Picture Courtesy: Anushka Kogta

Why are IITs losing so many students and will they be able to plug the leak?

Multiple factors are responsible for the high dropout rates among the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Together with suicides among students, the problem needs to be addressed urgently if the IITs have to secure their future.

EVERY year, lakhs of students appear in a two-tiered entrance process to secure admission into one of the most prestigious institutions in India, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

After years of hard work and preparation, around 10,000 students make it to the IITs every year. However, as per government data, at least 20 percent of the students who qualify end up dropping out before they complete their degree. The increasing dropout rates indicate that all is not well at the IITs.

More than 4,400 students dropped out of IITs between 2018 and 2023, as per data shared by Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar in the Rajya Sabha in July this year.

The parliamentary report states that B.Tech students primarily drop out due to academic pressure, while M.Tech students are lured by promising job opportunities offered by the institutes and the thriving startup culture.

The highest dropout rates are observed among PhD students. The report attributes uncertainties in job prospects and conflicts between professors and students as key reasons influencing dropouts.

A multi-dimensional problem

Saurabh Tewari, assistant professor of design at IIT Delhi, said that several barriers and factors compel students to drop out of the institution.

Students face challenges in adapting to the new system. After taking admission, they realise that the course is quite rigorous. Another factor driving dropouts is the initiation of entrepreneurial ventures by students. They quit the course once they start working on their startups,” he said.

A student from the 2017 batch of the B.Tech programme in textile technology, who dropped out of IIT Delhi during his final year cited academic pressure and an overwhelming workload as the primary reasons prompting students to discontinue their IIT journey.

If academic performance falls short, it can lead to restrictions on participation in clubs, societies and extracurricular competitions, creating a sense of failure,” said the 25-year-old, who chose to remain anonymous.

He added that the demanding nature of the programme made it difficult for students to make academic recovery.

If we don’t perform in academics for two–three semesters continuously, then recovery becomes almost impossible. I completed the majority of the portion of my degree, but there were four–five courses that I couldn’t complete. I had two options in the end: getting a degree extended or dropping out. I chose the latter,” he said.

While these reasons may not apply to students pursuing master’s degrees at the IITs, the allure of more lucrative and promising opportunities often leads them to drop out. A former M.Tech student who left IIT Delhi cited his primary goal as securing a position in a public sector undertaking (PSU).

I got a call from a PSU and decided to leave the IIT. Many students who discontinue their master’s at an IIT do so because they secure a job offer or a PSU opportunity,” said the 23-year-old, a native of Maharashtra, on the promise of anonymity.

Farukh (name changed on request) joined a PhD programme at IIT Delhi this year. He quit the course within six months. The Srinagar native said that the environment at the institute often overwhelms students.

He explained that while working on one task, additional responsibilities are continually assigned, causing an excessive workload. This, in turn, proves challenging for most students, paving the way for their dropping out.

The data presented in Rajya Sabha shows that PhD programmes have seen a significant number of dropout cases over the years.

Farukh, while sharing his experience, said, “After doing a rigorous course for five to six years, there is no certainty that a PhD might lead to a job. This concern about the job prospects at the IITs was a significant factor in my decision to drop out of my PhD programme.”

Farukh mentioned that at the institute, students frequently encounter caste-related discrimination. “Professors often discriminate against students from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities. A professor in my class asked a girl from Bihar, who belonged to a marginalised community, a question. When the girl couldn’t answer, the professor made a comment, saying, ‘You wouldn’t know; you’re from a Dalit background,’” Farukh said.

With the rising cases of suicides among students in elite institutions, questions about caste discrimination have been consistently raised. Farukh added that the caste system has always been a part and parcel of the IITs.

Institutional responses

Saurabh Tewari said that certain social factors are beyond the control of the IITs. “Multiple layers of caste exist nowadays. Technology illiteracy, the background of a person and finances are some of them. The sense of being excluded or the pervasive feeling of ‘not belonging here’ contributes to students developing an inferiority complex,” he added.

A report published on September 3 by the Board for Student Publication (BSP), a student-run media organisation at IIT Delhi, highlighted concerns about several student issues, including the unreliability of the grading system.

Naveen Kumar Singh, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at IIT Delhi, acknowledged the existence of such practices but emphasised the role of student participation in addressing them.

He explained, “At the IITs, grading practices vary because there are no standardised rules; it often depends on individual faculty members. However, it is a two-way system. At the end of each semester, students receive feedback forms. Unfortunately, most students do not complete these feedback forms, making it challenging for us to draw conclusive insights.”

Whether it is academic pressure, caste discrimination, an unreliable grading system, better job opportunities or numerous other factors contributing to the increasing dropouts, concerns from professors and students now encourage a call for a more student-centric approach.

Naveen sympathised with the challenges faced by students and gave an assurance that corrective steps are being taken to address these issues. “We receive a lot of feedback. Now, only one mid-term and end-term exam is conducted. We have also reduced the weightage. If a student is a part of some extracurricular activities, they get marks for that as well,” he added.

Students stated that entering the IITs with the hope of securing better jobs and opportunities, they often find themselves struggling with the competition they encounter inside.

Harsh Kumar Singh, a B.Tech student at IIT Delhi, said that while people know IITs as institutes with good placement records, they are often unaware that the journey within IITs is equally challenging.

Every IITian will agree that the journey is not easy. Surviving inside an IIT is more difficult than getting in. Outside, our competition is with regular people, but inside, our competition is with other IITians,” said Singh.

The way forward

Droupadi Murmu, the President of India, in the inaugural address at the Visitor’s Awards in July, expressed concern over the rising number of dropouts and suicide cases.

It should be the priority of educational institutions to protect and support their students against stress, humiliation, or neglect on their campuses. Just like the sensible and responsive head of a family, all the heads, teachers, and staff of institutions should be sensitive to the needs of the students. They are the guides as well as the parents of the students,” Murmu said.

A former student of IIT, now an expert of education policy, shared that steps are being taken by the government in this direction, “With the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 rolled out, government policy makers have done enough to help the students to develop their professional career from an early age.”

Other supporting mechanisms are also on paper, all we need is implementation at local teaching level to deliver the benefits of the policies to the students,” he said.

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