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Friday, May 6, 2011

Allow BTech Students to Graduate in Less Than 4 Years

Just read the ToI news about unfortunate death of a student of IIT Madras. Apparently he committed suicide because he would not have graduated in May but a few months later. He needed to do some more work on his project. He felt that he would lose his job, and the idea of staying back when a large fraction of his batchmates were graduating did not appeal to him.

The comments by the readers blame him squarely. It was just six more months. There are enough jobs for IITians.

There is no denying that graduating along with your batchmates and joining a job has become an extremely important goal for all students and the parents. Any indication that a student might not graduate in time introduces enormous stress, and every year, at the time of exams, one would find several bright young kids taking their own lives in different parts of the country.

How do we solve this problem. There are all sorts of suggestions on the readers' comments page. We must have professional counselors who would advise the students that six months is only a small fraction of the 50 year work life that they will enjoy. Even the professors should be trained to handle such students sensitively. The heads of the departments who are responsible to break this news to students must be trained to suitably advise the affected students. We must have Yoga or "Art of Living" as compulsory part of the curriculum. Basically, we must make sure that the student does not think of suicide when he comes to know that he has failed.

While all this must be done, there is an alternative, which might be easier to implement.

How about making sure that 80 percent of the batch does not graduate on a particular day. Or even 50 percent of the batch does not graduate on a single day.

Well, IITs have been offering the dual-degree (BTech and MTech together in 5 years) programs wherein the student does not graduate in the regular 4 years. They also have Integrated MSc programs. But that is not enough. A lot of people still graduate in 4 years.

We could ensure that less students graduate in 4 years, by offering more options to them: offer joint BTech-MBA programs, offer double majors (For example, BTech in Civil AND BTech in Mechanical), besides the BTech-MTech dual-degree programs. And then we advise the students that it is in their interest to go for this extra degree. But I suspect that this won't increase the number of students delaying their graduation significantly.

We should also introduce programs in which a student can have a break in studies after 4-5 semesters. He can work in industry or a research lab for a semester or two, get a wider world view, earn some money, and then get back to studies. These students would graduate later than 4 years. (At LNMIIT, we arranged some of the students to spend time at CERN, and other famous labs, doing cutting edge research.)

Another way to have less students graduate in 4 years is to fail a large number of students. But that would be rather mean.

So, we come to yet another (and my favorite) option to reduce the number of students graduating in 4 years - allow them to graduate in less than 4 years. It is high time that we shift to fully flexible credit based systems for all our degree programs. The graduation requirements should be in terms of credits that a student needs to earn, rather than the minimum number of semesters that he should have registered. (In my previous post, I had argued that if we move to credit based system, we would be able to offer an Executive MTech program, which is an urgent need of the industry.)

So students should be able to take an extra course (compared to the suggested program) in regular semester, and also do a course or two in the summer term. My expectation would be that there would be an odd student who would try to graduate in three years, but there would be 10-15 percent students would like to graduate in 7 semesters. Some more students would have done all course work, and would have left with only project work in the 8th semester, and they can graduate anytime during the semester.

So overall, we can have about 20 percent students graduate during or before 8th semester, another 20 percent students encouraged to go for dual-degree programs, and hence graduating after 9th semester or later, and about 10 percent students not graduating at the end of 8th semester due to failure in courses. All this combined would make sure that the number of students graduating at the end of 8th semester is only half the batch, or even less. And that would break the sanctity of a particular date of graduation in students' minds.

When that happens, graduation becomes a process and not a date, and a minor slip in that process will not be considered critical by the students and parents. Of course, industry also would have to become flexible in terms of its joining dates. But that is already happening. In most cases of a delayed graduation, industry is sympathetic and is able to adjust to the situation (at least in my experience at IIT Kanpur).

Of course, allowing early graduation also sends out a signal that we care about our top students. Currently, the feeling on campuses (at least amongst the faculty and the top students) is that all our time is spent on discussing how to help weak students. We must help weak students, but not by excluding good students from our thoughts and actions, altogether.

11 comments:

mcenley said...

Prof. Sanghi,

It's great reading your thoughts on the Indian education system and the innovative ways to tackle it. The suggestion of a credit based system is really good. I am aware of such systems existing in the US (at least for MS if not for BS) at various good universities. I don't see why this can't be extended to Indian universities.

L said...

This is not the first time this has happened. Recently, another student had ended his life since his MTech project was found to be inadequate for the third time(this is hearsay). If this is true, did the adviser not realise it early enough, or was the student not working hard enough inspite of being advised to do so?
There should be some method to make it clear to the student right at the beginning the exact nature and amount of work required for an acceptable project. Many students, specially those who did not do their BTech from IIT, may not realise until too late, that the project is serious.

abhaya said...

I couldn't agree more with you. I think rigidity is a bigger problem in our system then even the infra problems or lack of good faculty. It is not without reason that the amount of flexibility goes down rapidly as you go down the quality chain of the institutes.

jyoti said...

Sure a few are genius and can make it in less time. But It serves everyone that they are in campus for full 4 year term. They develop better social skills. And others get a more chance to acquaint to their highnesses.

kartik said...

Sir,
I have been following your blog for quite some time. Its nice to hear from you every time. You have given so many suggestions about how to improve the Indian higher education sector. But the question is will these suggestions be ever implemented ? The bigger picture is how to implement these suggestions. Why cant the so called Deemed universities take a step forward in this regard ?

WebMiner said...

Not convinced. So we set up the syllabus for which each student has to prove proficiency, and then let them self-pace everything. There will still be some minimal granularity for clearing students, at least a semester, but could also be a year because instructors often interlock 2-semester course sequences with prerequisites. By central tendency, "bell curve", or herding considerations, whatever you call it, a large fraction of students will graduate within 0--1 semesters of each other. This will return the straggling/struggling minority to exactly the same situation as is now. Remember, the student in the current incident was, from all accounts, more upset about not being able to join his job than not producing satisfactory work in his project or not completing Btech on time per se. Look, there is nothing greatly dysfunctional about a synchronized 8-semester undergrad program. In contrast, parents spending more on coaching than funding colleges, or their wards placing more importance on jobs than enjoying the learning process, are all social dysfunctions. There is no compulsion for IITs to try to compensate for societal or parenting dysfunctions outside its academic scope. In fact, such policies will create negative externalities and perverse incentives.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@kartik, Education is most tightly controlled sector of economy in India, and unless the regulators are open to change, things won't really move. I am in touch with some "private" universities, and they are concerned about the impact of doing so in terms of what UGC and AICTE will think. Realistically speaking, only IITs have so much autonomy in this country that they can try any new experiment and get away with it, even if it fails. And that is the reason, the rigidity of IIT system is so terrible for India.

But my hope is that expressing such views make some converts, and some of those converts may, one day, be in those committees and regulatory bodies, and will act a bit less conservatively.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Webminer, I think making graduation a process rather than a date would reduce stress amongst students. Whether it will reduce suicides or not, I don't know. Suicides are a very complex thing. No one commits suicide for a single reason or based on a single event. A single event can be a trigger, but there has to be a background.

Also, I didn't say that only IITs should do this. In fact, considering the rigidity of IITs, I would be surprised if they do. I am just hoping that regulatory bodies will become less conservative over time, and allow private universities to do such experiments.

Rainbow Scientist said...

Making graduation a process instead of a date is a good idea by itself, but will not solve the current problem of stress among students. These students are living in a pressure cooker created by society and parents where technical education is everything in life. Unless we change that and give respect to all other aspects of employment and enrichment, there not much hope.

Also, I think it's a good idea to provide counselling and support for students to release some pressure off them.

Professor R.Bhaskaran said...

With all the controversy about plans for scrapping IIT-JEE etc. I have a one stroke suggestion. IITs should scrap all its 4 year B.Tech., programmes ( 4 year B.S. for Science is okay) and instead make all engineering programmes with a minimum 5 year duration permitting each student to either take a dual UG degree ( major in two fields) or a dual degree B.Tech. and M.Tech. This will a)no one being bothered about the kind of admission test that IITs wish to have to admit their students, b) result in only truly motivated students seeking a technology degree for the sake of pursuing a career in technology to come in, c) more research output and publications from the IITs considering that most may opt for the dual B.Tech/M.Tech. degree.

Professor R.Bhaskaran said...

With all the controversy about plans for scrapping IIT-JEE etc. I have a one stroke suggestion. IITs should scrap all its 4 year B.Tech., programmes ( 4 year B.S. for Science is okay) and instead make all engineering programmes with a minimum 5 year duration permitting each student to either take a dual UG degree ( major in two fields) or a dual degree B.Tech. and M.Tech. This will a)no one being bothered about the kind of admission test that IITs wish to have to admit their students, b) result in only truly motivated students seeking a technology degree for the sake of pursuing a career in technology to come in, c) more research output and publications from the IITs considering that most may opt for the dual B.Tech/M.Tech. degree.