As I grew up in a lower middle class family in a small town, my fear of the XII exam was not because of the exam per se but because of the sheer paucity of opportunities thereafter. With only 1750 engineering seats in Tamilnadu of which nearly 70% of the seats were reserved, the dearth of options within the system was traumatic. The number of engineering seats may have dramatically increased in many states and IITs but gaining access to the top institutes where some decent education can be obtained is still difficult. I feel this is more emotionally draining to the student than the actual exam.
Even today, one can pay oneself for an undergraduate education in the USA rather than try to obtain admission in IIT. Of course, if one does not have the money (like the case of lower middle class families), it is not the aptitude of the student towards engineering, science, arts or commerce that decides the course of his/her action, but the need for jobs after graduation that decides what course one should take.
Though only 9% of the school children eventually reach class XII, it is a large number that needs to be satisfied. Irrespective of a single board exam at the end of class XII with or without scrapping the X exam, students will be judged based on the performance of a single exam. Though this exam could be taken multiple times, the final course a student takes will still be dependent on the opportunities to pursue education in a good college. The student knows that unless it is pursued in a reputed institute, there is no life after in terms of jobs or higher education. Thus, there should be a dramatic and significant change in the number of good colleges in all streams.
The setting up of several IITs and IISERs is thus a much needed step though the modalities of setting them up without infrastructure and faculty could be questioned. In this context, one can revisit the concept of foreign universities in India. Despite the competition and exclusiveness of the best in India getting into these institutions of elite, why do none of these institutes even appear in the top 100 rankings of the world's best? This is partly because we are comfortable comparing ourselves with the best in the country and this can partially attributed due to the government's protectionist policy in higher education.
Before the private banks ventured into banking, the state of public banks was pathetic with practically no concept of customer service. With the advent of private banks, the quality of public sector banks has significantly improved. Similarly, the quality of cellular service in India has improved with the advent of private players. Unless universities and even elite institutions like IITs face off against well-established universities abroad in India, they will not be able to raise their own standards of education.
In a recent article on higher education in India, How to get decent colleges in India, Somanathan, who is Professor and Head of the Planning Unit at Indian Statistical Institute says,
Our higher education system is under-performing in many ways. University education is rigid, outdated, under-funded and bureaucratised. Even the best institutions have problems. A partner in an IT firm and a professor of computer science independently told me that the quality of IIT students has got worse over the last two decades. They are burnt out by the time they get in because of the entrance exam. Students have to suffer years of incredibly stressful and mind-numbingly stupid exams and coaching to enter college.
We need to implement these two features of the American system. First, allocation of research grants in the sciences, engineering, health, the social sciences and humanities should be mainly by peer review. (The allocations themselves need to be massively increased, however.) Second, we should remove the regulation of university salaries and fees and other aspects of administration by the University Grants Commission (with one important exception spelled out below). Let universities pay what they like and charge what they like. This will force them to compete for the best researchers and teachers and this in turn will motivate teachers and researchers to do their jobs well. The improvement in academic atmosphere and salaries will attract better-qualified people into the profession, pulling back emigres and young people who would have gone into the private sector.
To protect the students who cannot afford high fees (and its own budget), the government can take the money it now pays directly to the universities to cover salaries and other costs and instead pay it out to low-income students as grants. Every student below a suitable cutoff level of family income (verified by tax information, car ownership, etc) can be given a fixed grant that can be used at any college. A poor student who cannot afford the higher fees at the best colleges can be given a loan for the necessary additional amount, to be recovered over the years through additional income taxes. This will ensure that even poor students that are funded by government grants will avoid colleges that are bad value-for-money. Rich students will pay for themselves rather than have the government pay for them as happens now. Many of them will be happier because they will get to go to better-funded and decent colleges in India rather than pay enormous amounts to go to America. And the poor will get greater access because the government money that now pays for rich as well as poor students will go exclusively to low-income students.