winsight 09 IITs, cut-offs, merit and inclusion

The terms of engagement
The union minister Kapil Sibal has been pilloried for suggesting a higher cut–off for IIT entrance. He wants to raise it from the present 60% to 80% aggregate marks in std XII. Some have called him elitist (one of the worst epithets in an Indian liberal’s quiver) and worse. The minister has since backed down, and said that a committee of technical experts would examine the matter and make recommendations.

Given that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are the premier institutions of higher education in this country, preventing access does lead to protest by the defenders of equal opportunity and equity. It is a different matter altogether that these engineers go on to the equally elite Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and then, on graduating from both these premier institutes, sell toilet soap for the rest of their lives.

Gaming the system, not talent
The elephant in the room is the huge amount of money that these institutes make in administering these tests, and the entire ‘coaching’ industry that teaches these candidates how to game the system. In 2009 alone about 400,000 appeared for the tests. True to form, those who benefit from this scam have chosen to keep quiet about it. The fact is that it is not the 'best and the brightest' who get through those portals, but those who can game the system.

The need for standardised tests
Standardised all India tests become imperative given the vast disparity in the quality of the education system across the country. Not only does the syllabus differ from state to state, so does the marking. So 80% in a state board (often SSLC) does not mean 80% in CBSE or 80% in ICSE. The different state boards are not equal either. How then can the cut off be the same. The suggestion that percentiles be used also does not hold water, given the vast disparities—in infrastructure and marks gained—between states, within states (urban–rural for instance), gender, caste and community.

Democratic principles: equal opportunity and informed choice
In this debate, what is overlooked are two democratic principles: equal opportunity and informed choice. The best option is to scrap any cut–off, and forget the Std XII marks in admission. This is not a very ‘radical’ suggestion given that the cut–off in the entrance tests have been single digits, even for maths and sciences. Cut–offs for 2008 were 5 in mathematics, 0 in physics and 3 in chemistry, and in 2007 were 1 in mathematics, 4 in physics and 3 in chemistry. In 2008 one general category candidate made it to IIT Kharagpur scoring 8 marks in physics.

Some options
What could be done is to publish the lowest mark that a selected candidate has got in the Std XII. This could be state–wise, gender, SC/ST… It could show the clusters: 70% of those selected got 90% in maths, or that the lowest marks in physics of a selected candidate was 69%. If these numbers of a decade are put out, with the scatter diagrams, then the candidates know the historical possibility of getting selected.

Given the state of technology, it is eminently possible. It is also in the highest traditions of democracy: equal opportunity and informed choice. All candidates passing Std XII, in whichever board can compete. They know their chances of getting selected. If they still want to spend the time and money, then it is their informed choice and democratic right.

The actual cut-off might be higher or lower. But decisions can be taken only on the basis of hard data, meaning when these statistics are available.

Starting at the beginning
The place to start for equal opportunity lies elsewhere, as also the quest for ‘quality’. Extend equal opportunity through a quality common school system, so that equal opportunity starts at the initial years of formal schooling. Realising the full creative genius of the children of our country demands no less.