to the question of what happens to all those meritorious students who score well in JEE or BITSAT, but are not within the top 3 per cent or 4 per cent required to gain a place in one of the IITs, IT-BHU Varanasi, ISM Dhanbad, BITS Pilani, or BITS Goa. For instance, 6,543 students have scored 250 or above (out of a maximum possible 486) in BITSAT this year, but only 1,400 candidates will get an offer to join BITS Pilani or BITS Goa. The number of disappointed candidates will be even higher in the case of the JEE, which is taken by roughly thrice as many students.

At least, the BITSAT and the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) do not adversely affect a student's preparation for 12th standard board examinations, on the basis of which merit seats are allocated in the II-tier institutions of his or her State. But the same cannot be said about the JEE. According to Prof. B.N. Banerjee of IIT Kanpur, "Preparation for the school examinations and [the] JEE are mutually exclusive, therefore, about 60 per cent of the intake every year consists of candidates attempting [the] JEE for the second or third time."

If the portrait of the IIT aspirant as a young kid looks dismal, then that of the failed aspirant is even sadder. These students spend a substantial part of their teenage years dashing from one coaching centre to another, and also making their parents poorer by several lakhs of rupees by the end of the exercise. Ironically, the IITs are silent (or vague at best) on how exactly a brilliant student from rural India is supposed to prepare for the JEE, and what options she or he would have if she or he does not get an offer.

Much has been said and written about the bane of the JEE coaching-mania, but honestly, does a Srinivasa Ramanujan, prodigal but poor and studying in a school affiliated to the Tamil Nadu State Board in Kumbakonam, have any real chance of cracking JEE-2005 without attending a coaching centre in Kota? Will he by virtue of his raw intellect get a place to do a M.Sc. in mathematics? Probably in Cambridge, but in IIT Madras? I doubt it. Whether we like or not, coaching institutions are here to stay, as long as the JEE stays in its current format.

There is no doubt the JEE needs to be reformed to reduce the coaching mania, and more importantly to improve the gender and socio-economic diversity in these national campuses. However, the JEE is a time-tested mechanism and deserves full credit for keeping the IIT system well-oiled, and for enabling these institutions to distinguish between the very best and the rest. The IITs cannot be seriously expected to tone down the standard of the JEE as long as India's school-leaving examinations continue to reward the ability to memorise and throw up answers to questions from a prescribed syllabus.

Two possible solutions

Given this reality, can something be done to help the poor students who have to prepare for too many entrance examinations? Many solutions have been suggested, but I would like to highlight two possibilities that can be implemented over a five-year period without too much difficulty.

The first possibility is to aim for convergence between the AIEEE examination and the JEE screening test. According to Banerjee, "[The idea of a] national test [administered by] an organisation like the ETS, which will function as an ancillary of the IITs, has been on the cards for years." A single test will reduce the burden of students drastically. Those who score very well in this test can be asked to take a second test for gaining admission into the IITs and the NITs. This two-stage procedure would be similar to the current JEE format of a screening test followed by the main examination. The combined strength of the IITs and the NITs should increase the acceptance rate to 10-15 per cent, making it comparable with the rest of the world. Similarly, deemed universities and private colleges may be encouraged to accept BITSAT or AIEEE scores instead of conducting their own entrance examinations.

The second possibility is to keep the JEE separate from the AIEEE, but to consider the JEE ranks comparable to that of the AIEEE for the purposes of gaining admission to the NITs and other engineering colleges in the country. Such a step will greatly help the thousands of students who come in the top 10-15 per cent of the JEE but fail to make it to the top 4 per cent to secure a place in the IITs. Unfortunately, the plight of many thousands of these students year after year does not receive much attention from the Indian media, which is overly interested in reporting the success stories.

These reforms are likely to increase the quality of student input to the NITs, as well as the gender and socio-economic diversity of the student body in the IITs and the IT-BHU Varanasi. It will help bridge the gap between the AIEEE and the JEE examinations, and bring great relief to students, parents, and teachers alike.

(The author is a Rhodes Scholar, Trinity College, Oxford, England.)

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