Search This Blog

Monday, February 19, 2024

Are Students our Customers

Over the last two to three decades, the language in higher education has changed. When I was looking for higher education as a student, the talk was about quality of education and the affordability of education. But the language today is branding, return on investment, etc. I keep hearing that students are our customers and we must keep our customers happy. And in this situation, the customer delight is all about placement or more bluntly, return-on-investment (that too in short term).

I am too old fashioned to appreciate this.

To me the relationship between the student/alumni and an educational institution is not transactional. It is not that one pays some money and one gets some education in return. There is a relationship that is life long and the relationship is one with no expectations or in some sense, huge expectations. When I was looking at my flight options from Delhi to Cancun, Mexico, I could change flights in multiple cities in North America or Europe, but I chose to spend several hours in Washington DC, since my alma mater, University of Maryland, College Park is nearby and I would like to meet some alums and faculty members there before hopping on to the next flight. I can't imagine visiting Kanpur without dropping by in IIT Kanpur campus. A transactional relationship does not last this long.

People whom I have taught decades ago still keep in touch, still ask for advice and I still reply. In which business, the organization will spend time to help someone who was a customer 25 years ago. We do this because we are not a business.

And how do you compute return-on-investment anyway. And how much return is good enough?

Quality education has many consequences, a higher salary is just one of them. You pick up certain skills which may not immediately provide you returns in terms of first salary but will help you in life. It enables you to take better decisions in all spheres of life including dealing with family and friends. You become part of an alumni network which often provides certain level of support in various situations. What monetary numbers are you going to put for these benefits to evaluate your RoI?

A student who considers himself as customer will invariably demand better facilities (which is ok) but a student who considers herself as a learner is more likely to demand better education.

But, of course, it is not just students and parents who think of themselves as customers, even some universities consider students as customers. They also realize that the RoI computation by these customers is strictly based on first month salary after the program. These universities will in their curriculum put focus on those skills which are immediately in demand, and they don't care if the knowledge of these graduates will become obsolete very soon. On the other hand, good universities will want to ensure lifelong success of their students which means a very different approach to education. Learning how to learn becomes important. Skills like Critical thinking become important. More focus on basic concepts is needed.

Whenever I say things like these, the question that I often get asked is this. "I want to be a learner and not a customer. But how do I evaluate that there is better learning in a university. If metrics like higher return-on-investment are not indicative of better learning, then what is." Well, I have answered it in many blogs in the past. The bottomline is "faculty." And the best way to find out is by looking at their profile, and by visiting the campus and talking to some of them and their students.

To close, I will repeat what I have said in the beginning. I don't consider myself as a past customer of IIT Kanpur or University of Maryland. I have a lifelong relationship with my alma maters and not a transactional one.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Sports Quota in IIT Madras

Recently, IIT Madras announced admission to its flagship BTech programs for those who excel in sports. They call it Sports Excellence Admission. The student should have got at least one medal at an international or national event in a specified list of sports. The ranking would depend on the number of medals, whether gold/silver/bronze, the type of competition, etc. The student should also have done well in JEE Mains and be selected to take JEE Advanced. He should have further done well in JEE Advanced to receive a rank in whatever category the student belongs to (whether general or SC/ST/PD/OBC and so on). The student should also have passed eligibility in 12th class. IIT Madras is creating two seats in each of its BTech programs for sports excellence.

It is the first time any IIT is considering admission based on excellence in sports. For a long time, the admission was strictly based on JEE. In the 1960s, there were admissions for board toppers. And then in 1960s and 1970s, there were lateral admission in 2nd year to a few students (at least in IIT Kanpur, but only one of those actually joined, and left IITK after a semester, so no one from lateral admission ever received a degree).

I have written many articles over the years asking IITs to consider an alternate admission mechanism based on performance in Olympiads (Science and Informatics), and there is thankfully some progress in that over the last few years. I know at least IIT Bombay, IIT Kanpur and IIT Gandhinagar have admission processes based on Olympiads performance.

Having alternate admission mechanisms bring in diversity in the classroom which enhances the quality of education for everyone (and not just for those who came in through alternate mechanism). Also, if this move catches on and other IITs also offer similar admissions (and hopefully lower the academic bar), there will be many school students who will feel less stressed and can follow their passion.

The key issue here is what should be the academic bar for these admissions. The problem is that if you do not have any academic requirement, then obviously the sports quota student may have serious difficulty in carrying out academic work at an IIT. On the other hand, having a very high bar will mean that anyone who has spent a lot of time on the field will not be able to come through this mechanism. What is the right balance? Difficult to say.

I wonder if IIT Madras did some research into this and are there students who get medals at national level games and also get a rank in IIT JEE (Advanced), and are there many of them. They are talking about 2 seats per UG program. Hence, about 20 seats. Are there 20 such students. I doubt it. So, are they hoping that this will encourage many sports persons to go for JEE coaching.

In IIIT Delhi, we had similarly desired to attract sports persons to the institute, and we took a slightly different approach. We said that if someone worked hard to play for India (in recognized sports events), they worked less on their JEE (Mains) preparation and we will assume (based on some research) that if they had not spent that time on sports, they would have got a 2 percentile increase in their JEE score (which is a rank improvement by 20,000). Similarly, if they played at the national level (represented their state), we will add 1 percentile to their JEE score. Similarly, for Chess, we said that we will work with FIDE rating. Above a certain rating, we will add 2 percentile to your JEE score, and above a lower cutoff, we will add 1 percentile to your JEE score.

The beauty of this scheme was that we didn't need any super-numerary seats. We didn't need to worry about reservations in these seats (since there is no seat outside the reservation system), we didn't need to find a complicated way to rank sports persons from different sports. We didn't need to decide how many seats in each program. We just bumped up their JEE score and put them back in the counseling process. Simple.

It worked for us as we got a couple of students through this mechanism every year. But, we were working with JEE Mains which I believe is better aligned with school board syllabus than JEE (Advanced), and hence the requirement of performance in JEE Advanced is much harder for a sports person to meet. So even with JEE Mains, getting 20 sports persons to get decent ranks would be a challenge. But with JEE Advanced, this seems like an impossible ask.

So, on the face of it, the announcement appears to be just to collect brownie points with no real intention to admit sports persons. But I hope I am proven wrong and there will be at least 4-5 student joining IITM this year, if not 20.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Multi-disciplinary Education: Why is it important?

NEP 2020 talks about universities becoming multi-disciplinary and offering programs which have courses from multiple disciplines. What is multi-disciplinary education?

It is simple. When you study to get a degree in a particular discipline, you don't just study courses in that discipline, but from various other disciplines as well. For example, if you want to do a major in Computer Science, you will study a significant number of courses in Computer Science, but you will also do courses from Mathematics, Engineering, Humanities, and so on.

This all sounds familiar. The important question is: Aren't all university programs multi-disciplinary in nature already. Why is NEP or educationists in general even talking about it. If everyone has accepted it, what is the point of this blog.

Well, everyone hasn't accepted it, and a lot of universities are simply paying lip service to it. And it is a matter of degree. If there is a program in which you have to do 40 courses in 4 years, should you have 10 courses from outside the major discipline, or 20 or 25. So details are important.

Frankly, students have not accepted it, and many universities haven't understood the reason to do it and therefore implement it in ways that goes counter to the reason why it should be done.

For a long time, good universities had a broad based under-graduate education because the education was supposed to make you a good citizen who should be aware of a lot of different things. It was felt that under-graduate program is to improve the breadth and to enable a large number of different careers. If students can pick up very different careers, they ought to have been trained on several different things. But lately, even in the western world, college education is being seen more as improving employability and preparing for a narrower set of careers. People are talking about education being an investment and looking for a return on investment (RoI).

In this new world, students are demanding to know why every course is being taught and how it is going to be useful in one's career. And by "career", they often don't mean next 30-50 years, but the first job that they expect through campus placement. And a large number of courses that we teach (even within the major discipline) aren't meant to help find the first job.

The reality is that your first job is often based on knowledge and skills that you can pick up through a good school education and perhaps six to twelve months of additional training. So if you are only looking for the first job and only want to study which will quickly get you that first job, you don't need to join college at all. (Of course, there is a signaling value in joining a college.)

If I look at the journey of an engineering student, s/he would have started studying for JEE (or other exams) while in 11th class (if not in 9th class, and sometimes even earlier). They had a goal to get into IITs or some other good institution. When they finally take admission to some college, their earlier goal has become irrelevant (whether they succeeded in it or not). To maintain their sanity and motivation, they need to quickly decide on their next goal and works towards them. And often, the goal they choose is to get a job at the end of 4 years (as distinct from thinking about a long term career, or to have a goal of becoming a good engineer independent of what job they will get). And they start thinking of how they will find that job. They figure that they will need to learn a few things and get some soft skills which will be useful in the interview process. Note that they are only focusing on getting a job and not doing a job well. Very quickly they figure out that pretty much no software company asks them questions on chemistry or physics, or a lathe machine, or sociology and so on. And they start questioning why these subjects are being taught to them.

The faculty members are often able to say that courses like partial differential equation will help solve some problems in future (do software developer even code matrix manipulation? no, they just make function calls). But even faculty members are not able to explain why a CS student needs to study Chemistry.

The fact of the matter is that the broad based education has different goals than a very narrow goal that the students want to pursue. And instead of explaining them how a course will help in their narrow goals, we should be talking about why broader goals are important. And the broader goals are not only to become a good citizen aware of a lot of different things from various different perspectives, but also to prepare for future jobs which are yet unknown, and since we don't know what the future requirements are, it is good to have a broad based education since that would increase the chance of success in that unknown world.

If one wants to be highly successful in one's career, there are often two ways to get there. One, you be amongst the best in your chosen field (top 1-2%). This way, you would have respect, you will rise quickly, you will make an impact. Two, you be very good in more than one field (top 25% in say computer science and music). Since most people focus on one field, people who are very good in two or more fields are in big demand and they rise quickly. And most people find it easier to be very good in two things than excellent in one. You have chosen one major discipline based on your interest or guidance you received. Now, you should think of another discipline to be good at. If your curriculum at the university is multi-disciplinary, you would be exposed to many disciplines, learn them seriously and think about what did you enjoy doing the most. That could be your second discipline to get very good at.

The other reason to study multiple things is that most technical knowledge and skills would be obsolete within a few years. A student entering college today would almost certainly be working 50 years from now. How does one survive if most things that one learnt in the university are obsolete. Well, you need to keep learning always. And how do learn as adults. We learn by connecting any new information with the old information we already have. If you know a wide variety of things, there is a better chance that the new thing you need to learn has some connection with what you already know.

In fact, when you learn a seemingly unrelated topic, you still get ideas from that course which can be useful in your primary discipline. Many problems that you will solve in future will require an understanding of its domain.

People become more creative when they study multiple subjects. Some people may be born creative. But a lot of people who are creative have seen many different perspectives in life and are able to use all that knowledge in coming up with a solution.

I can go on and on, but the point is that learning topics from different disciplines have several advantages if you consider broader life and career goals as opposed to just succeed in a campus placement interview.

Now, where do Tier 2/3 universities go wrong in implementing multi-disciplinary curriculum. Note that all the advantages we talked about are accrued by studying a wide variety of subjects. It is not about any specific subjects. While there may be some topics from outside the major discipline which are very important for that discipline (like some Mathematics for Computer Science), and hence can be made compulsory, for the rest of the courses, any set of courses will do as long as there is sufficient breadth. For a computer science program, we may insist on some maths courses, some science courses, some humanities and social science courses, and so on, to require breadth, but there is no justification for making these non-major courses as compulsory. If you want the student to have breadth, let the student decide what will constitute that breadth. If these courses are being done to help in an uncertain future, often your guess regarding what might help a particular student 20 years from now is going to be as bad as the student's own guess.

But most Tier 2/3 universities do not understand the importance of multi-disciplinary curriculum. They are doing it because NEP2020 says so, and because the AICTE model curriculum suggests so. But they have this feeling that this is waste of time, and since these are not "useful" courses, there is no point in investing in them. So no choice to students. May be we can get temporary faculty (low-cost) to teach these courses.

Multi-disciplinary curriculum is so important that one ought to look at university programs from this perspective before confirming admission. And the way to find out whether the university is only paying lip service or is actually serious about multi-disciplinarity is the following:

  1. Check the fraction of credits from outside the major discipline. If the major discipline has more than 50 percent credits, it is not good.
  2. Does the university offer second major and minor programs (minor in other disciplines as opposed to specialization within the discipline).
  3. Does the university offer non-major courses as compulsory courses only or are these electives.

 Once you have determined whether a university is serious about multi-disciplinarity, give that a significant weight while comparing your higher education options.

Note: I had recently given a webinar on this topic with and the recording of that webinar is available here: