August 21, 2023educationpublic policyInformation Age

Replace JEE with a lottery for IIT admissions

Test preparation is corroding real education; shifting incentives away from competitive entrance exams is in the public interest

This is a draft of an op-ed in Business Standard that I co-wrote with Ajay Shah

The IIT JEE (Indian Institute of Technology joint entrance exam) is revered as the arbiter of merit. With industrialised coaching classes, it is less clear how the JEE selects the right people to attend an IIT. Simplistic measurement of marks in an exam is not how the entry barriers into most sensible institutions work. The high-powered incentive — attending an IIT — is damaging the learning process.

We propose a two-part mechanism: A broad exam that filters for sound capability, and then randomised allocation. The overall impact of such a mechanism would be positive.

Test preparation has corroded Indian education. Across India, children no longer attend just high school. They are enrolled in coaching classes. Here, it is not necessary to study the subject and understand concepts. All they need to learn is the finite list of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) that are likely to be asked in entrance examinations. In bookstores, you are more likely to find test-prep study materials instead of textbooks and non-fiction. It is tempting to see this as a reflection of a growing economy, aspirational families, and a young, upwardly mobile demographic. On the contrary, this hollowing out of education is detrimental to India’s future, where jobs, wealth, and social status will accrue to knowledgeable, flexible, and innovative individuals. 

Test prep is not education. Education allows a person to critically analyse information, make good judgements, and apply knowledge in new domains. While a genuine understanding of science, mathematics, and logical reasoning can result in good scores in entrance examinations, the converse is not true. The overwhelming focus on preparing for entrance examinations, particularly the JEE, is now creating generations of Indians with shiny credentials but weak foundations.

Thirty years ago we could dismiss such concern because really good kids would still get through because test prep was less industrialised. Today that is no longer true. In the information age, success will come to those with a general cognitive ability, to the values of breadth of knowledge, curiosity, risk-taking, and challenging the establishment: These foundations are crushed in the JEE world.

The present JEE environment filters for households and kids who are able to spend many lakhs of rupees on coaching classes, and have the culture of regimentation from age 14 to 17. How much regimentation is required? This year so far, 20 children in Kota have committed suicide, and local government officials are forcing hostels to modify their fans so that a load of above 20 kg is not supported. We can only imagine how much dulling of the imagination is induced by this level of regimentation. The tendrils of curiosity, dissent, imagination, creativity, and risk-taking are likely to be crushed in these years.

We are creating followers, not leaders. Upgrading high-school syllabi and implementing the National Education Policy 2020 are sometimes proposed as the answer. This is insufficient because they do not fundamentally change students’ and their parents’ incentives. Real change will come only if a seat in an elite academic institution is no longer seen as the sole objective of going to school.

A Chinese-style ban upon coaching-class companies is also not a solution because the coaching business will merely go underground: We have to solve this problem at the root cause. 

What is to be done? We think that replacing the JEE with a lottery-based allocation to IITs will have transformative effects for Indian education. It is already a lottery today, but one where the ticket so expensive that only well-off families can afford it. A typical fee for a year’s JEE coaching is close to what an average Indian earns in a year. The JEE is a poor estimator of true capability, and it is hard to say the 80,000 who do not make it are systematically inferior to the 20,000 who do. Many chance factors are tipping the scales today, such as a student being unwell on the exam day, or a heat wave at the test centre.

There is a better way to allocate public resources. The price of an IIT lottery ticket can be reduced to zero. Seats can be randomly allocated to applicants who meet basic requirements. Specifically, we could envision a first-level exam, which is not about the things that Google knows. Out of that the top 200,000 ranks are shortlisted. At the second stage, a random list of 20,000 would be chosen to attend the IITs.

Such an approach, we contend, outperforms the current method on several important dimensions. 

First, it will change the incentives of every player in the education eco system and align the person/organisation towards desirable goals. Parents, students, teachers, schools, and the coaching class industry will no longer be obsessed with cracking meaningless multiple-choice questions. There will be a greater possibility for a child to pursue genuine knowledge, to not lead a regimented life from age 13 to 17, to not fight for each mark in the process of preparation, and yet make it to the list of the top 200,000 persons. 

Second, universities and engineering colleges around the country will feel customer pressure to upgrade their standards because they will now encounter candidates with higher expectations and ambitions. In addition to the 23 IITs, we could see the emergence of many good engineering colleges in the country, including at government-controlled universities.

Third, the IITs themselves will benefit from a more diverse cohort. There will be greater knowledge and curiosity, and less test prep, in the persons who attend IITs. There will be greater class heterogeneity and diverse family backgrounds coming into the campus. Professors and administrators will have to think more about their pedagogy and internal methods. IITs will also face greater domestic competition when good students of the country are dispersed among a large number of universities.

Fourth, allocation by lottery is a more equitable way to assign scarce publicly financed resources. The present JEE system is unfair and exacerbates social inequalities.

Shah is a researcher at XKDR Forum and Pai is co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution

I wrote a monthly column in Busines Standard for many years. You’ll find them in the The Asian Balance archive.

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