The 72 first-year students of the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, (IIT-R) who were expelled last month — the largest single batch to have faced such action — for failing to get the minimum passing grade are back on campus, having got a “second chance”. They are now on probation and will have to clear all their first-year papers and get a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of over 5.0 (on a scale of 10 — at least 55%), failing which they will be expelled next year. Not many on campus, however, are placing any bets on the outcome.
An investigation by The Indian Express and several interviews with key players — professors, students and administrators at IITs — shows most of the students who were expelled were from reserved categories (SC, ST and OBCs) and scored average to high ranks in their respective categories in the 2014 IIT-JEE (Advanced), the tough entrance examination.
Once they began their IIT education, however, many of them were hobbled by a range of factors: a lack of fluency in English, both spoken and written, that eroded confidence and showed up in poor communication skills; and a more general difficulty “adjusting” to the campus ecosystem. This has key lessons, professors said, as IITs rapidly expand to meet the flood of students and struggle to build campuses and attract faculty.
A scrutiny of official records of the first-year students — the batch had 1002 students in all — who failed at IIT Roorkee shows:
* 90 per cent of them were from reserved categories (SC, ST and OBCs).
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* As many as 49 of them are from much-sought after departments such as Computer Science (3), Electronics (10), Electrical (12), Chemical (7), Mechanical (3), with the maximum, 14, from Civil Engineering. Which means, these are students who did reasonably well in their categories (General, SC, ST, OBCs) to get into these departments.
* For example, the JEE ranks of some of the students who failed — available with The Indian Express — show that among the SC students who failed is one who got an all-India rank in the top 50 (among 2,029 SC candidates who got into an IIT in 2014) and another who scored in the top 100 in the ST category (among 856 ST candidates who got into an IIT).
* Most General category students on the list of 72 who failed had ranks between 3,500 and above 7,000, barring one who had a rank close to 1,500. That year, the last general candidate to get an IIT seat was ranked 9,290. Ranks have been approximated to protect the identity of students.
* All 72 fared poorly across the curricular board — the highest any of them got in any subject was a C. “It shows there was no outlier among those expelled. They had scored poorly in every course,” said IIT-R director Pradipto Banerji.
The IIT said the decision to suspend the students wasn’t an easy one. “Every year, we have a few students who walk out of the institute after spending four to six years but without a degree in hand. We have had parents telling us that if you thought our child wasn’t doing well, why didn’t you tell him then? Why waste six years of his life,” said Vinod Kumar, deputy director of IIT-R. Though most of the affected students said the expulsions came as a shock, Kumar said the students were warned at every step, they were told they were slipping — after every mid- and end-semester exam.
The numbers may be staggering this year but this isn’t the first time IIT Roorkee has expelled students. In 2014, 12 first-year students were expelled for not scoring the minimum credits. But after the IIT realised there had been a “notification error”, the institute took back eight of them. But these eight students have been expelled this year, after their second year: six of them had “backs” (have failed) in 10 subjects, one had a “back” in two subjects and one had cleared all subjects but with a CGPA of less than 5.
“Like I keep telling my students, it’s tough to get into IIT but tougher to leave without a degree,” said Inderdeep Singh, who teaches mechanical engineering at IIT-R. “Even if they put in 70 per cent of the effort they put to clear the IIT-JEE, they can sail through,” he said.
So are these students who are failing not cut out for science or engineering? Not quite, said Promod Agarwal, Dean of Academics at Roorkee. A CGPA of less than 5, most professors said, was more a reflection of the effort the student had put in, less of his aptitude. “If, say, a student is strong in physics, but not in English, he can easily score a higher grade in the subject he is good at and pull his CGPA above 5. CGPA less than 5 is just poor application,” said Agarwal.
In the first semester, students have seven papers, of which at least four — English, Ethics and Self Awareness, Maths, Environmental Studies — are typically common to all departments. The others, department-specific subjects such as Introduction to Mechanical Engineering, are “elementary, basic” introductions to their departments. “These don’t require any prior knowledge of the subject. It’s difficult to do badly in these subjects,” said Singh.
What went wrong then? Banerji said he was “aware of the fact that the students have come in through a very competitive exam. So now, after this second chance they have got, we can put a finger on the problem. Did these children score poorly because they took first-year too lightly or are they simply not cut out for it?”
That’s a tough one to answer, admit many professors at Roorkee who said “first-year students tend to lose focus”, especially after going through the crushing grind of Class XII and coaching institutes. Besides, there is the pressure of achievement and expectation. “Once the students enter the campus, for us, they are all the same — irrespective of their background or whether you are from the reserved quota or not. The bar has been set (at CGPA 5 and minimum credits of 22) and that can’t be lowered,” said IIT-R Registrar Prashant Garg.
“Haan, life ko thoda simply liya,” (Yes, I did take it a bit easy) said one of the failed students. He is from Bhagalpur in Bihar, the son of a policeman father and a homemaker mother, who, he said, had worried themselves to death over his expulsion. After a “96 per cent in science subjects” in his Class X from Bihar school Board, he said he scored 70 per cent in his Class XII. And then, dropped a year to study in Kota and scored a rank of 1,206 in the OBC category (3,490 OBC students got in). After one year at IIT, he “scored a CGPA of 4.92”, agonisingly close to the 5-mark. “But I cracked the IIT entrance. Iska matlab mere mein talent hai. (This shows I have talent). Shouldn’t the institute have given students like us another chance?”
By “students like us”, he meant those from non-English medium schools, many of them from reserved categories. “English was my biggest weakness,” he said. “In my geomatics practicals, for example, I scored 23/25, but scored 8/100 in my written exam simply because I couldn’t express myself in English.”
The IIT said it had its “systems” to deal with these problems — language proficiency classes at the time of orientation and special mentoring programmes (started three months ago). Besides, professors said, since September last year, students who need help are assigned to seniors in the hope that they will open up better to fellow-students, ask them questions they probably can’t ask in a class of 100 or even in the smaller tutorials.
But unlike in many of the older IITs, these hand-holding exercises are relatively new in IIT Roorkee. Students say these “systems” usually don’t work on the ground — seniors, for instance, have little time for them since they have their own exacting schedule to juggle
(Tomorrow: After the entrance, the exam)