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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What do I want from Railway Budget: Premium Tatkal Improvement

In one phrase, a better implementation of Premium Tatkal.


Ever since Railways have started Premium Tatkal, my requests to my friends in Railways for Emergency Quota has reduced substantially. But it is not good enough. The system can be improved substantially. In fact, when I look at the current system, it almost appears that perhaps someone wants it to fail so that they can go back to the earlier system of lottery (frankly, Tatkal is nothing but a lottery, and that too a very stressful and wasteful lottery).

Consider, Shramshakti Express between Kanpur and New Delhi. There is a quota of 5 premium tatkal seats from Kanpur to New Delhi but none from New Delhi to Kanpur. So I can go to New Delhi and just get stuck there (or return by Shatabdi in the next morning). This asymmetry is inexplicable when, in fact, there is no difference in the demand pattern in the two directions.

But the bigger problem is that they haven't understood demand and supply issues very well, and continue to look at the quota allocation from political angles. For example, the long established policy of Indian Railways has been that there is higher quota for end-to-end passengers than from intermediate stations. This was fine as long as the fare was a linear function of distance. But with the fare having no relationship with distance, the quota has to take into account other factors. Let us take an example of Lucknow Shatabdi. The entire Premium Tatkal quota in Executive class. The costliest ticket can be more than Rs. 4000 from Lucknow to New Delhi. For a train that takes 7 hours to New Delhi, and one has to sit through it, this is not a very attractive proposition when there are flights costing less and taking a fraction of time. As a result, not enough seats are sold. However, for someone in Kanpur, paying Rs. 4000 for the same seat is not as much of an issue, since the alternative is to take a taxi to Lucknow airport, spending an additional Rs. 1,500 and spending an additional two hours. Of course, one can book from Lucknow to New Delhi with boarding at Kanpur (and that is how I get my last minute tickets on Shatabdi), but not many know this trick. It would help Railways in selling more Premium Tatkal seats on this train, if they explicitly allow Kanpur to New Delhi reservations under Premium Tatkal (they can still charge the Lucknow to New Delhi fare).

Similar issues are there on any long distance train between two big cities. Between Delhi and Mumbai, the Premium Tatkal fare in AC-2T could be as high as Rs. 6,000, again costlier than air fare on most days. It would be better if they allowed more expensive fares for smaller towns on the way, which have zero quota of Premium Tatkal and no option of traveling by air. On the other hand, they could benchmark their tatkal fares with air fares between big cities to ensure that they do fill up their Premium Tatkal seats.

I am afraid if they don't put in a bit more intelligence in their dynamic fare computation, then one day someone will look at data, figure out that many premium seats are not being sold and decide to scrap the quota.

The other major problem with Premium Tatkal is that it is just one day in advance. A whole lot of people who would have otherwise been willing to pay a high fare do not wait till the last minute. In fact, when I travel, I want both my forward and return journey tickets to be confirmed before I leave home. So, if I have to travel at a short notice, I might check Premium Tatkal in the outgoing direction, but there is no possibility of checking Premium Tatkal in the return direction, and hence I may cancel my travel altogether, or book an air ticket in the return direction. Railways loses a passenger who is willing to pay a high fare.

I hope that they can start Tatkal and Premium Tatkal bookins three days in advance.

There are many other services that Railways can provide to those who can afford it. For example, if I am traveling from Jaipur to Kanpur via Delhi, I often keep a large margin between the connecting trains, or alternately, book two tickets from Delhi to Kanpur, one with just one hour margin, and the other with 3-4 hours margin, and lose 50% fare on one of the two tickets. Now the one that I cancel is not filled up by a waitlisted passenger, and is largely left to the TTE's discretion, not a very good situation. If Railways were to offer a service which will formally charge me not 50 percent but say 25 percent more than the regular fare, and it will know a bit in advance whether I am taking the first train or the second train, it can actually give that other seat to the waitlisted passenger. So it benefits Railways, and it benefits passengers.

A similar service will be to have an alliance with an airlines (or multiple airlines) and offer a multi-modal ticket with part of the journey by air and part of the journey by train. If I can buy a combined ticket to fly from Hyderabad to Delhi and then take a train to Kanpur, with the Railways guaranteeing that I will be given alternate berth (perhaps from Emergency Quota) if my flight is delayed, I would be happy to pay extra for such a service.

Further, I often want to travel by AC-1st, but since there is no availability, I book myself in AC-2T. Of course, there is a huge Emergency Quota and VIP quota and other quotas in AC-1st, and if I had continued to be on the wait list, I would have most probably got a berth in AC-1st. I should be able to tell Railways my preferences and if at the time of charting, there is a vacancy in AC-1st, I should be given that berth. When someone is willing to pay for an upgrade, why give it to someone else for free.

These and many other ideas will lead to better service to the higher paying passengers, and higher revenues for the Railways, a win-win situation. And with online ticketing on IRCTC, doing all these is actually quite simple. Then where is the problem. The problem is really in the mindset.

We are not an inclusive society. And Railways is not an inclusive organization. It assumes that it is only for the poor. Railways has to include the rich in its thoughts. Railways must not be only for the poor, but it should also be for the rich.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Dealing with Unfair Means

Recently, I wrote a blog about the rampant use of unfair means in our universities and how this is destroying the sanctity of our exams, grades, diplomas and degrees. Naturally, several suggestions came on how to deal with the situation. And frankly, I am shocked. Most of the suggestions are based on the logic that if someone steals 1000 rupees, and get caught, we should ask him/her to return 1000 rupees.

What should be the logic of penalty. To me, the logic is rather simple. On an average, cheating should not be a profitable business. It should be understood that some instances of using unfair means will be caught and others will not be caught. Amongst those that are caught, in some cases, the evidence would be considered weak, and so on. Only a few will be caught with hard evidence, and if a university were to give them no punishment at all, then cheating becomes a profitable business.

A pretty large number of faculty members would do nothing to check use of unfair means in the exams, and would never be able to tell whether someone has cheated. I am not bothered about them. If they want that no one should learn from their courses, that is their problem. (I can not be expected to raise all the problems of Indian academia in this blog.) My problem with such people starts when they sit in disciplinary committees, and want others too to ignore cheating. When a solid evidence of cheating is presented to them, they start pontificating on how everyone deserves a second, third, fourth chances in life. For God's sake, no one is talking about taking away their lives for cheating. And they will have second, third and fourth chances in life, even if some penalty is imposed on them now.

Some people say that they give a zero in the questions that they are sure have been copied. It is a shame that we have such people as faculty members, is all I would say. They do not even understand that they are strongly encouraging cheating by students. The first group was supporting cheating because they had a bleeding heart. This group is supporting cheating because they have no brains. I would any day prefer someone with a bleeding heart over a braindead person.

Then we had a faculty member tell me proudly that he gives not just a zero but a few negative marks as well. Now, just think about it. A student copies 3-4 questions. The instructor is able to confirm one or two questions, and the negative marks are less than the marks obtained in the other two questions. So even this student who has been caught benefits from cheating. And, of course, all those who are not caught, benefit hugely from cheating.

Another method employed was to give one grade less. So the faculty member would grade the whole paper as if nothing had happened. They will decide the grade in the normal way, and while submitting the grades to the academic section, reduce the grade by one. Now, think about it. If that student had not copied all those questions, and had not been able to obtain marks in those questions (and you don't know whether it was just one question or 10 questions), the chances are that s/he would have been given one grade less on the basis of performance anyway. So once again, you are talking about same status as without cheating, if s/he gets caught. And all those who do not get caught benefit. Overall, cheating wins.

The next method employed was to ask the student to drop the course. In IIT Kanpur, we allow students to drop courses till 3rd month of the semester, and hence if anyone is caught cheating in the first three months, the simple thing to do is to drop the course. Now, of course, students plan well. If someone is habitual cheater, s/he would register for one course extra in the semester. If s/he is unlucky and does get caught in one of those courses, just drop that course and move on in life. It is really no punishment at all, because in any case the student was planning to drop one course.

Then, we have the "harsh" kinds who would fail the student in the course. Whether this punishment is sufficient or not (from the point of view of ensuring that cheating does not pay on an average) will really depend on what do you believe is the extent of cheating and what fraction of students are getting caught. If we have a great system and a fairly large number of students who cheat tend to get caught, then giving them an "F" grade would at least making sure that cheating does not pay. However, ask any student and you will know that a very tiny fraction of students actually are caught. Also, when we say that cheating should not pay, we are really not looking at a system where the net return is zero, but we should be looking for a system where the net return is significantly negative. Considering these two, it is clear to me that just failing the student is not enough. (I fail such students in my course, because that is the maximum I can do as an instructor, and IIT Kanpur has an extremely poor track record of punishing unethical behavior.)

So the minimum punishment for an act of cheating should be removing the student from the rolls for a semester. (This effectively amounts to failing a full semester load of courses, though such a failure is not recorded in the transcript, and hence increases the cost of cheating.) And if someone has been a repeat offender, or someone who has done cheating through means which are more difficult to catch, the punishment has to be much stronger, perhaps leading to the termination of the program altogether and rusticating the student from the university.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Impact of Unfair Means in Exams

That the marks (or CGPA or as we call it at IIT Kanpur, CPI) are only an approximate indicator of a very narrow aspect of education is known to all educators. Narrow, because we are only looking at academic performance and that too in an exam setting. It is not a measure of broader definition of education, which should include co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. It is not a measure of important skills like leadership, communication, and so on, which are important for future success. And approximate indicator because those marks and grades depend on many factors - did the student chose only those electives where the grades are normally easy or were the courses chosen based on interest, did the student do 6 courses a semester and tried to finish the BTech program in 7 semesters, or did the student do 5 courses a semester and took 8 semesters to complete. Also, luck factors in exam. While the luck of having those questions asked which you just studied before the exam will get even out over a large number of courses, but the bad luck of being ill just before the exam or something causing stress can cause lower marks/grades.

Because of all this, I used to believe that even in the narrow interpretation of academics, two students with close enough CPI should not be necessarily distinguished. And my own belief (not based on any scientific study) was that all those factors can cause a difference of about 0.5 in CPI. So, if I see a student with a CPI of 8.0 (out of 10.0), I would like to really believe that his true academic merit (in a narrow sense) would be somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5. Not any more.

Over the last many years, I have consistently found any where between 5 and 10 percent students copying in the exam in my course. Of course, I am quite a tough guy on ethics, and I have an elaborate procedure to catch copying. I asked my TA to note down the seat number of every student in the exam. I then arrange the exam answer-books in the order of seats, so that two students who sat next to each other in the exam, their answers will be checked together. I then check one question for all students, and then the next and so on. And sure enough I catch many students with identical uncommon errors. This number has been between 5 and 10 percent in each course. (There are some more whom I would suspect, but if I don't think I can convince a third party with those answers, I end up taking no action on that.)

Last semester, I decided to figure out how many people use unfair means in my exams. I had completed grading of end-semester exam, and there were 3 pairs (6 students) whose copying was obvious, and there were 3 pairs in which case, I was suspicious, but the proof did not seem strong enough. I sent an email to all students of my course giving them an option to either admit that they have copied in the final exam, in which case I would give them 0 marks in the questions that they have copied and give them one grade less after that (so potentially, it could be two grades less). On the other hand, if they did not admit, and I had them on my list, they will get an "F" grade.

5 pairs admitted, two pairs from the first group, two pairs from the second group, and one pair who was not even in the suspicion list. I called the pair from the first list who had not admitted, and showed them their answerbooks, and they finally agreed to have copied (but both of them were given F grades). So we had 6 pairs involved in copying in my course. (Actually, in one case, one student convinced me that he copied from the other without his knowledge. So 11 students were involved in using unfair means.)

11 out of 75. That is 15 percent. Do I believe that everyone admitted. Of course, not. Notice two students even in the first category did not admit (but they are included in 11). And I am not counting in 11, two students whom I strongly suspect, but still gave them benefit of doubt, since they did not admit. Do I believe that no one else copied in the mid-semester exam. Of course, not. So my guess is that about 20 percent students used unfair means in my course in the two exams alone. There is no way we can guess the number in assignments and project.

Now, I have a reputation of being extremely tough with unethical behavior. The "sources" in hostels tell me that many students are afraid of copying in my course. I also try to be very active during the invigilation. I will keep taking round and ask any student to move to a different seat if I have slightest suspicion of their collaboration. All this make me believe that the number of students who use unfair means in other courses is much higher than 20 percent. It is estimated that the number of students who copy in programming lab course, for example, is around 40 percent.

Let us assume that on an average 25-30 percent students use unfair means in some aspect of the course or the other. It is, I believe, fair to assume that these students are willing to copy since they think they are on the borderline of the two grades, and copying just might push them to the higher grade. If even 10 percent of them got pushed to the next higher grade (and an equivalent number of honest students remained behind due to relative grading), that would have a huge impact on CPI/CGPA of the two groups as well. If we take this into account then CPI of an honest student versus a dishonest student with similar academic preparation could be substantially different, of the order of 1.0.

So, now, when I look at a student with a CPI of 8.0 and not knowing whether s/he is honest or not, I would have to assume that his/her academic preparation could be similar to one with a CPI of 6.5 on one hand, and 9.5 on the other. With this kind of variance, the CPI has lost whatever little value it had in at least that narrow aspect of judging academic performance.

With this kind of variance, we are only discouraging the honest students (who still appear to be in majority despite the huge temptation and the unfairness of the system to honest students) and encouraging the cheats. Notice that higher CPI is a ticket for higher education, better placement, many scholarships, many awards, and so on. If CPI has no meaning, we must find out alternative ways of selecting students for admission to higher degrees, scholarships, and awards.

If this is the state in IIT Kanpur, one of the premier institutes, where we still take teaching rather seriously, I don't even want to imagine the situation in colleges where it is in the short-term interest of the college to have better marks/grades of their students.

The status of our university/institutional performance metrics is the main reason why we need even more exams later on. It is not just that we can't compare academic performance of two universities and hence we need GATE as an equalizer, but we can't even trust the reported performance of the students and hence we need GATE. This is what is making us a society where we have exams for everything, but that is making things only worse, since learning how to cheat is beneficial in the society with too many exams.

Our universities must tackle this problem urgently or risk losing all relevance in the society.