Sohoni and Kathuria have analyzed IITB’s placement data for 2013 quite thoroughly and the immediate conclusions are obvious and confirm what many of us have been lamenting about for the past several years. Their article also raises a number of questions that we need to debate. The first and probably the most contentious is whether JEE is a measure of merit or rather does it measure the merit that is relevant to the making of an engineer/technologist that a developing society like ours needs. The second is whether the placement data for IITB is unique to the IITs or is the same trend observed in other elite institutions across the world. And finally, is it possible for an academic institution to influence the placement choices of its graduates.
“So what has happened, has merit migrated out of the metros? Certainly, awareness and aspirations have surged but does economics not play a role?”
Any talk of reviewing JEE or questioning its efficacy arouses strong passions, particularly among IIT alumni. It is only natural that we are touchy about any doubts being cast on what is for all of us the very (and often, only) mark that distinguishes us from the rest. However, once we get over the initial wave of rage, it seems reasonable that JEE should change with the times as the circumstances and requirements change. Perhaps the two most closely watched numbers, by aspiring youngsters and their over-bearing parents, are the JEE ranks and the placements salaries. Everything that goes on in between seems of little consequence. It is necessary to question the claim of meritocracy in the JEE. How important a role does coaching or preparation play in success at JEE? If one fails to qualify in two attempts but ranks among the top single digits at the third attempt, what does it say about JEE’s ability to measure ‘merit’? In the early years, IIT entrants mainly came from the four metros. Perhaps the awareness was greater in the metros because IITs were not yet the brand name they are now. But it is also true that the metros had coaching classes for JEE, the best known being Agarwal Classes in Mumbai. However, it is also true that many entrants did not take any special coaching. Now the demographic composition entering IITs is very different, the four metros do not dominate the merit list, most entrants come from smaller towns like Kota, Jaipur and Patna. These are also the towns that are teeming with coaching classes, Kota being the front-runner. So what has happened, has merit migrated out of the metros? Certainly, awareness and aspirations have surged but does economics not play a role? Why is there little representation from other parts of the country, particularly, the North-East?
Is the placement data for IITB unique or is it similar to the trend at other elite institutions across the world? While I do not have empirical data, anecdotal evidence from talking to Deans of universities in US, it appears that they too are faced with a similar situation. The choices of job-seekers are driven by salaries and the perceived glamour of certain professions as opposed to others. In a global market for talent, it is but to be expected that IITB graduates have the same or similar options as those graduating from other elite institutions and, not surprisingly, they make similar choices. In this context, it is relevant to recall an early study on so-called ‘brain-drain’ by Profs. Sukhatme and Parikh. It emerged that it was not as severe as made out by critics and besides, this phenomenon was driven more by the state of the US economy than any thing one could do in India. Then, IIT graduates went abroad, for the most part, to get a Masters and better their economic prospects. Now, our students’ preference is for jobs that pay better and also provide an international exposure. It so happens that these are mostly in Consulting, Finance and IT.
“In a global market for talent, it is but to be expected that IITB graduates have the same or similar options as those graduating from other elite institutions and, not surprisingly, they make similar choices”.
The most important point is, can we, as an educational institute, do anything about it? Teachers can be change agents but it is also true that educational institutions are bastions of tradition and continuity. Change may be slow but it is certainly possible. Examples that come to mind are CTARA, SINE and more recently, the Desai Sethi Centre for Entrepreneurship (DSCE). CTARA provides a platform for our students to get involved in nation building in a very direct manner through focused projects and the MTech program in Technology & Development. DSCE will equip potential entrepreneurs with skills that will help enhance the success rate of startups and encourage more of our students become job-creators rather than job-seekers. I am quite optimistic that IITB will fulfill its destiny, but self-critical analysis such as provided by Sohoni & Kathuria is also essential.