September 29, 2011

Rating the Indian Ratings game

For those of you who may not yet know, a Common Entrance Examination has been conducted for Indian ratings recently. This, along with a physical test, will henceforth be mandatory for all Indian ratings who will then be guided, according to their preference, to the many approved training institutes across the country. Additionally, The Board of  Examinations for Seafarers Trust will continue the old exit exam system. It will examine ratings- academically, practically and orally- after their six months training is complete; only those that score sixty percent and above at the exit exams will be declared qualified. The BES has changed the format of the exit exams- starting December, part of these will be now computer based.

Prior to this new system, the selection process for ratings varied at institutes across India. At one- and this may not be typical- where I am directly involved in selection, candidates took at least two- sometimes three- written exams, followed by an interview. The idea was to test Basic English and general academic skills (both written and spoken), aptitude and general suitability for life at sea. I do believe we did a fairly decent job, and, although we are one of just two institutes in the country that can claim a hundred percent BES exit-exam result for the last three consecutive batches of trainees, almost all institutes in the country regularly produce a higher than ninety percent pass-out figure. Judging by just one yardstick- exit exam results-, most institutes did all right.

Which is not to say that the system did not suck and does not suck even today- it is plagued with touts, close to zero post-training berths (unless bribes are paid) and many institutes do not follow infrastructure and faculty guidelines put out by the Directorate General of Shipping. However, I do believe that training institutes- in their own self-interest- took at least the rating selection process quite seriously. After all, their name- and future marketability of their courses- was at stake. 

I am actually against CET exams for ratings on principle, although I acknowledge that the attempt at standardisation, raising standards and the elimination of touts from the game are three worthy desirable reasons for their promulgation. Touts have not disappeared though, at least not yet, and I guess it will take more than a CET to make that happen. Anyhow, my disagreement with the CET has to do with two factors: One, a CET is the ideal solution when the number of interested entrants exceeds the number of training seats by the thousands- not the case here. Second, a CET seems superfluous when a common exit examination- conducted by the same BES- is less than six months away.
That said, I will grant that the BES and the DGS are trying to improve the system, and, disagreements aside, I am quite willing to be an eager participant in the new CET and exit exam regime. I also grant that it is early days yet; just one CET has been conducted, results are yet to be announced and placements at institutes are still to be made for the January session. The jury is still out.

 Some things are known, though, and I believe a much closer spotlight needs to be focused on many factors if we are actually going to improve the system and not just add another layer of testing to it- the latter will just discourage intake without doing anything useful.  

Before I go further, there are a huge elephant in the room that must be acknowledged- the training berths issue. I will just say in passing- because this is not within the ambit of this piece - that a time will soon come when we will have to examine a regime of 'training only for sponsored candidates' - and vigorously prosecute those that take bribes for 'placement' or sponsorship. Enough said. Many will be up in arms at the mere airing of such ideas. 

Some other smaller elephants- with both the CET and the 'thereafter'- need immediate attention:

  • Going by the sample question paper put up on the BES website, I am afraid there seems to be extreme optimism about the calibre of entrants that will take the CET. I can tell you from experience that many will have very poor English language skills and that their arithmetic skills (leave alone physics, chemistry, algebra or trigonometry) will be almost non-existent. Many struggle to understand a simple sentence from the BES textbook when we start with them. So, the following level of questioning- examples from the same CET sample paper- is way above their heads: a) The direction of the magnetic field around a straight conductor carrying current is given by……………; b) Write down chemical equations for metal reacting with hydrochloric acid; c) The curved surface area of a circular pillar is 528 square metre and its volume is 2772 cubic metre. The height of the pillar is... and d) If Tan A = 2 then find the values of all trigonometric ratios of angle A. 
  • Connected, a much greater appreciation of the backgrounds, educational levels and English language skills of a typical rating entrant is essential at all levels in the system. This is particularly relevant when we talk of many who come from semi-urban or rural backgrounds, including farmers, small shopkeepers, children of fishermen- and many others from low-income groups.
  • At least some logistical and administrative issues have been reported with the first CET. No doubt these will be improved, but admit cards for examinations not being received by candidates and cancellation of some declared examination centres has created considerable confusion. This kind of stuff, along with too difficult a level of the entrance exam, will result in disinterest or people simply choosing not to appear at the CET. This may be ok at the IIM or IIT entrance exams, where multitudes are keenly interested, but shipping simply cannot afford to turn away interested youngsters today.
  • We need clarity about on what will happen if enough candidates do not turn up or qualify at the CET (enough to fill the approved number of seats across the country, i.e.). I hope we do not go the management quota way if this happens; that dilutes the very purpose of a CET and opens a Pandora's Box for future batches. (No need to appear at the CET, some institutes will then say. We will take you in the management quota later). 
  • A hard re-look at the Pre-Sea training syllabus is needed. The recent addition of a few chapters on the 'seamanship' side, combined with a greater depth in some engineering topics, has resulted in the course becoming even more intensive, especially since one has to go beyond the syllabus to make teaching holistic, practical, connected and understandable. In this connection, I do believe that many engineering topics need to be made simpler, with less technical depth. We are not graduating fifth engineers. Similarly, I do not believe a Pre-sea rating needs to work out compass errors, understand cross bearings or study the Rules of the Road even cursorily. We have to pitch the syllabus with an appreciation of the fact that although the depth of many topics may appear superficial to us, each new heading is a completely alien concept- to a person who still has not stepped aboard his first ship- and adds considerably to unnecessary academic pressure. I can assure you that he will not need to know anything about magnetic compass errors for many years. We have to be much more selective in what they are required to know today- and to what depth.

At the end, it is worth repeating that any attempts to improve the educational or selection system for ratings in India will come to nought unless there are jobs for graduates after they complete Pre-Sea training. If we don't do that, then the rest of the game will remain an exercise in futility. For there is no point in producing a better calibre of rating only to swell the ranks of the jobless. The CET, the training and the exit examinations together form, at best, the wafer- or the waffle- that makes the base of the pudding. 

Without the ice cream- that is post Pre-Sea training berths- the wafer will remain insipid forever. 

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