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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Completing 24 years at IITK

Today I complete 24 years as a faculty member of CSE Department at IIT Kanpur. It has been a fascinating journey, and I have learnt a lot. The student interaction has been particularly satisfying. So here are some incidents/events that I recall on this day. I realize that people write these blogs on 20 years or 25 years, and not at 24 years, but I don't want to assume anything about the future, and I feel like writing today.

It is long. So take your call whether you indeed want to read this.

The first thing I remember about the department is how poor it was when I joined. As a graduate student, I had two workstations on my desk, each with 1GB hard disk, both full of network monitoring data. When I was coming to India, I copied that data onto 20 tapes of 60MB each. My advisor told me that it would be useless since I won't have so much storage/compute power to do anything with this data. But I was like, if I can have two workstations as a student here, the premium computer science department in India would at least give a workstation to its faculty. How wrong I was.

When I joined, I was pampered by the department, and I was given the PC with the best specifications. A giant 40 MB disk. Out of this, 20 MB was consumed by Windows, and I was left with 20 MB of diskspace for my files. The Computer Center used to give a disk quota of 10 MB, and the CSE lab gave me yet another 5MB. I pleaded with both CC and CSE to give me 60 MB of space for a few hours. There were two tapes which had the most important data with which I could start working with. I need to copy the entire 60 MB on a disk, and then delete 40MB out of it, and move the other 20 MB to my PC and then I could do some post processing. But for the next six months, I would not get 60MB. I was promised that if CC or CSE buy any new server then before making that server public, I would get access to it for a day. And that took six months.

CSE Department had a total annual hardware budget of Rs. 1 lakh, and an entry level server would cost more than that. So CSE department could never buy a server unless in some year, the administration was kind enough to give us a special grant to do so. Most of the servers and infrastructure in the  lab, including PCs, were bought through projects by faculty members. (Can you imagine today faculty members placing their resources in a common lab in any department. But that was the CSE department culture at that time. And it was this culture that had attracted me to IITK to begin with. The labs are considered personal fiefdoms of the faculty in most departments even at IITK, not to mention the other institutes.)

It was a very tough period. And frankly, CSE departments in other IITs were not this poor. Our budget on a per capita basis was the lowest compared to all other departments in IITK. I had other options, and I thought about them. But the person who mentored me throughout this difficult period was Gautam Barua. But for him, I would have left IITK soon after joining.

The department was a very cohesive unit, and it took care of everyone. For one whole year, before I got married, I only cooked on Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch was in some hostel mess. Dinner was fixed. Every Monday at Sanjeev Kumar's place, every Tuesday at Ajai Jain's place, and other days by rotation among several other faculty members. The social life was absolutely fantastic. So many kids' birthday parties, potlucks, picnics - sometimes with families and sometimes with students, and sometimes both. Today, we are more professional and such get togethers happen within small groups, that too infrequently.

Pankaj Jalote realized that the only way to build the department was to get more money, and the primary source of that money could be industry. So he started something called Industry Affiliates Program (IAP). In those days, any faculty member wanted to initiate anything, they would be encouraged to do so. In IAP, we will invite industry to become our partners by paying a small annual fee. In return, we will inform them of every project, thesis, etc., happening in the department. We will invite them once a year for discussions on various issues, including joint projects and curriculum, etc. After a year, this responsibility was given to me. I was much more direct in asking for funds. I never had shame in asking for money. And we received a large donation from Verifone. It was around Rs. 35 lakhs. Let that sink in. A department with an annual budget of Rs. 1 lakhs suddenly get a check for Rs. 35 lakhs. That was the largest donation that IITK had received till then, and was more than all the donations that IITK had received in the year through Dean of Alumni Affairs office (called DPRG at that time).

And the way it happened was interesting. Verifone decided that they wanted to donate Rs. 1 crore to Indian academia, and to ensure that this had some impact, they also decided that they will not spread this too thin, but divide this money into only three departments. So they wrote to who ever they knew. And thanks to Industry Affiliates Program, we were on their radar. Prof. Phatak from IITB immediately called them, arranged a meeting and flew to Bangalore. I did not have budget to fly, but I called them, sent them a presentation, invited them over to Kanpur, and there was no third department who approached them. They told me that since Prof. Phatak was most pro-active, IITB will get Rs. 50 lakhs, since I was next, we will get Rs. 35 lakhs, and some third department will get Rs. 15 lakhs.

This was really the turning point. We had a "Verifone Lab" in the department for the next few years, which could take care of all our requirements. And within that time frame, thanks for Pankaj's stint in Infosys and knowing Mr. Narayan Murthy, we received a very generous donation from Mr. Murthy.

But before that, other problems had to be faced. We were suddenly told that there is very little money for MTech and PhD fellowships. So we could only admit so many PG students with assistantship. If we wanted to admit more students, they would have to be on "self financing" basis, which means that they won't get any assistantship and their tuition was also higher. But, if we could get industry to sponsor their assistantship, they will continue to pay lower tuition, and the department would get a matching grant for another MTech student. With my credentials as the fund-raiser of the department, I was put on the job. And we got more industry fellowships than all other departments combined. So much so, we did not have to reduce our admissions by even one student, and the Institute said that they did not have enough money to give matching grant.

Another major funding happened by IBM. They wanted to get into the training business which was completely dominated by NIIT and ApTech at that time. So they prepared a curriculum and approached us to develop coursework for them with fairly generous terms, both in terms of initial money, and royalty over the next few years. Normally, we wouldn't accept such an assignment. But the money was so much that it could transform our labs. More than half the faculty was involved in developing course material for IBM. (They started this business, but couldn't succeed, and later used those notes outside India, and still gave us royalty from the money they earned in other countries.) Now, after taking care of all department costs, and Institute overheads, there was still a lot of money left. As per the norms, this was personal money. All of us who had build that course work sat together and decided that we will take a small amount of honorarium and donate the rest to the department. What we donated to the department was more than 6 months' salary for me (I think it was closer to a year). And we did that because our labs and other infrastructure despite Verifone lab was still considered inadequate, and we weren't going to get any money from the Institute.

Let that sink in too. More than half the faculty members donate several months' salaries to build department labs. I don't know if this has ever happened anywhere else in the world. That was the commitment of the faculty towards academics, and I was and still am proud to be part of such a group.

Of course, once we had the gift by Mr. Murthy, there was no looking back. Once we did not have to worry about small moneys, the focus shifted to research. Not that we didn't do research earlier. My group was the first one in the world to have a minimal working implementation of IPv6 for Linux. Unfortunately, we couldn't carry that forward for lack of resources.

 I was extremely lucky that Pravin Bhagwat and Bhaskar Raman decided to join our department. Together, we received a huge Media Lab Asia grant to build the world's longest multi-hop network based on WiFi. This was my first time to work with poverty and rural India. It was so surprising that there were places near Kanpur-Lucknow highway where the nearest public telephone booth (PCO) would be a few KM away. And, of course, the nearest Internet cafe was perhaps 10-20 KM away, or even more. Poor persons were willing to pay double or triple the BSNL charges for making a phone call to their son in Mumbai, since their only other option was to lose half a days' wages by going to that PCO in the other village. We also did research on how poor people consumed Internet by setting up an Internet cafe in a village not too far from IITK campus. This was probably the most exciting times in the department.

Later, me and Deepak Gupta worked with some not-to-be-named agencies on monitoring Internet. This was a self-inflicted disaster. We worked on it for 6 years and at any point in time had a product far superior to what the Indian intelligence organizations were using at that time. But in every review, they would tell us that if we could add one more feature, they would start using our stuff. This was the first time I was getting exposed to the politics. Product development does not result in publications, and in any case, they strongly discouraged us from publishing whatever we could potentially publish. After 6 years, we realized that they had no intentions of ever using our work, and we called it off, but the damage was done.

One day, we were sitting in the department and thinking how to improve PhD program. The outcome was that there aren't enough students applying for PhD not just in IITK but across IITs. So we need to tell students about the advantages of doing Phd. Just the previous year, IITB had arranged such talks in many colleges, and we felt that we should do something similar. With the department now very rich could easily afford to go around and give talks. I volunteered. I was given one semester off. Every week, I will choose three colleges where I could visit on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The criteria was that I should be able to go from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd college either by a couple of hours of car journey, or by an overnight train. 12 weeks, 36 colleges. I thought what I should do for the whole day besides giving a lecture on why they should do PhD. I came up with a plan that included one technical talk, one career talk, meeting with students, meeting with faculty, meeting with leadership, etc. I used this opportunity to understand technical education. What are the issues our colleges are facing. What kind of curriculum they follow. What is the pedagogy. How do they hire faculty. And so on. I realized that while resources were a big issue in many colleges, autonomy was an even bigger problem, and in many cases, it was just the lack of exposure to best practices. We created a program under which any faculty member of any CSE department could spend a month at IIT Kanpur. We will take care of local hospitality and the person could sit in classes, sit in some of our meetings, meet any faculty and find out how, in general, we did what we did. Unfortunately, never took off, and we had less than just a few visitors from one college from South India. The colleges did not want their faculty to be away for even a day, and certainly not when they had to pay for it.

What has always been interesting in CSE department is that I could go around and make commitments, even those commitments which will have financial implications, and the department would always support those commitments. They supported me not just when we had good bit of money but when we had very little money. The trust between the colleagues was the hallmark of the department.

After this semester of traveling, I realized that very small things can improve the quality of education in India, at least CS education at college level. And I started writing articles in media, my website, and later started my blog. The reaction to most of what I wrote was that all this is good in theory but won't work in practice. That despite that semester on travel, I still haven't understood Indian higher education. So when I received the offer of leading LNMIIT, I grabbed it with both hands, and the institute became my lab. In 2 years, we did a lot of interesting things and looking at the success, I got even more convinced of my ideas.

One of the big part of department culture is its faculty tea room, a place we could go to any time and help ourselves with a cup of tea or coffee, all at the department cost. This was the place where we could discuss our ideas, discuss issues related to courses, students, and what not. It was a comfortable place to have discussions with a guest. But alas, one of the recent Heads stopped free tea and now we need to pay. This has ensured that only a few coffee addicts like me go there, and none of the department issues get discussed there (because what is the point of discussing with a small group, when a larger group would take a decision later on).

24 years is a long time. Lots of memories. I have not written about students at all. But it is already too long. May be if I am around next year, will write about students. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Should we pamper our best institutions

This is not my typical blog where I write my views and we can have some discussion through comments (or outside the blog like on FaceBook). This is an issue that I am very confused about and am seeking clarity from my readers.

I attended a meeting of BRICS university admins in Brazil last summer. In the Brazilian presentation, they raised an issue. They pointed out that most countries were raising the budgets of their top few universities substantially so that they have greater representation in top 100 ranked universities in the world. Certainly China, Russia and South Africa had done that. India was thinking about it, and so was Brazil. And of course, lots of other countries have used this strategy to have more of their universities in top 100 or top 500. The Brazilian delegation was concerned that a very large amount of money will be used for very small number of students and faculty for a questionable goal like getting into a top 100 rank, while the same money could be used to improve the quality of education across a much larger set of institutions.

Why am I remembering this. Well, MHRD has a couple of schemes of this nature, which were designed to encourage the better institutes to get into top 100 or 200 ranks. And one of them, Vishwajeet, which was designed to help the older 7 IITs to get into top 100 ranking, has been disallowed by the Finance Ministry. This news a couple of weeks ago reignited my thought. Of course, another scheme called "Institutes of Eminence" is being continued where the Government will select 10 private and 10 government institutes. The government institutes will get about Rs. 1000 crores each over the next 10 years. And all these 20 institutes will get a lot of autonomy.

Of course, the debate in India may not be very important since the money involved is very small. Vishwajeet scheme was to cost Rs. 8700 crores over 7 years, and Institutes of Eminence scheme will cost Rs. 10,000 crores over 10 years. The first one is anyway discarded, and the second one has a tiny budget compared to overall education budget of the country. But the debate is still important because IITs will continue to push the Government to keep giving them additional funds under one pretext or the other.

So, here are the arguments that I have heard.

First, the additional funds is a mirage. The year that such schemes start, the government may budget higher amounts, but then not all the money is released/spent and the increase every year is less than inflation, so after a few years, the top institutions who were anyway getting a higher share of the budget start getting even higher share of the budget and the poorer institutions get their budgets reduced in real terms.

Second, while there can be substantial gaps in the research infrastructure of different universities, there should not be very large gaps in the teaching and learning quality of universities. If reduction of budget of the second level universities start affecting their teaching programs, it would be bad for the society, since most citizens get trained in these institutions and not in the top institutes. Also gap between top institutes and the next set (as it exists in India) causes too much stress for admission to the top institutes.

Third, the ranking is not a worthwhile goal to spend lots of money on. Ranking, by itself, does not give any benefits. There should be a mechanism to continuously improve the quality of our educational institutions and ranking should only be a by product. So even if you have more money, think of how you would improve the quality of whatever is important for that institute.

The opposite viewpoint that I have heard is:

Ranking is important. Higher ranks attract foreign students, foreign faculty, which allows a country to project its soft power. Having higher ranked universities give more prestige to the country, and it becomes easier to attract investments particularly in high technology areas where trained manpower is a critical input.

Now, my questions for the readers:

1. Are there other reasons for or against substantial hike in funding of top institutions.

2. In light of these arguments, should Indian government come up with another version of Vishwajeet (perhaps not restricted to IITs, choose 5-7 institutions across the board, and perhaps an even higher budget than what was proposed).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Discipline and Security in a campus

Last week has been terrible at IIT Kanpur. (For account of just one incident, read this blogpost.) I am constantly hearing of students being referred to as criminals and thieves (by those responsible for security policies on campus) and it pains me. I was a student here myself a few decades ago. I can't imagine that boy who lives in the room in which I lived to be very different from me. What has gone wrong?

To understand what has gone wrong, one has to look at the annual reports of our disciplinary committee (SSAC), particularly since 2006. For many of the years, you would find that SSAC (Senate Student Affairs Committee) did not have to recommend any punishment other than a warning to any student at all, and in some years, you may find 1-2 students being punished mildly. In some instance, if Senate took a harsh stand in one meeting, it reconsidered that decision a few meetings later. These annual reports are telling us that we have a fantastic student body, and even though we may have 6000 students on campus, not even 6 of them did anything wrong of serious nature.

If our students are so well disciplined, how come the narrative of security establishment is so different.

What has really happened is that SSAC has acted irresponsibly all these years, and not given appropriate punishments (or given no punishments in most serious cases). Take an example of copying in exams. Any student in the Institute will tell you that copying is a serious problem in IIT Kanpur. Most faculty members also believe the same, though many of them would argue that checking for copying isn't their duty. Fair enough. But what about cases in which someone is caught red handed.

Since faculty cannot really wash its hands off from this, many of them come up with different strategies for "preventing" copying. It is said that unless we have done enough on prevention, we have no business punishing anyone. How do you prevent? Well, let there be CCTV cameras in all lecture halls. Let the number of invigilators be increased. Let the question paper consists of questions whose answers will be difficult to find by searching on Google through the hidden mobile phone. We should use jammers and disconnect WiFi access points during the exams. There should be a security guard outside each toilet who should ensure that only one person goes in at a time. And many more. Basically convert the campus into a police zone for the duration of the exams.

If you did all this, would you reduce copying, and would you be able to dismantle the security apparatus after the exam. Of course, not. If a student knows that the chances of his getting caught have gone up slightly, but he also knows that even if he is caught, there will be no action, the copying isn't going to reduce at all. Prevention can work only in conjunction with a justice system.

If we have a complaint of a girl of a boy misbehaving with her, and you are able to catch the boy, establish the incident and yet give him just the warning, what signal are you sending. Now, prevention would mean that you place cameras at every intersection, in every lane, in every floor of every building. The number of guards is increased. But does it reduce harassment. Of course, not. You have only increased the probability of catching the boy. But if he knows that nothing will ever happen to him even if caught, what does prevention strategy achieve.

The problem with this strategy is that we are putting most of our eggs in one basket - the security forces.

Since we have "prevention" as the only strategy, we start criticizing security the moment some incident happens. What does an average guard do in response. Well, as soon as there is slightest suspicion, he calls the control room and asks for additional security. When two security persons go out to the location, the guard on the location has to exaggerate the situation to justify why he called the control room, and the situation goes out of hand from there.

Also, the security guards are typically illiterate. They are not able to or willing to argue with students or community members. Whenever someone argues, their only option is to inform the control room and bring more forces. Arguing has now become a crime for which you will be taken to the control room, abused, threatened, asked to write a letter of apology which the security establishment can later show as a proof that the student was indeed a "criminal." Who wouldn't write such a letter after being in solitary confinement for a couple of hours.

There is a relatively recent rule that you need to show an I-card to enter a hostel. If someone has forgotten one, he is harassed. I asked a security committee member, if we can have a more humane approach. Can we not let some other student identify this student. Can we not have some small fine for this. Can we not have a biometric based entry system if someone loses the I card. (By asking this, I am not supporting the rule to carry I card all the time, nor do I want a large scale collection of biometrics, which has its own privacy implications.) And the response was that none of this is security's business. Security will only do what is easy to implement. And what is easy to implement is that if a student does not have an I-card, abuse him for an hour or two.

Why has Security Raj become more visible in the last few months. Well, it is a reaction to the student agitation of August 2016. A weak administration can not find out if there were students who crossed a line, and punish them. Even if you believe that it was a very emotional period and everything that happened was due to emotional outbursts, a weak person can not forget and forgive. So if you don't have guts to punish administratively, and if you are not strong enough to forgive, what will you do. Well, when the new security committee came about, you would put those who are well known for their harsh attitudes and let them take a revenge on the students. Again, a proper investigation, and a proportionate punishment against a few specific students who put Institute property on fire would have been far better than harassing a much larger number of students who have done very little (like forgetting an I card).

Establishment of security raj on IIT Kanpur campus has followed the destruction of administrative mechanisms of maintaining discipline. And the only way to dismantle this Raj is to strengthen the civil administration. The civilian processes are more democratic. The disciplinary committee that I mentioned above has students as almost half the members and has representation of women and other groups. There is much greater trust in such a system, and if someone is punished by this system, it acts as a deterrent for many others. But when the security Raj punishes anyone harshly, it is seen as unfair and arbitrary. It can lead to more people fearing security in general, but it does not lead to a linkage between the crime and punishment in people's mind. And in that sense, it does not act as a deterrent for that specific act.

In those rare instances where, primarily due to community pressure, SSAC has recommended some punishment, students have generally opposed any punishment. They are so used to SSAC being ineffective for so long. But they don't realize that their opposition to SSAC recommendations is leading to security Raj in the campus which is worse for them and everyone else in the community. The security Raj is loved by the Director. For any administrative mechanism, the buck stops with him. He does not want to be seen as approving any recommendation of SSAC which gives a real punishment. On the other hand, in cases of harassment by security, no one believes that Director could have prevented it. So he can continue to present an image of a student-friendly Director, while at the same time, ensuring harassment for all "criminal" students.

So while we can all criticize the specific examples of excessive use of force, and we must ask for heads to roll when such things happen, but we must not lose sight of the reasons why Security Raj has come about on the campus, and we must strengthen democratic administrative processes for ensuring discipline, something the last two directors have undermined.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Common Exam for all Engineering Admissions

For last five years, we have been hearing about the government's interest in holding a common exam for admission to all engineering colleges. Recently, a news item said that the success of NEET is encouraging the Government to take a similar decision on a common engineering test for engineering.

First of all, one wonders what this success of NEET means. I am noticing so many legal challenges, so much stupidity in organizing NEET (different papers in different languages), and so many state governments unhappy since they see this as interference in their domain. They also have fears that NEET discourages against students following a state board, and hence indirectly forces a common syllabus across the country. But I guess success at the government level is to be measured more in political terms than in academic terms, and certainly, there is a perception among the people that giving less exams somehow helps them, and therefore, all politicians would want to reduce the number of exams.

There is a legal aspect to it too. The entire medical education in India is supposed to be supervised by Medical Council of India. The status of All India Council for Technical Education is not equivalent. Supreme Court has said that AICTE can not control universities, but only affiliated colleges, and hence AICTE has no say on IITs, NITs, IIITs, State universities, private universities, and so on. So what will be the legal process through which a common engineering exam will be introduced is not clear. (Of course, a dummy case in SC which demands common exam and which is not opposed by Govt/AICTE, etc. could be a simple way. Alternatively, a law can be passed by parliament. Or simply there is this method of arm twisting which is extremely effective in India - remember how everyone was told to get rid of 4-year undergraduate programs.)

But I am not a legal expert. I will only talk about academics.

Does a common exam help students? The perception, of course, is that it does. The naive argument is that every exam causes stress, and more the number of exams, higher the stress. People supporting this argument includes IIT directors and professors (but only if there are two exams, one for IITs and one for everyone else). The same people who inside IITs would sing praises for continuous evaluation and vote against just one big end-semester exam. There, the argument will be, that one exam puts all eggs in one basket and hence causes stress. We must have multiple evaluations with small stakes.

What is also very strange is that no body ever is happy with his/her performance in an exam. I get hundreds of emails from JEE (Adv) passed students every year, and all those mails will start from "I made a silly mistake or two, otherwise, I was expecting better performance." If students are unhappy with their performance in the big exam, shouldn't they be supporting multiple exams. Also, look at the number of students who drop a year because in that one big exam, they think they could have done better. What a huge waste of resource for the country. If they had multiple options and had received some alternate good education, many of them would not have dropped a year.

Stress happens not because of the exam, but the stakes associated with the exam. If I were to tell students that I am going to give an exam in an hour, but it has only 1% weight on the final grade, do they get stressed. Of course, not. Reduce the stakes, and you will reduce the stress. So multiple exams, each with lesser stake, is so much better for stress management than a single exam with huge stakes.

People who accept the logic so far will then argue, but having 100 different exams is still stressful even if each exam has less stress. And my answer is: How many students take 100 or even 10 different entrance exams. A few who may be taking 10 different exams, do they need to. Why are they taking 10 exams. Shouldn't they instead do some research about the kind of places that one wants to join and has the academic preparedness to get admitted to. 10 exams would open thousands of doors already. Frankly, we cannot reduce the number of exams because there is this person somewhere who refuses to do introspection, who refuses to do some research into various colleges and programs, and then insists on trying his/her luck with everything under the sun.

There is another problem with one exam. It is sorting you based on your preparedness in one dimension. People are not identical. If someone is really good at Physics and Maths, s/he will do better in an exam where Chemistry has less weight or is easier. Is it fair to banish this guy to a low rank for all educational institutions in the country. IITs may consider Chemistry to be important, but should every university be forced to consider Chemistry as important. What if you are good at languages. There is huge amount of research which shows that being good at a language increases your chances of success. Now, government institutions may be afraid to get into language politics of the country and not have language component in the entrance test, but should private universities also be forced to admit students without considering their language abilities. (India is the only nation in the world where admission to higher education is done without considering language abilities.)

If there is a single test, it really amounts to asking fish to climb a tree, and then saying that we were fair since we asked everyone to climb a tree.

From the university point of view, if I am offering only courses in Maths and Computing, I may argue that I want to admit students who knows maths and programming, and I am willing to teach them whatever little Physics they need to know, and I don't care about Chemistry. Should that not be the prerogative of the university to admit students based on different capabilities. I may even say that as a university, I want to admit students who are aware of their surroundings, and will have a general knowledge test for that. Should that be illegal. As a university, I may want to acknowledge different achievements of the student, including sports and give them some bonus marks. Should that not be allowed.

So a single test is taking away the most important component of the autonomy that a university must enjoy, and is being unfair to most students since most students' capabilities and interest would not align with any one particular test.

There is more to it. What should be the syllabus of this exam. If the syllabus is the intersection of syllabi of all boards, then it is going to be pretty less and may not be acceptable to most universities in the country. But if we add some topics other than the common part, then we are being partial. This is exactly the point of several states in case of NEET. By choosing one syllabus for NEET, you are discriminating against state boards whose syllabus is significantly different from that chosen syllabus. Same thing will now happen for engineering education, if a common exam is forced on this country. Having state level exams were allowing students to get admission to top colleges of their respective states without being forced to go through coaching of topics that they have not learned in schools. Now that option will be taken away.

I know many readers of my blog would argue that uniformity is a good thing, and let this common test force all state boards to change their syllabus to the CBSE syllabus. Many people just love uniformity, but they either want mediocrity or they do not know that uniformity can only lead to mediocrity or worse.

The suicides in Kota happen due to high stakes and thus high pressure from parents to succeed in JEE. If there is only one exam, brace yourself for a much higher pressure and many more suicides.

So a common test (like NEET) increases stress by increasing stakes, forces a linear ranking among students who have widely different skills and training and thus is unfair to most students, is unfair to students who have studied in state boards, takes away the most important component of autonomy of universities, bars any innovation in admission process by universities, and really gives us nothing in return of all these costs.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

JEE Advanced 2017: Case simplified

Yesterday, I wrote a blog on the mess that IITs have created regarding JEE Advanced and the petition that has been filed in Supreme Court. From the mails that I have been getting and the comments on the blog, it is apparent that people have not understood the case properly. Here is an attempt to simplify matters.

IITs have declared several questions from JEE Advanced 2017 as wrong, and decided to award marks to everyone who took the exam. (It is equivalent to canceling those questions and not awarding marks to anyone, for all practical purposes.) The petition (and I am told that many other students have joined this petition with their own petitions) claims that same treatment to all questions is not fair.

So let us look at different types of errors that seem to have happened.

First, the question had such a serious error that there is no right answer (or at least all the options given in the question are wrong).

There is no dispute about what to do with these questions. Presence of such questions is unfortunate as it wastes precious time of students. And those who don't attempt these at all get benefit in terms of extra time. And there is no way to distinguish between those who attempted and those who did not attempt this. The petition is also not talking of such questions. And whether IITs give 0 marks to all students, or 1 mark or 100 marks to all students, it makes no difference in ranking. But it is desirable that IITs look at their process of paper setting and see if there is a way to minimize the chances of such questions since it does bring in an element of unfairness without any solution. But there is no legal issue as of now, and they are not part of the court case.

Second, a couple of questions had some typing error in some versions of Hindi paper. So 99.5% students have received one question. About 0.5% students have received another question.

IITs argued that since the question is different in two versions, we are canceling it and give marks to all. The petition is saying that a fairer way of doing things is to check 99.5% papers according to their question, and 0.5% papers according to the other question. And it hugely helps that despite the misprint, the question remains a valid science question. I really don't understand why IITs did not do it this way to begin with. Indeed this is the right way to do things. IITs know exactly who had asked for English paper and who had asked for Hindi paper. IITs know exactly who received those Hindi papers where there was a misprint. So where is the issue? This is simple and absolutely fair.

Well, it seems that some of those students who were supposed to read Hindi questions asked for English version during the exam, and if there was an extra English paper with the same code, they were given those English papers. So theoretically it is possible that in IITs' database the student is shown as someone who received that Hindi paper which had a misprint, but actually had taken an English paper. And for some strange reason fairness to such students is much more important for IITs than fairness to all the remaining students.

Third, a few questions which were supposed to have a single answer, it turned out that due to some ambiguity in the language can be interpreted to have an alternate answer.

IITs have declared such questions as invalid and given marks to everyone. The petition in SC is saying that if there can be two or even three potential answers to a question, then those marking those answers should get credit and those who have not given any answer or given the wrong answer should not get credit. Again, sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Most students while trying to solve that question would interpret it in one way or the other, and will solve accordingly. That there are multiple possible interpretations would not bother a student busy giving an exam. And hence it makes sense to award marks to both answers. On the contrary, there is a possibility that someone would be able to figure out that there are two interpretations and decide not to pursue this question because of negative marking. Also, there would be students who have marked an answer through guess work. Their probability of getting full marks would go up if this is accepted.

The question to be asked here is how many students may have left the question after realizing the ambiguity because of the negative marks? If that number is expected to be small, then one can be unfair to them rather than be unfair to thousands others. Also, note that such students actually had more time to solve other questions. So the level of unfairness to them is rather low. And yes, someone doing guess work will have a higher chance of success but giving marks to everyone is much more unfair to those who have solved the question. And this is exactly where the 2005 SC judgment may become relevant which says that only those students who have attempted a wrong question be given bonus marks.

Fourth, there are questions where IITs have declared a unique answer but many coaching institutions have come up with an alternate answers and IITs have decided not to consider them as correct. (These are questions beyond the 18 marks of bonus that IITs have given.)

IITs had sought response to their answer keys, and many coaching institutions and individuals had written to them about the alternate answers. IIT experts have rejected these answers without any explanation. (I wonder if IITs even considered those responses. I had also responded in an earlier year on a question which is in my area of research. Never got an answer either personally or on the GATE website, and my objection was not accepted.) The petition is asking that alternate answers be considered.

I think in all fairness, IITs must either explain why those alternate answers are incorrect or award marks for them. After all, those answers have been written by experts too, and there are only a few questions of this nature. Note that these are questions which are beyond the questions on which everyone has been given the bonus marks. So the total amount of confusion is actually beyond 18 marks.

What has been IITs response so far in the court?

I was not present in the court. So I am only reading the news papers who are notorious for not reporting fully. So take all this with a huge pinch of salt.

None of the news papers have mentioned anything about these questions. I do hope that IITs have an answer to these questions. All the newspapers have mentioned that IITs hired the highest law officer of the land, the Attorney General himself for defending it, and he told to the highest court of the land that since 30,000 students have already taken admission, and since it will take a long time to regrade 2.5 lakh copies, and because IITs have done everything on the basis of expert advice, the petition is not maintainable.

First of all, if the Attorney General claimed that it will take a long time to regrade 2.5 lakh copies, he was misinformed. 2.5 lakh students did not give the exam, and regrading is a matter of changing the key and running a software, which should take a few minutes to give the result.

But let me decode this legalese for you:

If Supreme Court decides to intervene in the matter, IITs have enough arguments to delay admissions by several days if not several weeks. That would cause lots of problems to lots of people. Since IITs are better at media communication than Supreme Court is, one can be sure that everyone in the country will blame SC and not IITs. So the best thing for the court to do is to look the other way, and let IITs continue with its erroneous decisions.

And the courts can easily suggest that since the matter is very technical and the courts are not equipped to deal with such technical matters, and because IITs are our crown jewels who can be trusted with anything technical, we would leave IITs to take a decision.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The mess called JEE Advanced

Supreme Court, yesterday, stayed the process of admission to IITs, NITs, and several other institutes. A student has filed a petition a couple of weeks ago, in which she has claimed that awarding marks to all students for wrong questions was fundamentally flawed and has resulted in significant change of merit, and that there were alternative ways in which the problem of wrong questions could have been sorted out. The writ petition can be read on the same page as this news report.

I read the petition. I don't know if everything being claimed there is correct or not. It is for IITs to decide on how to respond to those points. However, if even ONE of those claims is correct, I think it is a matter of shame for the IIT system. The news paper reports suggest that IITs responded yesterday to the petition by arguing that the process of admission has already started, that about 30,000 students have already accepted admission, and that it will take a long time to recheck everything, etc. I hope this is incomplete response and that they have said more things. I hope IITs are able to argue that the suggestions made by these students are somehow wrong or unimplementable. Because if they have not argued on those lines and cannot argue on those lines, then we can have no trust in JEE any more. And I believe that a fair JEE was always one of the most important reason behind brand IIT. If JEE is no more fair, then it won't take long for brand IIT to go down as well.

But I have my doubts. People who have followed this blog would know that my confidence in fairness of JEE and in the competence of IIT system to conduct a large public exam has always been very low. Every year, we see wrong questions. Every year, we see that IITs don't respond to alternate answers by external experts (or even internal experts).

Let us look at the main issue. Apparently there are questions which got misprinted in Hindi medium. The claim in the petition is that because the question was misprinted, IITs decided to award marks to every single student. Now, what is the percent of students who sought Hindi question paper. I believe that the number is 3-4%. Only a couple of variants out of 10 variants of the question paper had a misprint. Which means that about 0.5% of the students received a different question. Now the petitioner is claiming that it was possible to identify these 0.5% students who may have given a different answer, and for these 0.5% students, one could do different grading. There is no reason to give full marks to all students. Makes eminent sense. If you incorrectly identify (why would you) 5-10 students, say, and 1-2 of them could have been in the top 10,000 ranks, then you are unfair to 1-2 students out of 1.6 lakhs. But by giving marks to all 1.6 lakhs, you have been unfair to may be 10,000 students who could solve that question. Now, if you are faced with a difficult situation, and the only two options are that you be unfair to 10 students or you be unfair to 10,000 students, what would you choose. I am sure the answer is obvious. You would rather be unfair to 10 students than 10,000 students. But IITs don't think like that. (And I have been inside the room with JEE Implementation Committee in the past, so I know the culture there.) The IITs would argue that let us give bonus marks to everyone. It does not matter how many students you are unfair to, since no one would do such back of the envelope calculations. If you give marks to everyone, there is a greater chance of happiness all over, and less chance of someone going to court. And the only thing that matters is a court case, and not fairness in the system.

At another place, the petitioner has pointed out that while the IITs have given out one single answer to a question, a large number of coaching places have given alternate solutions which result in different answers out of the four choices. Now, let us remember that some of these coaching classes have some of the finest Physics/Chemistry/Maths faculty, some times better than the paper setters. If these people are saying that there is an alternate solution, and showing that alternate solution on their websites, IITs must respond to them. They must point out why those solutions are not acceptable. I know what IITs will argue. How can they respond to each and every answer given by any tom, dick and harry. But sorry, they are not tom, dick or harry. There are typically, only a handful of answers which are different from IIT answers, and there is no reason why IITs can not respond to those handful of answers, and that too, as I said above, by some of the finest brains of the country. Again, I have had experience of being in the room. Typically, it happens because the question is ill framed. The language is ambiguous. And no paper setter would ever admit that the language is ambiguous. And if they were to respond they will have to admit in writing that a particular statement only means something and that in their opinion alternate meanings are wrong. Now, this interpretation can be easily challenged in a court of law. So, as I said above, the fairness does not matter. Only court cases matter. So we won't agree to those alternative solutions, since our ego is hurt, and we won't explicitly respond saying that, since fairness does not matter. Only court cases do. Now, in this particular case, either IITs must respond as to why multiple answers are incorrect or agree to regrade as per multiple answers.

I also want to know if there is any accountability of paper setters. Does their substantial remuneration depend on their performance. Are they told that they will get x amount of money, if there is no dispute about their answers, but will progressively get lesser and lesser money, if it turns out that they made a mess. Is there a process of black listing professors who set erroneous questions. Why does it take weeks to publish the answer key, when the coaching classes normally publish them within an hour. Wasn't a key prepared several months in advance. Why is that key not announced within an hour of the exam.

IITs have argued (as per media reports) that it is too late, that about 30,000 students have taken admission, that regrading will take too much time. First of all, regrading will take a few minutes. Yes, a few minutes. If IITs are claiming that it will take a long time, then they are lying, and someone should be persecuted for lying to the court in an affidavit. All the answers have been scanned and stored. Now, only a key needs to be decided and that needs to be applied to the stored answers. We don't need to scan the answer sheets again. And applying the new key will take a few minutes.

If the scale of the problem is really as serious as this petitioner is claiming than it does not matter if 30,000 students have taken admission. We must restart the process, and if that means that the semester will be delayed by a week or two, so be it. Let us not forget that in 1997 when the JEE question paper was leaked, the semester started 5 weeks late and the heavens did not fall.

My only concern is that the petition seeks as the last resort (page 20, prayer 'e' of the petition) a direction to the IITs that all those who took JEE Advanced this year be allowed to take JEE Advanced next year. I suspect that IITs will latch on to this demand and agree to it, if they are allowed to continue with the admission with the current merit list. This particular petitioner may be ok with such a decision, but it would be grossly unfair to thousands of hard working students (again assuming that what is written in petition is correct).

It is becoming increasingly clear that conducting large public exams is not a core competence of IIT system. I am sure some of you would disagree and point out that in an earlier era JEE was conducted wonderfully well. Well, what was done in the pre-RTI era can not be termed as wonderful. It is just that we don't know what happened then. A few years ago, when the previous government wanted "One Nation, One Test" and we successfully resisted that, one of the commitments that IITs had made was that besides the JEE Implementation Committee (consisting of all JEE chairpersons and vice chairs), there will also be a new standing committee which will look at the longer term horizon and advice on how JEE could be made better. That committee does not exist today and all the issues of JEE are left to be resolved by the current chairmen and vice chairs who are under pressure to somehow manage this year's JEE with as few court cases as possible. I think it is high time IIT system has a standing committee to look into the longer term.

Added on 8th July:

A few questions have been asked offline, and I thought I should address those questions.

Q1: IITs appear to have claimed (see the ToI news where this is mentioned) that it is not possible to identify the students who solved the specific Hindi paper with that misprint. Is it possible.

Ans: JEE knows exactly who applied for Hindi question paper and who applied for English question paper. JEE also knows which code paper was given to whom. Now, the only issue is that a student could possibly have both Hindi and English version of the question paper and looked at the English paper and answered it accordingly, even though in JEE data base s/he is shown as a student who received the Hindi question paper. There may be 5-10 such students in the country, but theoretically, they could be 100 or 200 students. So technically, IITs are right in saying that they do not know who have looked at only the Hindi paper before answering.

However, this is just an argument to not do anything to solve the problem. Remember the principle at this stage should be that out of all bad options, we should select the least bad option. So what if JEE were to say that we will grade you according to the language you were supposed to be looking at. This would perhaps be unfair to 5-10 students. The current solution is unfair to 10,000 students. There are other options. What if we consider both 5 and 6 as the right answer for those few students and consider only 6 as the right answer for everyone else. Or even, consider 5 or 6 as the right answer for all students. So let us understand that the only options with IITs are not binary (as Attorney General, the highest law officer of the country is claiming in the highest court of the land). They have multiple options with varying impact on fairness.

Q2: Isn't there a Supreme Court judgment in 2005 that bonus marks in case of wrong questions can only be given to those candidates who attempt the question. Why did IITs award marks to all.

Ans: I have not read that judgment. But I doubt if that would be relevant in the current case. Earlier, the exams required long answers to be written. So if someone has written something in the answerbook which has anything to do with the question, it could be taken as a proof that the answer has been attempted. But now with fully objective type question, students try to solve the question in rough sheets and then fill in a bubble. If they couldn't reach any answer, or if they have a doubt about their answer, they will not fill in the bubble. Since those rough sheets are not kept, and sometimes rough work is done on the question paper itself which is allowed to be taken away by the student, there is no identification possible of students who have "attempted" the answer. Filling in the bubble is certainly a proof of attempt, but not filling in a bubble is not a proof of lack of attempt. But note that this petition is really not dependent on 2005 ruling. This petition is arguing that a better solution key would be more fair than giving bonus marks to all.

Q3: What happens to a student who has rejected BITS/IIIT-Delhi/IIIT-Hyderabad, etc., and is now told that his JEE Advanced rank is much poorer. Wouldn't revising the grading scheme be detrimental to his/her interests.

Ans: Yes, it will be unfair to such a student. However, remember the philosophy that I am suggesting. If you have to be unfair to some, prefer a system with least unfairness. And would you rather be unfair to someone who did not deserve an IIT seat or would you rather be unfair to someone who deserved an IIT seat. Also, it is not as bad. If there is a new ranking and new counseling, the student may not get IIT but will get NIT/IIIT etc. So unfairness to an undeserving student is going to be rather small.

Also, even this unfairness can be handled. The court can order a 10% increase in all IITs in all programs as a one time measure to reduce this kind of unfairness. A single batch being 10% larger will not be a disaster for any IIT. And it will give relief to large number of students whose ranks change. Note that if someone's rank changes drastically downward, there may still be cases where they will not be fully compensated, but heck, these guys didn't deserve to be in IITs by a wide margin.

Added on 9th July:

As a comment on the next blog, Mr. Kandasamy Subramani has sent the link to a petition on There the issue of bonus marks for supposed misprinting has explained very nicely. Please read that.

Friday, June 23, 2017

IIITD: Information Technology and Social Sciences

This article is about a very exciting program being started by IIIT Delhi this year. If you have done 12th class from a school in Delhi and you were NOT a science student but did study Mathematics, and your aggregate marks (in 5 subjects) is at least 80%, you have a chance of getting admission into this really fantastic combination. But hurry, deadline is tomorrow (24th June), 3PM. (Deadline extended till midnight.) Here is the link to apply online. If you are a Science student and has taken JEE, you can apply for this program through Joint Admissions Counselling website.

This program is a unique combination of Computer Science and Social Science. I am not aware of any other under-graduate program in India with this combination. Of course in US universities (and other places around the world), one could do a double major but such flexibility is missing in Indian universities. And even where such options are available, most students consider studying anything other than Computer Science as waste of time. So, IIIT-Delhi has decided that instead of only offering a regular BTech (CSE) program with options of doing a second major in different disciplines, they will offer programs where the student commits to the second major right at the time of admission. This allows tailoring of program right from the 2nd semester. (There are other programs of this nature: Computer Science and Applied Maths, Computer Science and Design, and there are plans to offer more such programs in future.)

The program requires you to study all the core Computer Science courses, and a few electives in CS, but it also exposes you to social sciences. There are three Social Science streams offered: Economics, Psychology, and Sociology/Anthropology. The student has to choose two streams to do at least four courses in each of them, and do at least one course in the third stream. Besides, there are some foundation courses, and a few electives that have to be done in any social science discipline. (Besides these three disciplines that we will be offering several courses in, we do offer a few courses in Philosophy, Literature, History, and so on.)

Since one of the goals of this program is to produce social scientists who can understand and use computational technologies, the social science content has been chosen with a view that a graduate can seek admission in any reputed Master's level program. So suppose you want to do Masters in Economics, not only you will do minimum 4 courses in Economics compulsorily, but can also choose a few more electives, and with 6-7 courses in Economics, will be ready for admission to the relevant Masters programs.

The society and the industry today desperately need people with such combinations. If one wants to be an entrepreneur, understanding technology is not enough, the exposure to social science is extremely important. The same is true for those who want to be managers and administrators. Even product development will be significantly enhanced if one really understand the society for which that product is being developed. On the other hand, there is a serious need for social scientists who can use Computational technologies to improve our understanding of society. Data analysis has become an important tool for social science research. And of course, one can do inter-disciplinary work that overlaps with both CS and Social Sciences. Since there is a huge gap, it translates to a huge opportunity for the graduates of this program.

More details of the program can be read from this link on IIITD website.

We had an open house yesterday, which had a focus on the two new programs, including this one on ITSS. I am mentioning here a few typical questions or concerns that were expressed by students or parents in the open house.

The foremost was this: I am only interested in Computer Science, and I am considering ITSS only because I am unlikely to get admission to CS. Is the social science component a waste of time for me, or is it useful.

There is one question that many students ask us all the time. Why should a CS student study Chemistry or Thermodynamics or Sociology. Vikram has recently explained the need for diversity of courses in an educational program really well. To add to what he has already written, broad based education will really help in future because today, we have no idea what kind of jobs and careers would exist just 15-20 years from now. And remember, the person entering higher education today will probably be an active worker 50-55 years from now. How do educational institutions ensure that today's education remains relevant in an uncertain future world. Really speaking, the only thing we can do is to impart some knowledge and skills which are likely to remain relevant in the next 10 years, and impart the most important skill of learning new things on one's own. And learning becomes easier if you can make connections of new knowledge with the knowledge you already have. And therefore, having a broad based education ensures that you can learn more easily throughout your career, since it would increase the chances of making connections with past knowledge. This is one reason why liberal arts education is getting so popular lately. The hope is that a broad based education will enable you to do anything that you may want to or have to do in future.

So, coming back to the original question, my take is that even if you are not deeply interested in social science, having a diverse set of courses would be immensely useful to anyone. Of course, we would love to have students who are equally interested in CS and SS. That would make for a more interesting class and everyone learns better as a result.

Also, anecdotally, when ever we have asked senior alumni of IIT Kanpur regarding what courses have really benefited them in life, surprisingly, a large number of them mention social science courses. My personal belief is that studying a large number of social science courses is very positive even if someone was only interested in CS related careers.

The second question was: Is this program better or worse than Computer Science program.

It is difficult to compare two programs. However, one should note that whenever any university will think of starting a new program, it will certainly think of whether the program fills a need of the society and whether it can be offered with at least similar quality as its existing programs, if not better. It would be trivial for IIIT-Delhi to expand by simply increasing the number of seats in its existing very successful and popular programs. There was no need for a massive one year effort in planning a new course, which included taking feedback from 100s of people in India and abroad, personally visiting several universities and checking out websites of a lot more, having multiple workshops of subject experts as well as people from industry and academic thinkers of the country. So it is a program that we have invested in heavily because we believe that this combination is a great need of the society and the graduates will contribute in leading India to greatness.

Question 3: Would it be difficult for non-science students to compete with science students in the same class.

The IIIT-Delhi curriculum does not have any compulsory physics/chemistry/biology courses. And Mathematics at the 12th class level is required for admission. There may be 1-2 courses (like a course on circuits) where some exposure to Physics could possibly help, but in everything else Maths is sufficient background to perform well. We believe that a mixed class would lead to better learning and we are really hoping that many non-science students (from Delhi) will seek admission to the program.

Question 4: The all important question of placements/internships.

Howsoever I may like to convince students and parents that if you get good quality education, you will not have to worry about jobs and careers, this question keeps coming up. Well, obviously, we don't have data and won't have data for 4 more years. The only thing we can say is that even the first batch of IIIT-Delhi that graduated in 2012 had great placement, and they are currently either studying in great universities around the world, or working in top companies of the world, or are doing other interesting things like their own companies. And we have not looked back since then. The placement (if we consider the median salary offers) is one of the best in the country. And this is purely based on the quality of education that IIITD provides. If we could have a great placement for our first two programs when no one knew us, it should give confidence to prospective students and parents that it can only get better after we have made a mark in the education sector. So look at our faculty, talk to our students, convince yourself that we continue to provide high quality education and trust us that quality leads to great jobs and careers.

In terms of sectors and kinds of jobs/careers that could find this education very useful (though I must warn again that good quality education allows you to learn many new things quickly and hence get into other sectors/careers quickly), I think the Data-centric approach of some ITSS courses (Econometrics, Networks (Social Science Research Methods), Machine Learning (Pattern recognition, etc.)) are contemporary areas with a lot of job opportunities that will only grow in the shorter-run. Specific sectors include e-commerce/retail, Banking/Insurance sector, credit card companies with risk-management roles, consulting sector, data-driven journalism, new media/social media roles, and many more. Of course, any IT product company like all well known MNCs, would find this education highly desirable.

To end this article, let me quote from an article in Quartz:
As the vociferous Shark Tank host and entrepreneur Marc Cuban has recently observed about business careers: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. [You need] someone who is more of a freer thinker.”
While we are not in the business of liberal arts education, we certainly believe that a more liberal education would be hugely valuable in future.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why are Parents Confused about College Choices

In July, 2015, I was at the Pan IIT Conference in Santa Clara, US. In one of the chat session, the legendary Vinod Khosla said something close to my heart. Let me paraphrase him and change the context from Silicon Valley to India:

"It is understood that you need to live comfortably, that you would want to rent a decent house, and eventually buy an apartment, that you would want to buy a car, have all the modern amenities in your home, take care of all your responsibilities like childrens' education in good places, supporting parents in their old age (including their medical bills), save some for a rainy day, have a vacation every year, and you can add a few more things that you really want to enjoy. This will translate to securing a decent job after your education. But once you have achieved all this, what next. Would you want the second house, a third car, a fourth iphone, more jewellery, and so on, or would you then think of jobs that you enjoy doing. May be the job that you like is also the job that gives you lot more money. But if there is a choice between doing something not so enjoyable but getting lots of money, and doing something that you enjoy and still getting money greater than your threshold for comfortable life, what would you prefer."

I am sure, if the question is asked in this fashion, most people would say that they would follow their interest once they are reasonably secure financially. But do they mean it.

In our country, someone starting with a salary of 4-5 lakhs and a decent growth (say, 5% more than inflation) would mean that everything that we have written above could be done very easily. In fact, one could start at even lower figures and grow from there. And pretty much every discipline in any good institute would enable a good student to get these levels of jobs. So the placement question that every parent is so interested in should really boil down to whether the median salary of the graduates is more than 4 lakhs or not. And beyond that, the student should be free to decide the program and college. But we all know that is not the case. Parents and students are easily excited about large salaries and do not even attempt to figure out what they might like.

Often, the goal is to earn the maximum. The optimization function is the money to be earned over the next 50 years. Unfortunately, this function is very difficult to compute. We don't even know what jobs and careers would be there 10 years from now, what to talk about 50 years. An average person will not remain in the same career for so long, and indeed people change careers every 10-15 years. So what is needed for success is not a particular discipline, but the ability to learn new things. Even if you happen to be in a low paying career in the beginning, when the time comes to change your career, you could then pick up a better paying career, if you had the ability to learn. On the other hand, if you do not pick up the ability to learn, being in the highest paying career is of no use if you are going to lose that job in 10 years.

So from monetary point of view, one should look for education which gives a decent start and prepare you for change of careers (or teaches you the most important skill of self-learning). Again, it would seem that pretty much any discipline in any good institute would meet this requirements.

Since it is pretty obvious to anyone that earnings over the next 50 years are impossible to compute, parents use a proxy. The first month's salary. The assumption is that if the first month salary is high, it would be a strong indicator of higher lifelong earning. That is a huge leap of faith, since as we just said we don't even know what kind of jobs will be there after 10 years.

Let me give you my example. When I was in my final year, and was applying for higher education, the hottest areas were theoretical computer science and Artificial Intelligence (which at that time was really about search and expert systems). I had thoroughly enjoyed the course on Networking and wanted to pursue that. Each of my well wisher advised me that I should write TCS/AI in my statement of purpose, but I was adamant. It had to be Networking. I was lucky to get admission in a good school (UMCP). And I did my PhD in Networking. By the time I finished, all the smart folks were competing for a diminishing number of jobs in TCS/AI and there were extremely few networking PhDs. I got a job in IIT Kanpur, which was considered the best CS department in India at that time, where around the same time, we rejected the applications of PhDs from top departments of the world in TCS/AI, since there were just so many of them. If you were in networking in 90s, the industry lab to work in was Bell Labs, and I could get a visiting position there for a semester. Not having to compete with an army of smart people has helped me a lot in my career. And those who only looked at what is the current favorite actually were so disappointed with the job market, many of them had to change their careers right away. And, of course, today, the networking is no longer hot. One should have morphed into a security expert, or a cloud expert or an IoT expert, or something else.

So, if we don't know what jobs we will be doing 10 years from now, we can not take it for granted that high first month salary will necessarily mean high income over 50 years

But, the first month's salary is important to parents. The next issue is that even if you know exactly what salaries have been offered to everyone in the graduating batch, how do you know what will your ward be offered 4 years from now. Let us consider two programs, both having 10 graduates. In one program, each of those 10 graduates has a job with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs per annum. In the other program, there is one graduate with a salary of Rs. 1 crore, another one with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs, and the remaining 8 with salaries of Rs. 2.5 lakhs each. So the average of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, and the average of the second program is Rs. 13 lakhs. On the other hand, median of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, while that of the second program is Rs. 2.5 lakhs. I can bet that most people will select the second program. My son is the best in the world, and will certainly grab that Rs. 1 crore job. Never mind that since most parents think like that, the competition would be much tougher in that program. So to guess their first month salary, people often look at the highest salary, and if they are a bit more grounded in reality, then average. Hardly anyone ever asks median and hardly any college will give out median.

In summary, the way things get decided are as follows:

1. The optimization function is maximum earning over the lifetime.
2. Since that is not easy to compute, assume that the first month salary would be strongly correlated with the lifetime earnings.
3. Since first month salary is also difficult to guess, assume that the highest salary offered last year would be offered to your ward (suitably enhanced, of course) 4 years hence.
4. And hence the program which had the highest salary package offered last year is the one we want to join.

If the algorithm is so simple, why are parents confused. Well, there are multiple reasons:
1. Do we really know the placement data. (Usually, No.)
2. What happens if the data for the last two years is contradictory (which is often the case).
3. Continuing with 2, will the relative ordering of programs change over the next four years. (That is, if Program 'A' had one student who was offered 100L, and program 'B' had one student who was offered 99L, is it possible that 4 years from now, there would be one program 'B' student who would have a 100L offer, while the highest offer in Program 'A' would be 99L.) Of course, it will happen.
4. The ordering based on highest salary is different from the ordering based on averages, which is different from the ordering based on median. Which one to adopt, particularly when most of the data in public domain is false anyway.
5. Other unknowns.

There is a simple solution that will take care of all your stress. Read the second paragraph again, and convince yourself that beyond a reasonable salary, you wouldn't worry about placement. Stop being a rat. Become a human. And you would be astonished as to how you will actually be able to think of your interests. You will actually be able to think of what you want out of college. And then choosing a college will become that much easier.

I was talking to a philosophy professor a few days ago and discussing this issue of stress during admission season. He told me that the problem of decision making is that a lot of people want to solve an unsolvable problem, and since the problem is unsolvable, they are stressed because they are investing time and effort without any result. If people start focusing on what is possible they will be able to take better and quicker decisions.

Also, as this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post points out, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." Hard work is a more important key than the college itself. So if you are confused, just toss a coin.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Are there Alternatives to IITs

In the series of blogs about various questions that I get asked in this admission season, the question that I am discussing today is:

I have a good JEE advanced rank, and can get a good combination of program/institute. But I also have admission offer from another top place, both within India and abroad. What should I prefer.

One issue is that of foreign universities, both US/Canadian universities, as well as places in Singapore, HongKong, etc. The other issue is that of choice within India, IISc, IISERs, CMI, IIITs (particularly Hyderabad and Delhi), Ashoka University, etc.

First of all, I am extremely pleased to see that a couple of students from within the top 1000 have declared that they are not going to join IITs. Here is the list I know so far:

The JEE rank 5 wants to study Mathematics. And he is planning to join Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

The JEE Rank 10 wants to study a combination of Computer Science and Physics. And he is planning to join University of Pennsylvania.

The JEE Rank 38 wants to study Physics and Maths from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  (Based on his profile on quora.)

The JEE Rank 45 is interested in Physics, and will study in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. (Based on comments on this blog.)

The JEE Rank 241 is joining Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. (Based on comments on this blog.)

The JEE Rank 446 wants to study a combination of Maths and Computing. And he is planning to join Chennai Mathematical Institute.

(If you come across any story of anyone in top 1000 not joining IIT system, do let me know, through comment, or email.)

I am also aware that every year some students who couldn't get admission to old 5 IITs in Computer Science have been joining IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi instead of going for newer IITs. Of course, many prefer IISc Bangalore and a few even IISERs for science programs over the science programs in IITs. At below 3000 ranks, students start considering other places which will give them a discipline of their choice, including BITS, NITs, IIITs. I think it is important for the parents to know that IITs are not the only places worth studying in, and any time, someone in the top 1000 ranks decide to study outside IIT system, it strengthens that message. Eventually, if we start taking alternatives seriously, the stress of JEE will come down and it will be a great thing for the society.

I digress. Let us come back to the issue of foreign universities. There are multiple parameters that we need to consider. On the positive side, any of the top 50 (or even more) US universities would have a better teaching-learning experience than any IIT. You can choose your courses. You can choose your major/minor. You can do multiple subjects. The infrastructure will be better. The faculty interest in teaching is likely to be higher. The quality of Teaching Assistants will be better, and so on. On the negative side are a couple of issues. The primary one is cost. It is just too expensive and unaffordable for most, and I am not in favor of taking a large loan for higher education which will force you to take up immediate job and that too abroad to repay that loan. The second reason is cultural. Most 17 years old in India have had no freedom at home. They have had very little exposure to different cultures even within India. And there is doubt if such persons would adjust quickly enough in a foreign land. But, of course, if you have family and friends near the place you are considering, who can help you settle in the beginning, this reason will not be very important. A reason related to costs and RoI is that while the quality of education in IITs may not be as good as many of the foreign universities, the membership of Alumni Association is hugely valuable.

So my own summary is that if you can easily afford (no loans), and you have admission to a good university, and you are not considering a job in India immediately after your education, and you think you will be able to handle vast cultural differences, then go for it. If the answer to any of the conditions is in negative, take admission in an IIT.

Comparison of IITs with other institutes within India is really about the specific interests that you have which may be satisfied more by a non-IIT institute than an IIT. If you want to study a combination of Maths and Computing, for example, most IITs would offer this through their Mathematics department and even CS courses will be taught by Maths faculty (but do check each program, there is a lot of variation), and CMI does a fantastic job of offering such a program. At CMI, Maths faculty teach Maths courses, and CS faculty teach CS courses. A few alums of CMI that I know have been extremely happy with their experiences. In case of science programs, IITs force you to choose the program at the time of admission and change of program is very difficult, while IISc and IISERs give you a broad based education and offer flexibility. Programs like Information Technology and Social Science (and also, Computer Science and Design) in IIIT-Delhi offer you a unique combination not available anywhere else in the country. So, if you are one of those few students who know what they want to study, then you must select the best place to study that discipline (or combination) without worrying about the IIT tag. Membership of Alumni Association is valuable but not to the extent that you kill your passion for it.

Added on 13th June, 2017:
Thanks to Prof. Amit Sheth who reminded me of this talk by Malcolm Gladwell who explains "Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder" which means that we are so enchanted by association with Elite Institutions that we forget our self interest. The toppers of average institutes perform better than average students of elite institutions is the main argument. Here is the youtube link for the video.

He also has pointed out this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post. In one line, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." This also points to hard working students getting more out of education at an average place than students not working hard at a top institution

What these two excellent articles are intending to say in the context of this blog article is that there indeed are lots of alternatives to IITs. You only need to make sure that you work hard.

Choosing College or Discipline

A very common question that I get asked is this: I can get admission to Discipline 'A' in College 'X', and Discipline 'B' in College 'Y'. I think that in general, graduates of Discipline 'A' do better in life, but College 'Y' is a higher quality institution in my opinion. What should I choose.

My answer to the question is no different from lots of others who have answered this question on quora or other social media platforms. That is, if you have passion for a discipline, study that discipline. If you are not interested in any particular discipline, choose what you consider to be a better college. One would hope that this is by now a settled matter. After all, you know whether you have a passion for a discipline or not. Most of our school going children do not have enough exposure to develop a passion, and therefore, it really means that you should just go to a college which you yourself feel is better.

But this simple answer is never the end of counseling session.

But what if he starts liking the discipline 'A' and feels sad that he is not studying that. Well, if he can start liking discipline 'A' without ever studying it formally, he can also start hating the discipline 'A' when he actually studies that. If you had chosen 'A' in 'X', what if he started liking College 'Y' and feels sad that he is not studying in that. There is no end to "what if."

What if, he does not know that he has passion for discipline 'A' but he has that. Hmm! One can have secret passions, so secret that they themselves don't know that they have them. (It is like in Hindi movies, the hero keeps thinking that he is "only friend" with heroine till there is a possibility of separation, marriage with someone else, etc., and then suddenly realizes that he did have this secret love for the lady.) Well, I can only advice based on facts on the table, and not based on secrets that may only come out after the admission.

What if colleges 'X' and 'Y' are really not that different, almost same. Well, then choose the discipline which is, in your opinion, somehow superior. But, they are not exactly the same, what if they are different by a small amount. Well, maybe you should visit both colleges and that would clarify things to you. Oh! But travel is so difficult that we prefer to remain confused.

And you can call their bluff very easily. The choice they are seeking is really not between a discipline and an institute, which as many have stated would be trivial to resolve. I always ask these people, what about Discipline 'C' in College 'Z' where it would be undeniable that College 'Z' has far better perception of quality than Colleges 'X' and 'Y' and every single time, the parents would reject that. They really have a secret optimization function which is based on values of both variables.

The reason for all this confusion is that we have never been taught to articulate a problem definition properly. A in X or B in Y, which is better, is an extremely poorly defined problem. It does not state, for example, what does the person mean by "better." (And that is why, in our open house at IIIT-Delhi, our Director, Prof. Pankaj Jalote always asks potential students and parents to think about why they want to go for college education.) Without some sort of understanding of "better" the discussion is completely meaningless. In other words, one can give proper advice only if that secret optimization function is made known to the advisor.

The reason why we don't discuss the meaning of the word "better" is very simple. There is often a divergence of opinion (on why college) between the student and parents, and they don't wish to argue with each other in front of a third party like me. Often, the parents have a simple definition of "better" which is "more money" but they realize that perhaps it is not politically correct to say that. They will keep sprinkling words like "quality," "personality development," and "happiness." It would be so much better if they could first have a discussion within home and figure out what they want out of college education. If money is the only thing that they want, so be it. (I would be the wrong person to advise in that case, but we are a country of astrologers. So should have no difficulty in finding thousands of advisers.)

There really can be several reasons to study in a particular college. Expectation of a good job is a good reason, but frankly that gets satisfied by a large number of programs in large number of colleges/universities. Beyond a good job, one could look for more money, or to satisfy one's interest in learning, or could consider personal growth and many other things.

So the confusion is at two different levels - what should be the optimization function, and second, given an optimization function, what combination is the best. Both are difficult problems, but without an attempt at solving the first problem, the second problem is unsolvable. So please spend some time thinking of the first problem, and your confusion will reduce and you will be able to take a better decision.