IIT Roorkee has decided to ask 73 students to leave because of their poor academic performance. Here is one of the news report on this. Asking students to leave for poor academic performance is nothing new for IITs. But what is surprising is the large number involved this time. Is it justified? Very difficult to say for an outsider. However, we can certain look at some issues which are really common across IITs.
I have no idea of the distribution of these 73 students (how many were admitted with relaxed criteria). However, from my days as Dean of Academic Affairs at IIT Kanpur, I can say that amongst the students who were asked to leave IIT Kanpur, a disproportionate number were those who were admitted with a relaxed criteria. Let us understand that amount of relaxation offered to these students has been on the rise. Earlier, IITs would offer only a limited relaxation in admission criteria, and hence most students admitted with such relaxation were able to compete well with everyone else. It is well known that people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, if given a proper environment and support, can overcome some weaknesses in academic background. The vacant seats were then filled up by students with lower marks, but they had to go through a one-year preparatory program. The IITs will teach them basic Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Language. Those who came to IIT after this one-year course were reasonably well prepared, and were able to compete with everyone else. The idea always was that we must have inclusive growth, and we must provide additional help to those who may have lacked some background coming into the IIT system.
And then around 15 years ago, questions were raised whether the one year training program was a conspiracy to keep the so-called lower caste folks behind by forcing them to spend an extra year. When the issue got politicized, IITs felt that the most convenient thing to do would be to lower the bar for the reserved seats, ensure that the number of vacant seats are very few, and thus only very few students would need to go through the preparatory program. The gap between the last unreserved student and the last reserved category student has become very large, and even with all the support that IITs provide, it is becoming increasingly difficult for students from disadvantaged sections to overcome their lack of academic preparedness. In fact, now the number of students in the preparatory program is so few (despite the total number of reserved seats having gone up by almost 10 times in the last quarter century) that we don't even run that program in each IIT. A few IITs would get together and conduct this program by rotation.
So, an excellent system which helped so many academically weak students reached a level where they could cope up with the rigors of the place has been dumped because the system was considered politically incorrect.
Now, of course, the poor performers are not all reserved category students. Many students who scored well in JEE (now JEE Advanced) also fail to perform well once they are in IITs. The reasons are varied. Mostly, it is a question of motivation. After studying extremely hard for 4 years, they are burnt out and do not have motivation to study further. There are others who wanted to study a particular discipline but either could not get it, or were forced by parents to study something else, and they have no motivation to do so. Some find it difficult to adjust to a very different life style, miss their homes, don't like staying in non-AC hostels, eat mess food, etc. Some find the learning style to be very different from what they had experienced at coaching places.
IITs help these students in many ways. All of us have counselors where the students can go and discuss their personal issues in confidence. All of us have mechanisms to provide extra help to someone who is not performing well in a course. Sometimes the instructor would provide that extra office hour. Sometimes the TA or Tutor would chip in. Sometimes, a senior student would be asked to provide that extra help within the hostel.
While all these support mechanisms help a lot of students, they don't work with many students. When I looked at cases of many such students, one common aspect was that every student wanted to graduate in least amount of time. When one is in this condition, the best advice for them is that they need to go slow. Do lesser courses, try to focus on them, and do well, and once you have performed well in a semester, you will regain your confidence and be able to perform well. May be even with lesser courses, the improvement will be only marginal and another semester of lower load may be necessary. And it may mean that you need to spend an extra semester to get the degree from the IIT. When I was involved with student advising many years ago, I would always tell a weak student, "it is better to graduate in an extra semester, than not to graduate at all." But in the beginning of every semester, these students would harass you to no end to allow them a normal load of courses. The argument would be that if we try larger number of courses, the chances of passing more courses is higher, which is so obviously wrong that I am always shocked with this argument. I remember that in one semester, I used my authority as the adviser to these students to force the weakest students in the department to take reduced workload. That was the only semester that we could recall where not a single student was on the termination list in the department. Was this semester celebrated. Not at all. Every single student who escaped termination was upset with me claiming that if they had taken one extra course, they would have passed that as well, and they would be that much closer to the graduation.
The problem is that good news is known to everyone, but bad news is private. So examples of very weak students who have passed 5 courses in a semester is known to everyone. But a much larger number of students are unable to cope with such a load is not public knowledge. So most of the academically weak students would demand that they be allowed to take normal course load.
Having said all this, today, in wake of what has happened at IIT Roorkee, the important questions are: What can be done to help such student more, and what are the alternatives to asking the student to leave the program.
Indeed there can be many things that can be done beyond the cliched suggestions of better counseling and better academic support. Those are motherhood statements, and of course, every institute should try to find ways of helping weaker students as much as possible.
As I mentioned above, one of the big problem that academic advisers face is reluctance to go for reduced load. I think the IIT leadership and faculty (and hopefully the society) have to send out this message that getting a degree in 5 years is absolutely fine. Doing well is more important than doing it in 4 years. Further, at IIT Kanpur, we have now allowed the students to drop a course without any penalty for up to three months in the semester. So a student can take 5 courses in the beginning and at any time, he feels that he is unable to cope with these many courses, can drop 1 or 2 courses, and there is no mention on the transcript of dropped courses. This has helped students maintain their CGPA. Of course, they still waste a lot of time in the first 4-8 weeks in doing more courses than necessary. Ideally they should not have taken 5 courses in the beginning of the semester, but still forcing them to continue with that mistake throughout the semester was making things worse. And it does become tricky to insist that students who are adults should be forced to go on reduced load, when they don't want to. So giving them option to drop later is worth trying by the institutes.
The second thing that can be done is to encourage student mobility. A huge problem in today's academic system is that the student who is asked to leave after one year or two years have nothing to show for that period, and not only joining another college is extremely difficult, you lose even what you had passed in that period. So you start afresh, if at all you can retstart. Just because the student failed in an IIT, he is identified as academically weak and hence undesirable by everyone. There is a stigma to failure. If we were to look at the student as someone who has potential higher than many students in many other colleges, and he just hasn't been able to cope up with one particular system, then it is easy to see that one potential solution is for this student to join a less competitive place (if academic competition was an issue), or a place closer to home (if there were personal issues where family could help), or join a place where he can get a discipline of his choice (if motivation was an issue), etc. And except for the top few institutes in the country, all institutes have vacant seats at the end of first year. But none of them want to touch any such undesirable student. I believe that all institutes should have some mechanism to evaluate applications at the end of their first year, and offer admissions based on their vacant seats. If these 73 students from IIT Roorkee could get admission in decent colleges and get credit transfer for courses that they have passed, it wouldn't be as tough on those students and their parents. And if IIT Roorkee could then fill up these 73 seats from students from other institutes who are doing very well in their respective colleges (so mobility in other direction is also desirable), it would indeed be a win-win situation for everyone.
Third thing that can be done in this situation is what FYUP of Delhi University tried to do. If you pass courses equivalent to one year of course work, you will get a certificate, if you pass courses equivalent to two years of course work, you will get a diploma, if you pass courses equivalent to three years of course work, you will get a BSc, and if you are able to pass all courses, then you will get BTech. So give flexibility to the student. Don't force him to leave. Allow him to stay for the maximum duration of the program (which is typically six years for BTech in most IITs), and at the end of six years, he will get whatever he is eligible for.
If we can combine both these ideas, then a student performing poorly can decide whether he would prefer a diploma from an IIT or a BTech from another engineering college.
So, sorry, if you expected me to comment on IIT Roorkee's decision. I wouldn't since I do not understand the whole situation. But, in general, greater flexibility in our academic systems would lead to reduced stress and better learning for everyone.