In an unprecedented move Wednesday night, the government intervened in the admission process of the IITs and directed them to lower their pre-determined cutoffs and release a supplementary merit list. This came amid concerns whether there are enough candidates to fill all 11,279 seats this year. What do these cutoffs mean, and how have they been determined by the IITs over the years? Professor Dheeraj Sanghi, who teaches computer science at IIT Kanpur, the organising institute for JEE-Advanced this year, explains the procedures.
Eligibility & cutoff
Eligibility for admission is the minimum qualification that an institute believes is necessary for a course. A candidate without the minimum qualification could, potentially, face problems during the course. The Supreme Court has ruled that the difference between the eligibility for unreserved (often referred to as General) and for OBC (non-creamy layer or NCL) categories cannot be more than 10%. On the other hand, courts have allowed significantly lower eligibility for SC/ST categories (and now also Persons with Disability, or PwD) by arguing that these students should be provided additional support.
If the number of applicants who satisfy the eligibility requirement is more than the number of seats in a programme, these applicants are ranked according to a specified criteria. The cutoff is the value of that criteria at which the last person shall get admission. The cutoff is different for different programmes, and for different categories within the same programme.
On the other hand, if the number of eligible applicants is less than the number of seats, the university will have a class size that is smaller than it had planned to admit. In common parlance, we say that some seats will fall vacant.
For example, a university may specify that the eligibility for a course is 60% for General category, 55% for OBC-NCL, and 50% for SC/ST/PwD. But the course is in such demand that the cutoff could be 98% for general, 94% for OBC-NCL, 85% for SC and so on.
In case of IITs, eligibility criteria are rather complex. It includes a certain minimum performance in Class XII (75% marks, or 80th percentile), which year the candidate passed Class XII, age (25 years for General/OBC-NCL, 30 years for SC/ST), performance above a certain threshold in JEE Main (roughly top 1 lakh ranks for General, and corresponding numbers for other categories), marks in each subject in JEE Advanced (10% for General, 9% for OBC-NCL, 5% for SC/ST/PwD), and marks scored in all three subjects combined (35% for General, 31.5% for OBC-NCL, 17.5% for SC/ST/PwD).
All candidates who meet all eligibility criteria are given a rank (in the order of total scores in JEE Advanced, with some tie-breaking rules). General candidates are given a Common Rank. Category students are given a Category Rank, and also a Common Rank if they meet the eligibility criteria meant for general students. The cutoff for admission is in terms of this rank.
How the system evolved
Historically, IITs had an eligibility criterion that they announced (just pass XII, same for all categories), and another eligibility criterion that they did not announce (these were pre-RTI days). The unannounced criterion was the minimum marks in each subject of the then JEE. These minimum marks would be decided with utmost secrecy after the results. The logic was that they wanted only those students to get admission who were good in all three subjects, as opposed to a student who was excellent in two subjects and poor in one. But in 2006, there was an allegation that JEE had decided the cutoff in a mala fide manner to exclude a certain candidate. This became such a big issue that IITs were forced to announce the eligibility for each subject before the exam. So, in 2007, they announced a very low eligibility condition (10% in each subject for General, 5% for SC/ST, and later 9% for OBC when this reservation started), essentially ensuring that no one would be ineligible due to this condition alone.
However, there was a problem in this. Previous eligible conditions had ensured that not all SC/ST seats were filled, and those who did get admission had a somewhat reasonable academic background. Against the unfilled SC/ST seats, IITs admitted as many SC/ST candidates for a one-year training programme, and if they performed well they would be admitted. So most seats were indeed filled, but some of them took an extra year.
If the eligibility condition was to be so low (5% in each subject), then IITs would be able to fill up all SC/ST seats with students who would not be academically prepared for the programmes. So an extra eligibility condition in terms of total marks in JEE was also created. The assumption was that the total marks requirement would be such that IITs would always have enough eligible candidates for all programmes (at least a sufficient number of General candidates, since vacant OBC-NCL seats get converted to General seats, and any vacant SC/ST/PwD seats get filled through the one-year training programme).
Why so few this year
In most years, there have been some errors in the question paper, which has necessitated that marks for such questions be given to all candidates. Such errors have ensured that the number of students above the total marks requirement of 35% remained high. But this year, there was no such error, and maybe the questions were slightly more difficult as well. Hence, an insufficient number of students have scored more than 35%. This had happened in 2015 also. And at that time, IITs had decided to lower the eligibility condition after the results were tabulated but not announced to the public.
Dilution after results
Legally speaking, lowering the eligibility after the exam is questionable. It has happened in the past that private engineering colleges have not received enough applications and they have requested lowering of eligibility conditions to fill those seats, which has been refused. If there aren’t enough eligible candidates, you leave the seats unfilled.
However, the counter-argument is that the eligibility condition was already compromised each year by IITs by giving lots of free marks and, in one year, by actually lowering the marks required to be eligible. And no one has ever challenged filling up of seats by compromising announced conditions. And, indeed, it is obvious that no one is hurt if IITs lower their eligibility conditions and fill up the seats. And hence it is unlikely that anyone will question this in a court of law this year either.