What’s at stake when a teenager loses an IIT seat

The reports in the TOI about the case of the eighteen-year old who cracked IIT Bombay Electrical Engineering seat with a rank of 270 in JEE, and then lost it by inadvertently clicking on “withdraw from seat allocation and further rounds”, raises some important issues.

The faculty-governed admission (and other) systems of IITs (and IIMs, et al), operating through large admissions committees, comprising many faculty members, have extremely robust and fool-proof processes which are designed to uphold the integrity of the admissions process. It is rigid and uncompromising processes that ensure that not even hot-shot politicos, bureaucrats or industrialists – for whom few rules really apply in our land – can get their wards in through the back door of one of these institutions, even if per chance, there should be a bendable Director (not impossible considering an AICTE Chairman was jailed in the past for graft). These processes need to be rigid and uncompromising in the extreme, as indeed they are. If they are allowed to develop even the slightest crack, the power-peddlers of our land would break down the doors for the benefit their kin and kith. Therefore it is praiseworthy that these systems are rigid and hard-nosed.

And yet, no one with a human heart would think that the rigidity of the system should deny someone – a teenager at that – who was admitted through due process, a seat, for an innocent mistake. What kind of institutional processes or society would not forgive an eighteen year old, an honest mistake?

The youth was under a genuine misunderstanding that what he had ticked had implied that he was not “required for further admission rounds”. Understandably a lot of sympathy and support has poured in for the young man. This is the kind of error every one of us makes once in a while; except that we are usually not in danger of losing an IIT seat or a whole year of our lives on account of the error. IIT Bombay’s response that there is little they can do to reverse the loss, even if they are offering him a second-go directly through JEE next year, is prima facie inadequate.

Understandably the matter has landed before the Supreme Court. While one hopes that the poor kid will get his seat back, the key question here is whether or not the IIT site had a double check on someone ticking ‘YES’ for withdrawal from a seat. It is not common for students who get admission into a prestigious course in a prestigious IIT to opt out. True it does happen occasionally when a child of well off parents, who did crack the IIT, prefers instead to go to MIT or Stanford for an international experience. But such withdrawals are extremely uncommon.

The question then is, did the IIT’s site ask the student to reconfirm his ticking the withdrawal option with messages like “Are You Sure???” in large red font, or better still, something like, “You are withdrawing your seat from the IIT!!! Are you sure you want to do this???”? This is as important for keeping a young student from making a humongous mistake, as it is in their own institutional interest, so that bright students who have been admitted are not allowed to leave so casually. They should be asking “Are you sure?” not just once, but may be twice for good measure. Maybe the next pop up should even ask for reasons for the withdrawal, as much for the candidate to register what they are doing as for the institution to understand better what is leading students to leave them. Most organizations try and talk their best employees out of tendering their resignations, don’t they? Shouldn’t the IIT’s system do an on-line equivalent of it?

Having been a faculty for two decades at IIM-A, I would like to think that this is the kind of problem for which the faculty body would have got together, and taken a call. Collective wisdom would obviously have prevailed, with far better chances of the right thing being done. This is not a matter of punching the wrong key and losing your twenty rupees on a vending machine. What is at stake here is a whole year of a youngster and the faith of his generation in the systems of the adults as a whole.

Otherwise, it would be the win of mindless bureaucracy over thinking and thoughtful systems, checks and balances. It would be the win of letter of the law over the spirit. To me, whether the boy gets his seat back or not is a test of the size of our institutional heart as well as the maturity of institutional processes.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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