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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Use unaccounted wealth to improve education

Another surgical strike happened yesterday. The Government of India has declared the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes will no longer be legal tender in the country. This is huge amount of money. Different newspapers are giving different figures, but they vary from Rs. 6 lakh crores to Rs. 9 lakh crores (6-9 trillion rupees). Of course, people and organizations who are holding this cash can deposit this money in the bank over the next 50 days, but if the money was unaccounted for, it could lead to questioning by Income Tax authorities. Most people are estimating that a significant part of this cash is unaccounted for. Of course, over the next 50 days, the financial experts will try to find ways to deposit the money in bank or get it exchanged with valid currency, but it is pretty obvious that a very large amount, in trillions of rupees, will be worthless very soon.

Will burning these notes be the only solution?

I have a suggestion. What if the government allows these people to "donate" these notes to educational institutions (who have been given tax exempt status for donations) and allow educational institutions to deposit any amount of such donations in the bank. These people who donate money can then be given a receipt which they can use to claim tax deduction.

If someone has 1 crore worth of unaccounted for currency notes, he will have the following options:

1. Give this money to an educational institute anonymously. He may feel nice that his ill gotten wealth is helping the nation in some way.
2. Give this money to an educational institute, get a receipt, show that receipt in his income tax return and get a tax saving of 30 percent (or 15 percent, depending on the educational institute). The person still loses 70 percent of the money, but again, he may feel nice that instead of destroying those notes, they are of some use in nation building.

Depending on whether someone is willing to show that money or not, they can chose option 1 or option 2.

Of course, one could consider other priorities and allow a broader set of organizations to whom such donations can be made. Since in some cases, this can become a conduit to exchange the old notes with new (you donate, and then you get a contract or some other goodie), government may decide that only government institutions will be permitted to accept such donations.

Just imagine what it can do to education.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Delink Teaching and Learning

This is a topic on which I have been thinking of writing for some time. And then I read a few days ago an article by Bibek Debroy in Indian Express. The title is "Like advanced nations, India must delink classroom teaching from student learning."

There is far too much focus on teaching in Indian institutions, whether schools or colleges. In this context, I recall a curriculum workshop that we had organized at IIT Kanpur almost two decades ago. A well known Professor from MIT was also an invited participant. During the tea break, I asked him one question. How would MIT or any other US university would evaluate an application of a student from a college from where they have not admitted students in the past. If the student has a 9.5/10.0 CGPA and claims to be a topper, how would they compare him/her with candidates from other good institutions.

He replied that he would look at two things. First, how many courses do they do in a typical semester. Second, whether those courses are teaching skills and technologies or are they doing basic stuff (hopefully followed by projects, but pedagogy is difficult to ascertain from the transcript).

He asked me to find out the number of courses (in terms of equivalent of standard 40-lecture a semester courses) in IITs, NITs, other good institutes, and then in the affiliated colleges (where the Technical University dictates the curriculum). And sure enough, we found at that time that IITs were teaching 40-42 courses, NITs and other good institutions were generally teaching 45-50 courses, and most technical universities were requiring more than 50 courses (there are semesters when you do 7 courses).

The implication was that if you are forcing the students to learn 7 courses in a semester, there is no way an average student will learn anything. To really learn a course well, you must do some self study, revise the lectures, do home assignments, carry out some projects, etc. All this must mean that you are investing about 10 hours a week in the course. Would an average student spend 70 hours a week in studying. No way. Today, in most of the colleges, students complain if they have to do anything more than 40 hours a week. (During the admission season, one of the common question asked was how many hours would one have to study in that college. Or why one should join IIIT-Delhi which insists that you spend 40-50 hours a week on academics, when in other colleges, you don't even need to attend lectures.) So, if they have more than 5 courses, their focus will immediately be on how to get good marks and not on learning.

When we have such a serious shortage of faculty resource, and when higher teaching results in lower quality of learning, isn't it obvious that a university should teach less - this will improve learning as well as reduce costs.

The curriculum is decided on the basis that if we teach many things, the student is likely to retain some. Since a large number of our faculty in such poor colleges has come from similar programs, they are very reluctant to experiment with teaching less and hoping that student will learn most of it. And one gets absolutely hilarious arguments - our students are not like IIT students, they are not as smart. Well, if your students are not as smart, and we at IITs believe that students are only capable of learning 5 courses a semester, you should probably be teaching your students only 4 courses a semester. If they are not as smart, how come they will be able to learn 7 courses which even the so-called smarter kids at IITs can not do.

Besides the quantum of teaching, which Mr. Debroy focuses on in his lecture, there is another important issue. Even if we are teaching 4-5 courses in a semester, do we focus on learning. Unfortunately, not. A lot of even good faculty (good in the sense of their strong knowledge of the subject being taught) would focus only on having a great lecture - the transparencies should cover the material well, the diction should be clear, should be well prepared to answer all questions, and so on. Is this good enough for learning? Unfortunately not. It is now well understood that even adults can concentrate on a task for only about 10 minutes. That is why you find many MOOC lectures of that duration, The Khan Academy videos are of similar duration, etc. It is important that in a classroom environment, you reboot the class every 10 minutes. May be ask a question, ask them to think or whatever. But you talk to faculty members and they will tell you that they can't afford to "waste" time in the lecture. The syllabus is so vast and everything has to be covered. As long as the focus is on covering the syllabus and not uncovering the syllabus, the quality of learning will remain poor.

Also, if the focus is on learning, immediately, an instructor would consider having assignments and projects. But, if the focus is on teaching, why bother about projects which do not enhance the status of an instructor as a great teacher. And you can see in most places where you have 7 courses a semester, there are no labs, projects, assignments, etc. They really don't care about learning.

Besides teaching, the only other focus is on job. Let students get some job somewhere somehow. That is a parameter the colleges will use to attract the next batch. That these students will have no career without learning is completely ignored by every stakeholder - teachers, students and parents. And hence the focus on skills and technologies that one may get asked about in the job interview. The curriculum is decided on the basis of what industry HR folks tell colleges. And since every HR guy gives a different technology name, the colleges just take a union of these and teach them (and of course, teach them without projects).

Our regulatory bodies also encourage teaching since learning is more difficult to measure by them. It is easy to measure the inputs - teacher-student ratio, teaching load, average class size, and so on. Of course, there is some realization in accreditation bodies and they are now asking for evidence that learning is taking place.

Is there any center on teaching and learning at the higher education level (not school level education). Hardly, any. While any good university abroad would have such a center. We all know how to teach, and we don't care whether they learn. So why do we need to invest in teaching and learning centers.

Fortunately, I am currently at an institute where the focus on learning is tremendous. We have for each course, a well defined course outcomes. What is it that a student be able to do at the end of the semester. At the beginning of the semester, a faculty member discusses his/her plan with a couple of colleagues and explain how the instructor would ensure that learning outcomes will be met. What kind of assignments and projects will be there. What kind of in-class interventions are being thought of. How extra help will be provided to students who may be slow learners in that particular course. The entire discussion takes no more than half an hour, but that 30 minutes investment really provides a lot of useful feedback to the instructor. We then take a feedback from the students of the course 3 weeks into the semester. The usual end-of-semester feedback may not be very useful since the instructor may change next time. But an early feedback which the instructor can use to make changes to the course/pedagogy really makes a big difference. And the feedback is quite simple: Write what is going right with the course, and write what can be improved. No more questions. Anonymous. And finally, in the end-of-semester feedback, we write down the learning outcomes, and for each learning outcome, ask the student to comment on whether s/he feels confident of having learned that. So we have a decent idea of whether in any course offered in the Institute some expected learning outcomes were not met. Every semester, in one of the faculty meeting, we ask those faculty members who have got great reviews to say in few minutes what innovations they did in their course so that others can learn from their experiments.

If you notice, all that have stated above does not take too much time away from research. Most of the things take very little time. The total time spent on teaching without thinking of learning outcomes is really not much different than the total time spent on teaching when you are always conscious of learning outcomes.

Great teachers somehow intuitively know what is right for learning. But the challenge is to have average teachers and make sure that their students learn. And for this, the focus will have to shift from teaching to learning.

Wishing each one of you a very happy and safe Diwali. Darkness is nothing but ignorance, and the way to remove darkness is not by lighting a lamp, but by ensuring that our youth learns.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Double Major in UG Programs

Recently, Dr. Pushkar (BITS, Goa) forwarded me this article in Washington Post.
"Meet the parents who wouldn't let their children study literature." An interesting observation in the article is that the number of students majoring in two subjects in US universities has increased tremendously in recent years. About 40 percent of students go for double major in their under-graduate programs in US. And the reason for this is not that the world is becoming more complex, requires multiple skills to solve problems, need more inter-disciplinary approach, etc. The reason is that parents (like in India) are impressing upon their wards to study STEM fields in larger numbers, and the students are not as interested. Their love and passion is in something else. So as a compromise between the wishes of their parents and their own interests, the students study double major - one major of parental choice, another of their own choice.

So, in this blog article, I am just thinking aloud of the possibilities in India.

In India, the parental pressure is huge. (Refer to an earlier blog article on this topic: Parents and JEE Counseling.) In most cases, they decide everything that their son or daughter should do - which exams to give, which college to join, which discipline to major in, etc. And there does not seem to be any hope of that changing in near or even distant future. Will double major option work in India. Will students prefer to study another subject.

There are several differences between the US system and the Indian system, of course. I believe that in the Indian system, the parental pressure starts much too early, and a fair number of students have been brain washed completely to believe that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are the only useful disciplines to study. So I am not sure there would be many interested in second major (except those who got admission in an unpopular discipline and can only study a popular discipline through the option of second major). Though some of the new universities like Ashoka are doing a remarkable job in making liberal education popular, and this resistance to anything other than STEM might change over the next few years.

The other major difference between the two systems is that in US, when a student joins a STEM major, a non-STEM major of high quality is available on the same campus, and one can take a few courses out of interest, and then decide to do even more courses to complete the second major, all on the same campus. In India, we have all but banished non-STEM disciplines from institutes offering degrees in STEM fields. There may be one or two non-STEM disciplines which may have sufficient offering to complete the second major.

Another big difference is that our graduation requirements for a degree are much higher than any US university. Our universities and institutes tend to believe that if you throw a large number of poor quality courses at the student, s/he will remember at least something out of them. With that kind of graduation requirement, the double major would invariably mean a 5-year program. Also with rigid structures like what course to do in which semester, planning a non-standard path becomes very difficult.

But, despite all these reasons, I believe that if we can start expanding our offerings, there will be demand for any high quality program. There will be enough 18-year olds even in India who may not be able to say no to their parents, but would be excited about studying what they like to study. And while the 18-year old may study two majors because of compulsion and interest, what one is likely to find at the end of those four years is that there is a significant demand for that combination in the job market. There is serious shortage of every expertise in India, and more so of people who know something about two or more disciplines.

At IIIT-Delhi, we are seriously considering having such programs available to our future students. As a small institute, focused on IT, we may not be able to offer several options, but we certainly want to offer a program which will allow students to get IT background as well as background in something else. The something else would have to be defined carefully. We are considering "Social Sciences" as that something else. We are also thinking of "Design" as that something else. We might in future consider "Finance/Economics" as yet another option. All such programs will be designed in a way that one can complete them in four years, and there is enough CS/IT content which is typically core discipline content in a good quality BTech program, and there is enough content from the second discipline which is typically core discipline content in a good quality BA/BSc program. We rolled out one such program this year (but both disciplines are STEM disciplines - CS and Applied Maths).

Friday, September 9, 2016

Flexi Fare on Indian Railways

I love dynamic fares and I wrote about their need on Indian Railways long time ago (2011) in this blog article. I had talked about several ways in which fares could be made flexible.

I was excited when the Railways introduced dynamic fares in a Rajdhani like train between Delhi and Mumbai, and I wrote this blog article in December, 2013.

When they introduced dynamic fares on a system-wide scale in the name of "Premium Tatkal" I wrote another blog article praising the move, even though I said that this was a poor implementation of dynamic fares.

My hope was that Railways will learn about market, about demand and supply, and will learn to price their product better through this experiment.

They have taken the next step and introduced something called "Flexi Fares" on Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, and Durontos, the premium trains of the Indian Railways. The fares will increase with bookings, 10% after 10% seats are filled, upto a maximum of 50%.

And this time, I am beginning to believe that Railways is not really thinking about the market, about demand and supply. They are only thinking of higher revenues. Thinking of higher revenues is a legitimate business strategy. However, when you think of higher revenues without thinking of what the market can bear, it may not lead to desired goals.

I understand that Dynamic fares or Flexi fares are the only politically correct way to raise fares, and with a background of no fare hike for almost a decade, several large fare hikes in quick succession are needed to bring railways back to some kind of financial health and Mr. Prabhu is doing that. What has happened is that the fares on these trains have just gone up by 50% with a few tickets being sold at less than that.

My problem with the hike is just that. That it is not introduction of dynamic fare. The fares are completely fixed and do not depend on demand. Yes, there are a few price points. Ideally, Railways should do what airlines do - keep following their own bookings for every flight, keep looking at the competition, and decide fares based on their estimate of the demand and supply around that particular flight. If the 10% seats get filled up the day reservations open 120 days in advance, that is a very different demand than if the 10% seats get filled up over the next 60 days. Second, they also need to look at their competition - status of other trains close to Rajdhanis/Shatabdis/Durontos - are people booking them instead, or are they too not having heavy bookings, as well as status of flights and at least good quality bus services.

A truly dynamic fare will be more acceptable to public than what IR has done. It would really hurt to see a half empty coach when I have paid the "surge" pricing. Dynamic fares would have meant that in the lean season, the increase is smaller but in the holiday season coming up, the fare would go up higher.

In terms of fare increase, I think this was needed, and this was overdue. These are premium trains, and no poor person travels by these trains. There is no reason for subsidizing higher classes in premium trains.

A lot of comments on social media say that these trains would become unviable. They wouldn't be able to find enough AC-2T passengers on Delhi-Mumbai or Delhi-Bangalore Rajdhanis. Yes, there won't be many end-to-end passengers on most Rajdhanis on most days. Already, at least in the current lean season, air fares are cheaper than AC-2T fares on Rajdhanis. But this is where the planning by Railways become crucial. My favorite example for these discussions is Lucknow-New Delhi Shatabdi. The Lucknow-Delhi air fare is cheaper than Executive class fare, and the fare on Chair Car after 50% hike would be right there too. So in the lean season, I would expect the passengers to take flights. But come busy season, people will be back to Shatabdis since the air fares will be much higher. However, if Railways can earmark more quota from the intermediate stations, like Kanpur, from where there are no flights, they can really double the fare and still find passengers. But will Railways give more seats to Kanpur and other intermediate stations. Similarly, I would expect much fewer passengers on Delhi-Howrah Rajdhani traveling end-to-end. But I would expect more passengers to board from Kanpur, Allahabad, etc. if the quota from these places go up.

At least till the regional air connectivity scheme takes off, giving more seats to inter-mediate stations would give a lot of dividend to the Railways.

My fear is that increasing the upper class fares substantially without linking them to demand and supply and without a plan to fill those seats through quotas of intermediate stations, would cause the AC coaches to remain vacant, and then someone is going to say, there is not enough patronage of such trains, and let us stop this train, or remove upper class of service. So we could have reduced capacity not because there was reduced demand, but because that demand was not managed properly.

By the way, if the Railways finances were more transparent, and someone could show that the cost of transporting an individual in AC-2T over long distance like Delhi-Bangalore is inherently more than a flight seat over the same distance, I would have no problems if long distance upper class seats are reduced substantially. If economics of transport options is such that for a certain route trains can't compete with flights, we shouldn't mourn the death of passenger trains in those sectors. May be we can have more freight trains instead on those sectors. However, my fear is that in the absence of any transparent way of apportioning costs, such decisions could be arbitrary.

One of the criticisms that I consider valid is that Mr. Prabhu is trying to avoid taking tough decisions. Is he willing to increase fares or pass costs in Mumbai suburban. Why not increase fares of 2S and unreserved tickets, which are heavily subsidized. The fare hike in Rajdhani/Shatabdi/Duronto is just testing the waters. If there is enough noise, after a certain period, we will see partial roll back. If there is not enough noise, the experiment would be extended to other express trains as well. However, from all what I am hearing, even if this experiment is extended, it will be only for AC classes in mail/express/superfast trains, or at best SL class in a few trains. Without tackling the biggest sources of subsidy, you aren't going to take Railways out of that proverbial ICU.

We don't need flexi fares or premium tatkal fares. We need market linked fares. And we need market linked fares not just for AC classes, but also for SL class. And, of course, we need to recover a greater part of the cost of suburban and passenger trains as well.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Giving on Teachers Day

I have been incredibly fortunate. In all the educational institutes that I have attended as a student, schools, UG and PG universities, I have had the privilege of interacting with some of the most wonderful persons this world has seen. And let me begin this blog article by thanking them for all they have done to/for me.

I have also been incredibly fortunate to be interacting with wonderful students after I decided to become a teacher myself. I love my teaching responsibilities precisely because I get to interact with such students. Alas, most universities wouldn't think for a moment what is the reason behind this joy of teaching. The reason is simple. There are those large number of fantastic teachers spread all across the country in different schools (and yes, coaching classes too), who have made those students what they are. So we at the university level enjoy teaching since some other folks have done the hard work. I take this opportunity to thank all of them for bringing joy to my classroom.

Teaching remains one of the few professions where the "client" continues to have a lifelong connection with the service provider with a lot of affection and respect. While teachers are well paid in India, if you can add smiles to your compensation package, it immediately becomes the best profession in the country.

I was curious to find out how Teachers Day is celebrated across India. So I googled for suggestions at the college level. And I got all the standard ones - give a card to your teacher, make him/her feel nice, say thank you, have a small celebration, some cultural activity, some awards, or some titles for the teachers, etc. There were also suggestions for taking your teacher out for dinner, or to theater or whatever.

But what caught my attention was a few sites asking people to donate on this particular day. One of them from said that if you are feeling grateful to teachers, give others a chance to get the same feeling. The asked the patrons to donate and ensure teachers are met with bright, happy faces every day (since they will be fed meals with this money). One of the simplest suggestion was not to throw away the books after you have moved on to the next class, but donate them for the next batch of students.

The bottom line is that the cost of good education is rising rapidly, while the state funding for education has not kept pace. As a result, poor can either not access quality institutions, or if they can, they still can't learn enough because they are worried about survival issues all the time.

So, if you are confused about how to celebrate Teachers Day, give a gift to an educational institution and let your teachers know that you did this. I too will be doing the same thing. The amount is immaterial. It is the feeling that matters, since that feeling will lead to a commitment, and you will then find other ways to support in due course.

(At IIIT-Delhi, we are keen to expand our programs to provide greater support to more students from economically disadvantaged background. If you wish to know more about our programs, please contact me.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Normalization of Admission Tests

So NEET is back in Supreme Court, this time a candidate asking for normalization between NEET I and NEET II. Here is a news item:

NEET I and II combined results challenged in Supreme Court

First of all, why is it that no one challenged JEE. They too have multiple papers, and by no means the papers are of equal difficulty levels. The JEE Mains has not been challenged, because someone who gave a slightly tougher exam but still still got shortlisted for Advanced JEE, does not care. And someone who didn't get shortlisted for the Advanced JEE, knows that even if s/he was shortlisted, the chances of getting through to IITs was remote. And frankly, people don't quite care for admission to NITs as much as they care for admission to IITs and for admission to MBBS programs.

I recall a meeting in CBSE regarding JEE. Before the meeting started, out of curiosity, I asked the officer handling JEE Mains whether the averages of the paper version and the computer version were same. Without blinking an eyelid, he said, yes they are identical. I kept quiet.

At the end of the meeting, the CBSE Chairperson was wondering why so few candidates give online JEE, even though there is significant benefit in giving online JEE. The paper exam is just after your board exams are over, while the online exam gives you additional time to revise everything. And the conversation went something like this:

Me: Do you recall the question I asked before the meeting about the averages of the two papers.
CBSE Chairperson: Yes.
Me: I can guarantee that the officer was lying. He has never seen the two averages.
CBSE: How can you be so sure.
Me: He has a laptop in front of him. Ask him to check the information now, and let us know the exact numbers.
JEE Officer: Sorry, Sir. I don't know the averages.
CBSE: (Now very curious), But how could you guess?
Me: Averages of lakhs of students can be close but not identical. If he had seen the numbers and they were indeed very close, he would have said that they are within 1% of each other, or something like that.
CBSE: But what does this have to do with students not taking up online exam.
Me: The perception is that the online exam is much tougher. Your processes are very opaque and you don't give out any statistics. So you do nothing to tell people that either the exam is not much tougher, or yes, it is tougher, but then we normalize.

At this point, the officer who handled JEE Mains exam informed us that the way they handle the differences between the two exam is that they ask the group who prepares the question papers to ensure that the two papers are of equal difficulty levels, and we get a certificate signed by them that it is indeed so.

This was, frankly, very shocking. Think about it. There are persons out there who are willing to vouch in writing that the two question papers are of exact same difficulty level without any data, and just on the basis of their experience. I don't know who are these persons with no understanding of testing, but I can only say that these people don't deserve to be anywhere close to that question paper. And for CBSE to involve such persons in preparing the most important question paper for over 10 lakh students shows how CBSE lacks competence about testing. And if, doing this was expedient in the beginning, wouldn't you at least look at data later on. And if the data miraculously pointed to similar distribution of marks, make that information public so that the public perception about your processes become more positive. But once the exam is over, everything about it is best forgotten.

I am extremely happy that someone is challenging the lack of normalization in NEET. I only hope that there is no miracle here and NEET I and NEET II indeed have different distributions of marks. Otherwise, we will be strengthening the argument that it is possible for a man to look at two question papers and guarantee same distribution of marks.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

IITs as accreditators?

We have problems in the country, lots of them. But we also have solutions in the country. And thanks to successive governments' indulgence, lots of them too, 23 of them at the last count. And there is a promise that if these 23 can not solve all problems of India, we will create more of them.

One of the problems is the poor quality of higher education. It was hoped not too long ago that India will reap the immense benefits of a young population, the demographic dividend, as they said. But without a good quality education, that dividend seems to be becoming a liability. One of the ways of improving quality is to insist on accreditation by a bunch of supposedly quality conscious individuals following some guidelines and checking things in each college. NAAC was born out of this requirement. But NAAC has not been able to grow fast enough. It is said that at the current rate of accreditation, they will take 38 years to accredit only the existing institutions, and in these 38 years there will be many new ones. So in the foreseeable future there is no hope of making accreditation compulsory for all.

The new HRD Minister is quick to figure out that we need multiple accreditation bodies. This is, not a new revelation, of course. A lot of people have been saying that we need accreditation agencies in the private sector. But when it comes to education, private sector is bad, not to be touched with a 10 feet pole, never mind that most of our students are studying in private institutions and that many of these are superior to most government institutions. So the minister has been advised that perhaps IITs could be the accreditation agencies.

Here are the links to some of the news reports regarding this:

Centre plans 10-20 more accreditation agencies besides NAAC, says HRD Minister

Prakash Javadekar for giving IITs and IIMs accreditation body status

Do IITs have the bandwidth. Will this not be a distraction. Remember, compulsory accreditation once in 5 years for 38,000 institutions means 7600 accreditations per year, and if 20 organizations are involved in accreditation, then each of these organizations on an average will have to accredit 380 institutions in a year. That is a huge workload in addition to teaching and research.
I am sure some IITs will see a huge business opportunity in this. We can hire an agency to do this job under some bit of supervision from our side. Charge heavily so that a decent profit is made which can improve the quality of education at IITs further. Basically, a transfer of wealth from poor institutes to richer institutes.

But there is a more fundamental question. Should someone who has scant regard for the accreditation process be doing it. Today, accreditation is no longer based on inputs. You don't just look at the infrastructure, number of faculty, etc. You look at what are the vision, mission statements of the institute. What are the goals of each academic program. What is the outcome of each course in that program, and how it contributes towards the overall goal of that program. Having looked at all of it, one then asks questions regarding, how do we know that these outcomes are being attained. We also look at the whether there is a process for continuous improvement, looking at those outcomes and goals and discussing whether they remain relevant, etc.

I can't say about all IITs, but I can confidently say that IIT Kanpur does not do anything of this sort. We do not have a vision statement even 56 years after we were set up. We don't have goals for our programs, we don't have outcomes for our courses, etc. We are perhaps a unique institution which says that while there will be a feedback of all courses every semester, that feedback can not be used for any administrative decision. If you look at the way proposals are drafted, they invariably would not talk about options and what are the pluses and minuses of those options. The way minutes of the meetings are written, one could be forgiven to think that our language of instruction is not English. Overall, they have complete contempt for this process, which they believe is too bureaucratic, and is designed to generate employment. And that is fine. They still have done wonderfully well in academics. They still teach well, and they still do good research. They may fail the accreditation test, but if they don't want to go through accreditation (as long as it is optional), that is their call. And the market has already decided whether they need accreditation or not.

But while, it is alright if IIT Kanpur does not follow what Washington Accord suggests as best practices, or what NAAC will come and check, but it is not alright for such an institution to inspect other institutions and demand that they follow the same best practices which we have contempt for. And I suspect that it is not just about IIT Kanpur, but a lot of IITs are in the same boat.

So while I appreciate that the Minister has identified a very serious shortcoming of our educational system, but asking IITs and IIMs to solve that problem is not correct. Particularly when it is obvious that IITs can not afford to do this with their own faculty, and can at best provide a very slight supervisory role with an outsourced agency. The better thing to do will be to seek private participation in this.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Why do Seats remain vacant?

Every year, a few weeks after the end of the admission season, there will be a report on vacant seats in IITs, NITs, etc. A fairly large number will be mentioned in the report. And we will be told that this happens because certain disciplines are not at all popular, and should perhaps be closed down, and may be those many seats should be increased in the more popular disciplines.

Indeed, there is no doubt that some disciplines are fancied by the herd of sheeps, assumed to bring in the riches. But is that the only reason. Are there really no students interested in studying those disciplines. In particular, given that a significant number of graduates don't go for core jobs, but instead go for MBA, finance jobs, IT jobs, and other such careers, how come such students are not taking admission in these "branded" colleges.

The reason for vacant seats, unfortunately, is not the lack of demand, but the stupidity of the admission process.

It is a common belief among the public as well as academic administrators that if we do a large number of rounds for admission, all or most seats will be filled. So we have seen our admission process go from 1 round to 2 to 3 and this year to 6 rounds for the admission to NITs and IITs. It is also believed that if we do joint counseling of larger and larger number of institutions, the number of vacant seats will go down substantially. Of course, both joint counseling and larger number of rounds would help a bit, but they can not solve the problem on their own.

If we look at the statistics of the 6 rounds, we notice the following: After the first round, there were 6490 vacancies. That means that so many people did not accept the admission offers. This is pretty reasonable given that there were almost 35,000 seats and many among those 35,000 would prefer places like BITS, IIIT-Delhi, and so on. The next round filled up these 6490 seats (well, barring a few that remained vacant. I am ignoring them since they are too small and don't change the main argument of this post). However, at the end of the second round, there were 2716 vacancies. Again, pretty reasonable given that they must have been offered unpopular programs and many would have preferred colleges outside JOSAA and not accepted admission. At the end of the 3rd round, the number of vacant seats come down to 1837, which is consistent with the argument made above, and is telling us that if we just keep doing a few more rounds, we would be able to find students for most vacant seats.

However, the story changes after this. At the end of the 4th round, the number of vacancies actually increase to 2021. Why did this happen. Well, some (or many) of those 1837 did not accept the admissions offered to them. But now, even those who had accepted admissions earlier, have started withdrawing. And this withdrawal becomes a serious business during the 5th round. At the end of 5th round, the number of vacancies is 4094.

A large number of students have withdrawn during the 5th round. Why did they not withdraw earlier if they were unhappy with their admission offer. Well, there was no incentive for them to withdraw, so might as well hope against hope and see what they can get in the 5th round (and what they can get in other colleges outside JOSAA). They withdrew during the 5th round since they were told that if they did not withdraw, their entire payment may be forfeited. (Some dd not withdraw even then, since they know that in the future MHRD will come to their aid and ask the institutes to return the money).

The government insists that there can be no financial penalty for withdrawal till the beginning of the semester. So we need to have all but the last round before the deadline of withdrawal, and only one round after the last date for withdrawal.

Unless people, who are not going to join, withdraw, we don't admit more students.
There is no incentive for people to take early decisions and withdraw as soon as they have multiple options.
But most importantly, and this is something that is often ignored by our academic administrators, even when someone withdraws, and there is a vacancy, we are filling that vacancy by someone who showed willingness to accept that admission more than a month ago, and who, in the last one month, has probably got many other admission offers. But since the counseling group does not know who is still interested one month later, they end up making offers to next in the queue who are not interested.

So, if consider the JOSAA admission process, the 6th round has filled up about 4000 vacancies, but if we take the survey of all institutes who have got admission through JOSAA, some time in August, I would not be surprised if there are still 5000 vacancies, which will not be filled.

Is there any way that we could have offered admission to more students. Of course, yes. But not by more rounds. We will have to solve problem by looking at the genesis of the problem.

So the problems and potential solutions are:

1. We admit students only after some people withdraw. Why can't we admit more students then the so-called number of seats. We have data for many years and we know roughly how many people will not accept offers. Based on historical data, we can always admit more students. We can be a bit conservative not to get into a situation where we have more students than what we can handle. But let us face it. If in a particular year, we do get a few extra students, heavens are not going to fall.

2. There is no incentive for people to withdraw early. This is a huge problem and a lesson. When you try to be populist and do things which common people will consider as friendly to them, you will actually end up doing things which hurt common people. Allowing students withdrawal till the last minute without any penalty will result in unfilled seats. And thousands of students not getting admission hurts more than a few thousand rupees loss to a few people. The right thing to do will be to declare that free withdrawal can only be done till X days before the semester and after that deadline, every day, there will be an additional deduction of the money if a student withdraws. This will ensure that people withdraw early and we are able to conduct not just one round but multiple rounds after people have started withdrawing.

3. We don't know who all are still interested in the programs one month after they filled in the choices. This is really the biggest problem. Currently, the way we fill up seats is by way of a "Spot" round (which is not happening in JOSAA this year). In this round, people have to apply afresh. So those who are no longer interested are out of the system. And invariably they have to be at a location physically and give a significant amount of money within minutes of getting admission offer and since it is being done through physical attendance, if someone does not want admission, the next person is offered the same.

Spot round has its own problems, of course. Traveling on short notice is not easy and airlines make a lot of money in this season. (Here you go, the money that you saved through full refund in one college, you paid to the airline. So you really did not save much.) Everyone has spot round in the last week of July or 1st few days of August. So there isn't much option regarding traveling. Invariably, spot round happens after the semester has started. So the students are joining late, have missed out on the orientation program, have missed out on the first assignments, first lab, introductory lectures, etc.

Another way to solve this problem will be to have an incentive for students to withdraw from the counseling process. Again, you don't have any other handle on the students except a bit of financial handle. So if JOSAA (and other similar counseling processes) could ask for more money after the first couple of rounds, which will be refunded progressive less as the days pass by. Also, the student should be able to delete options that s/he has filled in. So you could ask them to deposit Rs. 10,000 after the second round, and then say that if the student is not offered admission in any of his/her choices, the entire Rs. 10,000 will be refunded. On the other hand, if the student is indeed offered admission, and s/he decides not to accept it, then the refund will be based on how delayed the withdrawal has been. This will ensure that as soon as I get an offer from another good college, I go to JOSAA website, and remove some of my lower preferences which I would not want to accept in comparison with the offer that I have received. This makes the counseling process much more efficient and reduces the stress levels in the system tremendously. Coupled with a few extra admissions, this can really revolutionize the admission process and make it absolutely smooth. But it will require a small financial penalty for late decision making by students and parents.

To conclude, the seats remain vacant not because there is no one to accept those seats, but because we have a brain dead (but populist) admission process which can not identify the students who may be interested in those seats.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Improvement in Counseling Process

This is the admission season and counseling is the most common word that I hear in this season. Conceptually, the process is simple. A bunch of universities come together for joint admission process. Each one of them decides how they will rank the applicants. Each applicant submits a list of programs/institute pairs in the order of preference. The counseling software goes through all this data and matches applicants with a program/institute pair while ensuring that no one who is ranked higher as per that institute's ranking of candidates is given a lower preference than this combination.

Historically, the choice list is sacrosanct. You can't change anything in this once the allotment process starts. So you must fill up your order of preference very very carefully.

If we go back many years, the student had very limited options once the process of admission begins. If you are offered admission, you have only two choices - either pay the fee and you will then be considered in all subsequent rounds, and you finally join the program which was allotted to you in the last round. The other option was to opt out, and in that case you will be out from all future rounds as well. If weren't offered admission till a particular round, then of course your only option was to be considered in the next round.

The first improvement in this process happened when people started realizing that if someone has got admission in an IIT, and has blocked a seat in an NIT, inability to withdraw in the middle is ensuring that that seat goes waste. So a withdrawal anytime till a last date was introduced early on, which essentially meant that you are out of the system and you will not be considered for any future admission round either.

Often, the last round of admission would happen after the classes had already started. A large number of institutes and universities in India believe that their teachers are anyway useless and hence if admissions happen even one month after the semester has started, no one loses anything. However, the students had other issues. If I have joined NIT X, and after a week of classes, you tell me to move to NIT Y within a day or two, it will be a huge problem for me to pack up, find train reservation, or travel in unreserved class to reach the other corner of the country, settle their without the benefit of an orientation program, quickly make new friends, copy notes of the classes that I have missed and so on, only to be told to get out and join NIT Z after a few days. So there was a demand that once I have joined a particular institute, I do not wish to change my location even if I am getting my higher preference in a subsequent admission round. And this introduced the concept of "sliding." That I am only willing to be considered for my higher preference in the same campus but nothing else. Of course, this option was made available not only for later rounds, but even earlier rounds, so that one can plan one's travel and get reservations done. Notice that the order of preferences remained sacrosanct. Sliding only allowed that some of my options could be removed from the list, but those that remain were strictly in the same order that I filled up in the beginning.

People extended this further and said that once I have got admission in a particular program, I don't want to go through a phase of anxiety regarding what I might get in the subsequent rounds, and I just want to freeze my admission. This resulted in creation of "freeze" option for the students. This option is often used not to avoid anxiety, but when someone wants to rethink the order of preference, and feels that the current admission offer is better than what one might get in the subsequent rounds. Which ever way you look at it, essentially what has happened is that we have allowed the student to delete a large number of options, without giving an option to change the order of preference of the remaining list.

What next?

The biggest problem in today's counseling process is the following. When I was filling up the choice list, I did not have any admission offers. I was interested in 50 different programs, and I listed all of them in the order of my preference. However, a week later, I received an admission offer from another college which I would rank higher than the last 10 options out of 50 that I have filled. If out of these 50, I receive an admission offer in my choice number 41st, I really don't want to accept it, since I have a "better" offer outside this system, but if I don't accept it, I would not be considered for my higher preferences in later rounds. So I accept it knowing fully well that if I don't get higher preferences I won't join this program. This causes inefficiency in the system and hurts everyone - this student, other students, and the institute. We must solve this problem. And the interesting thing is that it is absolutely trivial to solve this problem. Most counseling softwares would probably need a few lines of code to change to allow this. So when a student is offered a particular choice, the student should be able to say that I don't want to accept this, but I still want to be considered for my higher preferences. To ensure seriousness of this choice, one may take a bit of money also from the student. And programming wise, this essentially means that the current offer and any lower options are deleted for this student. Notice that this is exactly what the software was doing in "sliding" - delete certain options without changing the order of preference for the remaining options.

Actually, allowing students to delete certain options at any time without changing the order of remaining options will solve other problems as well, and this does not create any problem for the counseling process. For example, we went through the historical need for "sliding" where we said that it was introduced because it was difficult to move from one institute to another at very short notice. Consider this. I have been allotted a program in NIT Allahabad. I certainly don't want to travel 700 KM to go to NIT Jaipur in the next round. However, I have no problems in moving to IIIT Allahabad, the college next door, in the next round. The "sliding" option does not help me there.

And hence what is needed is an option to delete some program/institute pairs from my original list at any time. And as long as the order of remaining options remain the same as in the original list, it won't create any problems for the allotment process. Having this option allows a more efficient allocation, which benefits all stakeholders.

Why is original order of preference sacrosanct?

There are many students who want to change their order of preference after the allotment process has started. This happens because they normally do not have adequate time to do a proper evaluation of all options and do fill up some of the options that they later regret. While we may not be sympathetic to such students, if allowing change would cause problems for our process and create confusion, but if nothing like that would happen, could we not allow some change of order of preferences?

Changing the original order of preference could lead to small problems. Let me give an example. Suppose JEE Rank 1 has given CSE at IIT Kanpur as the first option initially and received that admission offer. Now, she wants to change it to CSE at IIT Bombay after knowing that everyone prefers that IIT. If we allow this, in the next round, this girl will get CSE at IIT Bombay, and someone who had been offered CSE at IITB in the first round would be told, sorry, we are withdrawing our offer. A naive implementation would do this. So we need to be careful in implementation. No one should get a lower preference in any subsequent round. Once an offer of admission has been made, in future, the student must either remain with that admission offer or get an offer which was a higher preference. Under no circumstances can one be given a lower preference in a later round.

But does it mean that there can be no change in original order at all, and all changes will cause such problems. Certainly not. First of all, the logic of allotment can be changed to ensure that the student in our example above gets CSE at IITB only if a seat gets vacated under normal circumstances, and not otherwise. The logic will be a bit complicated but not something that can not be coded.

However, somethings can still be allowed without getting into such problems. If we consider a student who has received an admission offer to a program which was 10th in the preference list. At this time, any re-ordering of preferences within the top 9 preferences would not cause any difficulty or confusion in the subsequent rounds. The problem of what we describe above in the example of JEE 1 student happens when we want to shift any of the lower preferences to higher preferences. So if we are shifting what was earlier at #11 in this example to #9, we could potentially get into the problem.

As I state above, we could rewrite the logic of allotment to handle this as well, but if those managing counseling feel uncomfortable with that, at the very least we can do two thing that I have stated above:

1. Allow deletion of any option at any time, including when it is being offered.
2. Allow reordering of options among those which are higher than the currently allotted option.

The first one would enhance the efficiency of the process tremendously which is beneficial to all stakeholders. The second one would allow rethink on part of students.

Of course, this has security implications. If we allow such changes, what stops a hacker to change someone's options to benefit some other student. Notice that in the current system, for sliding or freezing, the student is required to be physically present in some location. We could do the same thing for any change in the list. You have to be physically present. Of course, that would mean increased costs. A person has to receive a form, verify identity, and then allow. To ensure that such changes are not done routinely and very frequently, one may keep some price for such a change. (And of course, the security implications are exaggerated. When we can allow banking transactions based on OTP and other second factor authentication, we could implement something similar for these changes as well.)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Admissions in Delhi University

While I normally write about admissions to Engineering colleges, this summer, being in Delhi, and reading all the Delhi newspapers, I realize that an average person in Delhi cares much less about IITs or Engineering admissions in general, and the real excitement is about admissions to Delhi University. So I tried to read up and find out about the issues and it appears that there are some serious issues there too, and the debate is unfortunately, not based on facts.

There is a fear in Delhi that next year, good colleges affiliated to Delhi University would not admit students who have done their 12th class from Delhi. Some people feel this is an exaggerated fear, that the Delhi Chief Minister is unnecessarily creating a big issue out of nothing, purely for political reasons. So let us understand where is this fear coming from.

In a recent blog article "The incredible unconstitutional admissions process in Delhi University" the author has pointed out that the TN board has more than 20,000 students who have got more than 97% marks. The total number of seats in Elite colleges affiliated to DU are about 2,000. So assuming that many students in TN are interested in seeking admission to elite colleges in Delhi, there would be no seat left for Delhi students, since the number of students in Delhi with above 97% is tiny. And we have not yet looked at number of students from other "liberal" boards like AP and Telangana.

Why is this problem being raised this year. Well, the story is that there is this one school in Erode, whose principal has been encouraging his students to apply to elite colleges affiliated to DU, particularly SRCC in the recent past and many students from that school were actually studying in SRCC. This year, his secret of success was leaked out and students from many schools have applied to SRCC. Here is one news article from Economic Times which says 80% of the students in SRCC are from Tamilnadu and some more from other states, with hardly any admissions of Delhi students.

The fear is that now that the cat is out of the bag, next year we can expect a large number of students from all the southern states to apply to all the elite colleges affiliated to DU and perhaps even the next best colleges, removing any chance of Delhi students to get admission in these colleges. And this will happen not because suddenly the south Indian students are academically better prepared than Delhi students, but because their boards are totally messed up.

I certainly believe that the fears are not exaggerated, and what is suggested in the previous paragraph is almost certain to happen, unless the admission process is changed.

In another related development, the media has detected that CBSE has been raising the marks of 12th class students by large amount in a completely arbitrary fashion. Here is a report in Economic Times. And here is my blog on the topic. Because of enhanced media scrutiny of CBSE, and the arbitrary way in which these marks have been increased so far, there is possibility that CBSE may go on backfoot, and don't increase so many marks next year, which will only increase the gap between Delhi students' marks and students of South Indian boards. And that is a perfect recipe for disaster.

Of course, one can argue that there is poetic justice in all this. For so many years, students from UP board, and Bihar board, and Rajasthan board and most eastern boards were not getting admissions in these elite colleges because CBSE was more liberal than many of these boards, and certainly one couldn't argue that in the past only Delhi students were smarter and students from other boards were not smart enough. But still, the kind of dominance that students of South Indian boards can unleash is unprecedented.

But this is where the issue becomes political. Delhi Government has demanded that either there be an admission test, or normalization of marks, or a preference/quota for Delhi students at least in colleges funded by Delhi taxpayers. Let us look at these options one by one.

Let us first look at the demand for admission test. Delhi University admits students to all the program it runs through its constituent departments through an admission test. However, only a very tiny fraction of programs run in affiliated colleges are allowed to admit students through an entrance exam. This is strange. If an entrance exam is considered good way of admitting students for DU's own programs, why is it not a good way of admitting students for programs run in DU's affiliated colleges. You can't have something good for you but the definition of good changes when it is for others.

Normalization of marks is an extremely difficult process as we have seen during the process of normalization in engineering colleges. However, the difficulty in engineering admissions was also to somehow have normalization which not just normalizes the marks but also the boards. So the same performance in a better board should be considered higher than the same performance in weaker board. And that makes it impossible to come up with a good normalization scheme. If we forget about normalizing boards, and only try normalizing marks, there can be simpler methods that can be adopted very quickly, and would be difficult to game by different boards.

Many suggestions have come in. Some have said that we can use percentiles instead of raw marks in percent terms currently used. Another suggestion that has come from both sides of the political divide is to give an additional 5 percent weight to Delhi students. (5 percent is roughly the difference between average marks in CBSE and average marks in Tamilnadu board. We could actually have a more elaborate system where we try to match the averages of all boards or some other percentile of all boards.). I am not a statistician and wouldn't know which is the best way to normalize but at least as a layman, it appears that any such system would be better than no normalization.

The most controversial suggestion has been to reserve seats on domicile basis. Please note that the reservation for Delhi students is being demanded in only those colleges which are funded by Delhi taxpayers.

Of course, since the issue is politicized, many are quick to point out that such a thing is unheard of, not possible, never happened before, and calling Chief Minister all sorts of names for even suggesting this.

However, the detractors of this demand are completely wrong. Quota for host state is actually very common in central universities. Not only that, quota for host state (that is, Delhi) exists even in Delhi University in at least one affiliated college that I know of (and I am not including minority institutions who have more autonomy in their admissions).

So, a large number of central universities have a quota for host state even in the programs run by them (and not in affiliated colleges), and where the state government does not give a paisa of support. If that is considered alright, then a demand that there be a quota for host state not in the programs run by Delhi University, but only in programs run by affiliated colleges seems pretty reasonable. If a quota for host state is alright when the state government does not pay a single paisa, it appears that the demand for quota for host state is pretty reasonable when it is for only those colleges which are actually receiving support from the state government. And let us remember that Delhi Government has traditionally had the most liberal definition of domicile of all states. Anyone doing 12th class from a school located in Delhi is considered local, while in many states, one has to spend several years in that state, should have residence in that state, etc., for local domicile.

So what is being demanded is that we should have an admission test with no favor to Delhi students. If admission test can not be organized within a year, then some sort of normalization of marks across different boards. If experts can not agree on this also, then at least a quota for host state in a very limited way. So no quota in programs conducted by Delhi University through its constituent departments. No quota in majority of affiliated colleges which include most of the elite colleges. Only quota in those colleges which receive support from Delhi taxpayers.

I think this is a very reasonable demand particularly considering that host state quota exists in a large number of central universities even where the state governments do not support it at all.

I would go a step further and suggest that if Delhi University does not agree with this, Delhi Government should close down some colleges and convert them into campuses of Ambedkar University.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Marks inflation in CBSE

You are a Delhi student who did 12th class exam in PCM and English. Received 92% and are happy with it. Sorry to deflate your happiness, but you actually received 82% and CBSE arbitrarily increased your marks to 92% just so that you can compete in Delhi University admissions with boards like TN, AP, etc., where the marks distribution do not follow anything close to normal distribution that you would expect in any large exam.

It follows a story by News18 in early June where they had pointed out several anomalies in the marks distribution in CBSE.

For the last 10 years, every year, it was being pointed out that a very large fraction of CBSE students were getting 95% marks in most of the subjects. CBSE kept saying that it was only doing some minor normalization. But finally, it is out in the open. The minutes of the results committee clearly say that everyone who received marks between 80 and 95 in Maths this year was actually awarded 95 marks. And similar increases were done in a large number of papers and that is why 95 was a magical number in CBSE results. What is interesting is that despite this being pointed out every year by people who were able to download CBSE results and analyse them, it has taken us 10 years to finally get evidence from CBSE that this is indeed happening.
Consider the consequences of this. A student works very hard and gets 95 marks in mathematics. Another student is not so bright and receives 80 marks in Mathematics.  Both of them are being awarded 95 marks. In all other subjects, both perform similarly, but the not so bright student gets one mark extra in English. Now in all admissions, the not so bright student is ahead of our bright student, despite getting a total of 14 marks less. This is when the admissions and careers are decided by one mark here and there. And remember, this is arguably the best managed board in the country.

I can understand that CBSE students have to compete with boards who have no qualms about giving very liberal marks to all their students. I can understand that increasing raw marks is one way to do that, and it is suspected that all boards are doing that. But shouldn't there be a better method to increase raw marks which maintains the relative positions of the students to some extent. Any such "moderation" would distort marks, but could we not ensure that people lost advantage of only a few marks in the process and not such a huge number of marks.
And this is what shocks me. That the Results Committee of as prestigious a board as CBSE does not have anyone who understands basic statistics, even school level statistics. And such a bunch is deciding the future of our kids.

So, it is not just Bihar board that is to be blamed. Most of the boards in the country are doing things which are academically stupid. Look at Telangana board. 20% of the students have received 95% marks or higher in class 12th this year. And of course, AP board will have to learn to compete with Telangana. They used to be the most liberal in earlier days. In 2016, they are the second most liberal graders with 80th percentile being 94% marks.

The school education in the country has collapsed. Out of 3 crore babies born in a year, no more than 3 lakh students would have received quality education and would be well prepared to take the challenges of a globalized world. May be a few lakhs more will learn on their own and manage decent careers. By doing what our boards are doing, we are not just risking the future of our kids, but risking the future of our nation, as the two are one and the same.

The blog that talks about CBSE marks inflation over the last decade and more is linked below.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Parents and JEE Counseling

Today, early morning, I posted on my Facebook wall a message about how parents are asking all the questions and their wards keep quiet. The post has gained huge traction with almost 2000 likes and 350 shares in less than 24 hours. Several comments and lots of emails. And more than 100 new friends requests. One of those emails suggested that I post this as a blog, since blogs have a much longer shelf life. People can read it not just this year but next year and year after that, while facebook posts fade away within a couple of days. And hence this post, which is an edited and expanded version of the FB post.


In the counseling season (which starts on the day of JEE Advanced and continues till the options have to be frozen at the counseling site), I typically get about 10 emails a day, or about 400 emails overall, each seeking advice on what college/program should one prefer. Surprisingly, about 90% of those emails are from parents and not from the boy or girl who is seeking admission. From the language and email address, I have a strong suspicion that even some of the remaining 10 percent are actually from parents.

If you look at the comments on my various blog articles about choosing a college/program, a very large number of them are from parents.

I used to think that part of the reason is that students have their own sources of information. They would rather talk to their seniors from schools who are in college now, or ask questions on social media like quora and FB pages of various colleges, or ask their teachers at coaching places. Parents don't have as many sources, and they perhaps have more respect for an IIT professor.

But this thinking changed a couple of weeks ago. We were having an open house session at IIIT Delhi, and after my presentation, all the questions were from parents. Not even one question from any student. After a while, we said that we will only take questions from students. And something very strange happened. Parents writing questions on a paper, and asking their wards to ask those questions. I couldn't believe this.

Then yesterday, I was invited by IIT Gandhinagar to have a session in the open house that they were organizing. I gave a small talk on how to decide the college/program combination. I explained to them that the confusion is only partly because of lack of complete information, and is largely due to our inability to think logically. Before I invited the questions, I told the parents the following.

"If your son or daughter cannot ask a question even in such a friendly environment where s/he is not competing, s/he is not being judged, and it is about his/her life, then it shows how much freedom they have at home. How much pressure you must have put on them to study for JEE. How much stress must be building inside them. If tomorrow they give up on studying after moving to a hostel or worse, cause self injury, please blame yourself and not IIT."

I reminded them that most of the suicides in Kota as well as many suicides in various IITs have been attributed to pressure from well meaning parents who loved their kids but didn't realize when they crossed the line between advising and taking decisions on their behalf, particularly decisions that their wards did not like but had no courage to tell them so.

These students have achieved remarkable success. And if they are capable of being in the top 10,000 in a country of 1.25 billion they are certainly capable of taking their own decisions on the college/program they want to pursue. Why should parents be afraid that their wards will take a wrong decision. And what is a wrong decision anyway. Will a different program or a different IIT be the end of the world. NO. The only thing that will happen is that if they decide on a less popular program, their bragging rights in their friends' circle may reduce. This should be accepted as a legitimate cost of parenting.

It is not to say that parents should have no role in this decision making. They most certainly do. They are an important stake holder. They have sacrificed many things to ensure success of their wards. So the parents should do their own research. They should ask questions in such forums and anywhere else. And they should advise their wards. But when it becomes so lopsided that only parents ask questions and the ward is silent, that is a strong indication of stress in their relationship. Parents should introspect and make sure that they listen to their wards and give them space to take decisions.

While I was giving this little speech, I was a bit afraid - I am taking this stand that students are not asking questions because they are afraid of their parents, what if they are not asking questions because this is not the forum that they trust for answers. But immediately after the speech, I was inundated with questions from students, and very incisive questions that showed that they had indeed thought a lot about what they want to do, much more than what their parents would give them credit for.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Non-Guide to JEE Counseling 2016

First of all a statutory warning: This post is really not about telling you how to choose IIT and a program, and is full of sarcasm. If you feel hurt by sarcasm, please do not read further. You have been warned.

Congratulations on your success, on winning the rat race. There are still a few days before you start filling up the choices in the order of your preference. Choices of which program in which Institute, etc. So what do you plan to do in these few days so that you are ready with your list.

First, rue your performance. Unless you are JEE number 1. Tell the whole world how you deserved a much better rank. How that day you had a slight headache, or the invigilators wasted your 30 seconds in making the announcements twice which they were supposed to make only once, or they took your paper away 1.3 seconds before they took others'. Or you were so stressed because you didn't know you were not supposed to wear a full sleeves shirt on the fateful day. This will not change anything, of course. Your rank will remain the same. But your true friends will respect you even more if they know that you are not merely a person better than 99.99 percent of your cohorts, but a person better than 99.991 percent of your cohorts.

Having established that JEE is a poor quality exam which cannot place gems like you at the right position, get down to the business of telling everyone how great you are. Call every friend, family, neighbours, and relatives. Post it on Facebook (which has other advantages as we will soon see). Of course, don't forget to order tonnes of Laddoos and of course, share a Coke to share your happiness. In our days, we used to have Limca before Limca and Limca after Limca.

The problem is that all these people who come to your house will have a few questions and tonnes of advice. How you wish that all these people will just come, take a laddoo, drink coke, and leave and of course, tell the story of your great success in that exam called JEE to everyone else in town, including the bit about how the poor quality exam couldn't really recognize your talent fully. But they will stay on and ask those questions and give that advice. So you need to be ready.

Number Two, Create your passion or at least interest. I know it is difficult. You wouldn't even know if Kota has a cinema hall or an industry. Studying for JEE would not have given you any time to explore your interests. But it really isn't as difficult as it sounds. If you are in the top 500 ranks, just remember that your first toy was a computer, and you have been on the Facebook for the last 3 weeks, ever since the JEE Advanced was over. If someone tells you that this does not prove your interest in computers, tell them that you know the names of all programming languages, that you are logical which is good enough evidence that you will do well in computers. On the other hand, if your rank is between 500 and 1000, it is reasonably safe to tell people how you are so excited about owning the iPhone 6, and how you actually opened up the PC one day (hide the fact that you got a scolding from Dad since you had no clue how to close the box). All this will convince anyone that ECE is your real passion. Beyond that, robotics is a very safe passion. It can lead you to CS, or Electrical or Mechanical. Rank beyond that, physics should become your favorite subject, and if you are so good at Physics, you would obviously be good at Mechanics, and by extension Mechanical Engineering. If you are a 2000-ranker, then switch your interest to Chemistry which has so much overlap in its spelling with Chemical, so your passion becomes very obvious. There will be some who will see through this. If Physics is your interest, why not study Engineering Physics. If Maths is your strong point, may be you should consider Maths and Computing programs. And for Chemistry, maybe IISERs would be options worth considering. Just take out your phone from the pocket, and loudly proclaim that it is your uncle from US calling, and go out of the room.

Three, Sort all choices in order of last year's closing ranks. This will do two things. Convince everyone of your interest in computers. You know sorting, which is an extremely important problem in Compooters. Second, it gives you the order in which you should be filling up your choices. After all, the students, the parents, and the whole Internet (particularly quora) couldn't be wrong. Don't even think about the possibility that last year too, everyone filled up the choices based on previous year's closing ranks.

But you should be seen as doing due diligence. This is, after all, the most important decision of your life. And you shouldn't only follow the right methodology (which is, of course, to follow the last year's closing ranks), but should be seen as actively trying to do due diligence.

Four, Ask for placement data on quora. Quora is obviously the most trustworthy source of all important data (which most placement offices do not even release). People on quora will claim that the "best" IIT had only 99% of its job offers from within India, while the other run-of-the-mill IITs had a huge 99.5% of their job offers from within India. And this huge difference (which you should trust since it is on quora) is the best predictor of the success of ALL students of that IIT over the next 50 years of career. Quora will also tell you that the average offer in IIT-1 was Rs. 15 lakhs, while it was Rs. 14.8 lakhs in IIT-2. That the percentage of students placed is 93% in IIT-3 versus 92.5% in IIT-4. These huge differences can not be because of different way of computing these numbers, and of course, could not be questioned because they are on quora, and the only significance of these differences is that IIT-1 is better than IIT-2, and IIT-3 is better than IIT-4. (Don't even think about what happens if IIT-3 is same as IIT-2, and IIT-4 is same as IIT-1. We will come up some other metric to justify which ever IIT you want to join.)

Five, Arm yourself with other very important facts. Metro cities have more than 1000 restaurants, while other big cities have only 100 restaurants. And having a larger number of restaurants will force you to become an expert in evaluating choices and taking decisions when the number of options is very very large. And these skills will obviously help you in your career. You could also count the number of movie halls, but that is not very impressive since every screen is going to show "Udita Punjab" anyway. A bigger city would mean that you need to fight for your space in public transport and your career is nothing but a fight for your survival. The hair saloons in big cities will develop your personality so much better than the barber in the hostel of that small town IIT. On the other hand, if you are seriously considering a smaller town, you could read about the pollution numbers or just make them up. Who will know the difference anyway. You can also find out if the boys to girl ratio is 90:10 or 89:11. You can gather all these and more from quora or go to your coaching center. Believe in their wisdom. If they can get you through JEE, they know it all. (Oops, it is not clear whether they got you through. Normally, all successes are mine, and all failures are others'. So may be you passed JEE not because of coaching but your hard work and intelligence.) And come to think of it, since you are not particularly keen on facts being true or relevant, you don't need to go through quora for them. Facebook would be just fine.

And if all this does not convince some uncle that you have actually done due diligence, just ask them what their JEE rank was in their youth. That almost always works.

Six, Ask your Dad to contact me. I reply very quickly if someone my age contacts me and that is the only reason why mostly dads ask me questions. They may not have foggiest of the idea about what you want, but that does not matter. At the end of the day, or the week, they will sit with you when you login to the counseling portal, will give their mobile number and email address lest you should do something without their involvement, and they will tell you the order in which you should put your choices. So they need to do due diligence as well, and they would have followed exactly the steps outlined above.

Seven, some more questions to ask on quora:
  • Is there an MBA coaching place near IIT. You know that IIT is just a degree for you, a membership of the alumni association. The real action (read, real money) is after IIMs.
  • In which IIT, the professors give easy grades, is attendance compulsory. (So that you can do proper time management, another useful skill for the career. Avoid classes and build personality.) And of course, this information is easy to get, verifiable and can be completely trusted. The companies would love it when you say that you are a very focused person, the only thing you look at is the short term profit for yourself.
  • Which IIT allows you Internet access 24x7 to play those multi-user games which develop so many skills of coordination and team work.
There are many more things that I could suggest that you do in the next few days. But you also need time to deal with all those uncles. So this much homework for now. More when you take my class.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

JEE used to be student friendly

I am surprised by looking at this news item today. All sorts of restrictions on the students sitting for JEE Advanced next Sunday. I must thank my stars that JEE used to be so student friendly in my times.

It now appears that JEE wants to put the students through extreme stress (as if the stress of JEE was not bad enough) and the selection criteria is not who knows Physics, Chemistry and Maths, but who can handle stress. Obviously, anyone who can handle this kind of stress, is less likely to feel stressed once at IIT, and IIT Guwahaty should prefer that.

Reporting 90 minutes before the exam. Not everyone lives near the centers. Someone traveling long distance, of course, would have to come to town the evening before. But now you are insisting that even people coming from 50-100 KM distance check into a hotel near the center the previous evening. That will allow the candidates to have a proper sleep in the night, get up at a reasonable time and still reach 90 minutes before the exam. May be the hotels near JEE centers should have a special JEE offer. We will drop you at the center in the morning, keep your mobile and other things, bring you back for a quick lunch, and so on.

Does frisking take that much time. At the airports, we see lines moving rather quickly and they handle a huge amount of traffic under quite stressful conditions. Why can't we plan to have multiple frisking points at each center. I also understand that collecting biometric data for each candidate takes time, but is it necessary to ask everyone to report 90 minutes before the exam. Of course, an easier solution would have been to do the biometric data collection during the exam. Increase the time of the exam by 2 minutes, and every candidate will be disturbed once for 2 minutes during the exam for biometric. But that would be student friendly.

No watches. Of course, Samsung watch can communicate with the outside world, and you can't differentiate between one kind of watch and the other. But I won't be able to give an exam with this condition. When I am under stress, I need to have the time in front of me continuously. Even 1 minute is important. Announcing the time every 30 minutes is quite useless. (Wouldn't it be better for IITs to insist that there be wall clocks in every room, may be more than one, where exams are being held. But that would be student friendly.)

No shoes. I guess, you could hide a bluetooth device in the shoes. But how would one use that device without the invigilator noticing it. Wouldn't it be better to ensure better invigilation than to put such kinds of restrictions.

No full sleeves shirts or . I guess the idea is to bare more of your flesh since the hidden parts of the body could be carrying small communication devices. But where do we stop. May be force shorts instead of pants. And frankly, if someone wants to put a small communication device inside the clothes, even small size clothes are good enough for that. The rules also say that large buttons are not allowed. Apparently, large buttons could be the communication devices. Now, who decides what is large. And what happens if the size of the button is slightly larger than the normal. There is a disagreement between the student and the invigilator on what constitutes large. Would that person be allowed to sit in the exam without a shirt.

No metal. Many girl candidates are unlikely to realize that ear rings are made of a metal. What happens - you put away that gold ear ring outside and we are not responsible for its safety? Would my spectacles be allowed. Or would I have to buy a new pair made of plastic. Would the bracelet worn by Sikhs be allowed. Why no metal. I am sure IITs want to make sure that those with various superstitions about some rings doing wonders for them are not selected. Only those who have a strong belief in rationality and scientific processes should study in IITs.

The primary reason to do all this is to avoid cheating, which can normally be done by good invigilation. But instead of seeing how invigilation can be improved, we will put all the burden on the students. I recall when IITs had moved to 2-stage process in 1998. It was said that it is impossible to be fool proof about security when 10 lakh students are taking the exam. So in the second stage in which a much smaller number will be allowed, we can have a much tighter security and invigilation. So you can't do a tight invigilation when there are 2 lakh candidates. But what was the need to shortlist 2 lakh candidates. Why can't we trust JEE Mains a bit more and shortlist say only 1 lakh or even less.

If you look at the recent history of IIT JEE, the thought process is not "will this give us better students" "is this going to be student-friendly" but only "how can we organize JEE in a way that courts don't intervene and its reputation remains intact."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

GATE 2016: Problem with CSE key

I have never been fond of GATE exam. In fact, this is a terrible exam and I have written about it several times on this blog. So often one finds ambiguous questions. This blog is to report one such ambiguous question in GATE 2016 Computer Science and Engineering paper.

Q. Which one of the following protocols is NOT used to resolve one form of address to another one?


The official answer is (C).

Obviously, the question was set by someone who does not understand protocols. They would have checked some book which would have said that Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol is used to dynamically assign IP addresses to hosts. They would have assumed that DHCP can only do this, and nothing else. In particular, they would have assumed that DHCP is NOT used to resolve one form of address to another one. But, of course, DHCP can very much be used to provide static addresses by using MAC address as one possible identity of the node seeking an IP address.

So far, so good. I guess that the committee that sets up a question paper can not be a very large committee in the interest of secrecy. And hence one cannot possibly have an expert from each sub-discipline of Computer Science. And therefore, such misunderstandings can happen. And this is really the cause of ambiguous questions in GATE, for which there is no easy solution.

I was hoping that at least after such an ambiguity has crept in, and they have been informed about it, they will take appropriate measures to reduce the impact of such an error on students. But, unfortunately, at least in this case, they decided to ignore the appeal, which is very strange to me.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Budget 2016 for Higher Education

We eagerly await this day. While the government works 365 days and announcements are made every day of plans and proposals and decisions, but a fairly significant number of them are announced in the budget speech. Also, while most other decisions of the government are discussed openly prior to them being announced, the budget announcements are somehow considered state secrets, and therefore, we don't have any inkling for many of them.

While I have generic interest in economy, my primary interest these days is finding out what is in store for higher education.

Let me start with what I consider as the most crucial announcement for higher education.

61. It is our commitment to empower Higher Educational Institutions to help them become world class teaching and research institutions. An enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to ten public and ten private institutions to emerge as world-class Teaching and Research Institutions. This will enhance affordable access to high quality education for ordinary Indians. A detailed scheme will be formulated.

This is important because of the realization that it verbalizes. That the regulatory architecture today does not support or empower rather hinder the higher educational institutions to become high quality. The institutions in India who provide high quality education do so not because of regulations, but in spite of them. UGC and AICTE can only think of specifying minimum standards through force, which end up becoming maximum standards for many educational institutions to achieve. UGC and AICTE do not understand that by having so much regulation, they are letting these institutions off without any accountability, since they simply have to follow UGC/AICTE regulations.

The second important aspect of this statement is that the government expects private institutions to emerge as world class institutions. Again, it is an important statement since for all these years, we have heard only one thing from regulatory bodies as well as from the government - that the private sector is poor quality, notwithstanding the fact that some private sector institutions like BITS Pilani and IIIT Hyderabad are outstanding in every sense of the word, and a large number of government institutions are really bad in quality. That narrative has been balanced to some extent. That most of the higher education happens in private sector is a reason enough to find ways to support private sector, and I am glad that a beginning is being made.

Of course, the devil is in the detail. How will these institutions be selected. What kind of regulatory support will be given to them. How will that support be worked out so that other institutions don't go to court demanding the same treatment to them. (And I hope, if the differential regulatory mechanism does help these 20 institutions, we will then not limit ourselves to just these 20, but could be more, many more.) Let this be an experiment in education regulation.

62. We have decided to set up a Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) with an initial capital base of `1,000 crores. The HEFA will be a not-for-profit organization that will leverage funds from the market and supplement them with donations and CSR funds. These funds will be used to finance improvement in infrastructure in our top institutions and will be serviced through internal accruals.

Are these top institutions same as the 20 in previous announcement. I hope not. I am hoping that this will lead to educational institutions getting access to loans cheaper than what banks would have given otherwise. Also, banks have not been giving long-term loans to educational institutions. They require payment in small number of years, which is not possible unless the fees charged are very high. This body, hopefully, will give loans on long-term basis. This should allow for improvement in infrastructure. Those pieces of infrastructure where there is a clear internal accrual like hostel would be easy to fund through this. But, of course, it is extremely important that loans are given only to worthy institutions. This body should not be stuck with bad loans.

63. To help Students, Higher Education Institutions and Employers to access degree certificates of candidates, it is proposed to establish a Digital Depository for School Leaving Certificates, College Degrees, Academic Awards and Mark sheets, on the pattern of a Securities Depository. This will help validate their authenticity, safe storage and easy retrieval.

This is something that I have been hearing for a decade. Fake degrees and certificates is a serious problem, and as a result, the number of agencies who want these things to be verified is increasing by the day. For some institutions, the verification process has become a profit making venture, but for most institutions, it is a pain to reply to a large number of verification requests. But I don't know what has been the problem all these years. This seems like such a simple idea which should have been implemented long ago. But anyway, I hope this announcement will actually be implemented before the next budget speech.


There are several other announcements which are related to skill development and building companies. These are all good things, very much needed to take advantage of the so-called demography dividend, but I would consider them outside the scope of this blog.

On the other hand, I am very disappointed by the amount of money allotted to MHRD. The actual expenses in 2014-15 was Rs. 68,875 crores. The revised estimate for 2015-16 is Rs. 67, 586 crores, and the budget estimate for 2016-17 is Rs. 72,394 crores.

Notice that in 2014-15, the budget allocation was significantly higher but later the government slashed the budget.  In 2015-16, there is another reduction in budget. And in 2016-17, while nominally there is a 7% increase in allocation, we have to see whether we will see reduction in actual expenses that we have seen in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. Even if there is no reduction and the entire budgetary allocation is spent, a 7% increase will not even take care of inflation and 7th pay commission raises, not to mention the increased expenditure on setting up of new IITs/NITs and other institutions that have been announced in the last couple of years. There is also major expansion taking place in the university system. So if we look at the budget on a per-student or a per-teacher basis, there is a third continuous year of decline in funding of higher education.

This is extremely serious. I do understand that there is greater amount of resources being shared with states and the state governments are supposed to spend more on education, but even with that, it is going to pinch at least the central government institutions which do not get any funding from states. It will only put pressure on the government to allow higher tuition. IITs have already demanded that tuition be raised sharply, and with this budget, it would be difficult to not agree to those demands.

Institutions which can diversify their revenue sources will become stronger over a period of time. The budget for the last two years and the proposed one for the next year should convince every administrator in the higher education sector that the priority of this government are more in terms of skill development and they have to live with reduced support. Skill development is, of course, extremely important, and it is a much more important merit good than higher education is. So no complaints really, except that I believe that money could be found for both skill development and education. They should not be considered either-or. Institutions should become more aggressive in raising philanthropic funds, including from alumni as well as CSR funds from industry.

Overall a mixed bag. A couple of exciting announcements and I hope the details will be worked out soon. The budget on the other hand is much less than what was expected.

Added Later:
I have been told that though the overall increase in the MHRD budget is minuscule, the increase in higher education budget is good, while the budget for school education has been cut.
I would request readers to put such information as comment and don't be shy. But, of course, if you don't want to write on the blog, I will post important information that I receive on email.