Brain drain redux
|India's brightest young minds are heading overseas for education — and the government's centralised system of exams is to blame, say Prasun Chaudhuri and V. Kumara Swamy|
Rupsha Mazumdar was a model student. Teachers expected the student of science, who scored a 93 per cent average in her school leaving examination, to study engineering or medicine. But Rupsha wanted out.
"I decided to escape the unscientific examination system. It's stifling; there's too much of pressure out there," says Rupsha, now studying computer engineering at Imperial College, London. Last year, well before she appeared for her final high school exam, she'd applied to 20 colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom. She received acceptance letters from 18.
She is just one among a growing number of young students leaving India for studies abroad because of the weaknesses of the Indian education system. Some students are spurning the system, and some are being rejected. The net outcome is a flight of brains.
Data from a survey by the International Educational Exchange (IEE), an independent US body, show that the number of undergraduate students from India increased substantially in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, though not in 2009-2010. That may be due to the paucity of scholarships for international students. The financial situation at many US campuses is tight, points out Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsellor to the president of the IEE. The figures for 2010-2011 are not yet available, but could be on the upswing again, given the rot in examination and selection procedures in India. Not just science and technology students — those seeking to pursue liberal arts are also making a beeline for foreign colleges, describing their systems of teaching and testing as more accommodating and fair.
Ranjana Chandra (name changed on request) is another bright young thing who's studying abroad. But unlike Rupsha, Ranjana faced rejection when she applied for the best colleges in India after passing out of a top Delhi school this year. Her marks — 93.5 per cent — were just not enough for her to get the college and subject of her choice.
But Ranjana, who had also applied to 11 undergraduate colleges in the US, one in Canada and two in Singapore, was embraced with open arms abroad. Top institutes such as Cornell, Smith and Dartmouth — which she joined last month to study arts — admitted her. "She wanted to study psychology in India, but the college she got a seat in was terrible," says her mother, Madhavi Chandra.
Though Ranjana did remarkably well in all her subjects, a relative low score of 82 per cent in one paper lowered her overall pass percentage. Yet the best American colleges opened up not just because she scored 100 per cent marks in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), but also had a good academic record all through school and took part in extracurricular activities. Her mother points out that Ranjana is impressed that students in the US are not judged by their performance on one day in an examination.
The brain drain is reason enough for Indian policymakers to ponder over the failure of the Indian examination and selection system which relies on a centralised method of ranking examination papers.
India's human resource development ministry, which deals with education, however thinks the brain drain stems from an increasing demand for — and meagre supply of — seats in colleges. "The problem is that there are too many good students and not enough institutes of their choice," says a senior HRD official who doesn't want to be named. His views echo HRD minister Kapil Sibal's remarks at a recent India-US higher education summit in Washington. "To provide for opportunities in higher education for an additional 30 million children by 2020, we will need to build an additional 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges," he said.
Yet some believe the problem lies with centralised tests which don't provide for any grounds for choosing students on the basis of their other merits, apart from marks garnered in tests. They argue that institutes should have their own tests, and ways of selecting students. Every Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), some hold, should have its own examination, for each institute is at a different level. "You can't pitch IIT, Kharagpur in the same league as IIT, Kanpur," says a former academic.
Kasturi Lal Chopra, a former director of the IITs at Kharagpur and Delhi, believes the IIT joint entrance exam (IIT-JEE) benefits only the burgeoning tutorial industry. "The current format of IIT-JEE should be immediately scrapped and an exam to test general aptitude introduced. Since 1986 we've been asking for the introduction of essay writing and other parameters for IIT entrance tests." He'd also proposed an independent body to conduct these exams to root out question leaks and related corruption. "It would be best if IITs are left alone to manage their affairs — free from interference from the government," he adds.
Despite the outcry against centralised examinations, the Manmohan Singh government is taking this process further. It is centralising medical entrance exams across all boards (there will be only a single exam) from 2012. This will be followed by common engineering, science and other entrance exams.
Leaving it to colleges or professors to decide on admissions may be more fruitful. Says Yash Pal, the scientist-educationist who headed a committee of experts which prepared a report on the "renovation and rejuvenation" of higher education, "Our colleges need dedicated teachers who can independently choose bright minds just like G.H. Hardy chose Srinivasa Ramanujan, a clerk without formal training but capable of original work, as his collaborator in Cambridge University. Ramanujan went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society and made Hardy famous. It's nothing but the old guru-shishya parampara in ancient India. It's unthinkable in modern India."
Venki Ramakrishnan, the 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry who works at the MRC Laboratory in Cambridge, UK, adds, "This was extremely rare even in Ramanujan's day, and it happened only because he was a genius who had already done really original work on his own. But even in my own case, I re-applied to graduate school in biology after already having received a PhD in physics. That sort of flexibility is possible in the US, less so in the UK and Europe, and not at all in India as far as I know."
Tests that miss the best
In the UK, most colleges have their own method of selection. Admission based on marks obtained in any centralised exam is a restrictive and imperfect method, maintains Somak Raychaudhury, senior lecturer in astrophysics, University of Birmingham, the UK. "We don't rely on any centralised exams," says Raychaudhury, who is involved with student selection in his college. "There's a basic aptitude test and some weightage for its marks, but we rely a lot on letters of recommendation (LOR) from the students' teachers."
One of the major problems with the Indian system is that it relies more on rejection than on selection. Entry to India's top colleges can often be "make-or-break" efforts with the results from a single entrance examination determining one's career, points out Anil G. Jacob, senior educational advisor, United States-India Educational Foundation, New Delhi.
"On the other hand, US institutions of higher education use a number of variables to select students: tests such as the SAT or ACT [American College Testing] admissions essays, LORs, and the academic background of students from Class IX to XII. This mode of admissions is holistic and offers students a number of ways to highlight their strengths," he says. Adds the former academic, "In the US they use SAT or GRE scores, but that's not the only criterion. A low score in the SAT or GRE won't ruin your admission or career."
Experts such as Yash Pal and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) chairman Vineet Joshi believe India needs an examination like SAT or Graduate Record Exam (GRE, for admissions in graduate colleges in the US) which can be used along with other parameters during admissions.
Jayanta Bhattacharjee, dean, academics, of Calcutta's S.N. Bose Centre for Basic Sciences, agrees. "The best thing about SAT or GRE is flexibility. You can choose your time of examination in a particular period and reappear several times if you are not happy with your score. These tests also try to assess your general aptitude and intelligence, as opposed to Indian exams that mostly test your memory or numerical ability," he says.
Not everybody agrees. Planning commission member and educationist Narendra Jadhav believes examinations such as SAT or GRE may not work in India. "We don't need to copy these tests, for they have a different purpose altogether. The US colleges accept a large number of international students from varying educational backgrounds. So they need such standardised tests during admissions," he says. Besides, the student body in India is too large for such tests to be administered, he says.
Some academics also fear that decentralising admissions to colleges in India will encourage corruption. Nobel laureate Ramakrishnan warns, "This would only be possible if the system were relatively free of corruption. Given the level of corruption in Indian society at large, I don't see an alternative to a completely unbiased exam system, regardless of its faults. Otherwise you can imagine the pressure that rich or influential parents of applicants would apply on teachers writing recommendations as well as the poor IIT faculty who serve on selection committees."
Valson Thampu, principal, St Stephen's College, echoes the point. "When you have the independence to choose students, institutional integrity, transparency and accountability are very important. Unfortunately, too much freedom also means the risk of corruption."
Weeding out corruption from educational institutes is the top priority of the HRD ministry, says the ministry official. "There are bills waiting to be passed by Parliament that can help stop corrupt practices in institutes," he says. Their final goal is to form an overarching body — the National Council of Higher Education and Research — following the advice of the Yash Pal committee to oversee pressing issues of education.
So it's evident that things are not going to change soon. Meanwhile, how does India check the flight of bright youngsters? "No system is perfect," says Ramakrishnan "Under any system there will be bright people who are rejected. It is impossible to predict with complete accuracy who will do well. But the current system does favour people who spend an inordinate amount of time (and money) preparing for an exam rather than learning widely."
He says that one possibility is to "combine" state board exam scores for individual subjects with entrance exam scores. "This would at least make sure students paid attention to their course subjects rather than just to the entrance exam," he says.
The government clearly has to move fast to counter brain drain redux. The West's gain, after all, is India's loss.
I completed Class XII from Delhi with 417 (out of 500) in 2009. I took a gap year to apply to universities in the US and got into Brown.
I decided to study in the US because of the freedom offered by the education system here. My main subject is computer science, but I have sampled a variety of courses in astronomy, geology, economics and sociology, something I would have never had the opportunity to do in India.
The Indian system does not test how well one understands the material, but instead lays stress on how well one can reproduce it. Also, students have to decide once and for all what they want to study. Once a decision is taken, there are no more options. Why?
In India, we tend to focus more on numerical statistics. Is a student who scored 98 per cent and does no extracurricular achievement better than one who won the Model United Nations title for his school, but managed a "meagre" 85 per cent? These questions have to be answered.
IIT Joint Entrance Exam
A yearly exam where around five lakh aspirants compete for 9,500 seats
All India Pre-Medical / Dental Test
Around two lakh students compete for a little over 2,000 seats
All India Engineering Entrance Examination
Around 11 lakh students appear every year competing for around 27,000 seats for engineering colleges
Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) Entrance Exam
Around one lakh candidates compete for around 200 seats
Common Law Admission Test (CLAT)
Around 17,000 students compete for 1,000 seats in 11 law schools