Ajay Shah and Nitin Pai on Higher Education in India

The IIT JEE (Indian Institute of Technology joint entrance exam) is revered as the arbiter of merit. With industrialised coaching classes, it is less clear how the JEE selects the right people to attend an IIT. Simplistic measurement of marks in an exam is not how the entry barriers into most sensible institutions work. The high-powered incentive — attending an IIT — is damaging the learning process. We propose a two-part mechanism: A broad exam that filters for sound capability, and then randomised allocation. The overall impact of such a mechanism would be positive. Test preparation has corroded Indian education. Across India, children no longer attend just high school. They are enrolled in coaching classes. Here, it is not necessary to study the subject and understand concepts. All they need to learn is the finite list of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) that are likely to be asked in entrance examinations.


Two of my favorite columnists writing about a topic that I am most passionate about – the conduct of examinations in India. What’s not to like, and how can I possibly not write about it?

  1. As Nitin and Ajay mention, “test prep is not education”. Indeed. Test prep is just that: test prep. You can get very good at test prep, but that doesn’t mean that you will be educated.
  2. They have their own definition of education, and while I don’t disagree with it one bit, I have a shorter one.
    Education is about learning to ask (and then answer) really good questions.
    My problem with our education system, and with exam test prep, is that we simply don’t teach our students the art of asking really good questions.
  3. “The tendrils of curiosity, dissent, imagination, creativity, and risk-taking are likely to be crushed in these years. We are creating followers, not leaders.”
    If I nodded any harder, I could probably power a wind turbine all by myself.
  4. “Upgrading high-school syllabi and implementing the National Education Policy 2020 are sometimes proposed as the answer. This is insufficient because they do not fundamentally change students’ and their parents’ incentives. Real change will come only if a seat in an elite academic institution is no longer seen as the sole objective of going to school.”
    Two first-pass responses to this issue would be to either increase supply or reduce demand. That is, increase the supply of high quality education seats (easier said than done), or reduce the demand for them (not gonna happen). Therefore their solution: lottery system.
    “The price of an IIT lottery ticket can be reduced to zero. Seats can be randomly allocated to applicants who meet basic requirements. Specifically, we could envision a first-level exam, which is not about the things that Google knows. Out of that the top 200,000 ranks are shortlisted. At the second stage, a random list of 20,000 would be chosen to attend the IITs. Such an approach, we contend, outperforms the current method on several important dimensions.”
  5. It takes away the incentive of the mad entrance test world that we live in, sure. But I worry that “universities and engineering colleges around the country will feel customer pressure to upgrade their standards because they will now encounter candidates with higher expectations and ambitions” won’t necessarily work out in practice. Students enrolled in an institute have *massive* switching costs, and colleges know this all too well. Trust me on this one: they don’t feel no customer pressure.
  6. My biggest problem with their solution isn’t with their solution per se, but with the fact that it ultimately boils down to whether we can scale up the supply of high quality higher education in our country quickly enough. I happen to think the answer is no, and I hope to god I’m wrong.