New JEE Format: Right Diagnosis, Wrong Medication: Civil Services Mentor Magazine August 2012

New JEE Format:
Right Diagnosis, Wrong Medication

Under the new format approved by MHRD, admissions to all Central government engineering institutes will be through a common exam, scrapping the current system of JEE for the IITs and the All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE) for other institutes. A common merit list is to be prepared with an unprecedented 40 per cent weightage for Class XII board examination marks and 30 per cent each for two examinations — JEE Main and JEE Advanced — to be held on the same day.

The Ministry claims its main intention is to reduce the stress of multiple entrance exams on students. It should have asked students their opinion. More than the difficulty of the exam, the stress associated with the JEE is due to the huge imbalance between the number of seats and aspirants. The proposal does nothing to change this. In fact, the pressure now to do well in three exams is sure to increase stress. Also, by keeping both exams on the same day, a random event — the candidate falling ill, even a bus breaking down — can destroy a student’s future. Whereas previously there were options if one entrance test went badly, the new system has an all-or-nothing feel to it. It’s no surprise that parents are thinking of taking the matter to court. The Ministry also aims to re-vitalise school education by giving more importance to the Class XII board examinations which, it feels, are ignored by students. Again, had it asked students it would have realised why. Though nominally the syllabi for the board examinations and the JEE are the same, board examination papers are based on memory-based learning with easy, expected questions, while the JEE’s focus is conceptual with unexpected, challenging questions. No JEE question is ever repeated. Besides, most State board examinations are plagued by rampant copying and question paper leaks, while the practical examinations are famously a farce.


With class XII exams playing a more important role in the admission process, students in rural areas studying in state boards standing a better chance of getting into national institutes. Proponents of the exam argue that it will make schooling more relevant and make students focus on their board exams as well. This would also make students less dependent on coaching classes and could allow students from  different board a better chance at getting into national institutes. If you are aspiring to get into an engineering college, you could have to write between two to three exams, one for the IITs, the AIEEE and the state Common Entrance Test. Each of the exams is unique in its nature and while the IIT is the highest benchmark, many students also choose to prepare better for the state entrance exams since they don’t believe they have a shot at it. With just a single test students have to prepare only for one exam and are graded based on it. IITs are used to choosing students from their own admission process, which will be diluted with the greater importance of Class XII examinations. Faculty and critics argue that given the autonomy of the IITs this will prevent them from distinguishing the students better suited for the course and amounts to the government interfering into the functioning of an institution that has been largely allowed to function independently.


While class XII exams will become important, the two IIT exams – the JEE main and JEE advanced- will be the main factors that will decide admissions and they will not be easy enough for a student who is best prepared for a examination set by a state education board. It may only increase further dependence on coaching classes. IIT faculty who are opposing the single exam believe the single exam will only increase stress among the students since it will now be a make or break situation for them. Also critics have argued having two separate tests on a single day will not help. Former IITians and alumni claim the new format would also significantly dilute the quality of students entering the IIT. Each of the boards has a different grading system and marks across each of the state boards and national boards for Class XII examinations vary greatly. With standards of education and grading differing across education boards, IIT faculty and critics of the new system believe it may give students who do well in the boards an undue advantage over those who may be better suited for IITs. The IITs will continue to function autonomously and continue to take its own decisions in all other matters. The new one exam system allows a level playing field for all students and will help resolve the students’ woes of having to study for various exams.

IIT-JEE aspirants constitute only a fraction of the total number of students taking the Class XII examination across the country. A total of 4.79 lakh students took the IIT-JEE this year. This number includes many who graduated from Class XII last year. So, the number of Class XII students appearing in IIT-JEE is even lower than this number. Even if one assumes all of them are from Class XII, this number works out to be less than 6 per cent (5.79 per cent) of students enrolled in Class XII. All the debate ignores the 94 per cent. As far as coaching classes concern, forget the 40 per cent weight, even if Class XII scores get 100 per cent weight, it won’t wipe out coaching classes. For the simple reason that there are too many good students vying for too few seats available in the quality higher education system. It begets anxiety among students and their parents to leave no stone (coaching class) unturned to make it. It is a supply problem. The number of seats (about 10,000 in IITs) falls far short of students (about 20,000 selected for counseling) found suitable to take that course. Students coming through JEE were no longer as exceptional and talented as before. The villain was quickly identified: coaching classes that promote drill and rote rather than thought and creativity. So the government’s policy prescription: let’s underline the importance of the schooling system which ostensibly promotes original thinking, let’s tweak the entrance examination to factor in Class XII marks. The question is why maximum students do & parents prefer a private school over a government school? Why do students and their parents go to such lengths as to exhaust their meager savings to pay for coaching even after a good Class XII score? Will factoring in Class XII marks change this? The fact is that reforming the IIT entrance is way off the mark when it comes to solving the original crisis: the school system.

There are other reasons why the IIT entrance procedure needs a major revamp. The present selection system depends on machismo in physics, chemistry and mathematics — ideally suited for coaching classes, condemning young boys and girls to a concentration camp atmosphere for two years or so. This is the period these youngsters should spend exploring their interest and aptitudes but are prevented from doing so. This straitjacketing is probably filtering out the innovative and curious ones who hate such narrow perspectives, ensuring that IITs are denied some young Indians who might be truly interested in path breaking work. It is time for a rethink on the objective of the selection procedure for IITs. However, the HRD ministry hasn’t solved the problem. It has only complicated it with the new common entrance examination, which will require students to prepare equally for the Class XII board exam, JEE Main and Advanced. The plan has been riddled with conceptual flaws right from the start — first, the HRD ministry pushed for a common test to provide a SAT-like standard. However, the SAT aims to separate academic ability from family background or quality of schooling — why should school scores be bundled into the final assessment for engineering schools? After some give and take with the IITs, the ministry has conceded that Class XII marks would only be used as a filter for them, and not be a part of the overall assessment. It clearly needs much more dialogue with the IIT faculty and administration — listening, not talking — before it rolls out these drastic changes. IITs have a formidable reputation in the country and abroad for producing outstanding graduates over the last five decades. The reasons for this includes the selection of high performing students through the JEE, which the IITs have run without blemish. This has happened because those running the system take pride in their work as loyal members of the IIT system. IITs have also developed reasonably democratic systems for academic functioning and selection of course content, fair and open systems for grading and evaluation, and student management. Faculty selection and promotion processes are also reasonable considering the environment we have to operate in.

A more robust solution would be to enhance the supply of quality seats at the undergraduate level, not only in engineering or medicine but also in law, commerce, humanities and social sciences. Take away their (IITs/ NITs/ IIITs) luxury to “select” from the plentiful and force them to compete with others to “attract” the most suitable. This will also iron out the skew that these handful of institutions create. The institutional response to the hegemony of the IITs lies in creating similar international brands in other streams: humanities, law, commerce, social sciences among others. This will force them to compete to attract suitable students. This, in fact, will revive interest in an interdisciplinary school curriculum instead of the current distortion towards Physics- Chemistry-Math/ Biology. The bottomline is that, first, it is not part of the IITs/ NITs/ IIITs’ mandate to strengthen the school system; second, a change of examination pattern, as is being envisaged, is not going to revive the school system. There is an impasse at hand and it must be resolved amicably. Those protesting from the IITs have a point — that they must have a role in selecting their students. Any university should, as long as it is done within the concepts of fair play, social justice and societal obligations. An ideal entrance procedure should include high school performance, marks in a common all-India quantitative entrance examination and, if desired, any institution should be able to set their own entrance test/ criteria also. If an institution wants to conduct its own test it must be very different from the current JEE and not require students to prepare too much. It must test aptitude and not just mathematical prowess as that would already have been tested by the common all-India test. It would have to be free from language and class biases. Devising such a test would need collaboration with national and international education and testing experts and will take time, but it would free IIT faculty from wasting their time on the JEE and focus on what will actually benefit their institutions. It should be possible to design IIT specific aptitude test procedures within the next year. If the IITs agree to such a change in entrance procedures the MHRD should agree to introduce the new system in 2014. If not, the current proposal of MHRD should stay. As for the JEE, it needs to go.

Sandeep Dogra