Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking
- J.M. Keynes

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Dumb and Dumber - MHRD Policy

Inured by the barrage of thoughtless short-term decisions of our great politicians we overlook the rare momentous decision which decides the long-term future of a country. The man behind one such momentous decision is the honourable Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Human Resource Development. Such is the genius of the man and his idea to remake the JEE, that he will have insured India has no long-term future. The consequence of tinkering with a system which has worked spectacularly for the last 50 years will be the eventual bankrupting of scientific and engineering capital of the country. One cannot help but appreciate this masterstroke. By destroying India’s future, he creates a playing field heavily biased towards his cabinet colleagues who seem to specialise in populist, ill-thought short-term decisions.

After having massively diluted the IIT brand by opening one in every marginal constituency, now the MHRD wants to dilute entrance requirements. At this stage, one must emphasise that there is nothing wrong with trying to create educational centres of excellence and enabling greater number of students to access them. However, creation of institutes of excellence is more than a naming exercise. A point which is probably lost on the party which believes every road and avenue in India must be called Nehru, Gandhi, Indira or Rajiv. And believes such renaming is national progress and generates national pride. An institute attains excellence not because of its name but because of the quality of its faculty, students and facilities. And these cannot be manufactured by merely affixing a signature to a file.

Entry to educational institutes of excellence usually requires students to meet tough qualifying criteria. Thus selection is biased towards those from more privileged backgrounds (whether it is race, caste, class or wealth) who are able to build a strong educational foundation through access to good primary and secondary schooling. They are usually also the ones who are able to afford private coaching for the entrance exams. Therefore, one way to enable greater access to institutes of excellence is to improve the standard of primary and secondary schooling and make it affordable for all. Unfortunately, this is a long, hard slog. Much easier to make education a fundamental right and assume away the problem. The other way to enable greater access is to dilute the entrance requirements and introduce randomness in the selection criteria to enable the mediocre to get in. This is the favoured choice since this can be done with the stroke of a pen and the consequences will only become apparent when the great policy maker has long departed for his reserved place in heaven.

The flawed assumption behind such policies is that every child is intellectually equal. Therefore, diluting rigourous qualifying criteria provides a level playing field immediately. In addition one does not need to bother with constructing a policy which provides quality primary and secondary education to the talented but unprivileged. It is also a vote winner since dreams of accessing institutions of excellence and subsequent high paying jobs can be sold to the masses. Unfortunately, as any child can tell Mr. Sibal, there are some really smart kids along with some really dumb ones in a classroom. The above line of reasoning ignores that intellect and talent continue to be normally distributed across the world despite the best efforts of leftist educators and teachers unions. Lowering educational standards to make every student feel smart and conform to an artificial average is a colossal waste of talent. If Gauss was born in India today he would have received a slap across his face for coming up with a formula to find the sum of the first hundred integers and told to go back and do it the long way like everyone else*.

The focus of an education policy should be to ensure that irrespective of his/her background, every student gets the highest quality of education to enable him/her to rise to his/her potential. The general level of education has to be moved up rather than moving down the level of institutes of excellence. It is understandable why the reverse is being attempted by MHRD. The test of a policymaker and a policy is not how it logically and rationally aims to achieve some national objective. Instead it is how much loyalty it demonstrates for “the” great leader and family. Lowering intellectual and educational standards passes the test with flying colours since most of the great leaders (not to mention “the” great leader in waiting) in this government inhabit the left tail of the intellectual (and seemingly the moral) normal distribution.

For over half-a-century, the JEE has been a fiendishly tough entrance exam to pass. As a result some of the brightest scientific talent in India gets admitted to the IITs (note the “scientific” adjective – IITians are not “the” brightest, if there can be such an unqualified category, and neither are they the only bright scientific talent). True, there are Type II errors but that is the case with every selection process and in any event they are not numerous. The new format of the entrance exam relegates the old JEE to a 60% weight to bestow a huge 40% weight to the school leaving exam. If the school leaving exam was consistent across the country and actually tested for scientific aptitude rather than acuity of memory then this may not have been a big deal. Unfortunately, neither is true. Instead of testing the ability to apply scientific laws, school leaving exams mainly test the ability to remember and correctly state them. Moreover, the marking of school leaving exams is also not consistent throughout the country. As a result students with similar performance may receive widely differing marks depending on their geographical location. There is no way for the central government to force uniformity as education is on the concurrent list and the states aren’t going to acquiesce in a reduction of their power and patronage. Even worse, as every school kid in India knows, marks in the school leaving examination are only loosely correlated to performance or intellect.
As a result, the change would dilute standards and inject randomness into the entrance process. The result would be two-fold. One, there will be a massive increase in Type II errors as mediocre students are admitted. Two, the talented will move abroad due to disenchantment with the process (They will not move to private universities as no Indian private university comes even remotely close to the IITs despite some daring to think beyond). The first will ensure that the general level of education suffers since classroom discourse will have to be brought down a level. It will also destroy the brand which has painstakingly been built over decades. It only takes a few graduating batches to dispel the halo surrounding an institute. The second adds to the brain drain experienced by the country. Easy availability of student loans has made going abroad to top universities for an undergraduate degree much easier. Those negatively affected by this policy will vote with their feet (that’s probably why Mr Sibal couldn’t care less). In any case, a large number of trained and talented doctors, engineers and scientists leave the country. This retrograde step will only reduce the average age of talent fleeing the country and make the situation worse. Unfortunately insidious policies such as these are not ones which make people come out and demonstrate on the streets. Therefore we can only look on with impotent rage and prepare to reap the whirlwind. 

* True story: I know someone who was penalised in high school for solving a maths problem more elegantly. The teacher said something to the effect that ‘This is a 5 mark problem, you are not supposed to use only 3 steps to solve it. That is why I have given you only 2/5’.

Disclaimer: As an IITian I am obviously opposed to the death and destruction of one of my favourite brands. So, as can be gauged, I have been unable to completely disassociate emotion from the arguments above.

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