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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Joint Degree/Diploma Programs

Last week, three top institutes, IIT Kharagpur, IIM Calcutta and ISI Kolkata, announced a joint diploma program in business analytics. To quote from the news report:

"The first semester at ISI will focus on mathematical foundation, statistical and machine learning theories for analytics. The second semester at IIT Kharagpur will focus on the engineering aspects of analysing huge volume of data. The third semester at IIM Kolkata will concentrate on application of analytics in functional areas while in the fourth semester the students will be required to do an internship of six months duration on an analytics project in a business organisation."

This is a great news for students who get to experience the greatness of three campuses, and learn things from those who are the best in their respective fields. No single institution can be the greatest in all fields and hence programs which require inputs from different fields can be more effectively delivered as a joint program.

This is, of course, not the first such program. IIT Kanpur has been participating in a one-year diploma program called "Visionary Leadership in Manufacturing" which is jointly delivered by IIT Kanpur, IIM Calcutta and IIT Madras, with a small duration spent in Japan. But the way industry requirements are becoming more complex, and knowledge is expanding at a rapid pace, I hope that many more such programs will happen in future.

Of course, there are other models for involving more than one institutes. A student can spend a semester at other institute as a visiting student (or exchange student) and with the credit transfer/waiver, gets the degree from the home institution. This gives a lot more flexibility as the student can really study anywhere. However, when there is option to study elsewhere, the students and their parents are afraid of the unknown. At IIT Kanpur, we approved rules for both our students spending a semester elsewhere, and students from other colleges to spend a semester at IIT Kanpur. But even after 15 years of this, we get no more than one or two applications from our students to go out, and no more than 1-2 applications from outside students to study at IIT Kanpur. (Partly, it is because we don't advertise it enough. But mostly it is the reluctance of the students and parents.) And hence a program which is designed to necessarily spend semesters at different places are extremely helpful.

Academia competes fiercely for students and faculty, and yet we collaborate on research. In the research ecosystem, we write joint proposals, do joint projects, review each others' research output, help each other with organizing conferences, and so on. But when it comes to teaching, that feeling of competition sets in. Perhaps it is because in research we often collaborate as individuals, while in teaching, we need to collaborate as institutions and that is perhaps a difficult issue. But such collaboration in teaching is a win-win situation for all stakeholders. We can attract better students, we can prepare them better, and take pride in their success, while helping our industry at the same time.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New IITs May be Given Less Land

About four years ago, I wrote this blog article on inefficient land use by elite institutes of India. I had argued that it should be possible to support 50 students per acre of land in a fully residential campus with all the research facilities as well as all the municipal facilities like school, shopping center, hospital, and so on, and with adequate parks and other open spaces. Of course, this is assuming that the entire land is usable and there are no ravines, forests, streams, and other features which make the land unusable. As an extension of the argument, it would be possible to have even higher density of students, if a new campus is planned well, and some support can be there from the city around the campus.

The recent report in media indicate that a panel that was tasked to come up with minimum requirement of land for new central institutions like IITs and IIMs has given a report with similar numbers. The media reports mention that the minimum land for establishing an IIT should be 260 acres instead of 500 acres till now.

Ideally, the land requirement should depend on the area in which the Institute is being set up. If we are setting it closer to a city, then one gets a higher FAR, one gets permission to build higher, and so on, and hence the land requirement shall be lower. On the other hand, if the new institute is being set up away from a city, usually one would not get permission to build higher, the restrictions on FAR would be more stringent, and hence the land requirement would be greater. Also, from a competitive point of view, you need to give something to an institute in a less preferred location with which it can attract potential faculty, staff and students. And that something could be land. The institute could offer more spacious environments. I would, any day, prefer a more sprawling campus of IIT Kanpur than a concrete jungle that IIT Bombay is, even though the city of Mumbai has a lot to offer.

The state governments should be able to give choices to the Ministry on location vis-a-vis land. They could afford 200 acres near a big city, near an airport, and all that, or it could be 300 acres if one goes 20-30 KM out, or it could be 400 acres if one goes to a small city, or 500 acres if one goes to a town. In fact, there could be other options as well, may be 100 acres closer to the city and 200 acres, 5KM away. So residences are closer to the city solving the problem of social infrastructure for families and spousal jobs. Overall, what is important is that we show some flexibility on the issue of land. The exact number of acres should not be cast in stone.

Now, let us look at the land requirements for other institutes. For NITs, it is proposed to reduce the land requirement to 150 acres. I am not sure what the logic is. Most part of the land in NIT or an IIT is used for residential requirements and teaching requirements. The research requirement would indeed use up some land, but given that both NITs and IITs are supposed to do research, the difference can not be so substantial. Is the different land requirement (which by the way was there in the past also, 300 acres versus 500 acres, so it is not a new issue that I am stating) due to expectation that NITs would have a smaller student population (but why?), or is it due to more lavish spaces for IITians (bigger houses, bigger hostel rooms, bigger offices?) I hope the entire report will be made public soon for us to understand the reasons better.

The most interesting recommendation is regarding the IIMs. Unlike other type of institutions, IIMs have different land requirement depending on whether it is an urban campus or a non-urban campus, and the difference is huge. 5-10 acres (ONLY?) for an urban campus versus 60 acres for a non-urban campus. I guess, they are looking at a non-residential campus for IIMs, if they are established in a city. But it is interesting that only for IIMs they have a range (5-10) and for everything else, they have a fixed number, and this does look extremely tiny compared to the current norms of 200 acres. My guess is that by reducing the requirement from 200 acres to 10 acres, the new IIMs would have a very different character and would find it difficult to compete.

But, overall, it is high time the educational institutes start making more efficient use of land.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Selection of an IIT Director

How do we recruit an employee in an organization at the lowest level, say an office assistant or a clerical staff. We take out an advertisement, and receive a large number of applications. We use a shortlisting criteria to call lots of them to spend a day at the organization. We have a series of tests, check their language skills, check their basic analytical skills, and check their computer skills. After each stage, keep reducing the numbers, and finally we have an interview. It is a pretty rigorous exercise that takes a significant amount of time and effort by several persons in the organization.

When we are recruiting at more "important" levels like a faculty, we typically ask each candidate to spend a couple of days in the Institute, give a seminar, interact with all faculty members, get letters of recommendations, and we read a few of the top papers. Again a huge amount of effort with several candidates to select one faculty member.

How do we recruit a student in IITs. I don't need to explain the JEE and GATE exams. Even for PhD admission, the interview process is pretty strict and often lasts for more than 30 minutes for any candidate who is serious. And this is when we have lots of ways to test them during the academic programs, and their programs can be terminated if they don't perform well.

How do we recruit a Director of an IIT. After the usual application/nomination process, there is a search cum selection committee which shortlists the candidates and invite these candidates for an interview. You would imagine that to recruit a CEO level position, the interaction with the candidate would last the whole day, and perhaps interaction with multiple stake holders. NO.

The interaction with 36 candidates will be over in 6 hours. That means about 10 minutes per candidate. Yes, we recruit a Director in a fraction of the time compared with the recruitment of an administrative staff, a student, a faculty, or pretty much anyone else in the Institute. (And it is not to blame the selection that happened on Sunday. Even in the past, it had been only about 30 minutes interaction.)

Why does this happen. It happens because of the belief that some people have super-human powers. They can look at you and decide how good you are. Indeed there are people who can just look at a CV and decide how good you are for the position of the Director. (I am aware of the selection of VC of a prominent university where the VC was decided purely by looking at CVs.)

Some of the members of the committee have never even visited the IIT whose CEO they are selecting. They have had no interaction with the stake holders. And yet, it is assumed that they somehow know what are the requirements of that IIT. The process of search cum selection committees where the stake holders are only represented by the Chairman of the Board (who himself or herself may be seeking the next term from the same Ministry) is deeply flawed, but this is the one that we have been using for the last 50 years.

What is even bigger disaster is that the search cum selection committee for multiple institutes is merged for the process. Are the requirements for all the Institutes identical. If I am a potential Director of two of those Institutes, I may want to give two different presentations - one on my perceptions of the issues facing the first institute and what I will do as a leader, and the second on the same about the second institute. Each institute is different and the vision, strategy, tactics, requirements, etc., has to be unique. But the process does not allow focusing on each institute one at a time.

There is an even more serious problem when you merge the selection of Directors for multiple Institutes. The shortlisting becomes much too important. If we are selecting Directors of 5 Institutes simultaneously (and it has happened before), then you either shortlist 30 persons and interact with each of them for only 10 minutes, or you shortlist 10 persons, and interact with each of them for 30 minutes. Clearly, these committee members (which include the Minister) are extremely busy and cannot be expected to spend more time than that on Directors' selections. In the former case, one would be selecting a Director with pretty much no interaction, and in the latter case, while there is a little bit of interaction, the shortlisting is such that you have selected only 2 persons per IIT for the top position, and hence must have ignored the claims of many good candidates.

Contrast this with the selection of a Director by a good private institute that I am privy too. Several meetings with the Board members over a few months. A visit to the Institute. Preparing several vision documents and presenting them, which will be discussed and debated not just by board members but some external friends of the Institute as well. Reference letters, and so on.

The current selection process reduces the prestige and respect of the Director. It is clear to all stake holders that the selection as a Director was partly a lottery, and partly a result of "connections." Indeed connections are extremely important, since we know that the members are not super humans, and make up their mind about someone being good or bad for a job in 10 minutes (or even 30 minutes) only because they knew the candidate earlier. How much respect such a Director would have on campus, when we know that he did not become the Director by studying our issues and presenting a vision and a roadmap for the future. He did not become a Director because he has leadership skills, unless you consider having connections as a quintessential leadership skill. And hence, the common refrain on an IIT campus is that Directors do not matter. Most of the Institutes run on auto pilot anyway, and the Director can only influence so much. We have created rigid systems to safeguard ourselves from such Directors. It need not have been this way if the stake holders trusted the Director with the leadership role.

And I believe that a whole lot of problems in IITs (and other educational institutions) are because of lack of leadership. We are simply drifting with no clear goals.

It is high time we start taking recruitment of Director at least as much seriously as take the recruitment of administrative staff, technical staff, faculty, and students.

Added on 18th April, 2015:

After the blog was published, two newspaper articles have quoted this.
Smriti's Process to Select IIT Directors Questioned, Deccan Herald, and
A 10 Minute IIT Puzzle - How to Pick Directors, The Telegraph.

The contrast between the two reports shows how newspapers can present the same story with completely different emphasis. While Telegraph has very sensitively presented this as an academic issue, DH makes a very provocative headline and converts this into a political issue. Telegraph was very careful in pointing out that the selection process was largely the same in the previous government, and hence the issue is not that of current minister but the process itself. While DH fully blames the current minister. A personal blame game will only ensure that we don't make any changes. Very sad to see such journalism.

Added on 19th April, 2015:

Recently, Dr. Sunil Mukhi has written two blog articles on selection of academic leaders. They are available at the following links:
Checklist for hiring in academia
Checklist for hiring in academia (II)

Added on 20th April, 2015:

Frontline has a report on the process and controversy about selection of TIFR Director. (via Abi's blog.)
Disappointing a Director

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Union Budget for Technical Education

The budget for the financial year 2015-16 was announced a few days ago. I looked at the technical education part of the budget and here are the top level numbers:

                                      Plan                Non-plan        Total (in crores)
2013-14 Actuals            6581               2655                9236
2014-15 BE                   6385               3078                 9463
2014-15 RE                   5544               3068                 8612
2015-16 BE                   5996               3296                 9292

BE is budgetary estimates (what is decided at the beginning of the year)
RE is revised estimate (what is likely expenditure based on first 10-11 months of expenses)

The budget reflects the tight financial situation our country is in. (I certainly do hope that it does not reflect a reduced priority for technical education.)

Overall, in the next financial year, we are expecting to spend the same amount of money that we spent in the previous financial year. If we look at the non-plan budget, it has kept pace with inflation, and to some extent with the increase in student strength. However, the plan budget is a big disappointment. There is actually a 9% reduction from what we spent in the last year. And remember, the IITs and other institutions announced in the last 6-7 years are now in the peak of their construction, and several more new institutions have been announced in this budget and the previous budget. The inflation in these two years will be around 13%. Most of the institutions (including IIT Kanpur) have not yet built sufficient infrastructure to handle the 54% student increase effected between 2008 and 2010. Now that will further get delayed. And note that the PhD assistanship (which is charged to plan budget) has been hiked by 50%. That too has to be accommodated in this budget.

The problem of IITs is more pronounced. The plan budget has gone from 2363 crores (2013-14 actual) to 2160 crores (2014-15 revised estimate) to 1835 crores (2015-16 budget estimates). The non-plan budget received an inflation-adjusted and student-intake adjusted hike in the current year (1334 crores to 1586 crores), but increases to only 1704 crores, which barely takes into account the expected inflation, but doe not take into account the larger number of students and faculty. I guess, this is a good thing as IITs would be under pressure to think of alternate sources of revenue, including gifts from well wishers, CSR, higher user charges from facilities like hostels, and also, they will be under pressure to become more efficient in doing things.

Other technical institutes continue to suffer from poor budgets. The per capita budget (whether plan or non-plan) of NITs and IIITs is significantly less than IITs. The quality of technical education will not improve in the country by just creating more IITs. One needs to improve the quality in all existing institutions, in addition to opening new institutes.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Railways losing competition in passenger traffic

There are lots of positives in the Railway Budget 2015. The intent is very positive and visionary. Let us hope that it will translate into action. The focus on increasing capacity is really the best thing about that intent. Every budget talks about a small increase in capacity - a bit of doubling, a few new lines, a few gauge conversions, improved signalling and so on. But the intent in this budget seems to be to increase capacity very substantially over the next 4-5 years.

One often hears that Railways has lost goods traffic to road transport in the last several decades. What is not appreciated, however, is that Railways has lost passenger traffic to other modes of transport in a big way in the last couple of decades. Let us look at a few numbers.

The AC-1st and Executive class passengers are about 3.5 million in a year. That is minuscule compares to about 70 million domestic passengers that airlines will fly in 2014-15 financial year in India. Even if we add AC-2T passengers (22.5 million), that still is only 26 millions. And remember, the AC-1st, Executive class and AC-2T classes are subsidized on Indian Railways, while airlines pay heavy taxes, particularly on the fuel.

Why do airlines carry three times as many passengers as in AC-2T class when the AC-2T fares are often a fraction of air fares. (In other words, Indigo Airlines carry more traffic than Indian Railways carry in AC-2T class.) Is it that people are rich and they value the saving of time so much. It would have been great, if that was the reason. For long distance traffic (more than 1000 KM), that perhaps does count for a significant reason, but the medium (500-1000 KM) and the short distance (upto 500 KM) passengers would have loved to save money, if there was a convenient overnight train, or a fast evening train. But alas, all convenient and fast trains are always full. Railways is losing out primarily because they simply don't have capacity.

In fact, if we look at AC-3T traffic, that is less than 70 million passengers in a year, and the fares are cheap compared to the air fares. And again, the numbers are comparable to air passengers. It is obvious to me that if the government were to have a more friendly policy towards airlines (like less taxes on ATF), the air traffic has the potential to exceed the total AC passengers on Indian Railways.

But creating additional capacity will not be easy unless they find new sources of revenue (or take a tough political call on removing subsidies). To know the level of subsidies, let us look at the suburban passengers. Railways will carry about 4.5 billion passengers in 2014-15, while various Metros in the country (mostly Delhi Metro) will carry about 1 billion passengers in the same year. The total passenger receipts of Indian Railways from these 4.5 billion passengers is about the same as the total passenger receipts of various Metros in the country (who also have fares influenced by politics, but are doing better than Railways, particularly by not allowing any passes).

Just as an aside, note that the suburban passenger growth on Indian Railways is flat, while Metro traffic will keep increasing substantially every year as the new Metro segments become operational in different cities. In 15-20 years, Metro trains will carry more suburban passengers than Indian Railways, unless IR invests heavily in this segment. But alas, there is no money to invest. And there is no money, because there is no return.

The only non-suburban segment in which Indian Railways has large market share is non-AC classes. There too, I am sure that buses and other road based transport options would compete well, at least for distances less than 300KM, only if there was a level playing field. That is, actual cost was charged by the transporter in each case. Even in this segment, if Railways were to not create additional capacity, they will start losing market share.

If Railways has to remain relevant in the country, it has to invest heavily in creating greater capacity, and I am so happy that the budget puts in such a sharp focus on this issue.