Q&A: IIT Madras director on entrance tests

 Goutam Das        Last Updated: April 24, 2013  | 17:31 IST

Bhaskar Ramamurthi, the Director of IIT Madras, has brought in a new energy to his alma mater, inspiring more research and entrepreneurship. In a candid, 70-minute conversation with Business Today's Goutam Das, Ramamurthi spoke about the quality of students, the new Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), coaching and its ill effects, and the strategic direction the IITs must take in the future.

What do you make of the current quality of students entering the IITs? Is there a dilution in standards from your time?
I was a student in IIT Madras between 1975 and 1980. Putting together students from all over the country for five years with almost no other avenue for distraction - the IIT Madras campus was outside the city (so were Kanpur and Kharagpur institutes) - we learnt so much from each other. The learning experience in the hostel was phenomenal. The learning experience is now wider but I don't know if it is diluted. I have no idea if they are learning more or less. Earlier, the only option was to learn from people physically near you. The point is with less coaching those days, there was a chance for somebody who was very bright and self-driven to get into IITs. Chances of such people making it now are dim. They will still do well in the exam but will be a few marks behind those who are coached. I suspect in this large elimination exam the chances of eliminating some good people are very high. But do we get bad people? We don't think so. Does our top few hundred rank among the best? I would still say yes. Are there some who are getting in probably in the middle ranks or lower ranks who might not have made it without coaching? Probably yes.

The ideal entrance was the kind I wrote - where you had problems to be solved. There is not ticking. We were graded manually. That is the way to check a person's knowledge. We went through a screening exam first which was multiple choice followed by a problem-solving exam. This is where we should have stopped. The mistake happened when somebody came up with statistics - there was no difference in a candidate's rank in the screening exam and in rank he secured in the second exam. We said do away with the final (problem-solving) exam. The number of candidates were growing, we are not able to grade. This started coaching for multiple-choice. We did not anticipate that coaching will distort it. Now, there is no training for real understanding. To do multiple-choice, you will need understanding but you can also combine it with strategy. I am saying that the role of the strategic techniques to get marks should be less. So we are getting good students. Whether we are getting the best students is difficult to say in an elimination exam with this ratio.

Can you explain how somebody bright but without coaching can miss out in the JEE?
Somebody who is very good but didn't get coaching and didn't know the strategy and didn't know time management may lose out to somebody who does not have that spark. It could be a matter of a few marks. We are mortally afraid that too many people will get the same marks and we can't rank - our job is to find 9,000 people from six lakh. So there are always tricky questions. So poor people do not come in. But if I have gone for coaching I am taught how to decide when a question is beyond my capability and move on, not wasting time. But the instinct of any bright student is to 'let me take this up and do it'. So a person who is not coached may waste too much time on a question. We make the exam long. Second, the coaching classes give you practice. You know some answers in multiple-choice cannot be true. So you eliminate all but one. You may get 10 marks extra by these strategies - it can make a huge difference.  It has become much harder for us to set exams that will focus on real knowledge. The earlier system, if continued, would have forced students to prepare properly.

How does the distortion you speak about reflect in the campus?
Students are not weak. What has happened is that because they are focusing so much on coaching for the entrance exam, a large number of them need to re-orient themselves to proper study when they come to the IITs. We force them to. We start physics, chemistry and math in a proper way. A significant number across IITs is having difficulty in this transition. They go through a period when they get low marks but they adjust within a year. Nothing is lost in the end but it is a sad thing that they are forced to do something which is not the proper way to study for two-three years. My feeling is that if we had not done away with the screening plus the next exam, we wouldn't have had this much distortion due to coaching.  Coaching is for the entrance exam, not for the knowledge of the subject.

Now, we are correcting it in a different way by giving emphasis on the board exam in the new JEE. But we don't have to compare one board with another. If you have to get a high percentile in your board, you cannot ignore study. One entrance exam cannot a student make. We wanted to make sure you go through a proper education. We want to make sure they don't ignore school. Today, many coaching institutes tell the students to not go to school. Some students having difficulty here told me they used to attend classes from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then studied for the JEE rest of the day. So they had a lot of time to prepare. In the IIT, we teach up to Friday and take a test the next Monday. They couldn't manage.

The point made by many is that by allowing school board exam marks to play a part, IITs are no longer in control of the JEE. Boards can rig exams.
So within each board you do a percentile-based ranking. If they rig it, it is still against each other. We are taking percentile marks - this was missed by people - and converting into a mark. This was opposed by many IIT faculty. So the IITs don't use the marks for ranking. It just uses the mark as a cut-off saying that if you are not in the top 20 percentile of your board, you should not be allowed to get into the IIT.  

Is the government forcing you to make these changes?
Not so. It is bottom-up. There was a committee headed by us which came up with the recommendations. The government did the press conference - and gave an impression it came up with the idea. It was not true at all. We said let's have one exam. But finally whatever we do, there is no getting away from coaching. All we are saying now is that you cannot ignore school.

We are told that many IIT students have problems communicating and following class…  
It is a problem with all our kids and I have a view it is not just English. I have a view we have totally de-emphasized humanities in schools in the last 25 years. It is very obvious even in elite schools. You learn to communicate by reading how others communicate, not by methodology. You read and meet people to learn communication. My son just finished Class 12 and he has not written an essay in his life. They write functional English. Our alumni, who come to recruit, say they are so poor in communication skills. But we can't fix it. We can give band-aid by giving refresher courses. Our kids are handicapped by this problem and this handicap is being felt at the end of the fourth year. The problem of the medium of instruction is there. There are many who come from a vernacular background. In an environment where there is a lecture and in a language you are not comfortable with… we have talked to our students who have not done well initially. By the second year, they catch up. But generally, there are four kinds of students in an IIT. One section has burnt out, studied enough. The second group has difficulty following a lecturer and just gives up. The third group has a problem understanding English itself. The fourth group has spent so much time coaching that they don't know how to study anything different. They have never done a full problem in math.

Is that why are we seeing so many suicides in IITs?
We are seeing suicides due to many reasons. Due to family problems correlated with academic problems. There are some who find that they are not able to cope with academics. Now increasingly, there is failure in love.

What do you think has been the impact of reservation on the quality of input?  
About 15 per cent of our students were anyway OBC (other backward classes) before the reservations. SC-ST (scheduled class and scheduled tribe) was there during my time as well. OBC reservation has increased and that has resulted in them getting higher departments. But there are no other problems.

We hear that the new IITs are not getting good faculty, which is impacting the quality of teaching
The new IITs are getting good faculty but at a slower rate. Everybody has a two-body problem. They have a spouse. Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad will have an advantage. Patna, Jodhpur, Mandi will have difficulty. This was not a problem in the previous generation when the spouse was a home maker.

Why set up IITs in places where you will not attract good faculty?
That is a good question.

Tells us about IIT 2.0. What is the strategic direction, going forward?  
The last five years, the government has invested very heavily in research. We have been receiving 30 per cent higher money for research from the government every year. Most of the faculty now has the experimental facility they require. Industrial funding also has gone up. The PhD intake in IIT Madras has gone up to 350-400 per year in the last three years. The intake six years ago was only 200 a year. In 2000, it was 100 a year. The PhD exit in 2005/06 was 80 to 90 a year. The exit now is about 160. The exit in 2016/17 will be 350 to 400. Today, we do about 1,000 papers a year. Every faculty is doing two papers on average. What is our ranking? Ranking is done looking at the papers and citations. Many are published in top-tier journals in their discipline. But how do we get higher rankings? If you start publishing a portion of them in Nature and Science, which we are not doing yet. The rankings can be higher also if you have a Nobel laureate in you faculty and 10-15 per cent international students. These will not happen. You can buy Nobel laureates but we don't do that. Fifty per cent of our PhDs are going to industry - they are getting increasingly absorbed in automotive, pharmaceutical, telecom, computer science.

Twenty-five per cent are going to academics and the rest 25 per cent going abroad for post doctoral studies. We have to be aggressive in getting people to commit to a research career early in their life, right at the B.Tech level. We should take people directly into a PhD programme. In the next few years, you will see an intensification of research.

Summing up, what interventions would the IIT system require to retain its position?  
We need to make sure our students spend time doing genuine study and less time on strategising for the entrance exam. Second, we will have the problem of extremely diverse groups with language and social adjustment problems. We have to gear up to handle this - a lot of counseling, handholding in the first year. On the research front, we have to intensify it and we have to improve our PhD intake. All the older IITs have 50 per cent post graduates. We have to get published in journals seen as ultimate like Nature and Science. The citations here are much larger.

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