Yet another committee, and yet another report. However, for a change, here is one report with a difference. The only way to describe this report - it is music to my ears.
First, the background. The committee was set up in October, 2015, after a couple of committees had recommended that the board marks be not used for ranking even for admissions to NITs, IIITs, etc. The normalization was a big problem, and there were far too many administrative challenges in implementing it. Besides, a study by Joint Admissions Board had found that none of the expected benefits - more women in engineering, more rural folks in engineering, less coaching, etc., had been achieved in the three years that the system was in operation. It was decided that instead of just dropping the board marks from ranking, could we take this opportunity to clean things up a bit more, and hence a committee chaired by Prof. Ashok Misra, ex-Director of IIT Bombay, and Chairman of Joint Admissions Board (JAB) was set up.
Let us now look at the major recommendations and opine on them.
1. All Centrally Funded Technical Institutes (CFTIs) to admit students from the same exam, the JEE Advanced. This is very positive. Considering the board marks was a pain for all stake holders, and once that was gone, there was really no reason for some CFTIs to admit through JEE Mains and some through JEE Advanced. Of course, on philosophical grounds, I would prefer a system where each Institute can decide a different way of admitting students, for example, some may decide to admit based on just Physics and Maths marks in JEE. And the common counseling portal developed this year has the capability to allow such variations. But as long as the admission process is going to be dictated from the top, it is better that the top dictates a common exam than two separate exams.
2. The shortlisting for JEE Advanced to be done through an aptitude test. The committee has suggested that we should set up a National Testing Service which should conduct an aptitude test. This may take 1-2 years, and hence in the interim, we can continue with JEE Mains being the filtering test. This too is a very positive suggestion. This is certainly not going to be easy. To design an aptitude test which would be free of any cultural and other sorts of biases is not easy. On top of that, we want to offer that test in multiple languages, and we need to make sure that the test in each language is of similar difficulty level. Further that test will be offered several times in a year and hence we will need to have some normalization across different offerings. This may not be possible to do even by 2017, but a beginning has to be made sometime, and I am glad that this committee has recommended strongly that we don't wait any further to make that beginning. Of course, the committee has shown what a bunch of intelligent people can do - come up with solutions to serious problems. It is proposed that the aptitude test is used to filter 4-5 lakh students for JEE Advanced. This will make sure that those on the borderline or those who don't make it will not feel very disturbed and cheated, since they would most probably not have any hopes of getting into the top 35000 eventually anyway. So even if the normalization is less than perfect and some bias remains in the test, it won't materially impact the admissions at IITs, NITs, etc.
3. A suggestion to the government that the level of NITs and other CFTIs be raised and the gap between them and IITs be reduced. This is really an excellent suggestion, and I do hope MHRD will find ways to strengthen the tier 2. I have been repeatedly saying on this blog and on my facebook that the real reason for stress is that a few marks in JEE can take you from excellent institute to one you don't like as much. And unless this issue is resolved by reducing the gap between successive institutes, there is no hope of reducing stress. Of course, this would invariably mean giving more money (where is the money?) and giving more autonomy (which is very difficult for those who currently hold the levers of power, just compare the new NIT statutes with IIT statutes). But there is always hope.
4. Suggestion that somehow boards should improve. A motherhood statement really, but we must keep making such statements. Even if it encourages a few people somewhere, it can only have positive impact. In particular, they have mentioned the examination system of the boards be looked into. None of the boards in the country has a distribution of marks that you would expect from a large public exam in any other part of the world, and the results are completely inconsistent with the quality that we perceive of the schools around us.
5. IITs should create a large question bank and develop some system for mock JEE examinations. May be there can be lessons through MOOCs. I think IITs can really offer subject training in 12th class science subjects. Already, there are IIT professors like Harish Verma whose school level books are like bibles for 12th class students. We should be able to tap into such resources and come up with online courses in all three subjects which are available to anyone freely. If our school students have access to high quality courses to learn for JEE Advanced, the coaching culture will reduce anyway.
6. In the interim period (while the country plans an aptitude test), the JEE Mains will become a 6-hour exam and 2 lakh students to be filtered instead of 1.5 lakhs for the JEE Advanced. I have no comments on this, as I fail to see the benefits, but there is no harm either.
The only issue I have with the report (and all such discussions at the Ministry level) is that we are focusing too much on coaching. I think that if we ignore coaching and just do the right things - better admission strategies, better schools, better colleges, and so on, the coaching will either go away or will contribute to the educational efforts of the country.
The Assam Bengal Railway in 1929
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