Wednesday, November 5, 2008

In defence of IIT coaching

IIT coaching bashing is ubiquitous trend in media, public, politicians, and even alumni and IIT administration in last couple of years. Rise of numerous coaching institutes all over India, specially in Kota, but also in Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai fuel ire of those trying to control quality of input to these premier institutes of India. Not only these coaching centers charge exorbitant fee, they also train students to crack the IIT entrance exam by rote memorization, pattern recognition, systematic targetted attempt, rather than focus on fundamentals of learning. Side effect of these gruelling two year long coaching (some even target students as early as class 9th), which are driven by desire to extract maximum money out of maximum students, is that pupils have stopped paying attention to regular high school. A symbiotic nexus is developed between schools and coaching centers where student skips classes in school all year and studies in coaching without inviting any penalty from school in lieu of appropriate payment.

It’s true that JEE doesn’t measure real engineering potential. How best to measure quality of input into IIT is something left to administration. Given that, though, you can’t blame students to wanting to get into given rewards that await typical IIT graduate. In India where higher education is in shambles, government controlled, politically driven, encumbered by whims of local politics and moral policing of administration, few institutes such as IITs which have world class infrastructure, teachers and reputation become cynosure of all eyes. Given possibility of lucrative job options after graduating, appeal to students to focus on learning rather than clearing exam may be at moral high ground but is simply not practical. People work according to incentives, not with appeal to morality, at least most don’t.

In a free market, demand creates its own supply. Mushrooming coaching institutes cater to this intense demand for getting into IITs by setting shops which increases chance of doing so. Price is usually outcome of tug of war between demand and supply. Some coaching centers, which have been able to differentiate themselves by higher success rate naturally attract higher demand, and consequently charge premium fee. So while fee is high, it’s outcome of market forces. If government feels about affordability of poor people, it can start its own subsidized institutes. Given state of public schools in this country, one doesn’t need foresight to see what is going to happen to those institutes.

IIT coaching institutes to IIT aspirants are what sports coaches to Olympics aspirants. They both train pupils to achieve their goal, and only their goal, without regard to all round development, which, if any, is incidental and not part of plan. I don’t see how can one be wrong but other right. And each person deserves the right to be trained. What matters is the quality of input. It should be immaterial if quality is innate at birth or developed by hard work. Assuming, quality, of course, as measured by JEE, which is subject to debate.

What I am trying to say is that there is no reason to rue existence of such institutes which simply cater to much needed demand. It would be useful if government changes incentives of the system to eliminate the need of coaching, if it so desires, which I don’t think is required. By changing entrance test pattern and making it more wholesome, by increasing supply of IIT seats, by giving more weightage to high school, by launching publicly sponsored coaching classes, and so on. And indeed there have been changes in these directions in last few years to partial success. If there is an exam then there will be training for it, so even changing pattern of exam has merely changed the syllabus of training centers. Since there is nothing fundamentally wrong with coaching centers to cater to public demand, I think any change targetted at reducing influence of these institutes, rather than targetted at improving efficiency and quality of system, is an attempt in wrong direction.

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