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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

IIT Chandigarh: Many a slip between the cup and the lip

This is the story of how India missed having an IIT at Chandigarh. A large number of people have told me parts of the story and it is possible that some parts are not authentic. But it is a fascinating story anyway.

Late 1950s. After no one challenged the establishment of IIT Kharagpur through an act of parliament, it was time to establish the other three IITs as suggested by Sarkar Committee Report, one each in North, South and West. It was decided to set them up at Kanpur, Chennai (then Madras) and Mumbai (then Bombay). Since IITs were to be at a level higher than any other engineering college in the country, foreign help was sought and received. The three new IITs would be setup with the help of US, Germany and Russia.

UK wasn't happy that it wasn't asked to play a role in India's development, and it offered its help for any other engineering institute. But their offer initially was less than what other countries were doing for the other three IITs. Indian government welcomed the offer, and was thinking of two options: Starting a new college which will not be an IIT, or converting an old college to an IIT. Both options will need less support consistent with the offer of UK.

A small college in Chandigarh had a great visionary as its Principal, Prof. R N Dogra. To add to that, Dogra family was rather close to Nehru family. And Chandigarh was the most favorite city of Pt Nehru. He brought more state guests to Chandigarh than to Agra. This college which was the oldest college East of Thomson College in undivided India, and had a great reputation, sent a letter to Government of India asking that it be made the 5th IIT of India.

However, the Government in Delhi had other pressures. There was to be one IIT and two RECs in Northern India. The IIT had gone to Kanpur, and one of the two RECs was to be in Allahabad for obvious reasons. The central government was keen to convert Delhi College of Engineering into REC Delhi, but people in Delhi protested. So the second REC of the North was planned for Srinagar. An earlier Chief Minister (the post had been abolished in 1956) had been demanding that a city of the stature of Delhi must get a second engineering college. Eventually, central government decided to establish an engineering college in Hauz Khas with the help of UK. Soon thereafter, UK decided to increase its commitment, and the college was renamed as IIT Delhi. For the Chandigarh college, there was a slip between the cup and the lip.

Not only the college in Chandigarh was not converted to an IIT, but its visionary leader was snatched away and made the founding Director of IIT Delhi. He had built PEC from scratch. We had shifted to Chandigarh only in 1953 and a lot more infrastructure needed to be built, lot more labs, new departments, more faculty, and what not. He had done all that, but more needed to be done to be truly world class.

At IIT Delhi, the initial architecture/planning/hostel names borrowed a lot from PEC. But while he built the new IIT, he remained loyal to his first love. If we could have a 5th IIT, why not a 6th IIT. He lobbied with Indira ji, the daughter of the then Prime Minister. And finally, the government agreed. The date was decided. IIT Chandigarh were to take admission from 1963. But in 1962, the China war happened. The finances which were already stressed became much worse and the date for conversion was postponed to 1964. Once again, there was a slip between the cup and the lip.

A new condition was added for the conversion. That Punjab Government must continue to fund this IIT to the same extent as the funds they provided to PEC at that time. This wasn't too difficult. Shri Pratap Singh Kairon was the Chief Minister, who had been arguing for the establishment of a world class college in Punjab long before he became CM. He had helped in getting the 146 acres of prime land in the new upcoming city of Chandigarh for relocating PEC. But he was fighting to clear his name of corruption charges, and there was this Punjabi Suba movement. IIT Chandigarh wasn't the top priority at the moment. But as soon as the the commission of inquiry exonerated him of corruption charges, he suddenly resigned in June, 1964, and Shri Gopi Chand Bhargava who was the first Chief Minister of Punjab after independence, was made a caretaker Chief Minister for two weeks. Within this brief period, he called a cabinet meeting and approved that Punjab Government would pay the same amount that they granted to PEC that year for eternity. While it was too late for July 1964 admissions, the central government decided that IIT Chandigarh would come into being in 1965.

At the 3rd Inter-IIT Sports Meet at IIT Madras in December, 1964, Brig. Sisir Kumar Bose had announced that from the next year, there would be six teams participating in the sports meet, the sixth one being from IIT Chandigarh. He hadn't realized that with the death of Pt Nehru, Chandigarh had lost its biggest supporter in Delhi. No notification of IIT Chandigarh came. Instead, it was decided to seek another letter of support from Punjab Government, since the earlier letter was from a caretaker government. There was a slip between the cup and the lip.

The Punjab Government decided to wait till the picture of division of Punjab was clear. The Punjab Reorganization Act was implemented on 1st November, 1966, creating the states of Punjab and Haryana, merging some of the hill districts with the Union Territory of Himachal Pradesh and making it a state, and most importantly for us, converting Chandigarh into a Union Territory. The PEC was no longer in the state of Punjab, and therefore, there was no question of Punjab Government promising any financial support to PEC (or IIT Chandigarh).

India had to survive without a sixth IIT for the next 3 decades.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Can a Tier 2 institution have a culture of excellence

I have been to a large number of Tier-2 and Tier-3 institutions in the country, and at every place, I make it a point to argue that they can imbibe a culture of excellence, that they can do better than what they are currently doing. This is almost universally resisted. Typical argument on the other side is that a culture of excellence can only develop in a resource rich environment, where the quality of students and faculty is high, and all that. "We don't get IIT type students," "Our faculty is not like that in Stanford," "Our budget is only 10 percent of IIT Kanpur," it goes on and on.

Is it really true that we can only have a culture of excellence in a resource rich environment.

Let me change gear briefly and talk about one more experience. IIT Gandhinagar organizes a 2-day event every winter. On one day, they invite a select group of academicians from around the world to discuss excellence in academics at IITGN. On the second day, they invite people from academia, industry, government, alumni, and discuss excellence in non-academic issues at IITGN. It has been going on for a decade and I have been luck y to have been invited to each of these events (and I have attended all of them). I love those two days at IITGN as there is so much learning for me.

In one of the early years when they hadn't even graduated the first batch, they discussed excellence in one of these meetings. After a lot of discussion, it was opined that IITGN should try to be like a top class institution. You can not be the top ranked university in 10 years, but you can be like a top ranked university very soon. I wasn't sure if I understood the import of that statement fully. But after a few years, I started realizing how important that statement was.

Let us consider teaching. A tier-2 institution would argue that they don't have faculty of the same quality as Tier-1 institution and hence cannot offer teaching programs of the same quality. Even if this is assumed, can Tier-2 institution imbibe some of the cultural aspects. The difference is not just in the competence of the teacher (which in today's world does not account for much) but how other aspects of the course are handled. If you are teaching programming, for example, your students may not be capable of building a large project within that first year course (actually, one will be surprised, if one were to try, but let us leave it for now), but do you even give them a programming assignment every week, and do you even penalize when students copy. Those things do not require competence and rich infrastructure. Every engineering college today has a course on communication. Do you only do some grammar and have an in-class presentation, or do you ask your students to read up 4-5 books in the semester, may be even watch a few English movies and write a critique. (And the teacher can spend 5 minutes with each student to figure out whether that has indeed been done honestly or not.) Today, you don't need competence to suggest a few books/movies, and you don't need rich infrastructure for students to read/watch. One of the biggest problem with teaching/learning in Tier-2 institutions is that we don't engage students beyond the contact hours. And that requires neither very high level of competence nor resources.

Consider faculty recruitment. All IITs would go out of the way to attract faculty. They would all have a mailing list of people, typically department heads in top places, or alumni who are in academia, to whom they will keep writing. They would meet PhD students in conferences and tell them about faculty openings. They would invite PhD students closer to graduation to visit the department and give talks, etc. How many Tier-2 institutions do this. To create a mailing list of heads of 50 departments from where you expect most of your faculty to come will take a student in your department not more than a few hours. Sending an email to this list every 2-3 months will take 5 minutes of your time. Similarly, putting out this information on platforms like LinkedIn would take a few minutes, and all this is free. How do you treat an applicant. Do you think you are doing a favor by offering a job, or do you think that the process of recruitment is not just about "evaluation" but also about attracting that person to join you. Do these things require competence or resources. Of course, not.

When we do performance evaluation, clearly the criteria for recruitment/promotion, etc., would be different in MIT, IIT, and NIT. But what cannot be different is the need for performance evaluation. The need for performance evaluation and accountability is independent of competence and resources. If you start doing time bound promotions in academia, that is the end of excellence.

How do you treat your students. Are they kids to be "controlled" or are they grown up who can be trusted with many a decisions. You would find that in most Tier-1 institutions, students have a far greater freedom and a role in institute administration, while in Tier-2 institutions, there are all sorts of restrictions. Do you need a lot of resources to have students as members of various committees in the Institute.

There are so many other aspects of an academic institution where becoming "like" a better institution (or inculcating a culture of excellence) can improve  quality significantly, but these examples should suffice to make a point.

There is no doubt that greater competence, and greater resources can improve things a lot, and I would certainly like to see a larger funding of all academic institutions in the country. But one can be "like" a good institution even with lesser resources and we can have a higher quality of academics than what we see currently in our Tier-2 and Tier-3 institutions. What we need is a culture of excellence.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Industry Interaction with Engineering Education

It is now a cliche that engineering education in India, barring a few honorable exceptions, is of very poor quality. I will take examples from CS and while I do recognize that there are differences between education/training in different disciplines, I believe the larger picture remains the same.

We have been talking about poor quality of our graduates for a few decades. But things seem to be going from bad to worse. Why?

Is quality education too expensive and a poor country like ours cannot put enough resources to it. To a small extent, yes. To be in the same league as top 500 in the world is expensive, but to make the graduates employable is not so expensive.

Is the issue of quality education too complex and there are no easy answers. Well, again, it is complex if we want to be the best in the world, but making the graduates employable is not so complex.

So, what is it. The real issue is that we haven't identified the real problem, or perhaps we don't wish to. When we talk about our graduates, we keep talking about them being unemployed because they don't learn the latest that industry is using, that the curriculum is outdated, that we don't get industry folks to come and teach, or tell the faculty what to teach. That they don't learn soft skills. And to justify this line of argument, one can show examples where a college started teaching something which was immediately needed in the industry and had a few soft skill workshops before the placement season, and the number of students getting jobs improved.

No one asks a question that if indeed those few skills were the main problem in employment, then how come those things help only a few thousands and several lakhs are still unemployable.

To just pick up one skill (programming) as an example, the problem is not that our graduates do not know the LATEST programming language (the one which is more heavily used in industry today), but that our graduates do not know ANY programming language. Most of our graduates cannot qualify GATE without dedicated coaching for months. Most of our graduates cannot write even a pseudo code for any simple algorithm (say, just sorting), or for any simple data structure (say, insert in a binary search tree).

If you believe that the problem is only the lack of knowledge of the latest industry stuff, you will do what we have been doing for decades, and be happy that you have helped a few students. But if you believe that the problem is that our graduates know nothing, you can actually do things that would improve the quality of education significantly.

I have talked to a lot of technical folks in industry who would tell me that if their problem is not that the recruits do not know the latest, but that they can't learn the latest in a small period of time. That the training periods are too long and even after that, they haven't picked up as many skills as industry people would desire. If they knew, for example, a couple of programming languages well, they can pick up the next programming language very soon. So indeed, even the enlightened folks in industry would agree that the problem is not lack of latest knowledge, but lack of any knowledge.

In terms of pedagogy, the problem is easy to solve (at least to the extent of bringing the students to the level of being employable), but only if there is a will to solve. Why do computer science graduates do not have programming skills when they are supposed to have had two full courses doing just programming, and at least 10 other courses in which they would have done programming projects. Because, no one insisted that they do those things and gave them marks anyway in all courses in all 4 years. And the students were not self motivated to learn on their own.

At least in computer science, you don't need great teachers to reach the level of being employable. (Of course, great teachers can motivate you to do better than just being employable.) There are enough online resources to learn. If the teacher can just give assignments (any book would have a number of them) and make sure that students do them honestly, submit them, and they are graded honestly, the problem is solved. It is really that trivial. (Again, I am only looking at them becoming employable in the current market scenario, and not competing with the best in the world, for which a lot more will need to be done.)

But trivial things are sometimes hard to do. Our affiliated colleges have no incentive to do this (and most of our higher education happens in affiliated colleges). If one college starts getting strict with internal marks, their students will have poor ranks in the university results since other colleges will continue to give liberal marks. And there will be student protests and they will attract fewer students next year.

Even universities do not have an incentive to do these things. In a government university, you can't penalize an instructor who does not want to work. In a private university, if the failure rates go up as they will in the beginning, there will be market pressure on them. In fact, our accreditation bodies will see this as negative that a number of students are having backlogs.

So our regulatory bodies take an easy way out. Keep blaming the university for poor curriculum. Keep blaming industry for not offering enough internships. Keep blaming schools for not preparing them with adequate soft skills. Sympathize with colleges because there is overall shortage of faculty and resources. But never admit that the problem is within our colleges and universities and never take action against them for poor quality education.

Frankly, if the quality is poor for whatever reason, shouldn't it be reflected in denial of accreditation to a large number of institutions/programs every year.

All this is not to say that there should not be any industry interaction with engineering education. But the real benefits come from internships, both summer internships and semester internships, or part-time jobs. Outside India, it is common for students to do internships/jobs. Would Indian students be interested in graduating in 5 years. And, by the way, if I were to encourage my students to do industry jobs during the BTech, both accreditation bodies and ranking bodies would not like it. They only want industry to control my curriculum and teach my students the latest stuff.

In summary, the problem in Indian academia is NOT lack of industry interaction. The problem is that there appears to be no incentive for any honest evaluation of any learning outcome. Lack of quality faculty ensures that students don't get motivated to learn. So students will learn only if it improves grades, but that will not happen because there is no honest evaluation.