For more than half a century, one aptitude test has determined the self-esteem, future and even the spouses of generations of Indian adolescents, chiefly boys. The Joint Entrance Exam of the Indian Institutes of Technology is a brooding cultural force that is visible across the nation, on signboards and newspaper advertisements, as “I.I.T.-J.E.E.,” the first abbreviation many Indian children learn. It is an ominous inevitability for millions of boys, a fate decided in their cradles, a certainty like death. Last year nearly half a million candidates took the test — one of the toughest exams in the world — to compete for about 5,000 seats in the best of the I.I.T.’s and nearly as many seats in the less sought-after institutes. Coaching for the J.E.E. is an industry valued at billions of rupees. There is so much demand that some coaching classes have their own entrance exams. But the J.E.E. is now on its way out.
It is not the only engineering entrance exam in India. Lower down the rungs, there are other colleges, which require other exams to qualify. Competition is fierce all the way. Disturbed by the number of entrance exams, the Human Resource Development Ministry has decided to devise a common exam that would govern the admission process of several engineering institutes, including the famed I.I.T.’s. The nature of the new aptitude test, which is expected to debut in 2014, would be different from the J.E.E. The selection procedure, too, would be very different from what the I.I.T.’s use today. So, the type of person who enters the I.I.T.’s in the future may be very different. Opinion is divided on whether the new I.I.T. graduate will be better or worse than current alumni. The I.I.T.’s are nothing without the national perception of the “IITian.” And the perception is that he is primarily a he. And that he must be very smart. As some Indians point out with a hint of pride, in Scott Adams’s “Dilbert” comic strip, the brilliant Asok, who died on a Moon mission and reincarnated as part man and part Snickers bar, is from I.I.T. The fame of the institutes is an enduring relic from the years when socialism impoverished India and securing an elite engineering degree became the most elegant way for smart Indians to escape to America. The I.I.T.’s were never great centers of learning by world standards. Rather, they were museums that collected young Indians with excellent quantitative abilities. In the 1980s and ’90s, the migration of Indian scientific talent to the United States, deplored here as a “brain drain,” became a subject of intense debates in schools and colleges. Once, during the convocation ceremony at I.I.T.-Madras, the chief speaker received a standing ovation when he declared, “Brain drain is better than brain in the drain.” His words traveled with the speed of a rumor across Madras, also known as Chennai, through homes and schools, evoking laughter and applause, and delivering a bleak reminder to young boys that their lives depended on passing the J.E.E. In Madras in the ’80s, many smart girls were not allowed by their families to take the J.E.E. for fear that it would then be hard to get them married. One girl I knew who cleared the exam was not allowed by her parents to attend the institute, probably for the same reason. But the boys who made it to the I.I.T.’s became the heroes of their neighborhoods. Other boys hated them, and pretty girls wanted to marry them. The adulation would follow them until the end of their time. The glamour of the I.I.T.’s has always inspired parents to force their children to take the J.E.E. Increasingly, those parents are from modest educational and financial backgrounds. A few years ago, in Mumbai, I walked into a J.E.E. coaching class that conducted its own entrance exam to filter out 9 out of 10 applicants. An orientation program for parents was under way. A man who could not read English was sitting with brochures and study materials. He was disturbed that I was carrying a red book while he had not been given any such book. I told him that the book I was holding was a novel called “Love in the Time of Cholera.” “Is it a guide?” he asked. For a long time, the IITians were from urban, literate middle-class families, and it was inevitable that their success would inspire small-town Indians to prepare for the mother of all entrance exams.
Coaching colleges essentially dispensed with formal schooling and focused on the J.E.E. alone. As they became increasingly successful, it became evident that the J.E.E. was no longer an aptitude test but a giant goal that could be achieved through years of brute hard work and coaching. I.I.T. professors and alumni have been mourning the falling quality of the students. Last October, Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of Infosys and an I.I.T. alumnus, told an audience in New York that the new IITians were substandard. “They somehow get through the Joint Entrance Examination. But their performance in I.I.T.’s, at jobs or when they come for higher education in institutes in the U.S. is not as good as it used to be.” It is improbable that the I.I.T.’s will ever regain their old glory. The circumstances of the nation have changed, and the smartest Indians do not need an engineering degree to find a place in the world or to make a decent living. Also, the government has not invested enough in the I.I.T.’s, and the most talented scientific minds have the option to enroll in genuinely outstanding centers of learning in the West instead of being stuck in a place that has derived its prestige largely from the fact that only one in 50 cracks its entrance exam.