Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Civil Dreams: Lending Its Weight To India’s Steel Frame

The Residential Coaching Academy, set up by Jamia Millia Islamia university in 2010 to prepare candidates for the UPSC civil services examinations, is one of a kind in India. The free coaching institute, manned by the university’s faculty members, contrasts sharply with the coaching factories of Kota with its stellar record and teaching methodology
September 5, 2023
Civil Services
Despite facing a fund crunch, the Residential Coaching Academy at Jamia Millia Islamia University continues to deliver stellar results

When Neelesh Kumar walked through Gate Number 5 of the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university campus, it was his last hope of cracking the elite Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam for the selection of civil servants. The youth from Etawah in UP had taken a long and circuitous route to JMI via the infamous coaching factories of Kota, which are now more in the news for students dying by suicide rather than dominating the merit lists of competitive exams.

For Kumar, the free Residential Coaching Academy (RCA) with its striking glass facade run by JMI provided the environment and guidance that helped him get into the Allied Services category in 2023 through the UPSC exam. Now, he is striving to improve his rank so that he can fulfil his dream of getting into the elite All-India Civil Services.

But there is a tinge of regret in his voice for wasting almost ₹10 lakh of his parents’ hard-earned money. It was money they had earned by toiling all their lives as teachers in a government school in Etawah and it was spent to give wings to their son’s dream on the conveyor belt of Kota’s coaching factories.

“I heard about RCA when I was in final year in college,” says Kumar. “I have appeared in the UPSC entrance exam twice. I reached the interview stage in my first attempt but failed to make the cut. I made the cut on the second attempt and qualified for Allied Services. Now, I want to improve my rank so that I get into the Civil Services. I owe my success to RCA, because I spent three years preparing for the Joint Entrance Examination (for IITs) in various coaching institutes in Kota without any success. In the process, my parents ended up spending around ₹8 lakh to ₹10 lakh. I did not want to put any further burden on them, so I opted for RCA to prepare for UPSC, and it changed everything for me. RCA is an extraordinary institute.”

One would expect liberal government support for an institute of excellence that was specifically set up by Jamia Millia Islamia to prepare students from economically weaker sections, minority communities and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for the highly competitive UPSC examination which has shown an admirable success rate. Instead, the RCA has been facing a funds crunch for the past few years after the University Grants Commission (UGC) blocked a grant payout of ₹85 lakh per annum to Jamia Millia Islamia three years ago without citing a reason. The peeling paint on the external walls of the RCA contrasts with the glittering achievements of its former students who have been bolstering India’s steel frame for more than a decade.

Since its inception in 2010, 650 students who studied in the RCA have become bureaucrats—300 are serving in the All-India Civil Services and 350 in the Allied Services. The 2021 UPSC topper, Shruti Sharma, is an RCA alumnus, while another 23 students cleared the UPSC exam in 2022. This year, 24 RCA students qualified for the Civil and Allied Services. Kumar is among them, as an Assistant Commandant in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs).

“Running the institute has become very challenging,” says Prof. Abid Haleem, in charge of RCA, who is also head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Faculty of Engineering and Technology in JMI. “The UGC used to give an annual fund of ₹85 lakh, which stopped three years ago. The Ministry of Minority Affairs has also not given us any grant for the past six or seven years. The utilisation certificate of all the money received has been submitted as per the legal requirement, but we haven’t heard from them.”

Tatsat Chronicle sent a detailed questionnaire to Manish R. Joshi, secretary, UGC. His office confirmed receiving the email but hadn’t responded till the time of publishing this story. The story will be updated if and when the UGC responds.

The unique aspect of RCA, unlike the rapacious coaching institutes which charge astronomical amounts, is that it does not charge a tuition fee. Students pay only ₹2,500 a month for canteen expenses. Three meals are served to the residential students.

“We use our internal resources to run RCA,” says Haleem. “We run the institute with meagre resources. Also, the bulk of the faculty is drawn from the university, and are not paid. Like I am not paid for teaching and running the affairs of RCA. External faculty and the non-teaching staff are very nice people, and they work on low salaries. They see themselves as contributing to a greater cause.”

Students credit RCA’s unique teaching methodology for its success. While most coaching institutes rely on the lecture form of teaching, which emphasises rote learning, RCA has developed a more effective peer group learning methodology.

Every student in the academy is part of a peer group in which the students help one another. They work together on specific topics for a better conceptual understanding of the subject. The peer group helps the weaker students to improve their grasp of the subject through interactions outside the classroom.

The second important aspect of RCA is that the administration solicits constant feedback from the students about the faculty members. The students are encouraged to share their views frankly on how good a particular faculty member is. This feedback mechanism also helps the faculty members in understanding the areas they need to work on.

The third key ingredient in RCA’s success is the admission system. The admission test is online and transparent. Students who make the cut know that none of their peers have come through back channels. This implicit trust in the system helps in peer group learning.

“We have criteria in which only good students are going to get admission,” says Haleem. “He or she may be an SC/ST, maybe a Muslim, maybe a Sikh, but everyone has to clear the all-India entrance test for getting admission. We believe in diversity— diversity of religion, caste, creed, and gender. In that sense we pride ourselves as a pan-India institute.”

Both the entrance test and interview for successful candidates are conducted online. This is helpful for poor students or those hailing from underprivileged sections as they do not need to spend on travel to Delhi. It also helps students from distant parts of the country like the South or the Northeast.

RCA has its roots in a considered decision that was taken by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 to constitute a high-level committee (HLC) to look into the social, economic, and educational status of the minorities. The HLC, headed by the retired Justice Rajinder Sachar, submitted its report in 2006. One of its recommendations was inclusion of more minority community members in local bodies and the administrative system of India. “The Committee recommends that on the lines of initiatives taken by the Andhra Pradesh government, appropriate state-level laws can be enacted to ensure minority representation in local bodies. Each state implementing this provision may need to recognise both linguistic and religious minorities. This effort on the part of the government to enhance diversity in the local governance structures leading to the visible participation of minority communities would go a long way in building an atmosphere of trust and faith.”

It was then that the former vice-chancellor of JMI and retired IAS officer, Najeeb Jung, proposed the idea of setting up an institute like the RCA, for which the government granted a few crores as seed money. The rest is history.

The institute is a boon for students like Sajeed. His father is a marginal farmer from Champaran district in Bihar and his mother an Anganwadi worker. He completed B.Tech in mechanical engineering from IIT Ropar, but his dream was to become a civil servant. “The civil services was always in my mind. I got many job offers but I wanted to prepare for UPSC,” says Sajeed. “At one stage, I spent all my savings, but luckily, I cleared the entrance test for RCA, which gave me courage to take a leap of faith. Otherwise, I would have still pursued a career in engineering. I went up to the interview stage in 2021, and now I am preparing to give the UPSC exam another shot. There are so many like me in RCA.”   

Jasvinder Sidhu

Jasvinder Sidhu is a freelance investigative journalist who worked for newspapers like The Greater Kashmir, Amar Ujala and The Hindustan Times