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Friday, August 22, 2014

MHRD agrees with UGC

The media today is full of the latest development. Apparently, Ministry of Human Resources and Development is trying to see if IITs and UGC will have a meeting to sort out the matter. First the links to all the media reports in this regard:

IITs can grant only UGC recognised degrees - Hindustan Times

IITs need UGC nod to open new programmes - Mint

IITs told to toe UGC line on degrees - The Hindu

HRD Ministry sides with UGC in course clash with IIT Kharagpur - Economic Times

Big Brother UGC casts its eyes over IITs - Told torename course and change duration, tech schools citerules to assert autonomy - Telegraph

I think we must understand the ministry's compulsions. UGC Act is unclear whether it is purely a funding body or it can dictate terms to universities. It has been charged with maintenance of standards in higher education. But does that mean only advise and issuing best practices, guidelines,
or does it mean rules that must be followed by the entire higher education sector.

What is clear from the Act is that there is no distinction between the universities created by an act of parliament and universities created by an act of state legislature. So, if UGC can not dictate IITs, then it can not dictate any university (except through threats of funding cuts). And hence if MHRD were to accept the view that IITs are not under UGC because they have their own act, then MHRD would have to accept the view that no university in the country is under UGC because all other universities also have their own acts. And this is something MHRD and Governments who are so used to interfering in the autonomy of all universities can not accept. This is really a nightmare for them. 

So obviously the next best thing is to have a dialog between UGC and IITs and one can come up with a resolution which can maintain the relationship between the two in grey area. UGC can continue to claim that they can dictate to IITs (and hence to all the universities in the country) and IITs can continue to claim that they are independent of UGC.

The real issue is this. The parliament in its wisdom decided that universities must have autonomy to a very large extent, and they wanted only a regulator whose primary job will be to support higher education financially and of course, also act as someone who keeps a watch on the quality of education in the higher education sector. People who have manned UGC and also those who have manned MHRD never bought into the parliament's vision of universities being autonomous. These have mostly been power hungry people who have got used to a control regime. Autonomy is anathema for them. By destroying autonomy, they have destroyed the complete higher education sector, and yet they are not willing to change their mindset.

And frankly, IITians and all these academicians in ivory towers of Indian higher education do not help matters. You talk to a typical faculty member, and the comment is: "IITs should be autonomous, but others should be controlled otherwise the quality will deteriorate further." What is the evidence for that. Indeed, there is pretty much no university today which existed prior to UGC Act and which can claim that it is better in quality today compared to its pre-1956 status. Such statements only divide academia and give more power to bureaucrats, politicians, and regulators. If IITs try to fight their own little battles which cause inconsistency in the overall regulatory processes, some time those inconsistencies will be taken advantage of by those with control mindset. We have to think and act consistently. Either universities should be autonomous, or they should have some/many controls. But either way an IIT is just another university.

UGC Decides Maximum Standards

One often hears that the job of the regulator is to specify the minimum standards and ensure that everyone follows those minimum standards. Normally, doing better than minimum standards is not just acceptable but actively encouraged. But University Grants Commission is a unique regulator. It is telling everyone that you can not be doing more than what UGC wants you to do. If you run a program with better quality than what is the upper limit mandated by UGC, they will ask you to stop the program, or de-recognize it.On the other hand, we all know the quality of higher education and how many programs have been stopped because of poor quality.

We also have this national policy of education, which we did not know about till a couple of months ago, when this document was dusted and taken out of its file, and used to bar four-year undergraduate programs. We were told that the national policy of education by Government of India does not allow any innovation in the sphere of higher education, and hence all the universities trying to do something different will be asked to stop doing that.

I sympathize with UGC. A few small institutes trying to improve quality can be ignored. But what if several institutes and universities start thinking of higher quality. This has a danger that a few really poor quality institutes may not attract sufficient number of students and may have to shut down. Can we allow this to happen. What happens to the employment of teachers and other staff by those institutes. What happens to students who were barely good enough to get a degree from those institutes and now would be denied of their fundamental right to higher degrees. Obviously, the regulator can not think of elites and has to take into account the needs of the academically weaker sections of the society. Didn't the father of the nation say, "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him." So UGC is just following the advice given by Mahatma Gandhi.

Indian Institute of Science had the courage to start a high quality program, in complete violation of our national policy, and against the philosophy of Mahatma. How could this be tolerated. But then in India decisions are not taken on the basis of policy alone. The right contacts could ensure an innovative interpretation of policy (so while the education policy may not allow innovation, but we can innovate the policy itself). One Bharat Ratna awardee was enough for the regulator. They decided that if a program is inconsistent with the national policy, it can still be allowed as long as the inconsistency is clearly mentioned in the degree. So if IISc were to force poor students to do extra research, the degree must mention the word "research" in its name.

Note that this clever solution is only available to those universities whose ex-Directors or ex-VCs have received a Bharat Ratna. If a certain Dinesh Singh goes to UGC and says that my university is inconsistent with the national policy to the extent of having a broadbased education rather than a narrow education that you specify, and I am willing to mention the word "broadbased" in our degree names, he will be quickly asked to show his Bharat Ratna first. He should first read how to win friends and influence people, and may be then he can get Tendulkar to bat for him.

If IIT Kanpur goes to UGC and says that we are inconsistent with the national policy only to the extent that we ask our students to do a lot of engineering courses as well, and we are willing to add the word "engineering" to our degree, it just might get accepted. While none of our Directors have received Bharat Ratna, but one of our ex-Chairperson, Board of Governors has. We will just have to request him to give a strong recommendation.

But this is creating a problem for the country. Some people think that if IISc can be allowed a higher quality program then they too can dream of excellence. Symbiosis University has decided to continue its four year programs, and that too when they are merely a deemed university. These tendencies will have to be nipped in the bud. If excellence becomes a habit then what happens to weak students. Would we still be able to have a Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) of 100.

We must learn from history. Just look back a couple of decades ago. Everyone in the world criticized us for illiteracy. We had the world's largest number of illiterates. How did we solve the problem. It was quite simple. Just ensure that there would be no exams till 5th class, and in the exams after the 5th class, the only thing one had to do was to be able to copy the designs (known as alphabets to some) from the copy of the neighbouring student. One shouldn't worry about the Annual Status of Education Report which continues to talk about students not able to do much mathematics, not able to write anything meaningful, and so on. On paper, everyone goes to school. We are a literate nation. So these foreign forces who want to destablize our great nation have started this propaganda about GER being too low. We must prove these imperialists wrong by having every child go to college after completing the school and get a degree. Will universities like Symbiosis give degrees to all these millions of youth. That burden will have to be borne by those who shun excellence in the larger interest of the country. So should UGC be concerned about selfish excellence or nationalism.

The elites of the country anyway can afford to have higher education in fatherland. It does not matter if the country can afford the loss of billions of dollars. And the hoi polloi do not deserve excellence. Why waste resources on them.

Long live, UGC!!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Joint Counseling of IITs and NITs: Delhi High Court Decision

IITs will change only when they are forced to, particularly when it relates to their holy cow, the Joint Entrance Exam. In the last several years, Dr. Rajeev Kumar of IIT Kharagpur has been on a crusade to force IITs to improve their UG admission process. Latest is a decision by Delhi High Court where Dr. Rajeev Kumar had petitioned that IITs be forced to have a joint counseling with NITs.

Here are the relevant portions of the judgement:

11. It is otherwise rather intriguing to know that the IITs and the NITs which are providing consultancy to others on technical matters, are unable to themselves find a solution for synchronizing the admissions to eliminate or at least minimize the issue of vacant seats. The said institutions themselves and their students are best equipped to, in today's time of technology, when software programmes developed by IITians are serving nearly every human need, to find a solution to the malady which admittedly exists and cure whereof has eluded all. Certainly they do not need years together to develop a programme for such synchronization of admissions. They cannot afford any red-tapism in this regard and which if becomes known to the world at large, may make them a laughing stock in the eyes of their clients. We have wondered whether it is a proverbial situation of it being darkest beneath the lamp.

13. We therefore dispose of this application with the following directions:

(i) The MHRD to ensure that the Technical Committee constituted vide order dated 13th March, 2014 aforesaid holds regular sittings/consultations, as frequently as required, and sorts out the process for common counselling for admissions to NITs and IITs and the said process is implemented for admissions from the academic year 2015-2016. To ensure the same, the MHRD to call for regular reports from the Committee and fix a date for the Committee to submit the report and ensure that the suggestions in the said report are incorporated in the admission procedure published by the IITs and the NITs in the academic year 2015-2016;

(v) During the hearing, we enquired whether there exists any provision for lateral entry into the IITs in the second year, as exists in some Universities/Colleges. We were informed, there is none. The MHRD as well as the IITs to also on or before 30th November, 2014 consider, whether a provision for such lateral entry into IITs in second year from the students of NITs and other engineering colleges can be made and to place a report on that aspect also before this Court.

My comments:

Joint Counselling will help only a little bit, but it will help. The real problem of vacant seats is that we are trying to complete the admission process to 3-4 million college seats in just a couple of months, and there is absolutely no penalty in the name of socialism to withdraw from a seat till very late. Neither of these real issues are being addressed. We simply refuse to do college admissions before 12th class exams. And to charge fee to someone who withdraws late is considered anti-poor.

But while the joint counseling does not solve major problems, it will still be an improvement over the current system, and hence should have been adopted long ago. I am sad that a court had to intervene in admissions, but there did not seem to be any other option.

I am also quite excited about the lateral entry part of the judgement. If IITs can come up with some mechanism, it will resolve a major stress issue for the students. Now, even if they could not perform well in that one day, they will have another chance to enter IITs. But I am not rejoicing yet. I will bet on IITs reporting to the Court on 30th November that they can't do it, or that they are still working on it, and will take more time to come up with a scheme.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why I want to be a Professor

The placement season is just starting for the 2015 graduates. (In IITs, it will start on 1st December.) And newspapers are already talking about a crore+ salaries this year. That it would be for a very small number of graduates is lost on most people. And in this race to get the biggest package, one career that is often forgotten is that of an academic.

There are some obvious problems with the career options. You can't join it just after the under-graduate education, and hence your parents can't boast about it to their neighbors and relatives. In fact, even after 10 years, they won't be able to boast to people whose only parameter of success is money.

However, there is an equally obvious advantage. If you can monetize smiles, you will be amongst the richest persons on earth very soon.

Just to give an example of how our compensation package works, a couple of months ago I went to UAE on a tourism trip with my family. About 2 months before the trip, I posted on facebook seeking advice. We had lots of advice, but we also had lots of offers of hosting us, of taking us around, of arranging everything for us, many of them from people unknown to us. The only common bond was that they had studied in the same institute in which I am a Professor. (Not all were alumni. We had other wonderful people too, like my batchmate from school days who went completely out of his way to help us in so many different ways, my wife's co-worker who hosted us for two nights and made sure that we had all the comforts. But I am focusing on alumni because every profession will have friends.) We decided to still go ahead with a tour operator, but kept a couple of extra days to meet some of these wonderful people and enjoy their hospitality.

One of the IITK alumnus hosted us for a day. We had not known him. He just called us up one day and told us that we had to accept his hospitality. That he understood our reluctance and shyness since we did not know each other. But for him the fact that I was a professor was an excellent reason to offer that hospitality. When we reached his home, the affection that we received was tremendous. Our kids still would like to go back to this "uncle" and "aunt". They took us around for the whole day. My son only had to mention that he would love to see the Sharjah Cricket Stadium where India and Pakistan have played so many cricket matches, and this alum just drove all the way there. It wasn't exactly next door. Money can buy an overnight stay in Burj Al Arab, but money can't buy the affection with which a professor is treated by an alum.

The satisfaction that you get when you are able to explain a concept to someone who did not know it earlier is immense. Sometimes it could be straightforward, and sometimes it could be frustrating. But the end point is always the same - a smile on the faces of those students. Money can buy all the books, but can't buy that smile. If only there was a way to monetize those smiles, ...

You work on a problem that you want to work on, and not what would add value to the company in the next quarter. I am not trying to belittle the value of next quarter, but there are times when you want to think of next year, or the next decade, or the next generation. Sometimes you don't want to think of just one company, but of the society, of the nation, of humanity at large. Very few professions allow you to work on such a broad canvas.

As a professor, I end up meeting with successful people from all walks of life. When we invite such people to visit our campuses, they usually accept our invivtations. If you are a professor, you are more likely to meet such amazing fellows than any other profession (unless you have really been highly successful yourself and is in the category of people who get invited to campuses). Now consider this. What is the metric of success (other than money) - that you get invited by educational institutions. By this metric, all professors are successful by definition.

I can't think of any other profession which allows you to come home for lunch with kids, or even stay withing walking distance of the office. And if that does not impress young students (they obviously can't imagine what is the value in having lunch with kids), at the very least what must impress them is that I have a bigger area of the house than a majority of my batchmates (many of them don't even live in a bungalow - but in an apartment). Yes, I can't sell this house. But I can live in it for a large fraction of my life, and by the time I have to give it up, I would actually be happy to shift to a smaller flat.

If I compare myself with the top 1% of the countrymen, I guess I can call them rich, there is pretty much nothing that they would have in their household that I don't have. And as I have often said, if one is not happy being richer than 99% of the countrymen, one won't be happy being richer than 99.1% of the countrymen. If you think happiness is relative, you would never be happy. If you think happiness is absolute, then faculty salaries are actually quite attractive. So even in terms of what money can buy, this profession is not bad. But if you add what money can't buy, then this profession is absolutely awesome.

I can go on and on. Actually, I haven't even started to say how great is this profession. So before you plan for that placement interview, think about higher education - MTech/PhD. Give GATE, or any other relevant exam, if needed. But don't trade the wonderful world of academia with the instant fame in the batch of a high paying job.