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Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Multiple Entrance Exams

Directors of IITs are apparently extremely concerned that students in India have to give a large number of tests for admission to engineering colleges, and want to reduce that to one test. This, it is claimed, will reduce stress in the society.

Has anyone asked a question, why students in India have to give a large number of tests. If someone has, then I have missed it in the various reports. Let me clarify the question. We have AIEEE as the "national" level exam for admission to a large number of centrally funded institutions, several deemed universities, many private universities, etc. States, typically, have either their own state level test, or they depend on AIEEE to give a state-level rank as well. Let us assume that most students have to give a state level test as well.

Now, consider a student who has given these two tests. Why should s/he give a third test. Of course, the naive answer is that there are so many universities (including IITs) who have their own admission tests, and if a student wants admission to any of them, then the student has to give the test for that university. Fair enough. But, when I am in the admission market, what am I looking at. Basically, I want to get admission in a university which is the best I can get into based on my "credentials," and sometimes the best is not a clear choice, and I may have some geographical preference, and sometimes I may just fancy a place. If the best that I think I should try for is not equivalent to any university that AIEEE or state level exam is going to give me admission into, then I have to give the admission test of that university. This explains why a lot of people would want to give IIT JEE. The perception (and in my opinion, the reality too) is that IITs are better than any place where one could get admission through AIEEE, and hence one needs to give IIT JEE.

But when we talk about students give 10+ tests, many of those tests are for universities which are similarly placed in terms of their quality, reputation, etc. Why do students give multiple tests for similar quality  universities. If I have already given AIEEE and a state-level exam, why do I give tests for those universities which are similar in quality compared to those who admit through AIEEE or state level exam. Again, there may be some specific geographic preference, or a fancy for a particular place. But why 10+ exams.

The reason is that all our exams are one-time exams and a small problem, a slight headache can cause serious reduction in performance. So you want to hedge your bets. If you did not perform in one exam, you should not have to waste one year. If we could somehow bring in a system where I could give AIEEE once, get a score, and if the score is poor, give it again, get another score, and if it is still poor, give it the third time, and the best of the three scores will be used for admission. Immediately, the need for multiple admission tests go away. And when these private universities see that they are missing students, they will start admitting AIEEE students.

So, instead of mandating that there be a single exam (which can be and will be challenged in court, after all, wasn't AIEEE supposed to be that single exam), create conditions that students don't have to give multiple exams.

But for doing this, one will have to follow international best practices. Globally, admission is done during the 12th class (or the highest class of the school) and not after. The admission is provisional subject to you passing the school leaving exam. But we want to do all admission processing - from admission test to counseling to final admission within a 3-month window. And this, the Directors and other administrators believe is sacrosanct. Why is this 3-month window sacrosanct?

Now that a magic formula for normalization has been discovered, it should be trivial to conduct a simpler admission test throughout the year which students can give after 11th class, and admission decision be taken based on those scores subject to specified performance in the school leaving exam.

I am reminded of another government program which is now about 50 year old too - the family planning stuff. For a long time, they focused on delayed marriage, telling the virtues of smaller family, making available contraceptives easily and cheaply, and so on. And then in the 80s, several reports pointed out that all this will have miniscule impact. They explained why focus on health, education and gender equality will have a much bigger impact. India changed the focus of its family planning and the fertility rates have come down substantially in this period. (They still are high because the delivery of health and education services have not improve to the desirable levels.)

In the same sense, the government (with the help of IIT Directors) is solving the problem in the wrong way. One shouldn't mandate that all tests be scrapped, but create conditions that multiple tests of same kind don't help anyone.

There is another reason why students give a few specific exams (does not hold true for all admission tests). A few universities have an admission test which is very different from the traditional PCM test, with equal weight to three subjects. For example, the admissions tests for BITS, Pilani and IIIT, Delhi are very different. Now, a student may believe that s/he has higher chance of succeeding there because there is a better match between his/her skills/knowledge and what the exam is testing.

In the new scheme of things, such innovations and different ways of admitting students will be killed

In the proposed model of admission, if a science institute wants to consider biology for admission, IIT Directors won't allow this. After all, IITs admit students to Bio related programs using PCM only, so why can't all science institutes admit their students using PCM only. (And I have heard the argument: In one of the recent meetings, one of the IISER Directors was called. He did not show up, nor did he send any comments about Ramasami Committee report. So because of his "mistake," all science institutes in the country now have to admit students using PCM marks only.)

On the other hand, if a university decides that for admission to a computer applications program, they don't want to test Chemistry, but give more focus on Physics and Maths, they can't do this. The scores of ISEET (Indian Science and Engineering Entrance Test) will be sacrosanct. You can only play around with the weights of three components - 12th class board marks, aptitude score, and PCM score. Within each score, you don't have any flexibility.

Today, in the country, mediocrity has become a much bigger virtue than excellence, since mediocrity is misunderstood as equality, and excellence is misunderstood as discrimination. And instead of leading the society, IIT Directors (as part of IIT Council) have decided to follow the society.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Legal Problems in Changing JEE

There have been a lot of debate in the newspapers as well as on my blog (1, 2, 3) on the Ramasami Committee report, the desirability of considering board performance in engineering admission, and the problems of the boards, etc. One aspect that has not been considered is the legal process that needs to be followed for bringing about any change in the system. Who has the authority to decide that there will be no JEE tomorrow.

Let us start from the Institutes of Technology Act, which forms the legal basis for setting up IITs. Relevant parts of the Act, which deal with admissions are reproduced below (thanks to my colleague Neeraj Misra for pointing this out):

28. Subject to the provisions of this Act and the Statutes. The Ordinances of each Institute may provide for all or any of the following matters, namely:-
 (a) the admission of the students to the Institute;

(1) Save as otherwise provided in this section, Ordinances shall made by the Senate.
(2) All Ordinances made by the Senate shall have effect from such date as it may direct, but every Ordinance so made shall be submitted, as soon as may be, to the Board and shall be considered by the Board at its next succeeding meeting.
(3) The Board shall have power by resolution to modify or cancel any such Ordinance and such Ordinance shall from the date of such resolution stand modified accordingly or cancelled, as the case may be.

(1) It shall be the general duty of the Council to co-ordinate the activities of all the institutes.
(2) Without prejudice to the provisions of sub-section (1), the Council shall perform the following functions, namely:- Functions of Council 
(a) to advise on matters relating to the duration of the courses, the degrees and other academic distinctions to be conferred by the Institutes, admission standards and other academic matters.
Reading the Act, it is amply clear that admission to IITs has to be done as per their respective ordinances, and that ordinances can only be made by their respective Senates (with some power to their respective Boards to modify and cancel any proposed ordinance).

Now, let us look at the Ordinances of IIT Kanpur (and I would assume that other IITs would have taken a similar decision for admission to under-graduate programs). The Ordinance 3.2 says:

3.2 The Admission of Indian Nationals to the B. Tech., B. Tech.-M. Tech. (Dual Degree) and M.Sc. (Integrated) Programmes shall be made once a year on the basis of the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted jointly by all the IITs.

The Ordinance is very clear how the admission has to take place. As far as spirit of the Act is concerned, any significant change in JEE should be first approved by Senates of all seven IITs, but that spirit was lost long time ago. As far as the letter of the Act is concerned, changes to admission process can be done by those conducting and managing JEE (that is Directors, Chairpersons and Vice Chairs of JEE), but only as long as the exam name remains Joint Entrance Examination, and it is conducted jointly by all the IITs.

In the proposed set up, the examination name is being changed to ISEET (Indian Science-Engineering Entrance Test), and its conduct will be the responsibility of an external body. How would this stand a legal challenge. If any stake holder, any student, any potential student, any parent, were to challenge such a decision (as and when it is announced) in any High Court of the country, getting a stay should be possible. And since ISEET would be discriminating against those who are giving board exams in 2012, it really should not be too difficult to at least get a stay order (though I must admit that I am not a legal expert).

The way IIT Council has operated so far, it is not just assuming the power of Senates of seven IITs, it also seems to believe that it has the power to decide admission policies for all other colleges and universities in the country. It has no problem in deciding that admissions to all engineering colleges should be on the basis of ISEET and board marks. Why is IIT Council discussing admissions in NITs, IISERs, IIITs, and other places. Does it believe that it has the legal mandate and that those systems can't think for themselves. Interestingly, the minutes issued by the Ministry for the September 2011 meeting initially said,

"the Council appreciated efforts and accepted the broad principles indicated in the report. It asked Dr. Ramasami to submit the final report, which was to be placed before CABE and State Education Ministers for a final decision."

 The revised minutes for the meeting say,

"the Council decided that for admission to undergraduate programmes in Science and Engineering weightage be given to the marks obtained by the students in class XIIth board examination after scientific statistical normalization. It was also decided that the report, which has been accepted by the IIT Council would also be placed before the CABE and State Education Ministers so that the new system could be put in place by the academic session 2013-14."

It is extremely interesting that IIT Council accepts a report which is not even submitted at that time. Someone also decided between the initial minutes and the revised minutes that IIT Council indeed had the power to force this way of admissions on everyone, and they don't need to talk to State Education Ministers for a final decision.

People who reach at the top should be humble. Unfortunately the minutes of the IIT Council do not express that humility.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Where I Disagree with JEE Change Proposal?

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague on the proposed changes to the admission process of IITs (and other Centrally Funded Technical Institutes).

He asked me several pointed questions, and that helped me in really thinking through all options and figure out what is a major problem and what is a minor problem in the whole story (in my opinion - your mileage may vary).

The first question was, how I feel about including a test on aptitude in the admission process. I certainly feel positive about it.

The second question was, would it be alright if NITs, other CFTIs, and may be other colleges and universities start using JEE performance for admission. I see a small issue with this. If everybody starts using this performance, the the number of candidates become 10-15 lakhs, and it will have to be outsourced. May be there will be pressures from other stake holders to changes the exam in ways that we don't like. But, then these are minor issues. Any one anyway has a right to use the performance of a public exam in any way they deem fit. So we can't stop it anyway. And IIMs have shown that even though CAT is used by many and it is given by large number of students, they maintain complete control over its content. So, even if IITs have to outsource JEE, they can still retain adequate control.

The third question was, whether it was alright for a professional body like ETS to conduct the exam. Well, the answer is yes, if they are only going to conduct the exam, but if they determine the syllabus, they determine the pattern and style of the exam, they determine the level of difficulty, then there will be concerns. Over the last several years, many changes have been brought in in the conduct of JEE. Many of those changes were not because of the wider discussions at IITs, and were not very positive. In fact, the complaint has been that IITs are not proactive in making changes. But a body independent of IITs will really not be independent. It would be far easier for the MInistry to force changes in the admission process through this so-called independent body. So, we are going from a system of resisting changes to a system where ministry and not academicians will decide the changes. Does not seem like an improvement.

The fourth question was, do I believe that current JEE has negative impact on school education and a way has to be found to encourage school education. Yes, I do. Current JEE has contributed to lowering the quality of education in schools.

Then, am I not agreeing with everything that the new plan is doing or trying to achieve.

Sorry, no. The devil is in the detail. I strongly believe that there are alternate ways of encouraging school education. Considering the normalized board marks (assuming that the committee has found a good-enough formula for normalization) for eligibility would have an equally strong impact on school education, without adding to the stress of the students. By considering school marks in such a cut-throat competition, they are increasing stress, and incentivising unfair practices in the board exams, and it is next to impossible to bring down the unfair practices when there are 25-30 lakh candidates giving 5-10 tests each. What is more, there is nothing one gains by including 12th class marks in the admission process. The goal is to ensure that students preparing for admission to IITs (and other fine institutions) should take school education seriously. This will be achieved by having the 12th class marks as eligibility criteria, without the negative side effects.

Further, the proposal does not talk about the biggest problem of all: stress due to an exam on a single day. The ISEET exam is proposed to be conducted twice a year, but nothing has been said whether a student is allowed to give it both the times and show only the higher performance to the admissions committee. Even if it does, we need to go further and have this exam through out the year.

Third, it does not consider the problems of conducting a large test.securely. The problem that we find with board exams will slowly creep into any large test. One way to control the problem was to have 2-stage selection process. This made sure that even if someone could get through to the second stage by unfair means, the security in the second stage would be so tight that it won't be able to use unfair means at that time. If having the first stage in December was a problem, then the solution was not to cancel it, but to hold it earlier, may be even six additional months in advance (and indeed hold it multiple times, with option to repeat them).

Fourth, I see the process wrong and giving rise to suspicions. In the past, so many people have given so many suggestions from within the IIT system as well as from outside, and what do Directors do - dump those suggestions, citing ministry pressures, or some other "practical" problems. Now suddenly many of them are on an overdrive in supporting a proposal which is opposed by most stake holders. As Abi would say, does not pass the smell test.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Questions on JEE Changes?

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post on whether JEE was going away. I was reading about it in the media, and had not found anything on Ministry's website. But now, it is confirmed that there was indeed a meeting held in January, in which a small group of Directors met the Minister, Dr. Ramasami, a few ministry officials, etc., and in-principle agreed to hold another national level exam, Indian-Sceince-Engineering-Eligibility-Test (ISEET), which along with the board marks will become basis for admission to IITs, NITs, and other centrally funded technical institutes (CFTIs).

What is worrisome about this plan is that not only the stake holders know anything about the test and how board marks will be normalized, even this group does not know how this will be done. So, a decision has been taken to normalize board marks and a deadline has been decided to implement this, without knowing how that normalization will take place. Apparently, there is some proposal in Ramasami report, which it is hoped will be found to work with all boards, etc. But why not make this formula public, and let experts and stake holders also check if this will have any problems. Why this secrecy, secrecy, secrecy di?

It is hoped that the testing of the formula in cooperation with all the boards of the country will be completed by April. But what if the testing reveals a flaw. The students who have been preparing for JEE 2013 will be told in February about the changed system, and again in April that sorry, we are going back to the old system. Why can't the decision wait till that so-called formula has been tested. Why can't it be implemented from 2014. Why this urgency, urgency, urgency di?

There is a hope that all boards will agree to announce their results by beginning of June. Why make a major change in the hope that everything will work out fine. Why not have a dry run this year, ask all the boards to announce the results by 1st June, and see if they actually deliver on their promise. What will happen next year, if a board announces the results after 15th June. How will IITs complete their counseling, and two or three rounds of admission process, within a month. Currently, we complete our admission process in about 7-8 weeks, after JEE result is declared. Remember, the boards are currently required to announce the results only by 30th June.

It is understood that the current system is not working well, and there is a need to encourage students to perform in schools. But, nowhere in the debate, is one mentioning whether there are alternate mechanisms of encouraging performance in schools. For example, many of the stake holders have often argued that school performance should be used as a minimum cut-off. That 60 percent requirement for IIT admission is ridiculous. The only reason for not increasing 60 percent is how to normalize performance across the boards. But, well, if there is a good enough normalization algorithm that these wise men have come up with, and this is so great a mechanism that it can be used as a weight in the admission process, then certainly it is good enough to be used as a cut-off for eligibility.

And using the board marks for eligibility has a significant advantage. Many people have talked about cheating in the board exams. If the marks are used only for eligibility, the incentive for cheating is less, and cheating by even several thousand students does not change eligibility of an honest student. But if the marks are directly going to be used for admission, then every single student who gets high marks based on cheating is affecting the career of a large number of honest students.

The other problem that this exercise is trying to solve is the stress due to multiple exams. But what the wise men have not been able to figure out is that with this change, they are actually making more exams count. Every mark in every subject test of the board exams now count. So are we increasing the number of exams that count, or decreasing the number ?

I find the response of one of the colleagues interesting. We should probably not worry about under-graduate education any more, and put our efforts in improving graduate education, where the interference of the government is less. We should work with the industry to make sure that they prefer our MTechs, and let under-graduate education be a volume game, no worries about quality. Students who are really serious should do an MTech. But then we will only be inviting political interference in our graduate programs.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Telecom Licenses Cancelled

This post is only about remembering the past, and no ideas or opinions are presented here.

Yesterday, Supreme Court decided that all 122 telecom licenses issued by the government after Jan 2008 should be terminated as it found the process illegal. It was an unexpected decision. Many experts were of the opinion that collectively, these 122 networks were too big to be allowed to fail, a customer base of about 70 million, and an investment of more than 5 billion dollars. So, even if the process was illegal, the courts may find a way to penalize the licensees (like asking them to pay a much higher price of the license). But that was not to be. I am sure we haven't seen the end-game yet. The telecom companies will definitely seek a review by a larger bench.

About 10 years ago, a similar case was being fought in TDSAT. Reliance Infocom had been charged with violation of license conditions. They were effectively offering mobile service with the basic service license, which allowed something called, "limited mobility." The problem was that this case had caused an uncertainty in the market, and the fresh investments in the telecom sector were difficult to come by. The telecom industry was not growing at the pace it was expected to or should have. Everyone wanted this case to be disposed off quickly.

I recall that IIT Madras had organized a workshop around 1st February, 2003, as part of National Communications Conference, titled, "201 million connections by 2010." The workshop goal was to identify research challenges and strategies to solve them so that telecom  equipment cost comes down to a level where it becomes affordable to a common Indian, and we could have 201 million connections by 31st December, 2010. A lot of telecom experts were there, and so were economists, sociologists, who gave us all kind of data about  disposable income, income distribution, the value that a poor or middle class Indian has for voice, and at what price point, such a person will become a subscriber to the telecom service. We were told about the standards that China was creating, the research its companies were doing, and so on.

Almost at the end of the deliberations, I requested that I be allowed to speak for a few minutes, which I was. My point was simple. If Reliance wins the case, and TRAI were to force free incoming calls (recall we had to pay for incoming also till 2003), then we will have 201 million connections by 2008, without any additional support by the Government. My argument was roughly the following. We are looking at 17-18% tele-density in 2008. When did China achieved 17-18% tele-density. What was the per capita income of China at that time. At 6-7 per cent growth rate, when will India have that per capita income. And from the numbers that people from economics background were giving in that workshop, I estimated that year to be 2008.

But this will happen ONLY if the regulatory environment in the two countries is similar, and the business confidence is at a level where some one is willing to invest in the sector. For boosting business confidence, the Reliance case had to be solved. And the regulatory issue was to have free incoming.

I also thought about another issue which I was too afraid to speak out that day. The telecom equipment prices had crashed in this period. So India should achieve 17-18% tele-density at a lower per capita income than China did, and I wanted to say that India will achieve 201 million connections in 2007, but felt that people will not take me seriously if I were to say that. Not that many took 2008 seriously. There was an uproar, a lot of personal remarks. What did I know about socio-economic factors. China had more equitable distribution of wealth compared to India. The cultures are different, they value voice differently. They have their own telecom standards. And, here I was, without understanding anything about either economics or technology, based on some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, "challenging" all the experts. I must have also been anti-research.

(And just for the bragging rights, very soon the Reliance case was solved, and TRAI made the free incoming, and India did have its 201st millionth connection in 2007.)

There was one gentleman in the room, who was from DoT, and who sensed that I might be right. We started talking. He gave me an interesting perspective. If Reliance won the case with 3-0 margin, government would be under political pressure to challenge the verdict in Supreme Court. If Reliance were to lose the case 3-0, then they would obviously go to SC, and politically, government would not be able to engage them in an out-of-court settlement. So the best solution would be that the case is decided by a split verdict, and then government engages Reliance in some negotiations, and they agree to pay a few thousand crores, which they will, rather than fight it out in Supreme Court, and continue with an uncertain business and policy environment. (This is exactly what happened.)

My back-of-the-envelope calculations were of so much interest to him that he arranged my meetings in Delhi with the Minister (Mr. Shourie), Secretary, Department of Telecom, and Chairman, TRAI. (I don't know why he wanted me to directly explain to them that paid incoming and the Reliance case were the bottlenecks in the growth of telecom industry. He could have done it himself. And, in any case, there were enough people in the country who were saying the same thing.)

But the sense I got from this gentleman and other bigwigs was that everyone believed that Reliance was too big to fail. That notwithstanding Reliance's legal position, which apparently was reasonably strong, courts would be sympathetic with a 10,000 crore investment.

And based on that feedback, 9 years ago, I was expecting the court to be sympathetic with Rs. 25,000 crore investment, and find a way out to legalize the process, if they found it illegal. While an individual license was small, but as a sum total, these 122 licenses were assumed to be too big to fail. But predictions by non-experts can only come true once in a life time, not twice.

It would be interesting to watch, what next.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Is JEE Going Away

In the last couple of days, there have been numerous articles in media (Hindustan Times, Business Standard, Indian Express) that IIT JEE and AIEEE will merge into one exam in 2013, that the weight of this exam will not be 100 percent, but 50 or 60 percent, with remaining weight being given to 12th class marks. That there is some formula that has been created for normalizing 12th class marks across all boards.

Media tells us that MHRD officials are very secretive and tightlipped about the details. It also tells us that most IIT Directors are willing to say only little and that too on the condition of anonymity. Apparently there is a meeting of IIT Council on 18th February, where the detailed proposal will be presented and approved, and it will be implemented with admission cycle of 2013 (since admission process for 2012 is already on).

I hope the media is wrong, and all this is just rumor.

While I have been arguing in this blog that there are many things wrong with JEE, and that IITs need to do something about the problem of students not paying attention to the school education, doing changes in such a secretive fashion is likely to create more problems and not solve existing problems. Solutions must be available in public. People should be able to debate those changes and give their feedback. IIT Council, in its wisdom, may ignore that feedback, and decide what it collectively believes is best for IITs (and the society). But not giving anyone a chance to opine is simply not cricket.

Ministry is keen to reduce the number of entrance exams. Is this a real problem. Putting everything in one basket causes stress. A big reason for reforms was to reduce stress. If ministry really wants to reduce stress, it should see to it that entrance exams (including JEE and AIEEE) can be given multiple times till a candidate is satisfied with his/her performance. So more exams and not less are needed to help the student.

Why so much hurry. That is easy to understand. 2014 is the year of general elections. Politicians do not want to do anything which could go wrong and become unpopular just around the election time. And it is not clear how to make moves now so that the Minister after 2014 elections is unable to stop the change. So you can't assume that it will necessarily happen in 2015. So the only option is 2013, even if appears to be somewhat unfair to some students.

If IITs were to considerably change their admission process and allow a 40-50 percent weight to the 12th class marks in 2013, would it not be unfair to someone who will give the 12th class exams in 2012. These students will claim that they spent much more time on the JEE test than the 12th class exams, since the marks in 12th class were not being counted towards admission, but now suddenly they are being told that their 12th class marks will indeed be considered for the admission purpose.

The boards are currently under legal obligation (because of a Supreme Court decision) to announce the 12th class result by 30th June. But that is too late for IIT admission. Will it be possible to ensure that results of every single board is announced by say, 10th June.

The specific questions that I am raising are not important. The important point is that if the process had been transparent, then lots of people would have had the opportunity to raise such questions, and if education sector will not have transparency then where else to expect transparency. I have no doubt in the wisdom of 40-50 wise persons who constitute IIT Council, but I do have doubts whether their combined wisdom is more than the combined wisdom of all other stake holders.

At the end, I am really hoping that media is just indulging in speculation and there is really no such secretive proposal that will be discussed and approved with just an hour of discussion.