For those concerned about higher education in India, Kapil Sibal’s ministry remains the space to watch. Mr Sibal’s verve for reform is evident almost every day. But how progressive are the changes being initiated by his ministry? Do they indicate a radical change in the mindset that informs these ‘innovations’? The minister’s latest worry is about the coaching classes for the IIT entrance examinations that end up devaluing the higher secondary results and affecting the students’ motivation to prepare for the latter properly. So he wants all the IITs to raise the Class XII eligibility score. Underlying such an idea is the notion of all the IITs being united under a common sky, which is nothing other than a centralized system of governance overseen by the State. So a sort of Soviet-style tendency towards uniformity and centralization remains the ministry’s style of thinking and working. Why should all the IITs, each of them a distinct institution for all practical purposes, submit to such a levelling rule? And why should the Union human resource development ministry set and guard this rule?
It is perfectly possible to inject new life into higher secondary education, and to kill the coaching classes, without taking recourse to measures that remain essentially regressive. There could be, instead, a three-tier system of admission, which avoids the government’s intervention and preserves the autonomy of each institution. First, the Class XII results, and each institution can decide for itself what cut-off mark it would like to set. Second, a GRE-style examination — an elimination round, perhaps with multiple-choice questions — that separates the wheat from the chaff. Finally, examinations conducted by individual institutions that are free to make the tests challenging and innovative. There is a way of examining students that makes it impossible for coaching classes to perpetuate their mechanical, ‘trends’-driven approach to preparing the candidates. Each institute should devise its own way of testing range and depth of knowledge, and in such a way that makes it difficult for students to predict the nature and contents of the tests. Each Oxbridge college conducts its own, highly eccentric, entrance test and interviews. But to do this sort of thing with centres of excellence in India, the minister will have to give up first his inclination to centralize and control.