There are two things about IITK which keep cropping up every once in a while and I had been meaning to write something about them for a long time. First one is the issue of frequent suicide[attempts] by the students and the second one is the whole male-female interaction issues in the campus. First one gets a lot of media and alumni attention. The second one keeps circulating between the students and a select few alumni who, in their student days at the institute, were active on this issue.
Let’s take up the controversial matter of suicide first. Every time a suicide happens, there is a quick media coverage and there is an uproar on all the alumni groups worldwide as soon as one of these news items get forwarded. Why does institute not do something? For how long will it continue and the institute will be a silent spectator?
Let me be candid here. We are being harsh towards institute here and are overlooking the real reason which leads a young student, full of potential, to the desperate step of taking away his life.
The first thing to realize is that its not just IITs. Let’s think of the 10th and 12th standard exam results. Every year just after the results are announced, the number of suicides by disappointed students easily goes in double digit immediately. Probably many, many more do not come in media limelight. And wait! According to this report [PDF file, opens in new window] by National Crimes Records Bureau, in years 2005, 2006 and 2007, a total of 2283, 2378 and 1976 suicides respectively were done due to failure in examinations! Only the reported, official numbers. Actual could be much higher. Why? Yes, there are flaws in our education system at every level. There are a thousand things that need to be fixed. But you know what? The basic reasons behind these suicides can not be fixed by correcting the education system. What will you do? There is a race for marks and every extra 1%. So? Change it to a grading system? There will still be the race to get that next higher grade. Change it to a pass/fail system. Those who fail will still commit suicide. Have no concept of fail or marks or grades? You just go through the education and that’s it? The higher education system and the economic system will have to find ways to decide who is fit to go where. That will still not be a perfect system and those who do not get into what society values will still commit suicide. We can improve our education system, but it will never be perfect. Do we even know what a perfect education system is? And even if at some point of time in future, we will be able to devise a system that is perfect, that will magically eliminate the tendency to commit suicide, we can not wait until then to save young lives.
The problem is not the education system really. It is the mindset of the society that does not accept failures and helps in rebounding, that does not give a healthy, optimistic outlook for future to young minds, that only gives them a do-or-die option for all these “important” examinations. The family being the biggest criminal of all.
“How can my son/daughter be such a failure?”
Grow up moms and dads. Your child is an individual. He has his own strengths and weaknesses. And excelling in the exams you deem important may not be his strength. Heck yes. He can even fail. Don’t bring him up with the fear that his life and future and career ends if he does not get through those examinations. Don’t link his examination performance to your and entire family’s respect or disgrace in the society. And no – he does not have to be like this uncle and that cousin to prove his worth in the family. Come on. Somebody’s child will be at 90%, somebody’s at 60% and somebody’s will fail! Any of these could be yours. There is nothing like “how can it be”. Just like it could have been your neighbour’s child, it can be your child. Let’s give lives second and third chances.
And when it comes to IITs and ‘premier institutes’ in India, we are face to face with even more difficult set of parents. They have basked in the reflected glory of their child making it to IIT. In some cases with never-before-rank in their family/neighbourhood. Oh! Aren’t they on cloud-9? They don’t want to come down. There can be no looking back.
Sorry, once again moms and dads. All those who were at 60% and those who failed have been left behind your child now. Everybody at IIT is a topper here and a stud there. There will be those at 90% and those at 60% and those who fail! Oops! IITs have a relative grading system to normalize performance. Some will be 10 pointers, some 8, some 5 point someone and some will get Fs. Yes – in some cases it is an eccentric professor who causes this ‘F’. But that’s not the case all the time and even when that is the case, your child and his life are more important than the eccentric professor and the imperfect system. Its not worthwhile for him to lose his life to correct an eccentric professor. One is corrected today, the other will be born tomorrow. In some cases, your child has been neglecting his studies. But its absolutely not such a big crime that she should not get another chance.
“How can it be my child?” Just the way it was your neighbour’s child who did not make it to IITs in flying colors. It was not an end for him. He did his B. Com and an MBA and is a successful professional now. Its not an end for your child either. There is always that second chance. Don’t bother about the uncles and aunts and grapndpas and the neighbour giving that revengeful smile! If you have boasted too much about your child in past, it has been a mistake. Don’t let your child pay for it. Forget about the others, who would laugh at you. Concentrate on your child.
You know what the problem is? The society does not accept looking back; it does not accept that the the most glorious path need not be one suitable for an individual; it does not accept that you may falter but come back. If it started doing that, the results could be amazing. I have witnessed some amazing cases of ‘recovery’ [in want of a better word] in hopeless cases. Students with ‘F’s lined up semester after semester – they get their acts together and pass out decently.
As far as the system is concerned, it offers flexibility like hardly any Indian systems do. You don’t have to repeat a full year, if you fail in one subject or two or three or even all but one. You repeat only those courses you have failed in. There is nothing like repeating the whole year. If theses have been elective courses, you can choose a different elective while repeating. There are systems of warnings and academic probation and other things. These give ample time to the student to get their act together. What happens in most such cases is that the student can hardly talk to anyone in the family. The institute does a lot to create a support system. There is a counseling service. Faculty members get directly involved in some cases. And as mentioned earlier, I have personally witnessed some hopeless looking cases ending amazingly well. Not just getting through the system, but actually doing well at the end.
Only if it worked for more people. Only if it wasn’t just the institute’s responsibility and parents cared enough about their children beyond thinking of them as a ‘glory’ tool. Only if all these people could actually talk to their parents without feeling guilty and get an acceptance of their situation. Only if parents were there to support more extreme steps when needed (like leaving IIT and find a more suitable career elsewhere- what can institute do if that is indeed the best option?).
There is a system of branch change at the end of first year. Earlier there was a high CPI limit to allow branch change. The idea was to give students doing well a chance to change their department. I remember that during our times a change was brought in to lower the CPI limit and allow a branch change at the end of second year too. So, if you feel you can’t handle your department and are not performing well, change it. Despite the political incorrectness of the idea that someone performing badly in one department should be accepted in another department, keeping in mind the practical situation of students (the branches closing at higher JEE ranks create more pressure than those closing at lower ones), the system did introduce the change. I don’t remember there were any takers. The only thing it did was that more people with lower CPI applied for branch change to a “better” branch. Who will go back and tell their moms and dads that I want to switch from Computer Science to Physics! Sigh… I don’t know if the system still exists despite having no takers.
Let’s face it. Blaming education system, and academic pressure, and institute is not just unfair, its pointless and even harmful. These young lives are important and its high time parents and society creating all the pressure on them face some tough questions and stop looking the other way. The solution to students committing suicides after 10th and 12th board examination results can not be to allow them to cheat in the exams, can it be?
And now the less life threatening issue of Male-Female interaction on the campus. IIT Kanpur has historically been ahead of its time and society in dealing with this issue. Although I can see some “how-can-this-be-allowed” faces around, initially there were no restrictions on male and female students visiting the hostels of opposite sex at any point of time. It worked. Those used to a typical girls hostel should not think that girls lived in a constant terror of their privacy being violated. Just like you live at your home, you lived in the hostel – used to seeing male visitors around. At some point of time, after some untoward incident or something, a restriction was imposed between 12 midnight and 6 am on the entry of the ‘person of opposite sex’ (to quote the official documents). Practically, that too was only for the girls’ hostel and not for the boys’ hostels. That was still the practice when we had entered the institute. And then, after 40 or so years of the institute’s existence, after the world has come into 21st century, there came people in the administration who started seeing problems. At one point of time it seemed like even twin tower crashing would somehow be related to boys being allowed in girls’ hostel at IIT Kanpur! It has been downward hill since then. We had resisted then and it at least halted the idea of complete ban… But the slow damage continues to happen. I-card showing and signing in and having an escort and what not. In the name of security, a lot of restrictions are in place now.
The problem is that most of the society will not see what is wrong with this. The parents of new students will not see what is wrong with this. They are used to jail-like girls’ hostels and that’s what their notion of keeping their girls safe is. When we had entered IIT Kanpur, parents had questions about the ‘strange’ arrangement. The wardens and senior students had made them understand. The institute was leading the rest of the society. The society will not be able to lead the institute if it decides to go regressive. Which is what it has decided to do unfortunately.
Advantages of the open system? Purely from a girl’s point for view – you do not have boys putting sick bets for entering Girls’ Hostel. You don’t have an untoward curiosity about what the rooms of girls look like. It makes girls less of an exotic object, and more of a human for boys, who live like them only [although it is hampered a lot simply due to the male-female ratio in the campus, but it at least saves some lives!].
What do we worry about? Girls and boys having sex? Whether we should worry about that and to what extent can itself be a subject of debate. But even if we have to worry about it, is restricting entry into hostels a way of stopping it? You really believe it? What percentage of unmarried, young people do you think get into sexual acts in a hostel room? The percentage will be tiny. If this has to happen, it will happen. Restrictions or no restrictions on hostel can not do much to curb or encourage it.
Would somebody powerful enough in the administration get their head cleared about it and stop this irreversible damage? When I am stopped at the gate of each and every hostel on visiting the campus in the name of security, it stops looking like the campus I am so proud of! The sense of freedom I always felt there vanishes. Please don’t take away that wonderful experience from the new generation of students. What more can I say. I sort of feel hopeless about it now!