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Thursday, May 25, 2017

HC insists on CBSE Moderation of Marks

CBSE has been increasing marks obtained by students for the last several years. People interested in knowing the details of this must visit this blog. Officially the claim was that "moderation" was to ensure that students don't suffer because of an ambiguous or poorly designed question, an unusually tough paper, etc., and also the marks distribution across the years should be comparable. In reality, there is no evidence that CBSE has ever produced that the increase in marks were related to any of these. People have been quoted as saying that marks were increased to ensure that Delhi students have a  fair chance of admission to colleges of Delhi University. So you could have attempted questions worth 70 marks, but you may actually receive 80 marks.

All this was accepted by everyone in Delhi as long as CBSE was inflating more than others. And usually, CBSE was inflating marks of Delhi students more than marks of outside Delhi students. To enable this difference, CBSE would actually prepare a different paper for Delhi and a different one for the rest of India, and could claim that Delhi students will have larger increase since Delhi paper was more difficult. No evidence of difficult was ever deemed necessary (since the goal appeared to be admission to DU).

Last year, we suddenly had a large number of students from Tamilnadu board take admission in SRCC, one of the premier colleges of DU. It was in national media, and it was felt by many that from this year onward, students from TN board (and other boards with large number of high scoring students) would seek admission in large numbers. The situation is explained nicely by this blog.

CBSE had two options: One, to continue playing the game and inflate marks even more to compete with some of the worst boards of the country, and reduce its own reputation and quality in the bargain. Two, to admit defeat, cry in front of MHRD that others are beating them in their own game, and try to put pressure on all boards to not inflate marks. The third option of going back to being an honest board, and let the universities worry about the fairness in their respective admission processes, perhaps did not occur to the leadership.

So a meeting was called of all the boards and most of the boards decided that there will be no moderation from this year. Here in lies the difficulty. CBSE has never admitted to increasing marks arbitrarily (except grace marks for increasing the pass percentage). Indeed, no board has publicly admitted to this. Everyone claims that what they do is moderation. Not, it is obvious that moderation is the good aspect of conducting an exam, and must continue. And what was going on for last 10-15 years was not moderation but arbitrary increase of marks.

If officially, there was no arbitrary increase of marks, then how can a board say that we are stopping such a practice. The boards could not publicly admit that they were falsifying the marks all these years, and this practice of falsification will now stop. So they used euphemism and said that they will stop moderation. We were all supposed to interpret it as there will be no falsification of marks, and we did. However, this euphemism did not pass the High Court test.

A parent took the matter to the Delhi High Court, and Delhi HC correctly ruled that moderation is an important and necessary part of conducting a large public exam and without this, there may be serious repercussions on the students. Note that Delhi HC has not said that falsification of marks must continue this year. It has only said that moderation must continue this year. The final verdict will come later, but the chances are that the court will insist that moderation continues even in future. (The court even quotes Supreme Court on this.) So the ruling changes nothing for CBSE, and CBSE could have declared the result saying that they did consider moderation after the HC ruling but there was no need.

But I have a feeling that CBSE would continue its policy of falsification of marks this year too. They have been pretty desperate to find ways to ensure that a large number of DU seats are taken by CBSE students. They even wrote to Delhi University Vice Chancellor to give appropriate weight to CBSE marks in the admission process, since other boards were inflating the marks. This was bound to be rejected by DU, and they did. After the result of TN Board was declared the desperation in CBSE only grew, and the HC interim ruling has come as a huge relief to CBSE. Now, they can continue to falsify marks to ensure a greater number of CBSE students in DU.

I find some of the reactions to the Court ruling very interesting. The foremost is that the courts have saved student careers, because without the increased marks, students would have faced serious problems. And why would they face problems. Because other boards increase marks arbitrarily. OK. So let us accept that other boards do it. What is the solution. Is a race to the bottom a solution to this problem. Should people be shouting at CBSE and insisting that they falsify marks. Shouldn't the job of a board be to show you the mirror, give you an honest feedback. Falsification of marks can only lead to (and already leading) erosion in quality of education. If marks are falsified by other boards, we must go to the universities and tell them not to use falsified marks. May be have standardized tests, or their own admission tests, or something else. But how many people will write to DU versus how many people will write to CBSE. Forcing CBSE to cheat is easier than forcing DU to do the right thing. Everyone in India understands that asking someone to do wrong is easier than forcing someone to do right. And hence everyone is after CBSE and not DU.

Let us restate this argument. I have seen students getting undeserved marks for the last 15 years. So I planned my future education and career based on the assumption that I too will enjoy undeserved marks. If I was told one year ago that undeserved marks will be removed, I would have planned something over this one year. So CBSE must roll back the decision of not giving undeserved marks.

This is dangerously similar to the following. Over the last 15 years, I have seen lots of people getting cash which is undeclared to income tax. So I planned my future finances based on the assumption that I too will enjoy my ill gotten wealth. If I was told one year ago that all cash will be demonetized, I would have planned something over this one year. So RBI must roll back the decision to demonetize.

Just imagine the chaos that would have happened if courts had agreed to this argument last November.

And of course the latest news is that CBSE might go to Supreme Court.  This is stupid. The HC has only said that you must have moderation. It has not said that you must have falsification of marks. Falsification was never an announced policy anyway. So just quietly stop falsification, take the high moral ground, and force people to complain to Delhi University. The problem is of DU. They are the ones accepting falsified marks. Why should CBSE care if its competitors are corrupt or not. Why should CBSE care that the corrupt practices of its competitors are hurting its own customers. As a government board, it can just start doing the right thing and not do corrupt things itself to counter the corrupt practices of others.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Merit-based admissions

People who do well in JEE Advanced will mostly tell you that merit is a one-dimensional beast, never mind that it consists of performance in three heterogeneous disciplines, mapped into a single number by the simple addition of three numbers without checking if these numbers are comparable or represent something which can be simply added. It is further believed that admission to higher education is a reward for performing well in an exam under the conditions of extreme pressures. And hence the only justified admission policy is to admit students in the decreasing order of merit or performance in that exam (modulo any laws passed by the parliament, but of course, not before they have pointed out that merit has been violated by those laws).

Should a university consider admission as a reward for performance. Or should it be something else.

Well, it has to be something else. In fact, no university will couch its admission policy in terms of rewarding past performance. University goals are varied: Who is likely to do well in our programs? or Who is likely to do well even beyond our program and be successful and enhance our reputation?

If university goals are somewhat in line with what I have mentioned above, then it is obvious that the admission through a single test is not ideal. No one can perhaps argue that performing in a particular test can both be an indicator of future performance in Computer Science, as well as an indicator of future performance in Economics. No one can argue that India has the best admission process since this is the only major country in the world that does not take language abilities into account for admission. No one can argue that the ability to answer MCQs is a strong indicator of the ability to write long notes necessary in any studies.

The reason for following a single exam is that it provides an objective, transparent mechanism while simultaneously measuring one variant of irrelevant merit. In other words, the most important outcome of JEE based admission has been that we have kept out pressure from the rich and influential as well as won most court cases. And by no means, this is a small achievement. In India, one may genuinely consider keeping pressure out and winning court cases as more important property of admission process than getting students aligned with the university goals. However, over a period of time, people doing well in JEE have started believing that the prime purpose of JEE is to evaluate merit, and that there can only be one definition of merit, which is the JEE rank.

Besides the obvious inadequacy of a single number predicting success of all programs in all disciplines in all institutes, there are other problems as well.

If a university asks the question who is likely to do well in our programs, and let us assume (despite absence of any data) that performance in PCM has a strong positive correlation with performance in Mechanical Engineering. What if we were compare the performance of people who have 80% in JEE after intense coaching, whose parents were rich and provided a good study environment whether at home or in a hostel, with the performance of people who have 75% in JEE without any coaching, and who come from modest backgrounds, and are the first generation learners. When both these groups compete, who is likely to do better. Most universities would have data to show that latter group performs better, and hence they would actually create admission policies to offer more admissions to the latter group.

When we point this out, an immediate reaction is, but how do you evaluate deprivation, and what has been the impact of that deprivation, and how much extra "credit" should be awarded to compensate for that deprivation so that we can compare the merit of the two. Now, in this question, there is an inherent belief that JEE score is a strong indicator of future performance of every sort. Gold standard of transparency and honesty (?) has been converted to Gold standard of merit. Do you ever question why people with same total in JEE score are ranked differently based on marks in some subject or the other. Does that imply different merit. Isn't it true that luck plays a part. If you had a headache that day, your merit may be way down. That any exam performance is only an indicator within a significant band is conveniently forgotten. But when it comes to any affirmative action, we want exact data, why 5% and not 4%. Why not ask data about JEE also.

Let us do another thought experiment. Again, let us assume that PCM performance is an indicator of future performance in all programs. Consider two possible admission decisions. One, take the top 100. Two, take the top 90. Study whether there is sufficient diversity in the class. If certain backgrounds are missing, let us fill the last 10 seats through them. Now, there is a belief (and educationists may even have data, I am not one) that diversity is good for education. That diverse inputs will cause more innovative projects. That having diversity in your peer group in college will prepare you for a much more diverse workplace that you are likely to face. So both performance within the university and success beyond the university is likely to be enhanced if the class is more diverse. Because of these reasons, universities encourage student exchange programs besides having diversified student admissions to begin with.

Let us for the sake of argument assume that there is data to show that diversity helps. What should a university do? Should you admit 100 students whose average performance will be 60, or should you admit 90 students whose average performance will be 70 (helped by diversity) and 10 students whose performance would perhaps be only 50. There is certainly a plausible argument for not admitting strictly through merit (if at all merit can be determined by a single number). But ask someone who was 91st in our imaginary list. Will he agree. If you assume that admission is a reward for performance in a particular test, you will not like what the university is doing.

Universities may have other goals. For example, should we admit those who are the smartest and will benefit very little from university education, or should we admit those who are likely to gain a lot more from university education. So on a scale from 1 to 10, should we admit students at 9 who can be helped to reach 9.5, or should we admit students at 7 and take them to 8.5. In other words, should "merit" be the only criteria for admission or should we also look at what will benefit the society most. This question is particularly important when the society is funding the cost of that education. Again, I know what the "merit" crowd will say, but I will only suggest that most universities around the world will admit both kinds of students in some proportion. (We also are mandated by law to do affirmative action, which means admitting students at lower "merit" but they are likely to benefit the most from our education.)

A lot of universities have a stated goal of helping the society that nurtures them. One way to do this is to prepare entrepreneurs who will create jobs in that society. Depending on the geographical location (and particularly so, if the location does not attract a lot of investments), universities may prefer to have some weight to the nearness criteria, since students belonging to that society are more likely to stay there beyond graduation. A lot of universities will, therefore, admit more students from within the state even when that magic number representing merit is lower for these students.

In summary, the insistence on admitting based on a single number is misplaced. As long as the single number is considered a proxy for transparent/honest process, the insistence has a logic, but when this number starts getting treated as a proxy for merit, there is a problem. On the other hand, it is necessary for public funded universities to not only admit the best, but also give an appearance of admitting the best. As long as public universities like IITs have a transparent/honest process, they should have flexibility in both defining the merit (as combination of multiple parameters, perhaps), as well as bypassing merit to achieve the multi-objectives of  the university.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Improving the gender ratio in IITs

Recently, there have been media reports on a decision taken by Joint Admissions Board (JAB) of IITs where by IITs would create some extra seats for women so as to improve the gender ratio in the under-graduate programs. Two of the reports are here and here. Earlier, JAB had asked a committee headed by Director of IIT Mandi, Prof. Timothy Gonsalves, to look into the ways of improving gender balance in IITs. This decision is apparently one of the recommendations of the committee.

Though the details are sketchy, it seems that there is a goal of having at least 20% women in the under-graduate class in stages. For 2018 admissions, the goal has been set as 14% which will increase by 1% every year to reach 20% in 7 years. In recent years, number of girls admitted to IITs number around 9%. To achieve a 14% ratio in 2018, they will have to increase the number of seats by 6%, and all these 6% will be filled exclusively by women candidates.

A little over a year ago, I had suggested in this blog that we must do some research into why women are not getting selected in larger numbers despite their performing extremely well in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in class 12th and also they perform well after they get selected in engineering. My own contention is that there is an inherent bias in the society which restricts the coaching options for women. The fraction of women in Kota coaching classes is very small, for example. Even in larger cities, the fraction of women in JEE coaching is less than the fraction of women in science sections in schools. Sometimes, it could be lack of willingness to pay high amounts for a girl child. Or it could be the concern for their safety.

I am not sure what data the committee looked at, but apparently they did find that part of the reason for lower number of women is societal bias, and hence that bias needed to be compensated by some mechanism. And what other mechanism do we know of in this country but reservation.

Is reservation the best mechanism to achieve gender balance?

The obvious shortcoming of reservation or a quota system is that its benefits are not directed towards the disadvantaged class but a larger class. The additional seats may not all go to those women whose parents have refused to send them to outstation coaching, or even to a more expensive coaching within the city. At least some of the seats will be taken up by women who actually go for expensive or outstation coaching.

But note that this is the problem of reservation based systems in general. Aren't OBC reservations benefiting students whose both parents are well educated and can hardly be called "Educationally Backward." But in India, we always argue that if we don't use simple proxies for disadvantages faced by people, the whole system will be gamed by rich and influential. In case of simple proxies (like caste for socially and educationally backwardness), some non-deserving people may sneak in, but it helps those who need such help. Something similar is likely to happen with women reservation as well. A few non-deserving women will get admission, but overall, it will help compensate the societal bias to some extent.

I think something more interesting may happen here. Once the parents know that getting admission to IITs is somewhat easier for women, they may actually be more willing to get them coached. Currently, one of the reasons for not investing in their coaching is that the chances of success are so low, and the expected return on investment is consequently low. They are willing to invest in sons' coaching even with that lower expected return, but will invest in daughters' coaching if the expected return is higher. As a result, a greater percent of women may succeed in the admissions process on their own. My gut feeling is that the percent of women in the normal process will keep increasing and they will need only 5-6 % supernumerary seats even as the goal improves from 14% to 16% and all the way to 20%. And because of this hope, I am positive about the reservation.

Are there other methods that they could have used to increase women admission?

Absolutely. JNU has had the scheme of deprivation points in their admission process. Under this scheme, they would add a few points to the other pieces of evaluation based on some criteria of background of the candidates. One of the criteria is gender, and a small benefit accrues to female candidates.

IITs could do something similar. They could increase the marks of every women candidate by some small number in a way that in the top 10,000 ranks, there are exactly 1400 women. And now women have ranks based on this new marks. One could a priori decide what is the maximum number of marks to be added, and if to ensure that there will be 1400 women out of 10,000 ranks require a higher number of marks to be added, then we will still stick to the maximum marks. (And, of course, we would know how many of them were in top 10,000 before these extra marks, and how many have been added, and create that many more seats to satisfy the current policy of not reducing the number of seats for categories not part of new reservation.)

Of course, it is easy to expand this mechanism to implement all sorts of reservations, and we will have data on exactly how much difference there is between various categories. So we could increase the marks of all SC students in a way that there are exactly 1500 of them in the top 10,000 (subject to the maximum number of marks, note that even now there is a limit on how much lower we will go in the merit list).

This mechanism is very useful when you have very small reservations, for example, in case of Physically challenged students. A PH-ST student is competing for a 0.2% quota (3% of 7.5%), which means that in a large number of programs, there will be 0 reserved seats in any given year. But if you add enough marks to their score that they represent 3% in 10,000, they will be able to seek admission to any seat that they deserve at their performance level.

This mechanism will be useful if we want to compensate for any other bias or discrimination or deprivation that candidates have faced.

Of course, what we are arguing now is that a 15% reservation over 10,000 seats means that the reservation is overall and not in each program. This would mean that they may get slightly less than 15% in some programs and slightly more than 15% in some programs. We only need to make sure that the distribution of marks are such that it won't lead to very high or very low presence in the popular programs (which I suspect will not happen). I don't know how courts will look at it, but it is worth trying.

Can we improve gender balance without any affirmative action?

That would be the least controversial and best method, in general. But that would require a lot of research, and we normally want to solve the problem without doing research. For example, if the hypothesis that lower women representation is due to societal bias and consequent lack of investment in their coaching turns out to have some merit, then perhaps we need to have the entrance exam (or at least some components of it) which are not impacted by such high pressure coaching. Small amount of coaching would be enough. One way to do that is to have speed tests, I am told, instead of very difficult to remember tricks. On top of that, something that government has already asked IITs to do, we can get study material prepared by IITs. And, of course, we are also seeing development of apps where by a candidate can practice for speed tests and get feedback sitting at home, all at a very low cost.

Of course, if the research shows some other reasons behind gender imbalance, we will need to tackle that properly.

Will this lead to more demands of diversifying student population?

Tamil Nadu has a little over 5% population of India, but it does not send 5% students to IITs. Muslims have about 15% population in India, but the fraction of Muslim students in IITs is much smaller. Wouldn't there be demands for increasing their representation.

Of course, there will be. But note one thing. The system proposed is saying that if 50% population does not have even 20% representation then there is something wrong somewhere, and we need to do something about it. So, the goal is not to ensure representation aligned to population fraction. Also, this is the population which seems to be doing much better in pretty much every exam in the country, except JEE advanced. If there are other groups which meet these criteria, that too can be studied.


It is a difficult decision. But one that I think could lead to attracting better talent by IITs. I am hoping that the "quota" part will remain very small and will eventually go away, and that IITs will implement other ways to attract talent, including changes to JEE.

Added on April 22, 2017:

Prof. Timothy Gonsalves, the Chairman of the committee on improving gender imbalance in IITs has made a posting on his FaceBook wall giving a summary of what went behind the report. I strongly encourage everyone to read that.
 An excerpt from the same:
Would admitting girls with slightly lower ranks compromise on quality at IIT?
 A study in IIT-Delhi looked at the final CGPA of male vs. female students. Over a period of 13 years (2003-2015), females outperformed males consistently by an average of 1 grade point, despite having lower JEE ranks! This amazing finding gels with our experience as teachers in other IITs also. It is an indication that this cohort of young women is extraordinarily talented and highly trained despite the disadvantages of growing up as girls in India.
I am told that the difference in grade between girls and boys of similar JEE ranks at IIT Delhi is a whopping 1.5. It proves beyond a shadow of doubt that giving some push to women whether through quota or bonus marks, or whatever, will actually admit better students to IITs.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

International Student Exchange Programs

In the last 2 years that I have been in Delhi, I have attended many a meetings with folks from different countries trying to figure out how the institutions in India can engage with institutions in their respective countries. There are two models which seem to working well.

One is that of twinning wherein a student in India joins an Indian institution, does some course work for two years, and then seek admission in a partner university abroad, which recognizes the credits completed here. The student spends two more years at the foreign institute, and get a degree from there. This is a win-win situation for everyone involved (commercially, at least). The student wants a degree from abroad, and gets it at a cheaper price than spending all 4 years abroad. The parents are happy that they didn't have to send their ward abroad when s/he was too young. The foreign university is happy that they are getting at least two years' tuition from a foreign student. The local university is happy because they can actually charge a bit more for the two years than what they may charge for their 4-year program.

The other is that of research collaboration. Two researchers meet somewhere, may be in a conference, and they decide to collaborate. Much of the interaction can happen over Internet, and a few visits can be supported by their respective projects. On top of that, there are government to government schemes under which they can apply for projects jointly, and while getting big moneys in international projects is difficult, collaborations can certainly happen.

But what about things beyond this. In terms of teaching programs, can we have student and faculty exchange programs where our students can spend a semester or two in the foreign location, and their students can spend a semester or two on our campuses. The same could be done with faculty. Can our PhD students work in their labs and their PhD students work in our labs. This is where one does not find any solution. For our students to go to North America or Europe is very expensive - travel, lodging and boarding, as well as tuition. For their students to come to India, well they don't think of it as an option. If they were coming to our campus, it would be easy to argue for tuition waivers. They don't pay tuition here, and our students don't pay tuition there. But we don't see a 2-way exchange.

So in every such meetings, there will be complaints about lack of two-way exchanges.

In a recent meeting, I asked the representatives of various universities whether they have an MoU with a university from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka or Mayanmar. The answer was on expected lines, none of them had an MoU with any university in these countries. The reason was supposedly obvious. Their universities were not great (though I can tell you that most universities represented in that room would not be better than good universities in these countries). Now, your student does not want to go to a university which is roughly similar to that of your quality, and you are wondering why an American or a European student does not want to spend a semester at your campus.

I recall that long time ago, when we were discussing relationships with top universities in Senate of IIT Kanpur, one professor had said that only after IIT Kanpur has had a good working relationship with HBTI, MNNIT, and other decent colleges of UP, would it realize how to have a relationship with MITs of the world.

A gentleman from US asked a question, "What is the goal for student exchange?" A pin drop silence. Frankly, the goal is only to brag about it, or enable our students to go to US/Europe with fee waivers. If the goal was what normally universities say, greater cultural diversification in the class, then we could achieve that by having more students from Africa, Central Asia, South East Asia, etc. Our focus on these regions is fairly limited right now.

I believe that the right thing to do by our universities is to attract exchange students from comparable or less developed countries than us. This will help us in multiple ways. It is more likely to succeed than to try wooing students from US/Europe. Thus the first goal of cultural diversity in the class (and a side goal of doing better in ranking) will be achieved. This will make us learn what are the challenges that foreign students face, including but not limited to getting a visa, police registeration, finding accommodation in nearby localities, and so on. It would be easier for our students to spend a semester in these places and gain an exposure of different cultural setting. Once we have all this knowledge and experience, we will be able to come up with better ideas to expand the scope of exchanges to richer countries. Right now, there are many attractions that we can market to students of richer countries, but we really don't know how to leverage them, how to prepare a program suited for different classes of students.

And just like we are offering a twinning program to our students, we could get into agreements with universities in less developed regions that they will send us their students after two years of training and we will train them for 2 more years and give our degrees. Why should we always be importer of education service. We should try to become an exporter of education service.

At a national level, bringing students from such countries also projects our soft power, create goodwill, create ambassadors for life.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

NIRF 2017

So, the second round of rankings are out. And every single problem that I could have imagined with a ranking system, I find it in these rankings. I had written two blog articles when the NIRF framework was announced in September 2015. They are here and here.

Let me summarize my most important objection to NIRF. While a lot of stake holders use ranking for taking important decisions, and therefore, it is important for the universities and colleges to participate in ranking games, there are several inherent problems with ranking games. The biggest problem is that a single linear rank gives a hugely distorted view of the academic landscape. And even to get that, the data is simple not available in reliable fashion. So a lot of fudging takes place.

Having lots of rankings in private sector is still ok, since most stakeholders will take each of them with a pinch of salt, and hopefully do a bit more homework about the universities they are interested in. While stakeholders may not understand the exact nature of problems with rankings, they are skeptical of any private ranking whose aim typically is to make money out of this information. Also, having multiple rankings mean that to some extent stakeholders realize that either rankings are inconsistent or there are indeed multiple ways to look at universities. But when government creates a ranking, stake holders may use it as the primary information and that would be disastrous.

The second major problem with a government ranking is that it leads to inconsistency in public policy. On one hand, having more out of state students is considered positive for educational outcomes, and on the other hand, we could have 50% reservation for in-state students in the institutes managed by the same government. Opposite for women participation. It is said that having a 50-50 population is good for educational outcomes, but nothing will be done to attract greater number of women students to IITs.

And, third major problem with government ranking is that the government is further reducing its already low credibility. There is no way one can verify this huge amount of data. So there will be huge errors in data leading to some strange ranking. Who should be held responsible if a potential student trusts these rankings, get admission, and then find the truth. What if this happens at a government institute. Will some heads roll, or will we just say, "you are stupid to trust government, and don't deserve anything better."

Last year, when NIRF ranking came out, there were lots of questions, and the answers were rarely provided, and really, the only answer was, "We did not have enough time. So some things may have been overlooked. We will do a better job next year." I personally was very upset at the lack of transparency. We were told that the data consistency would be maintained by way of complete transparency. We will all know what all has been submitted by various institutions and that would keep a check on each institution from lying. When I approached some of the folks in NIRF, I was told that due to very short period within which they had to come up with the ranking, they had taken some ad hoc decisions which may be difficult to explain to public, and hence only that year, the transparency is not there, and the 2017 ranking would be completely transparent.

Well, I don't see the submissions of various institutions on NIRF website this year too. I am told that this year, it was compulsory for all participating institutes to keep a copy of their NIRF submissions on their own websites, and if any institute does not keep that information, they will be removed from the ranking. I just checked several universities, and there is at least one in the top 10 who does not have NIRF data on their website (at least I search on the main page, used their search and used google search with "NIRF " as the quey. One other university has only partial information on its website and some crucial pieces of information missing. Others too may remove it in due course. To be transparent, the easiest thing would have been to put up all the submissions on NIRF website (may be they could have asked the institute to submit sensitive data such as placement details separately, and the rest could have been published by them). I don't know why they couldn't do this.

Also, transparency is not just about making submitted data public. It is also how NIRF has interpreted it. How that information has been converted to marks. Yes, they do give score in the five categories. This is appreciated, but they should give out information in each of the part of major factors. And also tell us various parameters that they have used in ranking.

In the small bit of research that I did, reading several submitted reports, this is what I find:

One of the top 5 business school is claiming that in the past 3 years, 100% of their graduates have got a job through campus placement. Frankly, it is unbelievable. Not a single student opting out of placement to start a company, for example. I see this happening in all IITs, NITs, etc., but not at the top business school of the country. Not even one graduate deciding that may be PhD is a good idea. Not even one graduate going back to the company where s/he came from 2 years ago, and not participating in the campus placement. (I thought even Government of India sponsors a few candidates for MBA at such places, and they are expected to join back, and not seek campus placement.) Also, every faculty member, except one has an experience of 5 years or more. Have not not hired any faculty member in the last 5 years, or everyone hired in the last 5 years has left them, or they only hire faculty with 5 years of experience. All this could be true. But a bit unbelievable. And at least as far as the student placement is concerned, if the data is correct, then it is quite sad.

In one university, the submitted data for consultancy amount is X, and the summary sheet for that university put out by NIRF shows more than 10X. I can understand 10X. Someone typing the information could have made a mistake in placing decimal. But having an arbit number which is unbelievably large is rather strange.

In one university, I saw the number of faculty members in NIRF data sheet to be unexpectedly large. I went to the university website. The NIRF submitted data for this is not on their website. Then I went to the website of each department and counted the faculty members shown there. The number is less than half.

The information on papers has been outsourced by them. I am told that in one university, the numbers shown in the datasheet is very less compared to what this university is claiming. The university folks tell me that NIRF sent them an email several months ago telling them the number of papers that they have found. The university wrote back giving its numbers, which was much higher. Now, if both of them are looking at the same database, the only reason for this difference could be that the search queries are different. In particular, faculty members use different names of the university (like IIT Kanpur, I.I.T.K., Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and so on), and it is possible that they have searched for some names and not other names. It would have been absolutely trivial for them to share their search query, or ask for our search query. But no communication from them, and at the end when the rankings are out, they have simply used their own data. To me, this is height of callousness and incompetence. And we are going to use such data to take important decisions on funding and autonomy.

I see in the data sheets for engineering colleges that they asked for median salary and from management schools, average salary. Why this difference? I thought median salary captured the performance of placement much better, and must be for everyone. But anyway, I checked the numbers. While many institutes have given numbers which are believable as median salaries, there are many where the numbers are simply not believable. My guess is that they have given average salaries rather than median salaries. (Averages are invariably very high compared to median for most colleges.) In fact, about two institutes, I am sure this has happened. I guess in some places this may have happened inadvertently, but in some places it may be a deliberate error.

Then there is this data about capital expenses (not counting building construction). Will this number vary from year to year very drastically. What if it is shown as a small fraction of last year's expense. Shouldn't it raise a suspicion that perhaps last year, they had some construction going on and this year, there is none. Shouldn't they seek some verification of data at least in cases of suspicion.

And note that I am only talking about universities ranked in the top few in some category or the other. I understand that it is not easy to verify data for all colleges and universities, but they can always have a 2-stage or 3-stage process. That is, get data from all colleges which is not verified. The only "stick" is that all this data will be posted on the NIRF website, and if any questions are raised, they will be investigated and if a serious error is found, the information will be given out to press and they will be barred from ranking for some time. With this, you finalize top 120 or so univs in each category, and for these univs, some level of checking can be done. May be some proofs can be asked for. May be someone can check for information on the univ website, and so on. If any glaring errors are found, they are out of ranking. This way, there will be better trust in top 100. And finally, those whom you are going to declare in top 20-25, there should be yet another level of data verification. May be an agency can be hired to actually visit the university and verify everything. So the top 20 or so ranks would be based on very high quality data.

(Of course, the problem of a linear ranking not reflective of all diverse strengths of universities will always remain.)

Notice that I have not discussed the parameters per se, only the poor quality of data that they have against those parameters.

The parameters are also a problem. They are strongly in favor of bigger institutes. I wonder why. I can see that a bigger class to some extent leads to peer-to-peer learning. But beyond a point it does not help. And then what helps is having a variety of disciplines, a variety of courses available on the campus. But just having larger number of students does not guarantee that variety. There are many other serious problems with the parameters, but may be that is for another blog. But I wonder if they did some research to establish correlation between those factors and better teaching/learning or better research. I also wonder if they did any sensitivity analysis with their parameters. (What if I change the parameters slightly, does it result in major changes in the top order.)

I did not write last year after NIRF ranking were published since I wanted to look at what they will do after they have had enough time to do things right. But unfortunately, they have not utilized the time effectively.

Of course, the good thing is that most students/parents who have approached me for admission related queries, do not seem to bother about NIRF ranking. I hope it stays that way.

Added on 9th April:

More interesting stuff.

Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research which has no teaching program and is considered a tiny research center is ranked the third best teaching place in the country, overall. Such is the stupidity of this ranking that a place without a teaching program has been ranked 3rd best place in India in teaching.

Homi Bhabha National Institute shows its annual budget as 473 crores, and has 973 faculty members. Basically, the entire budget of DAE institutions. Are they really educational institutions. That they have been declared as a deemed university to encourage their scientists to get PhD in-house now means that they can declare the entire budget as university budget, and all scientists as faculty. And NIRF 2017 admits that. Further, with 973 faculty members, they have 252 publications listed in Web of Science, easily the worst ratio of all research places in India. But guess what. They are in the overall list because of a very strange rule. The number of faculty members will be deemed to be 10% of the number of students, irrespective of the actual number of faculty. So in case of HBNI, it will be assumed that these 252 papers have been written not by 973 faculty members, but 310 faculty members. Absolutely crazy stuff.

This article in wired points out that there are drastic changes in 2016 ranks and 2017 ranks. Can quality of universities change this drastically from year to year. It specifically mentions a university having jumped the rank from #83 to #12. It means that either the ranking last year was arbitrary or ranking this year is arbitrary. How do we know that it is not arbitrary this year.

If you look at the overall ranking in teaching learning, you would find that most of our Agriculture universities or Veterinary colleges have a far superior teaching programs than IITs. May be we should handover IITs to Ministry of Agriculture. They seem to be running far better academic institutions.

A very sensible advice from prof. Ashish Nanda, Director, IIM Ahmedabad, "Rate, don’t rank, academic institutions" in Hindu Business Line.

How do you explain a huge difference in the rating by NAAC and ranking by NIRF.

Added on 11th April, 2017:

A blog by Dhruv Baldawa, "Why we should not be ranking our educational institutions"

Added on 23rd April, 2017:

IIT BHU raises objections on NIRF ranking 2017, says list based on ‘incomplete data. Here is the news report.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Should I take admission in Computer Science?

After my last blog article,where I had said that the quality of CS education is terrible in the country, I have received a few career counseling requests where the question is: "Should I study ECE or other engineering disciplines instead of CSE?" These are students (or their parents) who will be seeking admission to under-graduate programs in engineering this year.

A few quick comments: The problem of poor quality education is widespread and not restricted to Computer Science. I just know a bit more about CS and hence can say things more confidently about CS. But I don't believe that other disciplines are doing much better. Second, take admission in a discipline which you want to pursue as a career, and not worry about recent placement data. There will always be jobs for well educated persons. Third, if you have no personal interest in any discipline, seek admission in a college where the quality of education (in a holistic sense) is better. Again, ignore placement claims.

But I know from my past experience that the previous paragraph is completely unsatisfactory. Many parents want an unambiguous answer - would there be more job opportunities for CSE graduates or ECE graduates 4 years from now. They are not going to be happy with the answer that there will be more job opportunities for smarter people who have learn both engineering skills (including problem solving, analysis, synthesis, etc.), soft skills and life skills (communication, leadership, etc.) technical skills (programming, use of several tools), and have a broad based education to get the ability to pick up whatever is needed to be learnt on the job. This is independent of the discipline that you study.

(Notice that prior to admission, it is assumed that placement is a function of college and discipline. But after people do get a job, their opinions change and then the placement is because they are smart and the college has done nothing for them.)

First the bad news. The number of jobs created in the Indian IT sector has been less in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. And it is expected that in 2017-18, the number of jobs will be even lower. If you consider the fraction of graduates getting a job across all universities/colleges, Information Technology has been a poor performer for a very long time. Just about 2.5 lakh jobs for about 10 lakh graduates. But CSE/IT have been popular programs because people don't look at the unemployment data, and only employment data, and that too top packages and not average or median packages. And the employment numbers were very high. Unfortunately for them, a lot of routine jobs are going away and these numbers are likely to keep coming down.

As per this report in Business Standard, Infosys recruited only 5500 employees in the first 9 months of the year as opposed to 17500 in the corresponding period of last year. Also, most IT services companies are re-skilling their employees as AI and Machine learning removes many routine jobs. Other reports talking about reduced IT hiring this year are here, here, and here. Note that most of this reduction has happened before Trump became President of US and therefore, does not take into account the possible restrictions on visas, outsourcing, etc.

There was a 20% decline across the sector in campus hiring this year. It may be noted that 20% decline is not uniform. Some of the poorer colleges will see 100% decline (companies won't visit them at all), while the top tier colleges may not see any decline at all.

It is expected that with more automation, and with developments in AI and Machine Learning, more and more routine jobs will be done by software or robots, and even where a human must be in the loop, the component that human will actually carry out would reduce. And hence, one should expect a more serious decline in IT services jobs over the next 4 years.

And hence, if the primary reason to join a program is immediate campus placement (and not learning, or interest), then one should check if that campus is dependent on IT services sector jobs for placing its students. If the majority of the students are joining IT services, there could be issues with placements 4 years hence. (And just to add, there are perhaps less than 40 CS/IT departments in the whole country where a majority of graduates are getting core CS jobs. IIIT-Delhi is one of them.)

Is Computer Science as a discipline on the decline. Absolutely not. In fact, it is one of the most exciting phases that we have seen yet. The kind of problems that we are able to solve today with cloud computing, high performance computing, big data, AI, deep learning, mobile computing, ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity, and so on, we could only imagine just a decade ago. Computer Science has truly changed the way we live our lives and will keep changing it further as the future unfolds. This is really the time to study Computer Science and contribute to the creation of a wonderful future for all of us and the next generation. Also, Computer Science professionals are interacting with professionals from so many disciplines that irrespective of what your interests lie in, you could still study Compute Science and study a discipline of your passion and solve problems at the interaction of the two disciplines. (Keeping this in mind, IIIT-Delhi started the program on CS and Applied Maths last year, and is starting two new programs this year - CS and Design, and IT and Social Science.)

A typical question I get is this. By doing BTech in ECE, one can still take GATE in CS and do an MTech in CS, but by doing BTech in CSE, one is stuck in CS discipline. My answer is that in general one should not depend on change of disciplines in future. If you are so motivated that you can study CS material for GATE in your 3rd or 4th year, then you can right away take CS, study hard, and you can have a good career in CS. The problem of CS jobs is only because of poorly trained and poorly motivated students. On the other hand, there will be more opportunities for people with broader skillsets in future. (And that is why we are hoping that our new programs at IIIT-Delhi will be very successful.) 

So, if you want to study Computer Science, go right ahead and choose CS. The only exceptions to this general advice is: if you are only able to get admission in a college which has a poor quality teaching program. And once you join the program, make sure that you work hard to take as much advantage of your four years in college.

If you are not interested in anything, but want to do a CS program only because of placements. Check if the college graduates are too dependent on IT services companies for placement. If yes, be warned that IT services job are likely to become hugely competitive in 4 years.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GATE Results: State of engineering education

GATE 2017 results are out, and once again, there is disappointment all over. This news article is stating that only 16% of those who gave the GATE exam could qualify. "Qualifying" means that these students have the capability to seek admission to an MTech program in the country. I cannot say about all engineering disciplines, and my comments are based on my familiarity with Computer Science/Information Technology education in the country.

We don't yet know the detailed statistics, but we do know that in the last couple of years, percentage of CS qualified candidates was lower than the combined percentage of qualified candidates in all disciplines. Let us assume the percentage of qualified candidates in CS in GATE 2017 to be about 14%.

Note that this 14% is after declaring candidates from reserved categories as qualified at much lower cutoffs. If we were to use the same cutoff for everyone (since that really reflects the preparation levels in Computer Science for all graduates), then this number could be as low as 11-12%. The reserved category students are the majority of the students giving GATE exam.

Are all these students really capable of doing an MTech (which, by the way, typically requires that you know only a few courses in CS). Anyone who has interviewed for MTech admissions, even in tier 2 institutions, would tell you that a lot of them are unable to answer many questions, and their marks in GATE are really a result of sustained coaching effort and not really understanding the subjects. Give them the same question that came in GATE paper in a different format, and they are unable to answer. Give them the same question 4 months after the GATE exam, and they claim that they have forgotten. So the percentage of students who can go through a poor quality MTech program in a Tier 2 institute is perhaps half of these qualified candidates. So may be around 6%. (A lot of hand waiving here. No scientific study. Just my impressions.)

Of course, not everyone gives GATE. How many of the "good" graduates not give GATE versus how many of the "poor" quality graduates not give GATE. I suspect that more than 1 lakh is fairly representative sample, but we may add a couple of percentage to our numbers, just to take care of this. So may be about 8% graduates are capable to doing at least a poor quality MTech program at a Tier 2 institution.

Note that this is roughly the capability required to do routine software related jobs in service industry, and NASSCOM, the industry body which represents the IT service industry, has been saying now for at least a couple of decades that less than 10% of our graduates are employment ready. (There is another class called "employable" which are those who can be readied with substantial training. With that the numbers go up.)

What should be the goal of a 4-year BTech (CS) program? Should the goal be to learn just 4-5 courses in a half-baked fashion which will enable you to do a low-quality job in IT service industry, or get admission in a poor-quality MTech program in a Tier 2 institute. If that was the goal, then about 10% of the graduates are meeting that goal, and 90% are not.

However, as media reported recently, HCL, the 4th largest IT service company will start hiring smart 12th class students and train them on those few things that they really need. The fact of the matter is that what can make you qualify in GATE (CS) is something that you can learn in a few months, you don't need a 4-year program, and that is exactly what the coaching industry is caching on.

In an earlier blog long time ago, I had pointed out that 50% of the graduates actually got a GATE score of 0 or negative in that year. It means that a majority of our CS/IT graduates are no better than a class 1 student (note I am comparing with someone who has just entered the school, not someone who is about to leave the school).

If we consider the goal of 4-year BTech (CS) program to not just learn a bit of programming, data structures and algorithms, but also understand how operating system works, how networks operate, how machine learning can be used to solve problems, and actually solve some of those problems, then the percentage of graduates who satisfy these program goals are much smaller than 10%. We don't have such numbers, but my gut feeling is that the numbers could not be more than 3-4%. Which means that out of about 10 lakh graduates in CS/IT domain, may be 30-40 thousand graduates meet what should be the requirements of a 4-year BTech (CS) program.

(I wonder if GATE would be willing to share the detailed data on each candidate's response to each question, and which colleges these candidates come from, etc., so that we can do a more detailed analysis, instead of making guesses.)

Thinking about who these 30-40 thousand graduates are, I would guess that these are primarily from IITs, NITs, IIITs, some of the state universities, deemed universities, etc. If we consider the entire eco-system of affiliated colleges in the country, there is perhaps less than 1% graduates who meet the requirements of a BTech program. And these 1%, I am sure, are largely because the students were inherently good, and the colleges could not spoil them despite best efforts. (Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, for example, NSIT in Delhi.)

Now, think about it. AICTE is supposed to regulate all affiliated colleges. And the result is that may be around 1% of the graduates of those colleges meet the goals of a 4-year BTech (CS) program. 99% of those who are getting degrees are not good enough for those degrees. What if we were to disband AICTE. What if the government were to suddenly decide that all these affiliated colleges have complete autonomy starting now. They can decide whom to admit, whom to recruit as faculty, what to teach, whom to give degrees, and so on, without any interface with any government department or agency. They can choose to have accreditation, if they so desire. They can decide their fees, and so on. So basically leave everything to the market forces. I am sure a very horrifying thought experiment for most people. But would market fail us even more. Would market forces result in 100% of the degrees being worthless, or is there a chance that may be instead of 99% of the degrees being worthless, the number may reduce to 98% or even lower.

I think the time has come to ask AICTE and MHRD some tough questions. Why regulations?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

IIIT-Delhi admitting commerce/arts with maths students from Delhi to BTech program

There are two ways to attract great talent - one, to compete with everyone else for the same talent, and two, to spot talent in places where others are not looking. We did this with our PhD program right in the beginning - trying to attract students right after BTech including those who did not give GATE. It paid rich dividends. We tried an experiment where we allowed non-science students (but those who have studied Maths in 12th class) for admission to BTech (Computer Science) but we did not receive many applications. Before we started admitting students jointly with other Delhi government institutions, we used to admit students based on ranking in an aptitude test. This, again, gave us excellent students. When we joined the joint admission process based on JEE, we also introduced the bonus marks scheme where an applicant could get his/her JEE score increased by up to 10 percent based on various achievements that s/he may have, including curricular (Olympiads, NTSE, etc.), or extra-curricular (sports, chess, cultural, etc.). We have been able to attract many good students who wouldn't have been able to make it purely based on JEE score.

From the coming year, we are starting a new program called, BTech (Information Technology and Social Science). The program will consists of all the core courses of Information Technology and a few electives, as well as several courses in humanities and social sciences, at least 4 courses each in two disciplines, and a few foundation courses and a few electives. The idea is to prepare individuals who have a strong grounding in social sciences, but are equally at ease with Computer Science. Later, they can take up careers which are typically open to CS and IT graduates, or take up careers (or for that matter, higher education), which are typically open to graduates of broad based social science programs. A program which is unique in the country, and which we believe is the need of the hour.

While discussing the intake for this program, we felt that not only we should try admitting non-science students once again because we can admit great talent that way, but also the students from non-science background would add value to this program by bringing in a different perspective in the classroom. So we are doing a small little experiment. Within the Delhi quota (as a Delhi Government institute, we admit most students from Delhi only), half the students will be from science background (and admitted along with our other BTech programs, that is, through the JEE route), and half the students will be from non-science backgrounds (and admitted on the basis of 12th class marks). After a year or two, we will review the performance of all students and see if any change in admission policy is needed. But we are really excited about teaching students from non-science background.

Will really appreciate if you inform anyone who is giving board exams in Delhi about this program.

Important Links:

BTech Admissions 2017 @ IIIT-Delhi

BTech Program in Information Technology and Social Science

Note: There is another new program, Computer Science and Design, this year. Will write a blog on that later.

Added on 19th March:

Blog by Prashant Bhattacharji

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Scholarships for the needy students: An IIITD innovation

All universities would ideally want that no one should be denied education just because someone can not pay the costs of attending the university. And hence all of them would have some financial support available for those who are coming from economically disadvantaged sections of the society. Usually, there is going to be a limited amount of support available and the number of claimants is much higher.

So a university needs to identify the most needy students from among all the applicants. The process is usually very simple. We ask students for the total income of their parents, and choose the ones who report the minimum income. Of course, we don't trust them. We ask them to share a copy of the income tax return, if their income is in the taxable range. If the income is less then that, we want them to give an affidavit on a stamp paper. I am told that penalty of lying in an affidavit is more than the penalty of lying on a plain piece of paper. Though I wonder if anyone ever has been prosecuted for misreporting his/her income.

The problem in this system is that in India, in a large number of cases, there is no relationship between the reported income and actual income. As our Finance Minister said in his budget speech this year, "India is largely a non tax-compliant society." One immediately notices that a peon working for the government gives a certificate that he is earning 3-4 lakh rupees in a year, but the businessman father of a student carrying a 25,000 rupees phone will claim that he earned only 2 lakh rupees a year. To give financial support to the latter would not really be fair.

At IIIT-Delhi, we have tweaked the system a bit. We realize that the economic background of a family can be judged from three things - income, expenditure and ownership of assets. Out of these three things, it is easiest to hide income, and most difficult to hide expenditure. And therefore, we ask an important question about expenditure in addition to the income certificate. We ask for the amount of money that the student gave to the school in class 12th in the name of tuition and various other fees. Notice that it is difficult to hide as most of the time, the information is available on the website. Also, it is very unlikely that a rich person (who may be hiding income and claiming to be poor) would send his/her son/daughter to a government school or a low-cost school. With this simple addition to the process, we are able to reduce the number of applications very drastically, and able to provide some financial support to pretty much everyone whose income and expenditure is within the limits set by us.

Of course, it is indeed possible that someone has studied in somewhat expensive schools and yet paying our substantial tuition is difficult to afford for them. For such cases, we have a separate process where a small committee will talk to individual students, seek all sort of information, much more detailed than what I mention above, sometimes asking for bank statements, or electricity bill, etc.

In our process of selecting students to provide financial support, we have kept the income limits higher than most government universities. We can do this because we also depend on expenditure (in particular, school expenses) as a significant parameter to judge financial need. We believe that we are able to target support much better than other places which only look at self declared income.

I wonder why government does not define economically backward based on income, expenditure and ownership of assets. My guess is that mostly the schemes for economically backward have political aims and hence there is really no interest in figuring out whether someone is really economically backward or not. Let there be more beneficiaries.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Early Admissions

I have often said in the past that one of the reasons for stress during admission time and finally many seats being vacant is that we are trying to complete admission process of more than 5 million students in just a few weeks in June/July. And we are doing this because somehow marks in 12th class or an entrance exam based on syllabus of 12th class is considered essential for admission to a college. Why can't we do admission before the board exams, I have often wondered.

This year, I am in the same boat as many readers of my blog. My daughter is looking forward to leaving school and start her college life. So the year has been stressful for everyone in the family, like it is for millions of families every year. However, our stress period got reduced because it turned out that many high quality private colleges have early admission process for liberal education. She applied to only one such university, and got selected. And since this happened before the board exams, she is able to focus on her boards without too much of stress. This also means that we will apply to only a small set of colleges after her board exams. A win-win situation for every stake holder.

I have suggested earlier that JEE Mains could be held in May after 11th class (and a few times after that), and JEE Advanced could be held in December. (Similarly, state entrance exams can be any time during the 12th class.). Admission process in all universities where the admission is not through board marks could ideally be finished in December/January. Students who did not perform well in any of these entrance exams would know their performance in December only, giving them a lot of time to try even harder in the board exams. It also allows universities to invite the admitted students before the classes start for removing any deficiency that they may have. For example, a lot of students from rural background may need some support in English language. They could be asked to join a couple of weeks in advance and some help could be given in this period. The current schedule has no space for any such intervention.

Note that tests for post-graduate admissions are usually held much earlier than the final semester exams. So CAT is held in November. GATE is held in February. Even though the number of students to be admitted is much smaller, and the stress levels associated with PG admissions are much less, and yet, the admission process starts so much earlier. But where we need that extra time, we don't do it. The placement activities start more than a year before the expected date of graduation. We don't always wait for the final exam results to be out to decide the next course of action, except for under-graduate admission in India.

A large number of students are dropping one year and repeating entrance exams next year. Can we at least offer these students an early admission. These have completed 12th class, and have every score that we would normally look for in June. So they could be considered for next year's admission based on this year's performance, may be with a bit of penalty. For example, when we are admitting students to IITs, we could ask both this year's JEE and previous year's JEE students to apply. We could say that we will reduce previous year's JEE marks by a couple of percentage points, and then consider them for ranking. If we do this, it almost amounts to early admission, since students will have a fairly good idea about where they will be able to get admission. One can even confirm admissions to next year in August itself.

Most of the universities around the world complete under-graduate admission without waiting for the 12th class performance to be known. We should be able to do it in India as well.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Autonomy and Trust

Our education regulators have always had good intentions. If you listen to folks from MHRD, UGC and AICTE, you will hear statements like, "we will give permission for this or that." UGC allows universities to introduce credit based systems. MHRD is allowing NITs and IITs to close unpopular programs. Just to give a couple of examples. Every week, I see the generosity of bureaucrats and academic regulators and sometimes even the political class in newspapers. (It is another matter that these are often the same statements they repeat after regular intervals. But let us enjoy the positive sentiment and not worry about them not doing even this much.)

Can we look forward to an India where universities have autonomy, at least private ones.

I am reminded of a very old article I read in Manushi (must have been late 80s). It mentioned a husband who is saying something to the effect: "I believe in equality of husband and wife. And therefore, I allow my wife to do anything that I will do myself. I allow her to do a job. I allow her to go out with her office colleagues, and so on." And then the author of the article asked a simple question. Are husband and wife really equal. Of course, not. In this story, the husband seemed to believe that wife needed permission for everything. He was perhaps more enlightened than an average husband of the times and gave that permission more easily or even always, but the basic premise still was that the wife needed permission while the husband didn't.

It is the same thing about autonomy. Every one sitting in MHRD, UGC, AICTE, etc. wants to prove their enlightenment by pronouncing that they want to grant more autonomy, but each such pronouncement only ends up proving that they have no idea of what autonomy means. The fact is that you can't appreciate autonomy when your mind has been trained to "control." Autonomy means that they don't even come to you to ask for permission. They come to you only to discuss how you can facilitate something that they are finding difficult to do on their own.You can audit, not just check whether all expenses are done properly, but also whether the impact of that investment is there or not. As the funding agency, you can influence by throwing in some carrots, but if you threaten to cut funding so drastically that the university cannot even survive then you are not respecting autonomy.

If you talk to people in academia regarding autonomy, they will be quick to blame bureaucrats and politicians. They don't understand education would be the constant refrain. And indeed, it is surprising that there is no educationist or academic leader in the Ministry. Most positions are held by people who have no experience in education, whatsoever. However, is situation at UGC and AICTE any better. Those are mostly staffed by academicians. Do they believe in having autonomous universities. Is situation in our universities very different. Would Vice Chancellors empower their Deans and Heads (not just their favorite Deans and Heads, but all Deans and Heads). It is easy to dismiss this by saying that most of the time the people who will rise in academic administration are those who favor status quo and who have benefited from the current system. And hence the system will only promote those who will not threaten the system from within. While there is certainly a grain of truth in it, there is also a larger cultural issue. Most of us want to get more autonomy from our superiors but wouldn't want to empower people working for us. There is just too much suspicion in the system. So a person can trust oneself (and hence genuinely believe that s/he deserves more autonomy) but can't trust others (and hence believes that others will misuse that autonomy).

How do we bring in more trust in our universities. I think the only way to do that is to somehow find good leaders.

Monday, February 20, 2017

IIIT Delhi: The Journey towards Excellence

I have been invited to talk about achieving excellence in universities. The best way to illustrate your points is by way of an example. Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi (IIIT-Delhi) has had a dream start. It is widely recognized in academic circles as a place which provides excellent education and generates excellent research output, comparing with the best institutions in the country. How did it happen. Are there lessons to be learnt here. Well, read on. (Statutory warning: There are far too many stories to tell. It is long, and is written for an audience who is genuinely interested in knowing the magic that we are doing in a small campus in South Delhi.)

The Act of Delhi Legislature

The journey of a new university starts with an Act, either by parliament or by a state legislature. (Illegal things do happen. Many IITs started without an Act. But we will ignore that.) IIIT Delhi was established through an act of Delhi legislature in 2008. This is arguably the best act in terms of autonomy that it bestows upon the Institute and its board. I do not know who all were involved in drafting the legislation, so I can't thank them in this article, but they seem to have studied other successful models of university administration (like IITs), learnt from the problems they face, tweaked those models for a state university, and come up with something which is absolutely remarkable.

As an aside, the first university act in India was passed in 1857, setting up the University of Calcutta. It was an act that took care of all colonial interests. You will notice that the administrative structure of the university was not the same as those of successful universities in England at that time. The goal of the British was not to replicate excellence here. Far from it. The goal was to ensure that the university remains tightly controlled by the colonial powers. And hence, they had a Vice Chancellor who would be the supreme leader with no checks on his power. They could simply have a white person who understood English interests as the VC who would ensure that the university campus does not become a hotbed of nationalism. 160 years later, we continue to have the same colonial model for administering our universities even though very successful models exist in the country both in the government sector (IITs) and the private sector (like BITS). It was extremely thoughtful of the Delhi legislature to set up IIIT-Delhi without following the colonial model.

Leadership (Founding Director)

The next step in setting up of a university is to find passionate and visionary leadership. All too often, one finds that a university has been set up and even admissions have been announced with no academic leadership in place. Directors or VCs are appointed long after the programs have started. Who decides what programs to start. Who decides what curriculum would be followed in those programs. Who decides who will teach in those programs. Temporary and part-time administrators may sometimes do wonders but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. And the beginning of a university is a very sensitive time. The culture and the public image that gets created in the beginning will take a long time to change.

In this regard, once again, IIIT-Delhi was very fortunate to have Pankaj Jalote as its founding (and current) Director, and Kiran Karnik as the Chairman of its board.

The leadership can really make or mar a new institute. The biggest pressure on the leadership is to ensure that classes take place. For that, you need faculty. And I have been associated with a large number of great universities as well as a number of not so great universities. The difference between the two is simple. One set of universities went for distress recruitment, while the others ensured that whatever the pressures may be, we will only recruit the top quality faculty. To do the latter, the leader must be able to invite good teachers from any good institute nearby as visiting faculty. Someone who is well respected in academia can do this more easily. Also, you need to ensure that while there may not be any faculty recruitment in the first few months, soon there will be great faculty getting attracted to this new place. Again, having a great leader helps. And, of course, you don't find faculty based on an advertisement.

Faculty Recruitment 

So, the third great thing (after the Act and the leadership) that happened to IIIT-Delhi was recruitment of quality faculty. It is a common refrain that there is a serious shortage of faculty. Yes, there is. The way to look at faculty recruitment is this. We need 20 good faculty members. Are there 20 good PhDs in the job market. The answer is, obviously, yes. Now, how do we get those 20 to join me rather than join an IIT or another good institute. There may be a serious shortage of faculty in the country, but we want only 20, and there are more than 20 good PhDs in the job market.

First of all, you need to inform all of them about your existence. Advertise in all the right places. No, I am not talking about Times of India or Hindustan Times. PhD students around the world don't read faculty advertisements there. May be CACM would be better, or some IEEE publication, or various mailing lists. Perhaps you need to inform all your contacts in all good universities and ask them to forward your mail to PhD students.

Then you need to convince them that they would have a great future if they join this new place. Now, a Director, who himself is very well decorated, will have an easier time convincing. If Pankaj Jalote can join this place, why not you. But, of course, communication is important. In a face to face meeting, the potential faculty members can better make out the passion with which this Director is working. So you need to travel to those universities, and may be invite them to your campus or whatever you have in the name of temporary facility. Speed is important. Most universities would take weeks to even acknowledge an application, and would take months to make an offer. If you can acknowledge within hours, and make an offer within days of meeting/seminar, etc., you can win the game. And once a few great people join, you would be noticed. These young recruits would do the recruitment for you.

Pankaj never did any distress recruitment. Every faculty member recruited was on merit, and could have easily joined an IIT or another top institution in the country. This really is the biggest reason for IIIT Delhi's success. You recruit a few average faculty members. They become the benchmark for others. And then they demand promotions at weaker performance levels since they bailed you out when you needed them most. And once you promote some people for institution building, you are on a downward slope. Thankfully, this did not happen at IIIT-Delhi.

Tenure System for Faculty

A huge gamble was taken at the very beginning and that was to implement a tenure system for faculty. Everyone was shocked. In a country where IITs offered "permanent government jobs," why would anyone join on a contract for 6 years. You are new. No one knows about you and then you will make an offer that is not as good as other well established players. Well, it was precisely because IIIT-Delhi was new that it had to offer a tenure. Just like employees need job security, the university needs security from a poor employee. An old large institution can afford a few bad apples, but a young small university can not. And it can be no one's case that there would never be hiring mistakes. It was thought that most young PhDs who have done exceptionally well in research till then would really not mind being on contract for a few years, if they really believed in the future of IIIT-Delhi. And Prof. Jalote was proven right. Several young PhDs from top places in India and abroad joined and the rest, as they say, is history.

If faculty was on contract, it was so much easier to have all staff on contract as well.

Annual Reviews

Yearly reviews of all employees - faculty as well as non-teaching staff - was another great idea that IIIT-Delhi implemented. Every faculty member submits a detailed form giving out all sorts of information on the research (papers, patents, consultancy, projects, software developed, PhDs guided, and so on), teaching (number of courses taught, which courses, how many students, what was student feedback in each of them, new courses, writing of books and any other instructional material, BTPs, MTech theses, and so on), and on service (admin work in the Institutes, committees, conferences/workshops organized, professional work outside the institute, etc.). The information is analyzed by experts outside IIIT-D. Individual feedback is given to each faculty by the Director. There is also a possibility of faculty member rebutting the analysis which is again sent back to the experts and they may want to change their feedback. A small bit of carrot. Those who do extremely well in annual review get a slightly higher support for professional expenses.

The staff feedback is 360 degrees. Not just the officer above and reportees give feedback, all those whom the office was supposed to serve are also asked to give feedback on a variety of questions. All this is consolidated by a small committee and then individual feedback is given to each employee. Come promotion time, there won't be any surprises. One can even identify the employees who are doing so well that one can think of an early promotion for them.

Strong Admin Support

Typically, universities are careful about whom they recruit as faculty, but when it comes to recruiting non-teaching staff, it often means a 5-10 minute interview. In many cases, people are recruited on ad hoc basis, and when a formal position is opened these ad hoc staffers have an advantage over other candidates in terms of knowing the university and its functioning, and often get that permanent job. And, once one gets job security, the security becomes more important than the job. In our case, the focus on quality of staff is intense. In many cases where we have any doubt about the strongest candidates, we don't shy away from not selecting anyone. All appointments are done only after senior persons in the Institute including Director, Dean(s), and Registrar have met and interviewed the candidates. And, all appointments are initially for 3-5 year contract.

This has paid rich dividends. The quality of staff in every office is significantly better than what I have experienced in many government institutions. They shoulder a lot of responsibilities which would be done by faculty in other places, thereby, reducing faculty workload and allowing them more time for academics.

PhD Recruitment

So, we got the best faculty. But how do you make them productive. Well, need a strong PhD program. Why would any good student join an unknown place for PhD. They would because thankfully, most good institutes do not care and have placed a lot of technical restrictions. In 2008, pretty much every IIT claimed that they recruited fresh BTechs without GATE score in their PhD program. But the reality was that such numbers were close to 0 in every place. So the faculty went to nearby good colleges - NSIT, DTU, MNIT, LNMIIT, IIIT, JIIT and so on, and talked to the graduating students. Asked them to apply right there, took an interview, and made offers. Very soon, the quality of PhD students, if you can judge that on the basis of pedigree alone, was better than most IITs. But, the quality of PhD program should be judged not by the pedigree of the student, but the publications during the PhD program and the quality of places that they join after completing the PhD. And the first 10 PhDs that have already graduated have proven that indeed today, IIIT Delhi has among the best PhD programs in the country.

The PhD students were treated well. They have the first right to the hostel rooms. They get a free laptop when they join. Each PhD student is given one's own space with a PC. They are given a budget for conference travel, both for within India and outside. There is a contingency budget for small expenses. There is also provision for many of them to go abroad to a good research lab for a semester. But they have to follow a certain discipline. There is an annual review. You need to convince a committee that you did work hard. Sometimes results will not show that. But if you did not even put in effort, you are probably not at the right place. There are deadlines for various stages. They are all flexible, but you will get reminders, and your supervisor will get reminders. We want each of them to graduate in 4-5 years. Yes, it is not easy to predict things in research, but in most cases when students take more time, it is because of lack of time management and not because they tried many things and failed. Let us see how successful we can be with this goal.

Teaching and Learning

A major challenge for all universities is to excel in both teaching and research. There is a common belief in many top institutions in India that teaching courses lead to reduced quality of research. (You would hear this all the time: IISc professors are able to do better research because they teach less.) First of all, the Director believed that what is important is that students learn and are ready to go to the next stage of the career - whether a job or higher education - well prepared to take any challenge. And to ensure that learning takes place, we not only want good teaching, but more importantly processes and pedagogy designed to focus on learning.

So, a couple of teaching learning workshops were held where experts from around the world came and talked about techniques which can help you focus on learning. Just imagine the impact on young faculty members who had never even taught. Even later on, we continued with the system of sharing best practices in teaching in a faculty meeting.


The curriculum was decided based on several beliefs. One, it is better to teach 5 courses in a semester with a lot of assignments, projects, labs, etc., rather than teaching 6 courses with much less engagement. We told every potential student even before the admission - we expect you to work 10 hours a week on a 4-credit course. So in a typical semester, about 50 hours a week (including about 20 hours of lecture/tutorial/labs). Some students/parents got scared. Other engineering colleges talk about 30 hours a week. We were completely OK with that. Learning any new skill takes a lot of effort and we were not in the business of issuing degrees. We are in the business to ensuring that each and every graduate meets all the program outcomes well.

The other belief was that it is best to do engineering subjects in the first year. They have done enough science in high school. They are coming to an engineering college to learn engineering and are greatly disappointed when they are taught the same things that they studied for JEE preparation. It also meant that we could complete all the core courses by the second year, enabling them to do really great internships. They could then choose their electives based on their interests in 3rd and 4th years. They could also do a BTech Project over a longer duration (say, 3 semester).

And of course, the under-graduate programs are for broadening of horizons. Also, many students pick up programs without really knowing what they are getting into. To solve both these problems, a large number of electives are part of the curriculum. Pretty much the entire 3rd and 4th year program consists of electives - some have to be done from humanities and social sciences, some have to be in the discipline, and a whole lot of them are just open electives - they can do anything under the sun.

To provide even more flexibility, online courses were allowed right from the first batch. So many great universities are offering so many great courses for free. Why not leverage them and enable students to learn topics for which we do not have faculty - jazz appreciation, just as an example. One may limit the number of credits earned this way. One may mark those credits as Pass/Fail and not count them towards CGPA, but allow learning beyond what our own faculty can offer.

Yet another flexibility is that of Independent Study. Many times a student is interested in learning a topic for which there is only a limited interest overall and hence a regular course can not be offered. Well, a student can study that topic with a faculty as "independent study." So a course can be offered for even one student.

To encourage under-graduate research, the curriculum not only has the option of a BTech Project, but also extra research credits can be earned under "UG Research" and "Independent Project."

With all this flexibility, each student can plan his/her own degree. One can additionally use the open elective slots to do minors.

To understand what BTech students learn, one only needs to visit IIIT-Delhi during the end of the semester. Many courses have their students put up a poster on their projects. And the kind of things that students do as course projects is simply amazing.

Students: Important Stakeholders

Students are the most important stakeholders in an academic institution. We recognize this and ensure that they have a say in most policy making that is going to affect them. Senate is the highest academic decision making body of the Institute, and students have representation there. Similarly, students are members of the most important committees, including Under-Graduate Committee (UGC) and Post-Graduate Committee (PGC), and also the Disciplinary committee. They, of course, run their clubs, all extra-curricular activities, hostels, mess, and so on. Students have always shown that they are worthy of the trust that we repose in them. 

Bonus Marks for Admission

IIIT-Delhi is about innovating in every sphere. There is nothing routine about anything that we do here, as it should be for any university. And admissions to UG programs are no exception. From early days, it was felt that performance in a single test must not be the only way to seek admission. We must look at other achievements of students and give these achievements some weight in our admission process. This gave birth to the idea of "bonus marks." For a large set of achievements both in curricular and extra-curricular sphere, a student will be awarded certain bonus marks (a maximum of 10 percent). These marks are added to whatever exam we are using as the primary means of admission (JEE in the last few years). The achievements include NTSE scholarships, Olympiads, performance in the inter-school programming contest in Delhi, having a rating in chess, winning sports medals in national school games, getting cultural fellowships from Government of India, and so on. And being a data driven university that we are, every year, we check the average CGPA of our class and the average CGPA of those students who had received bonus marks at the time of admission, and every year we find that students with bonus marks perform better than other students.

Starting New Programs

Starting a new program is a very serious business at IIIT-Delhi, as it should be in any university. For any proposal to start a new program, we would search for the best current offerings anywhere in the world. We will have several workshops where we will invite experts in those or similar areas to debate each and every point related to the program. What should be the program outcomes of the program. What course structure would allow students to learn those outcomes. What should be the ordering of the course. What career options would the graduates have. We would also have workshops with industry to see if they will really be interested in the output of such programs. And then we go back to experts to help us design the detailed curriculum of each course, and also seek their help and support for recruiting quality faculty. I have not seen such due diligence in any other university that I have been associated with. And yet, if we think about it, this is how all new universities should decide on the programs that they will offer.

After starting with Computer Science and Engineering programs in 2008, we have later added PG program in Computational Biology, both UG and PG programs in Electronics and Communication Engineering, UG program in Computer Science and Applied Maths, and we are about to start two new UG programs: Computer Science and Design, and Information Technology and Social Science. To learn more about 

Outward Looking

In general, a new university has to be outward looking. One wouldn't have all the expertise in house. In fact, one would never have all the expertise inhouse. And therefore, IIIT-Delhi is always drawing upon the support of well wishers who want a good university to succeed. Even when we got the land from Delhi Government and had to build the campus, we organized several workshops involving experienced faculty, civil engineers, architects, and so on, to come up with the requirements and even detailed design. Same thing happened when we started planning for the second phase.

Support from well wishers

Last year, we set up an Infosys Center for Artificial Intelligence. This was one of the largest industry gift to an academic institution in India for supporting research. We are now seeking support from all sources. The strategy of the founding Director has been that we must first prove our mettle, and once we have built a name for ourselves, we should reach out to various well wishers, show them the quality of research that we have already achieved, and then ask for support.

There are more things to tell. So I will keep adding more stuff here over the next few days.