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Drawing flack: The convenor of computerised CAT

December 04, 2009 11:53 IST

This IIM-A professor has had to face the flak for the flawed execution of a great idea.

Satish Deodhar, 48, admits he hasn't been sleeping well in the last few days. And when his nine-year-old son wanted help with his homework, Deodhar was too preoccupied.

So he should be, as convenor of one of India's most competitive exams, the Common Admission Test (CAT), that thousands of students were unable to take this year.

The technical glitches that created problems for the country's first online CAT have done more than inconvenience students. They have also dented the image of the premier Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

The institutes were about to make history by converting the wildly popular CAT from a paper-and-pencil test into a computer-based test (CBT). But, then, a virus named 'Conficker' infested the test labs and centres and in a matter of 24 hours, Deodhar -- the man who should have had a large feather in his cap -- found himself in the eye of a storm.

After much dithering on their part, the IIMs finally admitted that 7,000 or 8,000 students were unable to take the test on the first three days of the 10-day exam owing to 'technical glitches', leaving the student community furious. Deodhar, who teaches economics at IIM Ahmedabad, had to face the flak but stood his ground, asking for patience with the transition, even as the IIMs face one of their worst crises ever.

It was during Deodhar's tenure as chairperson of admissions at IIM Ahmedabad in 2007-08 that the idea of a computer-based CAT was mooted. Among the first ones to study the feasibility of the change, Deodhar, who holds a PhD in agricultural economics from the Ohio State University, was instrumental in ensuring that the decision to do away with the paper-and-pencil test was passed unanimously by all the IIMs.

In his words, it was time to ditch the bullock cart and move on to a car so that the destination could be reached faster.

Deodhar's elevation as convenor of the first computer-based CAT was a unanimous decision by the IIMs' admission chairpersons. IIM-A's early initiation into the idea and his own successful 11-year tenure at IIM-A tilted the scales in his favour. He is a popular professor at the institute and a recipient of the Distinguished Young Professor Award for Excellence in Research at IIM-A in 2008 .

When he took over as the convenor of the first computer-based CAT in IIM history, Deodhar was quick to realise the implications. For the last few years, the number of applications has been well over 200,000 and the test is among the most-watched events in the academic community. In CAT 2008, 120 CAT-takers were vying for a single seat at the IIMs.

To ensure they hired the right contractor to carry out the tests, Deodhar and his staff put in place a robust bidding process in which factors like track record, efficiency, technology, security and long-term potential were considered. Reputed companies like the UK-based Pearson VUE which holds the GMAT, Bangalore-based Eduquity Ventures that hosts the entrance test for BITS, Pilani and Aptech's Attest division were reportedly in the fray for the multi-million dollar contract that ultimately went to Prometric.

As self-styled management gurus lash out at the IIMs' decision to hire Prometric, Deodhar has declared that the IIMs and Prometric are a team and so the success or the failure are collectively theirs. In Deodhar's mind, Prometric was hired because it was best suited for the job, a stand he maintains despite the chaos of the first four days.

The accusations against the IIMs have been piling up everyday but Deodhar says he is looking beyond. His priority now is to ensure that every candidate gets a shot at the exam. To refute claims that the IIMs went incommunicado since the debacle, Deodhar and his director at IIM Ahmedabad arranged a press conference with partners Prometric and NIIT. As a contingency measure, Deodhar had reserved a few buffer days if the ten-day period had to be extended, which could be used to accommodate the rescheduled candidates.

The one spot of hope for the IIMs has been that technical issues seem to be abating each day.

Deodhar accepts the criticism thrown at him and says that the goal is a long-term one; to make the CAT exam as accessible, secure and convenient as it could be. For this, Deodhar dreams of a system under which national institutes such as the IIMs and IITs could combine and create dedicated centres across the country just to conduct computer-based exams.

As Deodhar stands determined to douse the fire at home, he takes heart from the fact that, at the very least, a beginning has been made.

A self-confessed buff of Indian history, perhaps he could take a leaf out of former IIM-A director Bakul Dholakia's book after he emerged stronger despite the CAT paper leak which took place on his watch.

Archana M Prasanna
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