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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Odd is Odd and the Even is Even, the Twain shall never meet

Moving into Delhi a few months ago is definitely making me a political animal. Never bothered about things other than education and railways, but with Delhi High Court declaring that we all live in a gas chamber, it is difficult not to comment on the most pressing problem of the day.

So the government comes out with this plan of Odd numbered vehicles running on some days and Even numbered vehicles running on some other days, claiming that it would reduce the number of vehicles on the road by 50 percent. This really shook me. I have always believed that a ten year old is better at making policies than the activists or bureaucrats. He knows how to count.

The initial media coverage mentioned that this would apply to only personal vehicles and not commercial vehicles. The reason for exempting commercial vehicles was obvious. You can tell a person to walk or take a Metro. But you can't tell a taxi driver to go hungry every alternate day. If half the buses can not run, then there is an obvious problem with the scheme. And if commercial vehicles are reduced by half, would we get all the supplies that we need in the city. Lately the media is silent on this, but is pointing out the resolve to include government vehicles in the odd-even system.

If we assume that commercial vehicles will be allowed every day at all times, then would we really have fifty percent less vehicles on the road. Of course, no one has reasonable quality data, but the perceptions are that commercial vehicles make 10-12 trips per day, while the private vehicles make less than 2 trips per day on an average. By curbing private vehicles on 3 days a week, the reduction in traffic would be substantially less than 50 percent. (A ten year old can figure this out. Our activists can not.)

Some people have more than one vehicles. They will now have to remember to take out the right vehicle in the morning. If they aren't careful about the date, they will make the Government richer. Some other will buy new vehicles. In fact, the primary beneficiary of this odd-even game will be Tata Nano. As a second car, this is a great value for money. We are also hearing about exemptions - single women, for example, may be allowed to use the cars of both numbers at all times. Makes it easier for many couples. The husband take the "right" car for the day, while the wife drives the "wrong" car. We are relaxing it in the early morning and late evening. So I can drop my kids to school in the morning every day, but can only pick them up on alternate days. And I am not even talking about the medical emergencies. Of course, I can see that if such a plan is implemented, then people like us, who do use public transport on a lot of occasions, will certainly not use public transport on the days that our car is allowed. It is already bad and just a few percentage more traffic on public transport will make it too bad for us.

So the following is likely to happen:
1. People with multiple cars just take out the right car for the day.
2. People buy another vehicle.
3. Some trips are replaced by taxi trips.
4. Some trips are advanced to early morning, or late evening.
5. Some work gets pushed to Sundays when all vehicles are allowed.

My guess would be that the reduction in traffic due to people shifting to public transport or due to car pooling would be no more than 10-15%, and some of this traffic would have shifted to low pollution vehicle to high pollution vehicle. So the major pollution control comes not from less miles covered by cars, but because of reduced congestion on the road and smooth traffic. (Again, unfortunately, no quality data exists in public domain. It makes it difficult to evaluate the policy options.)

But, as the supporters are arguing - we are in an emergency situation, and we need quick solutions. Can not wait for studies, data collection, and so on. Of course, we don't even need to know the obvious facts. When this was announced, some elated activists pointed out that this was working well in Beijing, our closest foreign competition. (We have good "Made in India" competition - 13 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world are in India. But the foreign craze means that we look for our foreign competitors only.) And it so happened that as I write this blog article, Beijing indeed has enforced the odd-even rule for THREE days. The activists forgot to tell us that this is only an emergency measure that has been enforced only five times in the last 8 years. They also forget to tell us that when such severe restrictions on commuting are put in place, they also close schools, factories, construction sites, and so on. As a result, people who want to go to offices and open their businesses don't find public transport too crowded. And they also forgot to tell us that the public transport system in Beijing is much better than than what Delhi has to offer. And Beijing has much better medical emergency plan (the ambulance will reach you in much smaller time frame than in Delhi).

So go for odd-even. But if the situation is really an emergency situation, please close schools, colleges, factories and construction sites as well. Give every one an incentive to go out of Delhi, the traffic will come down and the pollution will come down.

The activists also don't tell us that a similar program attempted in Mexico City about 10 years ago resulted in no improvement in pollution levels at times when the restrictions were in place, and a significant increase in pollution during the time when the restrictions were not in place. Emergency situations certainly don't need emergency responses which may make situation worse.

We are so concerned about the taxi drivers and want them to continue their jobs every day. But how about a large number of poor people employed as drivers of personal vehicles. I can see two neighbors coming together and telling a driver that he should work for them on alternate dates, and firing the other driver.

Should nothing be done and let everyone catch pollution related diseases. Of course, not. I too agree that it is an emergency situation and we must act. If we really look at the restrictions being considered, the goal is two-fold: The number of kilometers driver by vehicles in a day is likely to reduce and that should cause reduction in pollution. We don't have data but I suspect that this number will not be significant. The bigger savings will come from the fact that even a 10% reduction in vehicles will cause the traffic to be much more smooth. Cars waiting in the traffic are very big polluters. And essentially we need to find ways that we can reduce car driving and we need to find ways that the traffic can be made smoother.

So here are the suggestions:

1. Can we ensure that DTC buses stop in the left most lane only at the stops. Buses stop in the second and sometimes even third lane and this causes huge traffic jams and thus pollution.
2. Can we ensure that autos park near Metro stations in one single file. Stopping and parking of autos haphazardly near places like Metro Stations is another big cause of traffic jams and pollution.
3. Can we have a system than any vehicle parked wrongly will be towed away, heavily fined. Will make the traffic smooth without having to restrict driving.
4. No marriage processions on busy roads. (Preferably, no religious processions either, at least on the emergency days.)
5. Control encroachments on the roads, including by polluting businesses on main roads.
6. Control the number of hawkers in busy areas.

If we can't enforce these, do I really believe that we can enforce odd-even rule?
This itself would reduce vehicular pollution very significantly, without having to restrict driving. And those of you who are old enough to remember Asian Games, 1982 would know that if Delhi Police wants to do all of the above, they can actually do it.

Any way, we also need to reduce the number of kilometers driven by people. So more suggestions:

1. Can we make it somewhat more expensive to drive to shift more people towards public transport. Increase the road tax, registration, driving license charges, pollution tax on diesel and petrol, increase the parking charges and so on. And the extra resources thus generated can be given to Delhi Metro and DTC to buy more coaches and buses. In particular, in my limited stay in Delhi, I find parking charges to be ridiculously low in most places. I understand that the charges are low, since I have an option to park anywhere without the fear of my car being towed away.

2. Can we declare that vehicles who do not follow even Bharat Stage II norms have to be junked. So don't just make plans for introducing Bharat Stage V, VI, etc., but also plan to ensure that vehicles who do not follow even older norms for pollution control are removed from the roads (instead of the blanket age-wise restrictions that have been talked about in the media - remove all 10-year old diesel vehicles, or 15-year old petrol vehicles).

3. Can we declare a few busy roads out of bound for single occupancy vehicle, not the whole of Delhi. If we insist on a minimum of two occupants in some areas, others who are driving alone too can drive to their destinations, but only will have to avoid some roads. So a small time penalty. Of course, rich may circumvent it by hiring drivers - but then increasing employment is always good.

4. Work with Ola and Uder type of operators and not ban them. They have the potential to make it smooth for the commuters. They can be encouraged to push car sharing and car pooling apps, as well as the bus trips. Make such technology based companies your partners in fighting pollution rather than adversaries. I will be happy to leave my car behind on all days if I can get reasonably priced taxi service within a few minutes of my need. So at least the parking on the roads will reduce and traffic will become smooth.

I am only focusing on traffic related things that can be done, since it is in the context of Odd-Even rule. Surely there are other contributors to pollution, and they need to be handled as well.

Of course, I realize that I too am guilty of making suggestions without seeing any data, the same thing that the activists are doing. To ensure that we don't get into an emergency situation again with very little data, we must invest in more monitoring stations, more data collection, which is available to anyone easily, for research.

And, finally this in the lighter vein. We just had 20,000 weddings on 7th, making sure that there are 50-60 lakh people on the road. Can we encourage electronic weddings. The gifts can be ordered on flipkart and delivered on the day of the wedding. The hosts can order food on foodpanda and get them to deliver the food at every guest's home. The couple on the red chairs can have 30 seconds of togetherness with each guest on skype and a photo can be created using photoshop. Just imagine 50 lakh less people on the road, less pollution.

And a business idea for a start-up. Can we have a marketplace for car sharing. I would be happy to lend my car on two of the 15 days that it is allowed to be on the road, and in exchange I want a car on two of the other 15 days that I am not allowed to drive my own car.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Committee to Examine the JEE System

Yet another committee, and yet another report. However, for a change, here is one report with a difference. The only way to describe this report - it is music to my ears.

First, the background. The committee was set up in October, 2015, after a couple of committees had recommended that the board marks be not used for ranking even for admissions to NITs, IIITs, etc. The normalization was a big problem, and there were far too many administrative challenges in implementing it. Besides, a study by Joint Admissions Board had found that none of the expected benefits - more women in engineering, more rural folks in engineering, less coaching, etc., had been achieved in the three years that the system was in operation. It was decided that instead of just dropping the board marks from ranking, could we take this opportunity to clean things up a bit more, and hence a committee chaired by Prof. Ashok Misra, ex-Director of IIT Bombay, and Chairman of Joint Admissions Board (JAB) was set up.

Let us now look at the major recommendations and opine on them.

1. All Centrally Funded Technical Institutes (CFTIs) to admit students from the same exam, the JEE Advanced. This is very positive. Considering the board marks was a pain for all stake holders, and once that was gone, there was really no reason for some CFTIs to admit through JEE Mains and some through JEE Advanced. Of course, on philosophical grounds, I would prefer a system where each Institute can decide a different way of admitting students, for example, some may decide to admit based on just Physics and Maths marks in JEE. And the common counseling portal developed this year has the capability to allow such variations. But as long as the admission process is going to be dictated from the top, it is better that the top dictates a common exam than two separate exams.

2. The shortlisting for JEE Advanced to be done through an aptitude test. The committee has suggested that we should set up a National Testing Service which should conduct an aptitude test. This may take 1-2 years, and hence in the interim, we can continue with JEE Mains being the filtering test. This too is a very positive suggestion. This is certainly not going to be easy. To design an aptitude test which would be free of any cultural and other sorts of biases is not easy. On top of that, we want to offer that test in multiple languages, and we need to make sure that the test in each language is of similar difficulty level. Further that test will be offered several times in a year and hence we will need to have some normalization across different offerings. This may not be possible to do even by 2017, but a beginning has to be made sometime, and I am glad that this committee has recommended strongly that we don't wait any further to make that beginning. Of course, the committee has shown what a bunch of intelligent people can do - come up with solutions to serious problems. It is proposed that the aptitude test is used to filter 4-5 lakh students for JEE Advanced. This will make sure that those on the borderline or those who don't make it will not feel very disturbed and cheated, since they would most probably not have any hopes of getting into the top 35000 eventually anyway. So even if the normalization is less than perfect and some bias remains in the test, it won't materially impact the admissions at IITs, NITs, etc.

3. A suggestion to the government that the level of NITs and other CFTIs be raised and the gap between them and IITs be reduced. This is really an excellent suggestion, and I do hope MHRD will find ways to strengthen the tier 2. I have been repeatedly saying on this blog and on my facebook that the real reason for stress is that a few marks in JEE can take you from excellent institute to one you don't like as much. And unless this issue is resolved by reducing the gap between successive institutes, there is no hope of reducing stress. Of course, this would invariably mean giving more money (where is the money?) and giving more autonomy (which is very difficult for those who currently hold the levers of power, just compare the new NIT statutes with IIT statutes). But there is always hope.

4. Suggestion that somehow boards should improve. A motherhood statement really, but we must keep making such statements. Even if it encourages a few people somewhere, it can only have positive impact. In particular, they have mentioned the examination system of the boards be looked into. None of the boards in the country has a distribution of marks that you would expect from a large public exam in any other part of the world, and the results are completely inconsistent with the quality that we perceive of the schools around us.

5. IITs should create a large question bank and develop some system for mock JEE examinations. May be there can be lessons through MOOCs. I think IITs can really offer subject training in 12th class science subjects. Already, there are IIT professors like Harish Verma whose school level books are like bibles for 12th class students. We should be able to tap into such resources and come up with online courses in all three subjects which are available to anyone freely. If our school students have access to high quality courses to learn for JEE Advanced, the coaching culture will reduce anyway.

6. In the interim period (while the country plans an aptitude test), the JEE Mains will become a 6-hour exam and 2 lakh students to be filtered instead of 1.5 lakhs for the JEE Advanced. I have no comments on this, as I fail to see the benefits, but there is no harm either.

The only issue I have with the report (and all such discussions at the Ministry level) is that we are focusing too much on coaching. I think that if we ignore coaching and just do the right things - better admission strategies, better schools, better colleges, and so on, the coaching will either go away or will contribute to the educational efforts of the country.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Fee Control on Engineering and Management Education

It has been said a million times that the quality of education that our institutions offer is rather poor. We keep hearing that 75 percent of our engineering graduates are not just unemployed, but unemployable. That is, the quality of their learning is so poor that even a finishing school or a company training for several months would not make them productive engineer. Lots of experts keep giving various reasons for this poor quality, lack of autonomy, lack of faculty, greed on part of private colleges, poor preparation in the school education, and so on. But I disagree.

The poor quality education is a result of our higher education policy. Our policy over the last 3-4 decades have considered cost, access, and equity as much more important parameters than quality. We have worked really hard over this period to ensure that the cost of higher education (primarily in engineering and management) remains among the lowest in the world. It has not mattered to policy makers that the result is a poor quality education. And higher education policy is one of the shining examples of policy success, and not an example of policy failure. We consciously decided that everyone should be able to get an engineering degree at low cost near his/her home, even if that degree will not get one a job, and we have succeeded in it beyond anyone's expectation. A low-cost low-quality degree is strongly preferred over higher-cost, higher-quality degree. Today, engineering education is a buyer's market. Anyone can get admission to an engineering course.

So it does not come as a surprise that yet another committee has decided to control tuition at levels which can only provide poor quality education. Here is the news item. If this report is accepted, the highest fee that any engineering institution can charge for BTech program is Rs. 1.58 lakhs per year if the institution is located in a Tier 1 city. If it is a high quality institution (as evidenced by an accreditation), then an extra 20% is allowed. And another 1% can be charged for miscellaneous services, a total of about Rs. 1.92 lakhs per annum for the best institutions in the country.

I did a quick search of tuition cost of private institutions who are trusted by society as provider of high quality education and believed to be not a profit making entity. Both BITS and IIIT Hyderabad had higher tuition in 2015 than the maximum allowed by this committee. And both will have to increase their tuition substantially to take care of not just annual inflation, but also the higher salary costs imposed by the 7th pay commission report. In fact, other popular, well-known private institutions, including Thapar, Manipal, LNMIIT, JIIT, and many more also had 2015 fee higher than the maximum allowed by this committee report.

There is another way to look at these numbers. What is the budget per student per year at IITs. The budget is about 3 times these numbers. This can only mean two things. One, IITs are a den of corruption and waste. That is why they are spending so much money, when good quality education can be provided for a fraction of the cost. Two, the costs of good quality education are indeed higher, and this committee has, in its wisdom, decided that private sector can not be allowed to provide quality education. I suspect that it is the latter. The committee is really saying that we must follow our national policy on higher education, which requires low-quality low-cost education to be dished out to our students, and we can not really allow private sector to violate that policy by attempting to provide higher quality education.

What is even more interesting is that the committee allows MCA programs to charge 10 percent more than BTech programs. This is absolutely ridiculous. What is the expense that MCA programs have that BTech students do not have. In fact, MCA students need only computer labs, while BTech students need many more labs, which are far more expensive to maintain. But in our socialistic mindset, the price is not related to cost. First degree students should pay less, and second degree students should pay more. This is the reason a large number of colleges continue to have MCA programs in the country - they have lower cost and higher price than under-graduate programs. Otherwise, there is no rationale for this program to exist in so many places.

And if one looks at MBA programs, even the government institutes charge more than the upper limit proposed by this committee.

The government policy for several decades is also ensuring that a large number of our students are going abroad for under-graduate studies. By focusing on quality at home, we could have kept these students within India, and also attracted foreign students to our campuses. We could teach the world and earn a lot of money through it.  While it would be impossible to close down poor quality institutions, and may be there is something positive about a poor farmer selling everything he has to see his son having a worthless engineering degree with no jobs, but the least we can attempt is to have high quality institutions to co-exist with poor quality institutions.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Railways increase cancellation charges

Indian Railways have changed the rules for refund when reserved tickets are cancelled. The cancellation charges have been increased rather steeply and they now have to be cancelled much more in advance than earlier. Since the cancellation charges were enhanced not too long ago, this really came as a surprise.

It has been reported that this decision has been taken to discourage the touts from booking a large number of tickets. If the cancellation charges are small, then inability to sell those tickets in black market only results in small losses, but if the cancellation charges are large, then touts will be discouraged to book lots of tickets since the potential losses could be larger. And more genuine passengers will be able to get confirmed reservation.

It does not sound believable. What fraction of tickets are being bought by touts. Remember, the ticket has a name, gender and age, and each reserved passenger is expected to carry an identity card which should verify name, gender and age. Yes, TTEs are not very careful at times, and some can carry fake identity cards. The problem of touts today is different from what it used to be. Today, I can get a Tatkal ticket through a tout who has a setting with the reservation office so that my ticket will be booked before anyone else standing in the queue. With Advanced Reservation Period (ARP) of 120 days, touts do not block a whole lot of money 4 months in advance to do block booking in the hope that they will be able to sell all of those at a good profit closer to the travel date. I don't think increasing cancellation charges would have any impact on touts.

It seems to me that the real reason for this increase is to generate more revenue. Given that the Railway finances have been allowed to deteriorate for so many years, I am all for Railways trying to generate more revenue. My friends in Railways tell me that the expectation is that the new rules would add more than Rs. 1,000 crores to their revenue in a full financial year, certainly not a small change. However, they could have collected the same amount of additional revenue just by increasing the fare by 2-3 percent.

Of course, all transport providers charge those who do not travel to ensure that the cost of travel for those who do end up traveling is lower. And Railways should follow the industry practice. However, there are some problems with the specified rules.

The minimum cancellation charges are very steep. This causes some problems. One, what if I book a wait listed ticket, which does not get confirmed for several days. I decide to cancel it and go by alternate method (air, bus). I would expect that if the transport provider is unable to provide me a confirmed booking, it would charge me a bare minimum amount to cover its costs of booking and cancellation. Two, in some cases of short distance travel, the minimum cancellation charges are almost comparable with the total cost of the ticket. It means that there is absolutely no incentive for the passenger to cancel the ticket. Now, short distance bookings (~200 KM) are not the ones that touts go for, since the passengers invariably would prefer a bus instead of paying a significant premium to touts. From a revenue maximization goal, it would have been better for the Railways to get some cancellation charges and re-sell that seat to another passenger. So revenue goal is also not being satisfied by such high cancellation charges. The only one happy with such a system would be a corrupt TTE who can sell that seat to someone in the coach, which will only cause the Railways image to be tarnished.

The other serious concern that I have is on no refund rule on waitlisted tickets if they are not presented at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure of the train. Invariably, a wait-listed passenger will wait till the chart preparation time, which is roughly 4 hours prior to the scheduled departure of the train, and if the ticket is still wait-listed, it would first try to arrange for an alternate method of travel and not focus on ticket cancellation. Earlier, it was possible to cancel the ticket till several hours after the train has departed. Recently, it was brought down to 2 hours after the train has departed. Now, it is reduced further. This one really hurts. Railways should sympathize with their customers whom they have not been able to provide accommodation, and not use them to get maximum revenue out of them. (Of course, people like me who book tickets only online will get automatic cancellation of wait-listed tickets. It is only the PRS tickets that will have to be cancelled in that small time duration.)

In fact, even with confirmed tickets, the four hours prior to scheduled departure of train is an issue. Earlier, if the train was a couple of hours late, I could cancel the ticket and at least get 50 percent refund. Now, I can get (full) refund only if the train is 3 hours late, and that too if I cancel my ticket before the train departs.

Some increase in cancellation charges was due (despite an increase not too long ago), but playing with the time duration has brought in an element of inconvenience.

Of course, there is a huge positive news associated with all these changes in refund rules. Railways is promising to make all the cancelled seats available for current bookings (after clearing the waiting list, of course), and the current booking can also be done online. I think in most popular trains on most days, this will not be a big advantage, since waiting list is typically large, but this will be of help to people on many trains.

I think most of the problems that Railways face are due to the fact that passenger fares are subsidized even in AC classes. People are willing to pay a much higher fare and that gap is exploited in various ways. Railways keep coming up with some mechanism or the other to make the system more fair, and get them some extra revenue, but it does not work. I am told (and media has speculated about it too) that Railways is thinking of introducing dynamic fares (something that I have been advocating for years) in all trains in all classes. I strongly believe that having dynamic fares in all AC classes is an absolute must. Of course, the dynamic fare algorithm needs to be much more complex than the current algorithm used in Suvidha trains. One can not just change fares based on percentage of tickets sold, but it also has to consider the rate of selling those tickets, and how much time is left before the train departure date. Also, they may want to introduce several "classes" of tickets - refundable and non-refundable, cheap tickets which only give you middle berths, etc.

By the way, I am totally impressed with the news coming out of Rail Bhavan these days. Quietly, a revolution is taking place. I may disagree with the specifics of cancellation charges, but overall I am very excited about the changes that are taking place, and I will hopefully write another blog soon about them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Gender Bias (Women in IITs)

Yesterday, I made a post on my facebook page. This was a link to the article which gave information on how many women were admitted to different IITs last year. The numbers are abysmally low, less than 10 percent. And I suggested that this indicates that there is something wrong with the admission process of IITs.

Questions started coming in.

Could it be that women are not interested in engineering. How many women gave JEE.
I pointed out that 25% women gave JEE while only 10% succeeded. I also pointed out that in colleges which take admission through other routes, the percentage of women is significantly higher. I also pointed out that BITS Pilani saw a significant drop in women admission when it moved from admissions based on 12th class marks to admission based on an entrance test. All this does not seem to indicate that women are not interested in engineering.

May be women don't have merit. How do I know that women deserve to be in IITs in larger numbers.
Well, if we look at board performance across pretty much any board, in the top ranks, women perform better than men. You would find more than 50 women in the top 100, while the percentage of women giving the exam is significantly less than 50 percent. And the same is true not just overall, but specifically in science stream, where students have taken Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, the same subjects that JEE tests on.

But aren't 12th class board exams testing something different than JEE. And may be women are not inherently good at what JEE tests.
Let us assume that they are testing different things. Let us also assume that there is something genetic about women not doing well in JEE. Should not then one ask what is more important for IIT education. I pointed out that in 2011, when there were lots of debate on changing IIT admission process and including 12th class performance in some way, it was pointed out that there have been three studies done in three different IITs in terms of what is a better predictor of success in IITs - 12th class marks, or JEE performance, and all three studies said that the correlation between 12th class marks and IIT performance is higher than correlation between JEE performance and IIT performance. While I consider all three studies as too small a sample size, and not scientifically rigorous, they do raise a doubt on whether JEE Advanced (which is causing only 10% women getting admitted) is bringing in the best talent to IITs. And since this is serious enough matter, we should at least do more research into it, and do a bigger, more rigorous study.

(By the way, I would still not support incorporating 12th class marks in the admission process, since the foul play in boards will increase, and many other reasons which I had articulated at that time.)

Do you have any hypothesis that could perhaps be tested by a research team.
Yes, I do. I believe that today coaching has become absolutely necessary for good performance in JEE. And most families are reluctant to send their girl child for coaching, particularly out of town places like Kota. And that is the reason for their poor performance in JEE.

Should IITs be bothered about societal biases. Is it not good enough that the same question paper is given to all candidates, no cheating is allowed, and an objective merit list is prepared.
If IITs are interested in attracting the best talent, they should be bothered about societal biases and any other limitations that their admission process may face. They need to think whether the current admission process gets them the best students or is there any other way to get even better students.

Conclusion: My own conclusion is that less than 10% women in the incoming class is far too less and has not been adequately explained by any study so far. There is enough reason to suspect that certain societal biases could be limiting chances of women in the current admission process of IITs. And hence, IITs must share all their admission related data for research or conduct research themselves to find out whether there is a problem or not, and if there is no problem why women are less than 10% in IITs.

Interestingly, the responses on my facebook post yesterday (and indeed, I have raised this issue earlier a few times as well, and the responses have been exactly on the similar lines) were essentially saying that there is no reason to suspect anything and there is no reason to do any research. Note that I am not recommending any reservation, or affirmative action, or any reduction of seats for men as of now. I am only asking for more research to be done. And a majority of male respondents don't even support research to be done into this issue.

I checked the profile of these men. Most are students/alumni of IITs.

My own take is that most of those respondents have following problems with the idea of doing research in to this issue. One, they realize that a research is likely to show that indeed there is a bias against women. And, more generally, JEE rank is not the best indicator of merit. And most of IIT alumni immediately fear that this may mean that they themselves perhaps did not deserve to be in an IIT. So they would oppose any research or any major change in the admission process. Two, the male elite does not want to give up any of their territory without a fight. The issue is not of fairness, but why give up our entrenched benefits.

And we always blame the poor and uneducated for gender bias.

EDITED: Nov 5, 2015
After I published this, I was sent the following link about women not being represented fairly in business schools also.

Yo Chanda Kochhar, if there aren't enough women in B-schools it isn't because they can't do the hard stuff

Monday, October 19, 2015

Vikalp: Indian Railways allows alternate reservations

Let us consider a not-so-hypothetical journey. I want to travel from New Delhi to Kanpur on 30th. I check for my favorite train, Shramshakti Express, and I can only manage a waiting list ticket. But the waiting list number is small enough that there is a chance that it might get confirmed. So I book it. But then what would I do if it does not get confirmed. One option for me is to wait till 29th, and if the ticket is not confirmed yet, try to get a Tatkal ticket. This is not a realistic option as the number of tickets available is small, and there is just too much rush on the website at that time. Cannot depend on luck for an important journey. What are the other options.

This is what I normally do. I will look for other trains, which may take a bit longer, may go earlier or later than what I want to travel, but have a berth available. Book that one too. Now, 2 days before the second train schedule departure time, I will check the status of my desired train, and if my ticket has become confirmed, I cancel the alternate ticket, else I cancel the desired train ticket. So, for a 100 rupees cost, I am able to keep two bookings till 48 hours before the scheduled departure time of less preferred train.

If my preference for this train is really strong, and I won't mind losing a bit more of money, I will check up to six hours before the scheduled departure of the less preferred train, and if I have got a confirmed ticket in my preferred train, I would cancel the less preferred ticket, thereby losing 25 percent of the ticket cost.

Now, think of a scenario when Indian Railways (or IRCTC) provides this as a service. They allow me to book two tickets at a time, and specify a preference order, and as soon as the ticket in preferred train gets confirmed, the other is cancelled. If it is not confirmed till a deadline, the waitlisted ticket is cancelled. I don't have to worry about "what happens if I forget to cancel" and I don't have to pay for two tickets. Since I have told IRCTC that one of the two tickets must be cancelled, IRCTC may charge me for the maximum amount that I am incur as cost (including cancellation charges) which will be less than the cost of two tickets. For all this convenience, I would be happy to pay an extra amount as well. Not only that, IRCTC can mine data on such duplicate reservations, and make this statistics available to others so that people have a better idea of the probability of getting a ticket confirmed. So it is a win-win situation for customers as well as Railways.

Last year, I was invited by National Academy of Indian Railways (erstwhile, Railways Staff College) to address a large group of DRMs (Divisional Railway Managers) there. In my presentation, I gave examples of many things that Information Technology can do to help travelers and Railways, and this idea was one of them. (Of course, I must add that many DRMs were extremely technology savvy and had similar and even better ideas on what all technology can do.)

I am so happy that Indian Railways has decided to implement Vikalp, the new Alternate Train Accommodation System. The details are not very clear from the media reports (ToI) but it seems to be somewhat different than what I do for myself. There does not appear to be any extra charge since they are only looking at it as a way to push passengers into less popular trains. Passenger wouldn't have a choice of train, it appears. But, whatever it is, I applaud Indian Railways to start something very useful, and I am sure they will keep ironing out the glitches during the testing period.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Can we really reduce the stress of IIT JEE

Everybody in this country appears to be stressed because of JEE. The students are obviously stressed, but their stress is causing stress to every one right from the HRD Minister to all bureaucrats, IIT Directors, parents, and anyone else who has even heard of those dreadful initials, J E E. And everyone has ideas on how to reduce that stress. Every Minister wants to solve that problem, and indeed it is such a serious issue that anyone solving it should get Bharat Ratna. The previous minister thought that by giving weight to 12th class marks, we will reduce stress, but that does not seem to have worked, and now we have yet another committee looking into this issue. Since everyone is trying this route to Bharat Ratna, let me throw my hat too into the ring and suggest a solution.

As a scientist, I must first see why the current approaches have not worked. And this is what I believe is happening. The focus is wrong. If you see the statements by various people on the reasons for stress, they would argue the following: There are 10 lakh students interested in 10 thousand seats and when there is such a serious competition, stress is bound to happen.

The interesting part of this statement is that it is arguing that you can do nothing about the problem, it is bound to happen. If you believe in this statement, then why these committees, why tinkering with the process, accept it as given. This is God's wish and mere mortals have no option but to accept this as part of life.

And hence, if this problem has to be solved, then this statement has to be changed to include the possibility of change.

If I read the statement again, it talks about 10,000 seats in IITs. Most importantly, it does not talk about 1000 seats in IIT Bombay, the current hot favorite of the students and parents. The stress is not because one may or may not get into IITB, but stress is because one may or may not get into IITs. This gives us an important insight.The reason people are not stressful about IITB is that the next best institutions (in the hierarchy that they believe in) like IITD, IITK, etc., are not too bad compared to IITB. If the results are a minor disappointment, they don't cause stress. So if I may rewrite the cause of stress statement, it would be as follows:

Stress happens when a minor difference in performance can lead to major difference in outcomes.

Stress happens when you are always worried that a couple of additional questions that you can do correctly will make all the difference in life and you work harder and harder to ensure that you get those two additional marks even to the extent of spoiling your health, spoiling your childhood, and so on. The right kind of coaching will help even the smartest kids get those two marks extra, and hence it would be stupid to not do coaching and get those two extra marks, if you can afford coaching. For many, it would be 20 marks extra, and that would make a huge difference.

Now, of course, some would argue that stress is good thing as without stress, students won't study and won't learn. I believe that mild stress may spur people to perform higher, but the kind of stress we have in the system today is anything but mild.

So, if we want to remove stress, we must ensure that small difference in performance does not lead to major difference in outcome. This can actually be done in several ways, but we will look at them only if we can see beyond coaching and JEE.

The first and the best method would be to ensure that the difference between the 5000 seats and the next 5000 seats is small, and the difference between the 20,000 and the next 10,000 seats is small, and so on. If we do this, then a small difference in JEE performance would mean only a marginally "less desired" place of study. Considering the size of the country, it is a shame that we have so few good seats. So the best way to tackle stress - make a major investment in higher education - not just in engineering but several disciplines. There is no reason why the budgets of NITs should be so less compared to IITs, when their mission is similar to that of IITs. Encourage new IITs to grow quickly. Encourage state governments to support their top colleges like Jadavpur, NSIT, DTU, IIITD, MBM, and so on to higher extent. Encourage private players who are willing to upgrade quality. If resources are an issue, let the fee be high and find student loan schemes of the kind Delhi Government has started. We have been talking of stress due to JEE and the negative fallout of coaching for at least a couple of decades. If we had not worried about JEE and coaching, and instead focused on quality all round (not just new CFTIs), we would have had today 1 lakh good seats in engineering and 1 lakh good seats in other disciplines. And good here means that the difference in the top perceived college and the bottom perceived college in this group is not very significant. While 2 lakh good seats would be tiny in a country where the number of kids born in one year is more than 2 crores, but it is still better than 20,000 and would go a long way in reducing stress. And this can be achieved within 10 years, if we start immediately. (Note how quickly IIIT Delhi has become one of the best CSE department in the country. It is only 7 year old.)

The second way to reduce stress would be to destroy the quality of top colleges and thus make sure that the quality of top 1 lakh engineering seats (and 2 lakh overall seats) is roughly equal. Sometimes I feel that there is an agenda to do just that, but I hope we do not succeed in doing this.

The third method is a bit more complex and requires us to do things that we have never done before. Have a system of admission where a small difference in marks in any single exam won't affect you seriously. For you to go from good to bad college, you should perform consistently poorly, and not just do a rare mistake. Have multiple rounds of test, with test at each level allowed multiple times. We could have, say, an aptitude test or some kind of shortlisting process at the end of 10th class that would select a large number of students. The exam can be given multiple times so that if someone feels that they did not perform to their best ability, can take it again. We will shortlist everyone who has done up to 10 (or even more) additional questions wrong compared to the 10000th rank student. Note that a small mistake will not make a big difference. If you think you should be in the shortlist, take the exam again. The exam could be a simple one so that we can shortlist a fairly large number of students at this stage, may be more than  a lakh of them, even two lakhs.

After 11th class, we can have another exam, say the science test, for these students, and we follow the same rule. That we look at the 10000th rank student and shortlist everyone who has made up to 10 (an arbitrary number) more mistakes compared to that student. But, of course, this time, the exam is more difficult, and the number of students shortlisted would be much less, may be just around 50,000.

After the 12th class, we can have an exam of just these students, which can now use long answer type questions, and so on, and create a ranking. With so few students taking the exam, the exam can be designed in a way that there is spread in the marks and a couple of question wrong won't be disastrous. In any case, we can now create a system within IITs (and anyone else who would agree to follow this) of liberal branch changes. One way to do that would be to fill only half the seats in each discipline based on ranks, and the other half are admitted without assigning a discipline. After one year, the seats will be filled in based on performance in the first year and everyone will be assigned a discipline. So again, a few wrong questions in the exam after 12th did not mean you lost everything. Similarly, a few questions wrong in a few exams in the first year of engineering wouldn't mean disaster. We could even have a scheme where a student who performs extremely well in the next set of institutes could be given lateral admission in top schools. So once again, a single mistake is not the end of the world.

Creating a system where mistakes don't cost as much is the second best way to reduce stress and reduce dependence on coaching. (The best method is to improve the quality of large number of colleges to the level of IITs, and similarly in other disciplines.) But as long as our primary focus will remain on JEE and coaching, we will not be able to solve the problem.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Limitations of Ranking

My previous post on the ranking framework has led to disappointment among several of my friends whose views I take seriously. And the common argument is that this is far superior to anything that we have, and yet I have chosen to criticize it, which is not quite right on my part. Fair enough. I do accept that the ranking framework is far superior to what various business houses have been doing over the last many years.

However, we started off this path by saying that QS/THE do not understand our universities and we need to somehow showcase the quality of our top institutions which we believe is significantly better than the ranks they are being given in those rankings. I have never understood how an India-specific ranking will showcase the quality to the rest of the world. How we can claim that we deserve to be in top 100 by having an India ranking. Yes, I have seen the argument. A good Indian ranking will spur the competition to get better. We will no longer be able to get a higher ranking by giving false data or by bribing the reporter or by buying ads in the private ranking. And this improvement will help us get into top 100. But notice that this argument actually admits that we need to be in top 100 based on what QS and THE decide as ranking parameters, and if that is the goal, then there are better ways to spur that competition than a government ranking.

Ranking are useful information for the stake holders, and I have written many blog articles in the past recommending that our institutions should take ranking seriously. However, I am scared of a situation where ranking is the only information that a stake holder uses for taking important decisions. There are serious limitations of ranking (or most measurements of quality) and it is difficult to assume that a common man would understand those limitations. So far, the common man was taking multiple inputs not because they understood the limitations of ranking, but they had an inherent mistrust in a ranking by private business house. But if we now have a government ranking, and granted that it will give inherently better information than private sector ranking, the common man is likely to use this information as the only or primary information, since it does not understand the limitation of the ranking. And while the current decision making has serious flaws, the new decision making can only have bigger flaws.

The Framework talks about ranking to be available before April 2016 so that these can be used by students and parents to take better admission decision. So the most important stake holder for these rankings are the prospective under-graduate students. What is the ideal decision for such a prospective student, and let us see how close the advice is to that ideal decision of the student.

Let us assume that the student is interested in getting education which will provide for a good career and a resultant happy life. And the admission decision is that among all the options for higher studies available to me, which one should I choose that is more likely to give me a good career and a happy life.

First of all, asking that question at the end of 12th class is quite ridiculous. If the same question was asked (or rather was allowed to be asked) a few years earlier, the decision may have been completely different. Note that the ranking can only tell you whose graduates are having a good career (even that, as we will see below, is not being said by the ranking, but let us not get ahead of ourselves). It can not say what would be good for an individual student. Success in career does not depend solely on the alma mater. It also depends on, to just give one example, whether you have an interest and passion for the kind of job you are working in. By suggesting that X is number one engineering college, you are really suggesting that for all disciplines this is a better college. So for all students, irrespective of their passion, should prefer this college. This is clearly nonsensical. No one could be best in everything. Of course, the framework says that they will use this framework for ranking not just colleges but also individual disciplines.

But even discipline based ranking does not help beyond a point. A student who is deeply passionate about research versus a student who is deeply passionate about entrepreneurship in largely the same discipline should probably go to different institutes. A student who is studying CS as a tool to be applied eventually to another discipline would probably require a different kind of program than someone who is studying CS to get a technical job in CS area, who would probably require a different kind of program than someone who is studying CS only because it hones your skills of abstraction, analysis, etc., which he wants to apply in management, finance, and other "non core" areas. Some locations may be more conducive for some and less conducive for others based on factors such as language of discourse in the hostels. Discipline based ranking will not help here. One has to look into the programs more deeply. What courses are on offer. What flexibility the program offers. What kind of culture and environment is there.

We already have a problem on hand. A very large number of students and parents only look at "placement statistics" to decide and then suffer. But there are many who still look for options, ask questions. That number will dwindle further if there is a government ranking out there.

Many of the readers will argue that most of what I have written above is not relevant because a 12th class student is not going to do research on colleges, does not know his passions, does not know whether would want to become a manager or a scientist, and is only looking at information on where would a typical student more likely to succeed. So individual differences are not important. And those few who know their passions so well are also aware of the limitations of the rankings and will do their own research.

Fair enough. But does ranking even give that statistical information. First of all, we will need to define "success in career and happiness in life" to say which institute is really causing more of its graduates to get there. The problem is not just in the definition of success, but how do we get data, and whether data is relevant for this batch. Assuming ideal information of all kinds, one could possibly look at alumni who graduated 15-30 years ago and have some way to figure out what percentage of them are successful. (Can we really have a binary decision here.) Assume you can have this information. But is that information relevant today. A college may be doing some magic 20 years ago which has caused great success to the alumni in their careers, but may have gone downhill since then. There may be new institutes who may turn out to be better 20 years from now in this regard.

And, therefore, we look at not how successful the alumni have been but assume certain parameters either correlate very highly with that success or cause that success, both without any scientific study. So the prospective students and parents assume that last year's placement statistics is the best indicator of future career success for a student who is joining this year and will graduate after 4 years. And a few lone voices like me would claim that quality of education causes that success, and therefore, a prospective student should look at not the placement data but do research on various colleges about things that affect quality of education.

And, of course, I would claim in support of my view that even if placement of 2014 was a good predictor of success in 2050, most colleges would give out wrong information, and most students and parents would look at wrong data (like top placement and average placement rather than percentage of students placed and median placement) and these two wrongs combined would ensure that you are really taking a lottery ticket.

Since the government ranking is created by professors, you would of course see a bias and they are closer to my views than the views of the students/parents. Quality of education is important. But of course, we will also give some decent weight to post-program outcomes (including placement, but as professors we would also like to see how many of graduates do well in exams like GATE, and go for higher education). So the placement per se will be a small factor.

The problem is then how do you judge the quality of education. Again, we don't know how to define quality of education, and we will assume that certain proxies for them will somehow be good predictors. So, a faculty-student ratio would be a great proxy for quality. Number of faculty members with PhDs would be a great proxy for quality. Why is faculty-student ratio a great proxy. Well, it is likely to result in smaller class sizes and it is assumed that smaller class sizes result in better delivery of education. Then why not just look at class sizes. Would a system (like in IIT Kanpur) where one faculty teaches 400+ students while a large number of faculty members teach less than 10 students a better model than a system where everyone teaches a 50-60 students. Would a system where a faculty student ratio is 1:15 but students do 6 courses a semester better compared to a system where the faculty-student ratio is 1:16 but students do only 5 courses a semester or a system where the faculty-student ratio is 1:17 but students do only 4 courses a semester.

Is it really true that in the Indian context, PhD faculty teaches better than non-PhD faculty on an average. Remember, this ranking is supposed to reflect Indian realities. The Indian reality is that the quality of PhD sucks big time. Only a few top institutes are able to find PhD faculty from good places. Others are hiring PhD faculty who know much less than BTechs from good places.

Is it really true that citation index is a good predictor of quality of education. Is it even true that a good researcher will be statistically a better teacher. May be it happens in IITs, but it does not seem to be happening across the country. And I hope this ranking, though created by IIT professors, is not meant for IITs alone.

How does inclusiveness improve quality of education. Inclusivity is a great social and national goal. I must applaud all those who care for inclusivity, but not all national goals imply improvement in quality of education. My fear is that this is beginning of politicization of ranking, even before they start. The same argument can now be extended to cover other national and social goals as well. Are you actively participating in Swatch Bharat Abhiyan. Nobody can deny that improving cleanliness should not be applauded.

In general, the education experts tell us that having diversity inside a class improves the quality of education. And it is good that the framework looks at diversity. But there are three kinds of diversity - in-state versus out of state/international, gender diversity, and having people from economically and socially disadvantaged classes. But let us look into the details. The maximum marks you get for geographical diversity is when you take 100% of students from outside the state, none from instate and none from a foreign country. Should diversity mean not having any student from the society which is hosting you and nurturing you as an institution. If geographical diversity is a great thing (and I believe that it is a great thing), would the Government free NITs of the in-state quota. Let them decide how they want to compete in this race, and not tie their hands behind their back. If the government does not do this, then it is forcing NITs to get a poor rank. Is this fair to NITs.

Also, should diversity be counted only in terms of in-state versus out-of-state. Should we have some credit for number of different states represented on campus. After all, an institute in Delhi having students from Gurgaon and Noida would meet the diversity requirements but is that really helping the quality of education. And given the political nature of these factors, I am sure one day someone will say that presence of North East students must be part of the ranking (which, by the way, would actually improve diversity in most campuses) explicitly. 

To meet diversity goals in case of genders, is 50-50 the ideal for improving the quality of education. It is probably a great social goal, but I would guess from the quality of education perspective, having a substantial presence of both genders would be desirable, but not necessarily 50-50. So may be some mismatch should be acceptable, say 40-60 or 30-70, either more men, or more women. Again, the question will be that if this is the goal of the society and the government, would they allow IITs to do something (anything) to improve this ratio.

And having 50% students from economically and socially backward backgrounds, again, is it furthering the goal of diversity and quality of education, or a social goal. Note that there is no definition of economically and social backwardness. This is going to be a political hot potato. Can I only count SC/ST/OBC (Non creamy layer), or can I also count Muslims and anyone else whose income is less than 6 lakhs. If you allow all those who are non-creamy layer, irrespective of their caste and religion, then every single institute in this country, including some of the expensive private colleges would have the desired 50% or more people from this category. So why have this at all.

On the other hand, religion diversity is important for improving quality of education, which is not mentioned, clearly because that has political overtones. Another diversity which is extremely important for quality of education is having students study different subjects. So a university with many more departments should get some credit compared to narrowly focused universities. But do you really think that IITs were going to include that parameter in ranking.

In one of the curriculum workshop, I heard one very famous Computer Scientist say, that the number of courses in the curriculum is one of the strongest predictor of quality of education. The lower the number, the better is the quality. If the student is being asked to learn 6-7 courses in a semester, the outcomes will be poor. And he mentioned a large number of quality CS departments where he showed that the top departments typically have 4.5 courses per semester, good departments have 5 courses per semester, and then there is downhill. We could use that (and it not only gives students time to learn each subject, but the costs are reduced, the class sizes are reduced, more assignments can be graded, etc.). We don't seem to have such a simple predictor in our ranking.

The point of all this is not that the ranking framework is poor. Of course, it is much better than to ask people in diverse fields to name the top X colleges, the perception of non-experts seem to dictate the current rankings in India and even abroad. The point of all this is to understand that rankings are based on proxy variables and not a direct measurement of quality (since there is no direct measure). Those proxy variables are disputed, and have their own limitations. And hence rankings have limitations. This is the point that all stake holders need to understand. Rankings are just one more input and can be used to short list your potential places to study but then you must think of your own interests, preferences and personality, and do your own research of those colleges.

My concern with this ranking, as I said in the beginning of this article, is that people will have so much trust in this linear ordering that they will not do even the limited research that happens today. I am assuming that a poor quality private ranking supplemented by whatever little research goes on is better than better quality government ranking with no research.

The biggest advantage of this ranking process will be that reliable data will be available at a common portal for most good institutions (hoping that most of them would participate in this ranking). Not only that data will be available, there would be a system to challenge any information and hence colleges would hopefully provide honest data. And hopefully, the systems would be strong enough to ensure compliance. That is, if it is known that wrong data has been given then the college could be barred from ranking. And hopefully, there will be an interface where I could search, order colleges based on my queries.

What is even more disappointing is that the behavior that this framework and the government is hoping to encourage through competition for better ranks could have been achieved even otherwise. First of all, just the publication of this report will encourage the private players to modify their rankings in the right direction. Second, a simple way to do this would be to have NAAC dictate to colleges that they keep updated data on NAAC portal, otherwise they lose accreditation, and allow challenges to that data, similar to what the ranking framework is proposing. Allow people to search, and order accredited colleges, and so on. NAAC could even allow those colleges to upload their data where a formal accreditation has not been done. So the key is that we have good quality data available, which can be easily searched and colleges can be ordered on multitudes of queries. You really don't need a single government approved formal linear ordering to help the potential students and parents. After all the data for ranking and the data for NAAC have huge overlap. So avoid duplication of efforts. Avoid linear ordering. Avoid government approval of that linear order. And yet, give all that quality information to those who need it, and let them use it in interesting ways. In fact, I can see many people will do research on that data, come up with multitudes of lists, share them on the Internet, and that would be great since students and parents would then understand that the ranking depends on your perspective and encourage more research by them.

Frankly, the only reason to not use data with NAAC and NBA can be that IITs don't want to deal with those agencies. This could have been a great opportunity to overhaul accreditation, but IITs strong resistance to be compared with other institutes has done a great disservice to accreditation services in this country and by extension the whole higher technical education sector in this country. And this ranking framework is another outcome of that attitude of IITs.

The government could have done other things as well. Whatever it believes as parameters of good quality, it can incentivize colleges and universities to improve on those parameters. Government has all the power in the world to align incentives with desired outcomes, without forcing the institutes on those outcomes. You will get more grants if you do this or that. You will not get large projects unless all your data is with the central portal, and so on. But this will amount to giving autonomy to colleges and let them decide what goals are important to them vis-a-vis support they can get for those goals. Government does not work in those ways. It will dictate the goals and then have a complicated process to judge whether those goals are being achieved.

And finally, is there anything positive in this. Of course, there is. And perhaps I should support this framework just for that reason. It will allow lazy HR folks to take better decisions. Currently, if you see how many HR folks decide which colleges to go for campus placement (assuming no corruption), it is like let us go to IITs, NITS, IIITs, and BITS, if we have to go to 50 places. If we have to go 10 places, then old IITs, and a couple of places with whom we have friendly relations. It does not matter that a new NIT would have provided far poorer quality of education than some of the private colleges. It is just to avoid doing any research on whether the education in those institutes align with the requirements of the company. With this ranking in place, hopefully, some lazy HR manager will be able to say, let us go to top 50 places. (He will still not do research of his own.) And these top 50 would be a better list than set of IITs, NITS, IIITs, etc. It will, therefore, provide a chance for private colleges to prove that they too are providing quality education. They already appear in private rankings, but those rankings are not trusted. But what will happen if a deemed university not liked by Dr. Tandon Committee appears in the top 100.

To summarize, the ranking framework will certainly be a better predictor of quality than the current private rankings have been. But they do not do anything for our universities to appear in top 100 of international ranking. However, the government backing a linear order of colleges will have so much trust among the stake holders that they will not understand the limitations of the rankings and that will not be good for the decision making. We need rankings but in private sector. And we also need to do things to improve our ranks in international rankings. And most importantly, we need to do all this while fully recognizing the limitations of the rankings.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The ranking framework

So, finally we have the ranking framework, not for all types of institutions, but that too will happen soon. I find this obsession with numbers very interesting. But the framework has disappointed me. I was looking forward to a framework that would make it possible for all of us to claim that the top five engineering universities in the world are Ayee Ayee Tees at Kalyanpur, Guindy, Hijli, Hauz Khas and Powai, ahead of MIT, Princeton and Harvard. Alas, the framework is not sufficiently Indian, and may not yet result in top five slots coming to India. But if we follow the implementation strategy given in this article, we may still have a chance.

The framework has got a few things right. We should look for geographical diversity in terms of people from different states, and not judge them by the color of their passports alone. You see the US universities invariably have a lot of students from within the state they are located in, while in our Ayee Ayee Tees, everyone is from Kota or Hyderabad. Hauz Khas is an exception, as many students come from Delhi. They will have a reason to crib about their 5th rank. May be they should bribe all coaching centers to set up their teaching shops in Gurgaon and Noida. Working harder on teaching and research would not be as effective in improving the rank. But the old five should not be complacent about their ranks. Once we have the 40th institute in Daman fully functional, they will have 99% of their students from out of state, and their ranking will go higher.

In terms of graduation outcomes, we must insist on GATE performance as the only criteria of quality of graduates. Let Stanford graduates get 0 unless they can take the new Air India flight to Delhi and perform well in GATE. This will also ensure that Air India starts making profits. Even then, they will not be able to compete with Ayee Ayee Tees, unless we transfer the technology of impersonating in such exams to them. I can see a lot of business opportunities here. (Of course, we will have to figure out how to incentivize our own students to apply for GATE.)

The placement should be considered six months to a year in advance of graduation. No other place in the world would have such a crazy system of placement before the graduation, and we will win hands down. For further cementing our position, we should convert the offered salary into USD based on a flawed but useful PPP model. So a Rs. 10 lakh offer becomes US$ 1 lakh salary.

The inclusiveness must be checked only through reservations. If you don't have reservations for your local minorities, you get a zero on this factor too. But we got to think seriously about these marks for women share in the student population. These yankees you know are not family persons, send their women to college, not take care of family. Bad culture. May be we should give more marks if there are less women on campus. Promote Indian culture through these rankings.

The minor issue of student faculty ratio can be resolved by collaboration. The faculty of two institutes can be shown as recruited by both (and they can actually travel to the institute if there is any inspection). And remember, there are marks for collaborations too. In terms of lab infrastructure, we must insist on having a minimum number of PCs for each 100 students. Rest of the world has moved to bring your own device. We should also insist on all the AICTE guidelines being followed, including having an English language lab.

So, as you can see, there is enough scope for working out the detailed implementation in a way that the top five slots are occupied by Indian universities.

And, if by chance, some foreign entity shows up in the top five ranks, we can always give them a zero in perception. Hey, these are our rankings and we will decide who gets what.

On a more serious note, I think the problems with the higher education are far too obvious and the solutions are also far too obvious. Having an Indian framework for ranking does not help us claim that we are better in the world than what QS, THE, etc. are claiming. This whole business of Indian ranking system started off by saying that these foreigners do not understand our issues and our strengths are not given adequate weight. But would having an Indian ranking enable our universities to jump into top 100 of QS.

It would be of some help to students and parents during the admission time, but shouldn't we let the private sector come up with those rankings, instead of government controlling this. Yes, I am not happy with the private sector rankings like those of India Today. But the solution is not for the Government to compete with India Todays of the country, but to encourage them to improve their processes.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

OROP: Monetizing Respect

This is the first time I am writing anything on a topic other than education and Railways. This is because I have been very intrigued by this whole issue of One Rank One Pay. I have read a lot of articles (mostly from retirees of armed forces, as to why they should get OROP) in recent times and have asked my facebook friends to help me with better understanding of the issue.

Almost all articles on OROP will argue that it is such an obvious thing that there need to be no reason given. Of course, if it is so obvious that people retiring at the same rank across decades should today get the same pension, then shouldn't it be for civilian employees as well. A lot of authors guess that this question will be coming and try to answer it as follows.

The soldiers in army (and equivalent in other forces) retire after 20 years. The officers also retire at different points in time, but mostly after 20-30 years. They have given the best years of their lives for the nation. They do not always get jobs after they leave armed forces, and therefore, all this must be factored in while deciding the compensation package, and they must have a better compensation package than what it is right now, and having higher pension would be the best way to make it a better compensation package.

But, didn't you give all this in your representation to 6th pay commission, and for that matter to 5th pay commission, and now to the 7th pay commission. Why do you believe that the successive pay commissions have not already taken all these arguments into account while recommending your pay package.

The argument then becomes that we do not trust pay commissions to have done a fair job. The IAS lobby controls the pay commission. They always ensure a better deal for themselves, and give a raw deal to us. And look, they are not even implementing what pay commission recommended that a percentage of recruits in armed police forces may come from ex-servicemen.

The last line is somewhat of an argument. It is fair to assume that the pay commission would have assumed that many ex-servicemen (not officers) would have post retirement jobs, and decided their compensation accordingly. If the pay commission knew that the probability of getting a decent job will be lower, most probably it would have recommended a higher compensation package for them in some form. OK. So the jawans can get a slightly higher pension based on this logic. But why officers who mostly are able to get post-retirement jobs in private sectors. If OROP demand was only for jawans, it would make some sense based on this argument. And here too, we need to get higher compensation, and it can not be claimed that OROP is the only way to achieve that.

So what about officers. Well, it really come back to pay commissions being biased. They have really not factored the hardships, early retirement and slow promotions while deciding the compensation package.

The problem with this argument is this. Who decides whether the compensation is adequate or not, if not the pay commission. Should compensation for millions of people be decided by public protests? There has to be a better process than that. I don't know if it would help to have a person belonging to armed forces as a member of the pay commission. It is already chaired by a Judge of Supreme Court, whom we could easily consider as neutral between civilians and armed forces.

From the arguments I am reading, there is a certain level of discomfort. For example, arguments like my pension fixed long time ago is not enough today. This gives an impression that the pensioner is still getting the same pension as he was getting a few decades ago. The reality is that all pensions are protected against inflation and they are also given a jump with each pay commission. So each pensioner is getting a better pension (even after taking into account inflation) today than 10 years ago. And if the argument is that a colonel retired 20 years ago should have the same life style as a colonel retired yesterday, why shouldn't a professor retired 20 years ago have the same life style as a professor retired yesterday.

Some people have shown numbers that someone who works for 40 years and lives for another 20 years (in which s/he is free to work, if health permits and can find a job) gets a higher total compensation compared to someone who works for 20 years and lives for another 40 years (in which s/he is free to work, if health permits and can find a job). And this is supposed to be somehow unfair. Frankly, I don't understand. If someone works for 20 years less, why should the total compensation be about the same for him compared to someone who has worked for 20 years extra.

And if the argument is that armed forces need to be compensated better for shorter tenure, slow promotions, etc., and even if we agree that pay commissions have all been biased, why not increase the pay and perks while in service. What is the argument for OROP. After all, the employer should be able to structure the compensation package in a way that will attract the best people to do the job at hand. And if the employer believes that it is better to increase pay than pension, it should be possible.

The problem is that most people are not really looking at compensation for perceived biases. If everyone in Armed forces is given a couple of extra increment to bring that so-called parity with the IAS types, that only means a few more peanuts for them. (Yes, it would increase their status in the government hierarchy, and that is important. But monetarily, it really does not make much of a difference.) Also, that is only for current employees.

And if it is a matter of compensation, and we want to redraw today the compensation package of someone who joined army 50 years ago, why not just increase pension. Can it be 60% of the last pay drawn (as modified by successive pay commissions), instead of 50%. Why insistence on equal pension. All the arguments are for higher compensation package. I have not understood why this particular way of increasing the compensation package.

Demand for increased compensation should ideally be based on arguments like the following:
  1. We are finding it difficult to recruit talent despite our best efforts. Can we offer higher package.
  2. Someone else who is doing similar tasks, with similar efficiency, in similar operating environment is getting higher pay.
  3. There should be a certain minimum level of compensation for any employee (the idea of minimum pay).
In case of OROP, I am not sure what the argument is. (I am sure there can be more arguments than the three that I have stated above.)

To summarize, there is some argument (based on the 6th pay commission recommendation that was not implemented) in favor of increasing compensation, including pension, for non-officers. There is some argument  (based on the assumption that 6th pay commission was biased and 7th pay commission will be biased) for increasing compensation for officers, but ask new officers to join New Pension Scheme. But I am yet to see an argument in favor of equal pension for same rank. I welcome my readers to inform me of articles where such arguments have indeed been given. Of course, if early retirement is the primary issue, we should spend even more on skilling those in uniforms for their post-retirement careers, and other steps to improve their chances of decent employment.

But why are we not seeing articles in media opposing OROP or even seeking clarifications like the one I am seeking in this article. If the OROP is such an obvious thing to do, then what is government waiting for. We can't be thinking of a few thousand crores per year, if those are the legitimate dues of people who defend our borders. As someone said on my facebook discussion, war is expensive and to maintain war machine is expensive. We must be willing to pay that price for independence.

This is what I believe is happening.

Armed forces are arguably the most respected institution in the country. And in the era of cross-border terrorism, not many are willing to argue or discuss military pay. Keep them happy. Give them anything they ask.

There is also a fear that questioning the military pay would label one as unpatriotic. (And if one is careful in reading this article, I am not questioning military pay or perks or pension, even suggesting that they be increased, only seeking answer to the basis on which such a package should be decided. I certainly don't want to be labeled as unpatriotic.)

This is more so when both Congress and BJP have already promised OROP, and it is obvious to everyone that sooner or later, there would be a substantial increase in the compensation package, irrespective of any arguments. Why be considered unpatriotic when the deal is almost done and one would not have any influence on the deal. (But academicians always want to know the answers even when they have no influence.) By the way, I believe that since it is almost a done deal, we must implement it at the earliest, and close this chapter. Every day of this protest is affecting the country negatively.

The veterans on the other hand have figured this out. The public has huge respect for armed forces. Also, the public at large has strong negative feelings about the bureaucracy and the politicians. By making this a public issue and essentially blaming the IAS and politicians for the mess (and not waiting for the 7th pay commission report), they have a much better chance of improving their compensation package.

But this, sadly, is monetizing respect.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Blog has been accessed One Million times

This blog has been accessed one million times. Felt good, though I can't say if this is just a satisfaction of ego, or a feeling that perhaps I have had impact. There is no impact factor for blogs, you see. Of course, in this day and age, when startups become valuable only after they have had several million customers, a billion transactions, a trillion rupees exchanging hand, having a blog accessed a million times may mean nothing to most people, but for me it is a time to look back and reflect on the journey.

I started writing long time ago on a newsgroup called soc.culture.indian during my PhD days. When I joined the faculty of IIT Kanpur, there was no easy way to write on public forums. Our Internet access was rather poor. So anything I wanted to share, it had to be on internal mailing lists and internal newsgroups. That means I started focusing on IITK issues.

That changed in 2006. I took one semester off to travel around the country. I visited about 30-35 technical institutes, including many NITs, state government colleges, and private and deemed universities. I would talk to students, faculty and senior administrators to get a feel for what is going on in the space of technical education. I must have interacted with about 10,000 students, about 500 faculty members, and about 100 Heads, Deans, Directors, VCs, etc. At this stage, I decided to start putting my views and ideas on my website. Somewhat earlier, I had already started writing about JEE Counseling page every year on my website, which had started resulting in several hundred emails coming to me during the JEE counseling period.

Around 2008, someone suggested that having a blog is better than writing on my website, since that would allow people to write comments and have a discussion. I started my blog with a single posting in 2008 proposing a very different admission process for IITs. In 2009, it was only marginally better with 3 posts, all of them related to engineering college admissions. I was Director of LNMIIT from 2008 to 2010 and did not have much time for blogging. I started writing more frequently after returning to IIT Kanpur in June, 2010. Most of my blogging has been about education in general, and technical education in particular. However, I am a big fan of Indian Railways, and have written occasionally about them. I also used to write things which were specifically about IIT Kanpur, but a few years ago, I moved them to another blog, Inside the campus. And of course, a few personal things which I have now moved to yet another blog, Stories from my life.

This blog becomes very active every summer. Of course, I have more time in the summer and I can write more. But it is also that since I have written a lot about how to choose an engineering college, what to do in JEE counseling, what are the good CSE departments, etc., there are many new comments, a lot more discussions, and so on. The blog became really active in 2012 when there was a proposal to change the process of admission to IITs and other engineering colleges. I would consider fighting a stupid admission process as the second most important contribution of this blog after giving admission related advice.

That fight resulted in something very interesting. We could avoid any significant change to the IIT admission process. However, we could not save the NIT admission process. And I realized one thing.  People care about NITs only after they fail to get admission to IITs. If you tell 12th class students or their parents that there is something wrong with NITs, they simply don't care. The hope at that time is that we will get into IITs, so what do we care about NITs. And, of course, next year, not many will get admission to IITs, and suddenly there will be questions on what can be done now. And this pattern repeats so frequently that I am amazed by it. Of course, the fact that IITs have far greater autonomy than NITs means that for something wrong with IITs, there will be people within IITs willing to fight it out, but for something wrong with NITs, there won't be an internal voice. So it is extremely difficult to raise issues faced by NITs and other engineering colleges.

If I look at the most popular articles on this blog, most of them do relate to education. However, I am surprised to find my article on Premium Tatkal scheme of Indian Railways in the list of all time favorites. Given that most readers come here to read about education, why is this blog in the most popular list is not clear to me.

Blogging has made me friends with a lot of people, and my readers have generally treated me with a lot of affection. I get lots of emails thanking me for my blog, which unfortunately I am unable to respond every time. But it has certainly not been all positives. I have received threats. Senior administrators in IIT Kanpur have been approached to ask me to stop blogging citing some government rule against it. Thankfully, IIT Kanpur has always been very supportive of my right to express myself.

I keep getting suggestions from my friends on how I can improve this blog. One of the most common suggestion is that I should write smaller articles. I try to, but I also notice that some of my longest articles have the highest readership. My writing style involves guessing questions from my readers and answering them even before they are asked as comments. This has also been my style of teaching, and I can't help it. I am so used to it. Of course, even with that style, there is a scope for writing concisely, and I will try to do that as much as possible.

One of the things that I have often followed in my blogs is that I should never post an article immediately after writing. Normally, I would wait for 12-24 hours before posting an article, but there have been occasions when I have taken 3-4 weeks between writing the first draft and posting the final one. I also tend to do a lot of home work, ask questions from relevant people, show the draft to some people before anything important is posted. (Of course, all this does not happen all the time.) I do take blogging very seriously.

After so many years of using, I do find that some features missing from it. One is about spamming. I get several spams as comments on this blog. I hope Google can one day figure out a way to categorize advertisements as spams and delete them automatically, or at least allow me to block those who try to write those ads as comments. Second feature I would love to have is to limit access to individual articles. Currently, I can limit access to the entire blog to a set of users. But what I really want is to provide limited access to my new article to a few persons who could comment on it and it can be improved before making it public. All older articles should remain public at all times. But right now, I have to do cut and paste to send the draft article to friends for their review. That is not very efficient.

At the end, I want to thank everyone who has ever commented on any article, shared it, sent an email about it, or just simply read it. The mission of this blog is to improve the quality of technical education in India, and together we can do it.

Wishing all my Indian readers a very happy independence day, and since this is being posted on the I day, here are the first few lines from my favorite speech given at the very moment India became independent:

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

Jai Hind.

Research in India

We had a wonderful celebration of Independence Day at IIIT Delhi today. Besides the flag hoisting, patriotic songs, a cultural program, the students had also organized a discussion on why are people not able to carry out great research in India. And that caused me to write this blog.

There are many responses to such a question. The prominent amongst them are:

Denial: We have great researchers too. Look at Manindra Agarwal. China publishes more, but most of it is of poor quality. We did not believe in Publish or Perish and hence we haven't got into the habit of writing everything we do. The numbers does not tell the whole story. Our number of researchers is small, and so on.

Resources: We are a poor, third world country. What do you expect. The percentage of GDP spent on education is small, and on top of that our per capita income is small. The output per dollar is very high in India. (And this is always per dollar in every discussion, why not output per million Rupees. To me, this indicates that research invariably means solving American problems.) If we are given as much resources as a typical US university gets, we will solve all problems of Amrika India.

Industry: Our industry is low technology. They just want to do simple things. They are interested in buying technology when needed rather than solve their problems through research and innovate. Look at US, how industry works in partnership with universities to solve problems. Of course, people will then quickly add that industry is changing lately, investing in research, interacting with universities, but to get to the US level, it will take some time. (And once again, why US level is the benchmark. I think the top institutes in India are already doing better than US.)

Quality and Quantity of faculty: We have such a shortage of quality faculty. As a result, we are stuck with not so great faculty, and then we ask them to handle 2 courses a semester. How can they do high amount of teaching, take care of academic administration, and also do cutting edge research, when their own scholarship is suspect.

Any description of the problem of lack of research excellence in India will be like a description of an elephant by a bunch of blind men. All of them have some validity but the bigger picture is something else.

And still, as yet another blind person, I will put in another perspective.

The structure of research funding in India is such that research is a huge loss making exercise for the universities that carry out research. If you submit a proposal to a funding agency, you can only charge 16.7 percent overhead for managing the project. And since it is expected that the management costs don't rise linearly with the size of the project, some funding agencies will cap the overhead portion of the budget. In the budget that I prepare, I can not put the salary of permanent employees (like myself), rent for the space used by the project, electricity and other such resources used by the project, and so on. The logic is simple. Another arm of the government (MHRD, AICTE, UGC, or state government) is typically paying for the salary and infrastructure. So why not keep getting money from them and not from funding agency. The problem in this logic is that it is essentially saying that only government institutes must do research. Private colleges should not dream of doing research. Now, if this was the national policy which every one understood loud and clear, it would still be a problem but at least we would understand the source of the problem. But the problem is that other government agencies who are in the business of evaluating the quality of higher education do not believe in this national policy. Your accreditation by NAAC or NBA would crucially depend on your research output. UGC will keep reminding you that every promotion of faculty members should be based on research output.

Can we have DST/DBT/DEITY and other departments funding research sit jointly with UGC/AICTE/MHRD/NAAC/NBA and others involved in maintaining and judging quality of education and decide for once and for all whether the research is supposed to be done only by government universities or also by private universities. (And let us not forget, a vast majority of higher education is in private sector today.) If private sector should do research, can we have an overhead that can pay for the part salary of faculty and for the infrastructure needed to carry out the research. (It would mean doubling or tripling of the overhead. For a 100 rupee project, the overhead should also be close to 100 rupees.) On the other hand, if they agree that the vast portion of higher education system should not be expected to do any research, NAAC and NBA types of bodies should stop asking questions on research output.

If I have to do research, someone got to pay my salary. If research funds can not be used for the same, then the project is a loss to the college. Someone got to invest in the buildings and other infrastructure. All that is loss to the institute. So what is normally done. To an extent, we will inflate the budget - if I need one server, I will write two or even three, just to give an example. So the tuition will pay my salary, and some of it will be recovered through fraudulent invoicing, which every project monitoring committee will be aware of. But of course, you can commit only so much of a fraud. The rest of the research money comes from tuition. Now, tuition in India is already very low compared to the cost of providing quality education. So we anyway have very poor quality of education in most of our colleges and universities. If you declare that the cost of research should also be borne from the tuition, well, the consequences are for all to see.

Paying only a portion of the costs for research projects also mean that there is typically very little accountability for the research output. If the funding agency gave 50 lakh rupees, and the cost of salaries, and infrastructure is also 50 lakhs, then the funding agency can not dictate, at least not morally, that the output of the project should be commensurate with an investment of 1 crore rupees.

The second problem is Measurement of Research. The best way to measure research is through peers. However, our regulatory bodies are only interested in numbers. This has created such a racket in the country of fake journals, and fraudulent conferences. If we will keep insisting on numbers, people involved will be happy to game the system to get all the goodies (promotions) that the system will give to those who are performing well as per that metric. Of course, this problem is not just restricted to poor quality colleges. Even at the top level, there are cliques. If my friend applies for a grant, he gets it even if the quality of proposal was poor and the CV of the friend (the proposed Principal Investigator) was poor. And in all this, people who are expert in one area will gladly decide the quality in areas where they have very little knowledge.

The other major problem is Cultural. If we have a problem, we want to solve it quickly through a low-cost innovation which will solve our immediate concern, but may generate other problems. Studying all aspects of a problem, and figuring out all solutions, comparing them, considering their side effects, and so on is too boring for us. Also, we are not respectful of intellectual property. School teachers will tell the students that it is ok to copy from wikipedia or any other Internet resource. If we don't value intellectual property, it would be very difficult for us to be motivated to create intellectual property. Research also means looking at multiple options and having a belief that any of those options could be the best. This mindset requires one to be open to new ideas, new theories, and the possibility that what we have believed all along may turn out to wrong. Do we have such a mindset today. Do we accept criticism of our beliefs easily. Another cultural factor that I heard today in the discussion was being risk averse. Poor people are generally risk averse and 99 percent of people in India would consider themselves in a bracket where they want some stability in income, and would not take risks. If this is the background of most people, is it rational to expect that people who get into either a researcher's career or are into research management would take risks.

So, if we want to be a research powerhouse, we will have to do a serious introspection about our cultural upbringing, which means a major responsibility on all educational institutes, including K-12 schools, and not just institutes of higher learning. And we will have to bring in the management practices that ensure that research is not a hugely loss making exercise.