Sitting outside a shack near Jawahar Bhawan, one of the boys’ hostels at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, a group of civil engineering students discuss what they call the “unfairness” of the coursework and the grading system, how it’s tilted against “students like us from reserved categories and from Hindi-medium schools”.
Earlier this month, IIT-Roorkee had expelled 72 students for not meeting the required minimum passing grades: a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of at least 5 and minimum credits of 22 (these students have since been taken back on probation, having got a second chance). The students outside Jawahar Bhawan were not on the list of 72 but they say they could well have been — they scraped past the CGPA limit to make it to their second year.
An investigation by The Indian Express shows that 90 per cent of the IIT-Roorkee students who were expelled were from reserved categories (SC, ST and OBC) and scored average to high ranks in their respective categories in the 2014 IIT-JEE (Advanced). Once on campus, however, several factors pull them back, prominent among them a lack of fluency in English.
“English is our biggest problem,” says a 17-year-old second-year civil engineering student from Rajasthan. Fourteen from his department were expelled. “We are from Hindi-medium schools, went to coaching institutes in places like Kota, where we chose Hindi as the medium of instruction, and took our JEE in Hindi. Then we come to the campus and realise it’s all high-level English — the books are all by American authors and the professors only speak English. We see students around us talking, asking questions in English and we can do none of that. Usi se confidence khatam. Tabhi se hum peeche rah jate hain (That kills our confidence and we start slipping),” says the student who scored a CGPA of just above 5.
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The IIT says it has its own systems to deal with these problems — language proficiency classes at the time of orientation and special mentoring programmes (started three months ago). “We have been holding tutorial classes over the weekend where students who need help are taught by senior students. So if there are issues of authority and students lack the confidence to talk to professors, they won’t have that trouble with fellow-students,” said Dean of Students Welfare D K Nauriyal.
But unlike many of the older IITs, these hand-holding exercises are relatively new in IIT-Roorkee. Besides, students say these “systems” usually don’t work on the ground. “It’s only in March that we were introduced to the mentors. By then, we just had a month to go for the exams. Besides, seniors have little time for us. They have their own classes to attend. How can they expel students without giving their own system enough time?”
“We do what we can but ultimately, there’s little we can do if the student doesn’t come to us,” says Nauriyal. “Besides, once the students enter the campus, for us, they are all the same — irrespective of their backgrounds 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,” says IIT-Roorkee Registrar Prashant Garg.
There are separate rank lists in the IIT-JEE (Advanced), among them a common merit list, an SC list, an ST list and an OBC list. To get into the common merit list in the 2014 version of the JEE, candidates from these categories had to secure a minimum of 35 per cent of the aggregate and 10 per cent in each paper. The last SC candidate in the common merit list was 432. Which means, 1,597 of the 2,029 SC candidates who got into one of the IITs didn’t make it to the common merit list or scored less than 35 per cent. Similarly, the last ST candidate to make it to the common merit list was 90 (among 856 who made it to one of the IITs). Again, 760 of them didn’t make it to the common merit list or scored less than 35 per cent.
That’s part of the problem, say some students and professors. Students who get a leg-up at the level of the entrance examination — thanks to affirmative action and no-English test — find no safety net once they enter the campus.
“Language will always be a problem. But then, someone from, say, Andhra will be disenfranchised if I speak in Hindi so that argument will never be settled,” says an IIT-Kanpur professor who was part of the top administrative team at the institute. But, he says, there is a “deeper malaise” that schools haven’t fixed.
“What I’ve realised over the years is that a student who is unable to communicate with me in English is often unable to communicate with me in Hindi. If he is talking to me in Hindi and every third word of his is a ‘matlab’, there is a problem. This just means schools are not telling students to buckle up. How is it that children score 90-95 per cent in English but can’t construct a line in the language? The books they learn in Class XII, you would think it’s Class VI — no novels, poetry, plays… Where are children going to pick these skills?”
Talking of the limits of affirmative action, the IIT-Kanpur professor says, “Are there two levels or more when you walk out of IIT? No. There’s no B Tech (Gen) and B Tech (SC) and so on. Reservation only gives you a chance to learn but then, you must learn. A civil engineer must learn to make structures, at least to a basic level. Ultimately, the bridge he is building doesn’t understand that it is being built by someone who doesn’t meet those standards. So ultimately, once you come to IIT, if you are not willing to help yourself, nobody can.”
That may be harsh but it’s not far from reality. Ashish Kumar ticks all the boxes — Hindi-medium, reserved category, small town (from Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan). But with a CGPA of 7.38 by the end of his second semester, this civil engineering student is among the best performers in his class. “I understood nothing in class during my first semester. But then, I would write down all the tough words, go back to my hostel and look up a dictionary. YouTube was a big help — I would watch Game of Thrones every day to understand how they spoke English. I would also watch Hindi lectures of professors from other IITs, compare it with my notes and then, dhire-dhire, things would start making sense. It’s not that tough if you work hard,” he says, sitting on a couch in the students’ club.
He is still very diffident, happy to let his voice drown in the clamour around him as students play snooker or table tennis, or simply sit in groups and chat. “Likh lijiye, English mein 92 mila tha Rajasthan Board se (I got 92 per cent in English in the Rajasthan board exam),” he says, making an unsure jab at the notebook. “But I wish I had studied in an English-medium school. It would have been so much easier for me here.”
“What this incident has done is that we have started looking at our own systems and are doing a full-scale review of what we need to do. We are aware that these students came in through a very competitive exam. So we will do what we can to help them cope,” says Pradipto Banerji, director of IIT-Roorkee.
(Tomorrow: Looking for the safety net on campus)