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Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are one of the most famous Indian higher education brands outside the country. They are autonomous public institutions under the Ministry of Human Resource Development and are considered as the best Institutions in the country for engineering education and research in terms of quality and standards.

IITs are often compared to China’s Tsinghua University and South Korea’s Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Two IITs—IIT Bombay and IIT Roorkee-— had found a place in the 351 to 400 grouping of the 2014-15 World University Rankings of the Times Higher Education.

IITs are among the centrally-funded instuitions that receive generous grants. At present, there are sixteen IITs in Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras, Guwahati, Roorkee, Hyderabad, Patna, Bhubaneshwar, Ropar, Jodhpur, Gandhinagar, Indore, Mandi and Varanasi. Of these 16, 10 were established after 2004. India received different kinds of assistance for the setting up of some of the IITs. While IIT Bombay and IIT Chennai received help from former Soviet Union and West Germany respectively during 1960s, IIT-Kanpur received technical assistance from a consortium of nine leading institutions of the United States.

The central government is currently planning to set up an additional six IITs in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Goa, and Jammu and Kashmir. This is apart from converting the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad to an IIT.

Although the IITs mainly offer undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD programmes in various branches of engineering and science disciplines, they also have humanities and social science departments. The 4-year bachelors program is the most popular and highly competitive programme. Students are admitted into these programmes on the basis of a national level entrance examination “Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE). This examination is conducted in two parts, JEE-Main (first stage) and JEE-Advanced (second stage).

The JEE-Main and JEE-Advanced are considered to be among the toughest exams in the world. The number of students applying for the JEE examinantion has been swelling over the years , as students are lured by brand value of IITs. Only the top 150,000 candidates who pass the JEE Main will be able to appear for the second stage examination “JEE Advanced”. JEE Advanced is conducted for selecting around 10,000 candidates for the undergraduate seats in the 16 IITs. Last year around 1.3 million students sat for the JEE Main examination. From the top 150,000, only a total of 27,152 candidates qualified for the JEE Advanced.

Candidates belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Persons with physical disability are eligible for the quota under the affirmative action policy of the government. A one-year preparatory course is also offered to candidates belong to these categories to improve their intake in the undergraduate programmes.

The expansion the number of IITs have resulted in the growth in the number of seats available through the national level entrance examination. However, this has also been accompanied a clear pattern of stratification in terms of access.

The report published by the Joint Implementation Committee on the 2014 Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced) confirms the fact that access to IITs is highly correlated with secondary school type, place of origin of candidates, family background, etc. Some of the salient points from the Report of the Joint Implementation Committee (published by IIT Kharagpur) highlight the various barriers to equity at the IITs:

  • Gender Imbalance: Out of the total admitted candidates around 92% are males; only 8% are females.
  • Dominance of urban areas: Cities contributed 76% of the qualified candidates; villages contributed only 9.77%. More than 50% of the qualified candidates were from cities like Jaipur, Delhi, Patna, Vijayawada, Hyderabad, Visakhaptanam, Mumbai, Pune, Bhopal, Lucknow, Kanpur and Chennai .
  • Dominance of National Boards over State boards: Although more than 90% of the XII (higher secondary) students in India are enrolled with various state-level boards, students from the schools affiliated to the two national-level boards— Central Board of Secondary Education and the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations —succeeded in getting more than 50% of the allotted seats at the IITs in 2014. The majority of the elite private schools in the country are affiliated with the national boards. This shows that schooling had a central role in determining access.
  • Regional Disparities: Among the state boards, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan alone had a share of 32% of the alloted seats. •
  • Stratification on the basis of parents’ education level: While the parents of the 68% of the candidates who cleared the second level JEE were graduates and post graduates, only 2.46% of the candidates with illiterate parents could clear the examination.

There are certain other aspects of inequality not captured in the report. The influence of the private coaching industry is one among them. The vast majority of the students admitted to the IITs have benefited from coaching. Kota—a small town in the northern Indian State of Rajasthan— is the nucleus of the industry. Interestingly, even a South Korean coaching company (Etoos) operates in Kota with an Indian partner.

Although IITs dominate courses and research in engineering in India, gender imbalance in enrolments and access for students from rural areas, individuals from the secondary schools that are under the state-level boards, etc. are issues that need to addressed. Expansion access to higher education by increasing the number of institutions and number of seats alone cannot ensure the participation of students from the periphery of society. Along with the various affirmative actions, the country also needs to put in place a new admission system for the IITs that can ensure a more equitable playing field for all the candidates.

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