Seventy two is a big number, painful,” says IIT Roorkee Deputy Director Vinod Kumar. “But if you consider IITs to be institutes of national importance, there have to be minimum standards.” Standards that 72 first-year students failed to meet in their exams and were, therefore, expelled and then given a second chance when they were allowed to return to campus and repeat the year.
That 72 created ripples but they are little more than a drop in the rapidly growing pool of students flooding IITs in new campuses nationwide, many not even half-built and struggling with ad hoc or visiting faculty, adding to the strain in an already stretched and rigorous system.
“What IITs call minimum standards are, in fact, double standards,” says a final year chemical engineering student at IIT Roorkee. “Just look at what top US universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), are doing to handle diversity, how they go beyond affirmative action to help students from disadvantaged groups.”
That remark assumes significance given that of the 72 who failed at Roorkee, an investigation by The Indian Express shows, 90 per cent were from reserved categories (SC, ST and OBC). They had scored average to high ranks in their respective categories in the joint entrance test (JEE) but then failed to keep up once they began their first IIT year.
For IIT campuses, MIT (Massachussetts Institute of Technology) is often seen as an enviable role model. Two years ago, MIT appointed its head of the physics department, Edmund Bertschinger, as its ‘Institute Community and Equity Officer’. In February this year, Bertschinger outlined a series of recommendations, among them educating everyone on campus “about unconscious bias”, “increasing the percentage of under-represented minority groups” and calling for a review of existing recruitment policies. MIT has had a Black Student Union since 1968 and has conducted various studies on academic performance of Black students that have helped the campus community better understand the changing needs and aspirations of minority students.
In India, the expansion of the IIT system over the years has meant that campuses have thrown their doors open to more students and from varied backgrounds. Last year, as many as 6,375 students were from reserved categories — almost 68 per cent of the number admitted as General students — and many of them from non-English schools in rural or small-town areas. Their number unmistakably is rising every year.
IIT-Roorkee says it has “its own systems” to help these students cope. They are given a language proficiency test at the time of orientation and grouped according to their results for two English courses — “basic” for those who had fared poorly and “advanced” for those with high scores. Since September last year, the IIT said, it had introduced weekend classes for students who “lagged behind”. “Here, senior students held tutorials for students who needed help. The idea behind this was that if students had issues of authority and couldn’t express themselves with their professors, there would be no such trouble with their fellow-students,” said IIT Roorkee Director Pradipto Banerji.
But unlike at many of the older IITs, these handholding systems are relatively new in Roorkee.
“On paper, most IITs say they have these systems — preparatory courses and so on. But like you see with the Roorkee expulsions, they clearly don’t work on the ground. There is no specific mechanism on campuses for underprivileged or marginalised students to take up their issues,” says Akhil Bharathan, a fifth-year student of Development Studies at IIT-Madras and a founder-member of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a student body that was derecognised — and later reinstated — for allegedly being critical of the government at the Centre.
“On campuses, there is silent stigma attached to reservations. But most students don’t take it up because they think it’s not IITian to talk politics. They are made to internalise the virtues of meritocracy,” says a fifth-year student of computer science at IIT-Madras.
In 2012, The Indian Express obtained data through the Right to Information (RTI) Act on student expulsions in IITs for academic years 2006-12. The data revealed that scores were asked to leave the premier institutes due to “bad academic performance” — eight in Bombay (some were readmitted), 86 in Delhi, 403 in Kanpur, six in Kharagpur, six in Madras, 278 in Roorkee and 24 in Guwahati.
“Yes, I got in thanks to aarakshan (reservation). But I cleared the IIT entrance exam, and before that, my Class X and XII with good marks. Bachpan se yahi ek wish thi. After I came here, I heard my batchmates talking about things they wanted to do after IIT. I had nothing to say because I didn’t know anything beyond IIT. And now, they tell me I am not good enough…,” says one of the students on the list of 72.
He is a 17-year-old son of a policeman father and homemaker mother from Bhagalpur in Bihar and on a rainy July morning, he and some of the other “expelled” students have come to meet IIT-R Dean of Students’ Welfare D K Nauriyal, one of the many rounds he had made since the expulsions. They had been expelled 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).
But these are students who have, after all, cracked the IIT-JEE (Advanced) exam. “First of all, I wouldn’t use the word ‘cracked’. I think we must stop celebrating JEE successes as the end of the story. Like all exams, the JEE isn’t fool-proof. Both strong and weak students get in. These students are not Einsteins, they never were. They are just ordinary people who worked hard for their exams. You must remember, not all people who clear JEE are smart people. Conversely, it’s not that all people who don’t clear JEE are less smart,” says a senior IIT professor who is an IIT graduate himself.
“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-R Registrar Prashant Garg.
“That’s cruel. Either consciously or otherwise, there has been a bias. When they prepared that list, they must have known all along that there was a certain section of society that was at a disadvantage. How could they have gone ahead without fixing their own systems?,” says a fourth-year student at Roorkee.
A pertinent question but one that cannot be answered in a hurry. While a change in the “system” may take time, professors and administrators say there is a silver lining to the Roorkee failures. “On our side, this incident offers us a chance to review our own systems, see if what we have is enough, what more we need to do. The other good thing to have come out of this is, first-year students are attending every class,” says director Banerji.
But those who have been part of the IIT system know there are no easy solutions. “This is a problem that needs to be addressed not just at the level of IITs. We need to go back to the basics, see what schools are teaching, rethink our examination system, get in more ideas. At the end of the day, we have to balance excellence with equity,” says Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT-Bombay and chairman of the Standing Committee of the IIT Council (SCIC). As more and more young men and women, in numbers unprecedented, line up to knock on IIT doors, that balance at the end of the day will not only define Brand IIT — but also decide the future of India’s talent in science and technology.