By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Oct. 30, 2019
The HRD ministry and IIT Council’s joint decision to give IIT students the option of choosing an easier, three-year BSc course rather than dropping out is progressive. It’s a refreshing alternative to bleak headlines about burnout and suicides.
Ah, the Indian Institutes of Technology! Bastions of excellence, for so long held in reverence by aspirants, parents, society, parents, coaching classes, industry, and parents.However, of late (and by that I mean, the past two decades), news mention of IITs have skewed toward the dark side — of burnout, dropouts, mental stress, and of course, suicides. The latter is particularly disturbing and is something that begins at coaching class stage itself. In fact, one alumnus maintains a blog documenting IIT-related extreme steps. Solutions to these problems vary from the useful (IIT Madras starting an in-house mental wellness programme) to the ridiculous (Kota using sensors in ceiling fans to detect hanging attempts).
An important step toward solving part of this was taken recently by the Human Resource Development Ministry with the approval of the IIT council, which has gone under the radar: to allow academically weak students to opt for an easier, three-year BSc (Bachelor of Science) course rather than dropping out or being forced to finish the rigorous, flagship four-year BTech (Bachelor of Technology) course. This is a fairly progressive step, especially since it comes from the same department whose minister regurgitated that WhatsApp-fuelled urban legend of NASA endorsing Sanskrit as the best programming language — at an IIT Bombay convocation, no less.
Prima facie, this seems like a positive move. For instance, an IIT graduate I spoke to wishes this option existed in his time. “In my second year, I got fed up of the IIT and had half a mind to drop. Eventually, I completed my course, but if there was an option to do a three-year BSc course then, I would have definitely taken it,” he says.
There are several good things about this move — primarily, it gives students who’ve put in a fair bit of effort and time a legitimate way out while still retaining the IIT tag, albeit to a lesser extent. Mental stress — especially on account of poor academics — can lead to several people dropping out or doing worse, and that is a terrible waste of such good potential. After all, even the person who comes in last in an IIT classroom has scaled quite a wall to get there. An alumnus, who is now a professor, puts the blame on parents and society pushing kids to do what they don’t want. “They put in so much effort on getting here, they forget to check if this is where they want to go. Most of them cope somehow. There’s always grades to be made and the JEE-like mindset helps them ‘excel’ but the constant race is tiring. And if you don’t see results it starts to seem pointless,” says the professor, who did not wish to be named.
If you scour Quora threads started by IIT students seeking advice as to whether to drop out of their courses, a lot of responses tell them to power through their courses just to get that coveted tag. While these responses don’t take into account the mental agony which is pushing them to ask strangers these questions in the first place, they further validate the HRD’s decision — a diminished tag is better than a lost one.
Apart from salvaging the candidate’s effort and time, it also becomes less of a waste of taxpayer money — an IIT education is still government-subsidised.
Another recurring theme in these questions by potential dropouts is the worry of social stigma. This too is reduced to some extent, though the question of degree relegation itself is ripe for fresh stigma by family members and society. But I’m confident that this perennially unsatisfied lot will eventually buy the “an IIT is an IIT” argument.
Apart from salvaging the candidate’s effort and time, it also becomes less of a waste of taxpayer money — an IIT education is still government-subsidised. (It’s another debate that many of the subsidy beneficiaries go abroad or do an MBA.)
What’s more, the IITs will act as trendsetters. Just like how I once argued that Apple should make a sustainable phone, which will prompt others to follow suit, I wouldn’t be surprised if more colleges consider this option, as the best colleges in the country have legitimised it. Some people might look at this as an easy way out, but I look at it as ending a bad marriage. What’s more, the country could sure use some more good scientists rather than mediocre engineers, so a happy side effect of this ruling could be adding some amount of prestige to the BSc degree itself.
And it’s an opportune time, too. “Scientific research is a field that is fast becoming a hotbed for start-ups and entrepreneurs,” says Berty Ashley, senior molecular geneticist, at Bangalore’s DART, a research lab in India focusing on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. “Students, even dropouts, who have a creative side and an innovative thought process might find themselves well suited for research and will derive a lot of satisfaction from contributing here.”
Of course, all of this will depend on the implementation and post-degree path of these students. An optimistic way of looking at it is that even an academic failure at an IIT should find gainful employment, though not as lucrative as what his BTech brethren might grab. Another IIT professor I spoke to was more circumspect. “Market forces are untested — we don’t know how recruiters will react to this. Many might wonder why they should recruit students who were academically weak.” A fair point, though one could hope that in the worst case, many of them might be compelled to pursue a career in the sciences itself. The same professor said that the key would lie in whether the switch was voluntary — something that is unclear at the moment. It might well be that different IITs approach this differently, as they do in the case of, say, expulsions.
For many companies, this might not be a bad arrangement. As an ex-software slave, I can tell you that IT companies don’t give two hoots about your engineering background, as long as you can learn to code after a month-long training period. In fact, during my time there, I learnt that increasingly, the “cheaper” BSc students were being preferred as the end outcome would be the same. Perhaps IIT-dropout-BSc students might mean IIT students get less menial jobs? I do see some benefits on that front, but again, time will tell.
All in all, this is to my mind a progressive move. It might mean that fewer students might be put up on a pedestal, but it could also mean that fewer of them might use a pedestal to reach a ceiling fan.
I never thought I’d say this, but… Good job, HRD.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.