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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Autonomy for all - not just for IIMs and IITs

Recent news articles have indicated that the Government has promised autonomy for IIMs. They will soon be able to decide where to open new campuses, or give top up salaries to their faculty, and so on. There were also news reports about Mr. Rahul Gandhi arguing in the parliamentary committee on higher education that IITs need to be given greater autonomy so that they can compete with the best. He was participating in the discussion on the amendments to the Institutes of Technology Act, which are necessary to legalize the status of new IITs. There also have been talks of introducing the concept of "navratna" universities, that is, some universities to be given more autonomy compared to the others. We have also heard that "Innovation Universities" would have much more autonomy than other universities in the country.

All this is great news. The Ministry of HRD under the leadership of Mr. Sibal, has been consistent in its approach towards greater autonomy in education sector, and this is very admirable. However, the approach is also piecemeal. Only a few top places are to be allowed greater freedom. MHRD needs to go much beyond this.

For example, as per a news item, IITs will be allowed to recruit 10 percent faculty from abroad. Foreigners are not queuing up to work in IITs on regular government salaries. The only real need for IITs is that a few NRIs, who for whatever personal reasons want to return, but have given up Indian citizenship, should be able to work in IITs. Also, there are a few foreigners (other than NRIs) who want to spend some time in India. So, the 10 percent limit will practically not be breached in foreseeable future. So, if MHRD had said that IITs are allowed to recruit foreigners without any limit, it would not change ground reality. But MHRD would have sent a signal to the world that it is ready to give real autonomy to IITs. Also, why this 10 percent only for IITs. Why not for NITs. NITs too are having the same problem as IITs. There are some NRIs who want to return and approach NITs, but they can't be offered permanent jobs.

IIMs are to be allowed to give extra salary to its faculty, as long as that money is not coming from the government. Why can't this be done for NITs as well. Surely, NITs are not having private sources of money today, and won't be able to make use of this autonomy. But, if NITs are given this autonomy, on one hand, MHRD would have signaled its positive intent, and on the other hand, there will be NITs who will find ways to raise private moneys (like alumni gifts), and try to attract better faculty.

IITs and IIMs are too few and too small to make any significant difference to India. Giving them more autonomy will help them compete with the best in the world. But giving autonomy to the tier 2 institutes will really start making a difference in the quality of education in India. Also, these Tier 2 institutes can then feed the post-graduate programs of IITs and IIMs, creating a strong research eco-system in the country, which then would encourage the Tier 2 institutes themselves to start focusing on research and not just remain feeder institutes to IITs.

And, of course, we have to unshackle the university system as well. The argument for control is a flawed one. If we do not control a poor quality institution, then it will become even worse. And hence the need for control. But if we keep controlling, we are not allowing it to improve at all. And maintaining status quo in the age where the only constant is "change", is damaging to the university system. Just count the number of letters that regulatory authorities (like UGC, AICTE, MCI, etc.) send to a university in a year, and you will know what autonomy they enjoy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grading Schemes for Evaluating Students

It is well recognized by educationists all over the world that having evaluation in terms of discrete grades is better than giving continuous marks out of 100 (or whatever be the maximum marks). IITs and several other good quality institutes have been awarding grades for decades. Slowly, other universities in India are catching up with the practice. UGC recommends this. And even school boards are now coming around to the view that giving grades is better.

There are two questions that arise. Better in what respect. What kind of grading pattern is to be selected, in particular, how many different grades be there in the grading scheme. Actually, the second question cannot be answered without understanding the first.

The grades are better than marks because they reduce stress on the students. The world over, people have realized that performance metrics are extremely important for students, and they work hard to improve their measured performance. There are very few students who learn for the sake of learning. Normally, in a grading system, the students do have a sense of where they stand in a course, and therefore, what grade they can expect. They can estimate the effort they need to put in to maintain that grade, and the effort that is needed to improve the grade.

Basically, when they are studying for marks, then every extra hour of studies before the exam, could lead to possibly a few more marks, and that pressurizes the student to study more. While in grading system, a few extra hours of efforts on the last few days may not give him an improved grade, and therefore, the student can be more relaxed. He can spend more effort on courses where the chance of improving the grade is higher.

Of course, we do want some stress on the students. We don't want them to be completely relaxed throughout the year/semester to the extent that they don't attend any classes, don't do any assignments, don't study for exams, etc. If we take the grading system to an extreme and have only two grades - Pass and Fail - there is absolutely no pressure on the student to study, and that leads to very poor performance on an average. (Many universities have tried pass/fail grades for a few courses, and have had the same result.)

On the other hand, if we have a finer grading system, and if we consider the extreme situation of a different grade for every percentage mark (basically the good old marks scheme), then there is tremendous pressure on the student and that is not good for the learning either.

So, we need to find a balance. What is the right balance - there is no unanimity on this, as can be seen by the diversity of grading schemes in universities of the world. But what is of concern to me is that the grading schemes get changed for wrong reasons.

Just before I assumed the role of Director at LNMIIT Jaipur, they had decided to change the grading scheme, and many students and even faculty were not happy with that, and therefore, I had occasions to listen to lots of arguments  in favor of the older scheme. Similarly, we have gone through lots of debates on this issue at IIT Kanpur.

Basically, students want a finer grading system. Let us look at a system where there are 5 grades - 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D', and 'F'. The students in such a system would argue that if they are missing an 'A' grade and get a 'B' grade, it is too sharp a drop. If there was an intermediate grade, call it "A-" or "AB" or whatever, it would appear better on their transcript. This is a flawed argument since the assumption behind this argument is that whoever is getting an 'A' grade in the current system will continue to get an 'A' grade in the finer system. They don't imagine that if there were a finer grade, some people from higher grade will be reduced to the intermediate grade as well. In fact, if we look at a 5-grade system on a 10 point scale, where passing grades have numerical equivalence of 4, 6, 8, and 10, and if we assume that the students will be equally divided in 4 bins, then the average CPI (or CGPA) would be 7. On the other hand, if we had finer grading system, and we had grades with numerical equivalence of each number from 4 to 10, and the number of students were equally divided into 7 bins now, the average CPI would remain 7. There have been many universities who have changed from coarse to finer grading and vice versa and have seen absolutely no change in their CPI/CGPA. So, the finer grades will only mean a slightly higher grade in a few courses, and a slightly lower grade in some other courses - with the overall impact on CPI being zero. So it really does not help the students.

On the other hand, while students wouldn't agree - since comparing the impact of two systems on the stress levels is impossible for an individual student - the experts agree that the finer grading system would lead to greater stress - more competition amongst the students. So, each university has to consider whether their students are too stressed out, spending too much time on examination related learning - then make the grading system coarser. On the other hand, if the students seem to be taking the exams and other evaluation mechanisms too lightly, it is time to consider a finer grading system.

At the end, I will like to point out that the grades reduce stress primarily when the student can do a trade off between the effort and the expected grade. This trade off is possible only when there is a continuous evaluation process, whereby the student can correlated the effort and performance over a period of time before the final exam. Hence having exams/quizzes/assignments/projects and other evaluations throughout the year (or semester) is important for success of grading schemes. (Continuous evaluation is anyway a good idea, even if one is not implementing any grading scheme - so that the students learn at a smooth pace throughout the year/semester, and not having to cram everything at the last minute.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Does Indian Industry value merit

Being the Director of LNMIIT Jaipur for about two years, I had lots of interesting experiences, some of which I intend to narrate on this blog. One of the most eye opening experience was the attitude of industry towards quality. They just could not care less.

I was trying my best to use the IIT Kanpur alumni network to convince companies to visit us for campus placement. The technical guys I would talk to would get convinced easily that our faculty was far superior to most institutes in the country. We had the best PhD faculty to student ratio outside the IIT system. The graduating students were all those who had a 4-digit rank in AIEEE. The labs, the library, the Internet and other such infrastructure was far superior to other places. The performance in 3rd party exams like GATE was very good. With all this, one would have thought that once the companies knew about our existence, it wouldn't be hard to convince them to come to campus.

I couldn't be more wrong. The technical guys would forward my letter/brochures etc., to their campus placement or talent acquisition departments, and that will be the end of everything. To give an example, there is this company who has a large setup in Gurgaon, and is in the business of developing communication software. Our curriculum was designed for this niche market, and included all basic courses of computer science and all basic courses of communication. The degree we awarded was in Communication and Computer Engineering. We sent our brochure and an invitation to the company, but no response. A few emails, but no response. Then a few phone calls, no commitment still. Then I activated my IITK alumni network. My batchmates and my students held top positions in the company. They promised to help.

A few days later, I received a phone call from some senior manager from HR department. "We are receiving many phone calls asking us to visit your campus. Can you do something so that these phone calls stop." I told her that it was simple. She could visit the campus, and we will not need to use our contacts. She told me bluntly that that will not happen. So I made a deal. If she could explain me the reason for not selecting our campus for placement, I will not try any further. She agreed and told me that they were going to 20 institutes in her zone (which included Jaipur besides NCR), and she finds more students that meet her minimum quality level than she can recruit. So she can't go to 21st college. I suggested that she could raise her merit bar a bit higher, which possibly will help her company.

I also told her that the kind of job they do, the employees need to understand both basic CS and basic communication stuff. She agreed and told me that they recruit either CS people and make them go through a training in basic communication, or recruit ECE graduates and make them go through a training in basic CS stuff. But I was giving them students who knew both, thereby slashing the costs. I told her that only two institutes in India, to the best of my knowledge, had a curriculum which was a mix of both - LNMIIT and DAIICT, and it was surprising that they were not going to either of the two institutes.
How are you so sure that your quality is better than the places we go to, she asked me, since they would rather recruit quality people and train them rather than recruit people with the right type of courses on paper, but unable to perform in jobs.

I reminded her that a year earlier, they had done off-campus open recruitment of last years' graduates. 4 of LNMIIT graduates had applied, and all 4 were selected. I asked her, if there was any other college which had a 100 percent record in that recruitment exercise. She wouldn't reply to that. I then reminded her that 3 of those 4 students actually joined, and all three of them were adjudged good performers in the company, with 2 of them even getting awards for their performance. What more could she ask for. And, of course, she could come to our campus, or send someone else, and check out for herself the quality of infrastructure and anything else she wanted to know. We are only 3.5 hours from your office by car, and we would be happy to make all the arrangements.

She didn't know how to respond to this. So she said, but we have relationships with these 20 colleges for the last 5 years. We can't keep changing this list every year. I asked, you can't even add or drop one college in a year. What kind of quality process is this. But she did promise at the end that if in future they have to drop 1 of those 20 colleges, or their recruitment needs increase to a level that they need 21st college to be added, they will certainly consider us.

If this was just one example, I would have ignored it. But this happened in company after company. The technical guys visited us, talked to our students, would offer summer internships, and propose signing of MoUs, but as soon as we talked about campus placement, that was outside the domain of technical guys. In companies, where our student doing summer internships got awards for their work in the summer, and their supervisors made a strong pitch for hiring them next year, the recruitment section wouldn't listen. If you ask the company for parameters they used to evaluate campuses - these were company secrets. Absolutely no transparency anywhere in the whole recruitment process.

So, we had no problems in finding summer internships for our students - in all the top places in India and abroad. But campus placement was a much bigger challenge. And the problem was tougher because a large number of companies did not care about the quality. But at the end, it does not matter much to the students. There is enough demand that almost all of them will get placed in some company or the other. And their quality was good enough that they will rise faster than their peers. And if we looked at our alumni who graduated 3 years ago, they were doing well. But it did matter to the incoming students and their parents that many companies did not visit the campus, and many good students would not chose LNMIIT because of this reason.

I wish Indian industry will bring transparency to its campus placement process and start valuing quality. If they don't value quality, the colleges would not deliver quality. The colleges have at least learned this much from industry. You should deliver what your customers demand. For colleges, industry is the customer.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Commonwealth Games and Indian Education

We seem to do all important things at the last minute. The Commonwealth Games have been a recent example. We were cleaning up the games village, as athletes started arriving. One day before the opening ceremony, we weren't sure whether the public will be able to use metro to reach JLN Stadium. And once the ceremony is over, we all feel elated, and forget that this habit of doing things at the last minute cost us dear. We forget that sometimes tight deadlines will be missed as the Airport Link did this time. The T3 terminal of the Delhi airport opened with much fanfare in July but could not be ready for domestic traffic to shift there. And despite good sporting infrastructure in Delhi, we could not be a serious contender for Asiad 2018, because the rest of the world does not like things being done at the last minute. (And the central government saved us from embarrassment by not supporting the Delhi bid.)

The same culture is visible in education as well.Our semester starts around 1st August, and on 31st July, our admission process is still going on. In fact, no one in the country raises an eyebrow if the admission is done one month into the semester. On the contrary, if you close admission before the classes begin, people will file court cases against you. All our admission tests take place in April and May, with results being declared 4-6 weeks later. There is no possibility of completing the admission process before July.

We declare admissions open in colleges which exist only on paper. There is no faculty, no administration, no building, and sometimes we don't even know which city the college will be opened in, but we offer admissions, and we hope that like a Punjabi wedding, things will fall into place before the students actually arrive to study.

Even the post-graduate admissions, where the number of applicants is much smaller, are done at the last minute. If you look at the admission to technical programs (since I am more familiar with them), the candidates have to pass GATE. This is held in February. (Thank God, IITs do not have enough manpower and other resources to hold JEE and GATE together or very close to each other. Otherwise, it would have been held even later.) It is expected that students will give this exam in their 8th semester.

Now, there are serious repercussions of having GATE in the 8th semester. When I talk to others in academia, I get a sense that most people agree that to improve the quality of post-graduate students, we need to ensure that the student gives GATE before the campus placement season begins, and preferably, the admission offer should be made before the student gets the first job. All this would indicate that GATE should be held at the end of 6th semester, or at the beginning of 7th semester. Most of the basic courses in any discipline, in which GATE is supposed to evaluate the candidates are done in most colleges by 6th semester. So it is easier for students to give GATE early. And once the results are out, at least some enterprising institute will offer admissions immediately.

Now, if there is apparently no disadvantage of having GATE after 6th semester, and there are potentially lots of advantages of having GATE early, why don't we just do it. I have a theory for this. I think doing things at the last minute is exciting. It is a thrill. Punjabi weddings wouldn't be same if some event manager were to organize them and give a money-back guarantee against any last minute problem. There is not enough thrill in the lives of us academicians. And we are simple people. We get satisfied with simple thrills of managing admissions at the last minute.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Designing an Objective Type Test (like JEE/GATE)

This week, I had an interesting discussion with a few colleagues. This was about the effectiveness of interview as opposed to the marks in an objective type test. The context was MTech admission. The CSE department at IIT Kanpur admits a few top GATE rankers directly to the MTech program, and invites several more for another test/interview. It was felt that students whom we admit through interview process generally perform better in the program compared to those who are admitted directly on the basis of GATE score, even though the former have lower GATE scores.

My explanation for this apparent anomaly is this. In an interview, we value approximate answers. In GATE, we strongly discourage approximate answers. Let me give a hypothetical example. Suppose the question is: What is the minimum size of Internet Protocol header. The right answer is 20 bytes. If this question is ever asked in GATE, the likely choices are 16, 20, 24, and 28. The GATE wants to make sure that guesswork is strongly punished, and hence all the answers are such that they are close enough to the right answer. Either you know the answer, or you don't. But if the same question is asked in an interview, and the candidate does not know the exact answer, and says that it is one of 16, 20, and 24, we will give him a chance to explain. If he tells us that the size of the header is a multiple of 32 bits so that the header can be processed fast by CPUs having 32-bit architecture, and therefore the header size is a multiple of 4 bytes. Then he explains that the IP address is 32 bits, and the header has both source and destination IP addresses, and hence 8 bytes of addresses. There are other fields that he does not remember, but certainly all the remaining fields cannot fit in 4 bytes, so the minimum size cannot be 12. If someone knows so much about IP, we will say that we don't care whether he knows the exact number or not. So, in our interview process, we are trying to find such students who know a lot, can reason about it, but don't remember specific details to be the topper in GATE.

So, if we value guesswork in an interview, what can be done in an objective test to allow similar guesswork. Going back to the same question about IP header size, if I were to set this question in GATE, the choices I would give are: 12, 20, 30, and 40. And now, one can argue that 30 is not a multiple of 4, that 12 is too small, that 40 is too large, and hence "guesses" it to be 20. If someone can reasonably remove other options, it is a sign that the student knows something about the topic. But we frown upon guesswork in objective tests.

If you look at JEE, it is argued that the only thing coaching classes do is to give training about how to guess or how to eliminate. And that is why the paper setter keeps coming up with questions and potential answers where without solving the question fully, it is very difficult to mark the right answer. Now, the JEE papers are so difficult that it is not possible by a single Mathematics faculty member of an IIT to completely solve the paper in stipulated time. But should we get into this race at all. My own view is that ability to guess is often based on a decent understanding of the subject, and therefore, it is alright to prepare an objective type test which allows guesswork.

An extension of guesswork is approximate answers. The subjective tests were great because one could assign partial credits to someone who had partial knowledge, who could do some steps, but not solve it fully. Can we incorporate that property in an objective type test. Prof. Rajeev Kumar of IIT Kharagpur sent me a writeup explaining how this could be done. I am paraphrasing what I could understand from his scheme. The method is actually quite simple. When we have 4 choices in an objective test, we should select these choices in a way that one is absolutely correct, another one is wrong but a plausible answer, and the remaining two are completely wrong. Now, instead of assigning +1 for right answer, and -0.33 for the wrong answers, we should assign +1 for the right answer, 0.5 for the plausible answer, and 0 for the remaining two answers. There is no need to penalize guess work through negative marks.

This will encourage people to intelligently remove options, think of ways to quickly get approximate answers, and even do the guesswork amongst the remaining options.

It is rather interesting that while most faculty members I talk to admit that interviews are great because we encourage approximate answers and guesswork. They admit that subjective tests are great because the student gets to write whatever he feels like and if the examiner feels that the student is partially correct, he may give partial credit (and of course, there is no negative marks in a subjective test). But when it comes to objective tests, all our energies are spent in finding out ways to stop guesswork and partial/approximate answers.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What is wrong with our Higher Technical Education

Everybody agrees that the higher technical education in our country is of very poor quality. The top 10 institutes provide very good quality education. The top 50 institutes provide good education, and everyone beyond that is bad. Talking specifically of education in IT related fields, different people talk about anything up to 80% graduates being unemployable (that is, they can't even be trained).

People from industry would love to argue that this situation has come about because academia does not listen to them. They do not have curriculum in line with industry needs. They don't teach them the latest technologies. They don't expose them to live projects. They don't put enough focus on non-technical skills like communication skills, teamwork and what not.

I have a very different take on this. It is not that these institutes (beyond top 50) are not teaching their students English, or Dot-NET, or any other latest technology. The problem is actually worse. They are not teaching them anything.

Recently, I had a chance to look at some statistics from the CS paper of GATE 2010. The average marks were 12 out of 100. This is after considering the lowest marks to be 0. (In reality, the lowest marks were -21.33.) So, if we consider real marks achieved, the average would be around 9. And the median would be even lower,
around 7 marks. More than 10% of the students had negative marks overall.

It set me thinking. What would happen if we were to ask 1 lakh 12th class students to give GATE. I would guess that unlike BTech 4th year students, the 12th class students would leave most of the answers blank (and hence avoid negative marks), and only answer those 5-7 odd questions which s/he is confident about. (There were a couple of easy questions on aptitude. There were a couple of questions on programming that 12th class students have been exposed to. And there were a couple of questions which had so much information given that one did not need to known any computer science to get those right.) My gut feeling is that if we were to give the same GATE paper to one lakh 12th class students, the median marks may be only a couple of marks less than what has been the case with these 7th semester students.

It means that 7 semesters of technical education has enabled our graduates to get 2-3 extra marks (out of 100) compared to what 12th class students can get. Remember, GATE paper is about basic computer science only. It is not about the latest technologies. It is not about industry trends.

So the problem is very simple. There is no education going on in thousands of colleges around the country. These students are not being taught even basic programming, or data structures, simple algorithms, basic computer organization concepts, etc. And hence any attempt to improve the employability of these graduates by training them in communication skills, dot-net, java, software engineering, and so on, is futile. One has to first see how we can ensure that they learn computer science basics. Unfortunately, I have no solution to offer.

Another interesting statistics from GATE 2010 paper was that in several questions, the average marks received by the students was negative. As people who have given GATE would know, you get 1 mark for the question if you answer it correctly, and -0.33 if you answer it wrongly. The scheme has been designed so that, if people were to guess randomly, then the average marks obtained would be zero. (Assuming, 1/4th of the students will answer each of the four options.) If some people know the answer and mark it correctly, some have left it blank, and others have given a completely random answer, then the average score should be positive. If we take out those who have not attempted, and those who genuinely knew the answer, and consider the rest, 75% of those should (statistically speaking) give a wrong answer. And if you add those who genuinely knew the answer, the percentage of wrong answers should be less than 75%.

But, in some questions, more than 85% people (out of those who have attempted the answer) have done it wrongly. This is too high a number (compared to 75%, in a sample of 1 lakh) to be considered a statistical anomaly. I discussed those specific questions with a few colleagues, and it occurred to us that the only reason why this can happen is if the students are not answering it randomly, but are confident of the wrong answer being right. Which means that they have been taught the subject matter of that question, but have been given wrong concept or information (which is worse than not teaching at all).

Recently, there was a proposal to have an exit test for MBBS to ensure that the degrees given by all universities in the country are adhering to a minimum quality for MBBS. I think there is a need to have an exit test for all BTech in this country. That will be a sure shot way to weed out poor quality institutions.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Should IIT Directors Retire at 70

The IIT Council apparently has decided that one can stay as Director of an IIT till s/he reaches the age of 70 years. Two reasons have appeared in the media for this decision. One is that the sixth pay commission had already raised the retirement age of vice chancellors of central universities to 70, so why discriminate against IIT Directors. The second reason is the shortage of younger people (read 60 years old, inclusive) who have the right experience, energy, dynamism, vision and whatever else the current IIT Directors have.

The first reason is very interesting. We never stop shouting about the superiority of IITs over everything else in India. But when it comes to seeking benefits, we have absolutely no problem in comparing ourselves to the same institutions whom we besmirch so much.

Coming to the other reason. It is difficult to fathom. We have been able to find IIT Directors below the age of 60 for all IITs in the last 60 years. Each IIT has now grown much bigger than what it was a few decades ago. Which means that we are providing leadership experience to a much larger number of faculty members in each IIT. It should be easier to find younger Directors now than at any other time. It is very strange that the youngest nation on earth has the older leaders on earth. And the leaders are telling the younger ones - we are the leaders because all of you are quite incapable of leading, so even though we would rather enjoy our retirement and time with our great grand children, we are forced to do this duty of leading for your sake and the sake of the nation.

Don't get me wrong. I am not proposing age discrimination. I am not suggesting that everyone above a certain age loses ability to lead. I am only finding the arguments given by our leaders amusing. If there is lack of leadership talent, what is the government doing to tackle it. Or would there be another decision 5 years later that we still don't have sufficient leadership talent in the country, and therefore, the retirement age is increased further to 75 years.

Even in the current setup, the lack of leadership talent was being handled properly. While the preferred age was mentioned in the requirements for a post, the selection committee was empowered to recommend someone who did not meet those requirements, and in some cases, a genuine deserving older person has been given leadership roles.

Also, why is it that a 65-70 year old can only do academic administration or politics in this country. Why can't we have bureacrats in that age group. Why not judges, and we do have serious shortage of judges.

In the last 15 years, we have increased the retirement age of faculty members in IITs from 60 to 62 and then to 65. Has this helped. Hardly. We have not postponed retirement by doing this. Even earlier, good faculty members were able to get contractual positions in IITs or find a job outside the IIT system. So they were active earlier, and they continue to be active now. The only difference we have made is that now even non-performing faculty stays till 65.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Refund Rules for Admission to Engineering Colleges: Unfriendly to Students, Inimical to Quality

In April 2007, AICTE announced that all institutions imparting technical education must refund entire fee (except a token amount of Rs. 1,000), if a student withdraws before the starting of the course. On the face of it, this was excellent for students. But is the rule really student friendly. And does it promote quality education. Experience of past three years can help answer these questions.

This rule has enabled students to “book seats” at multiple institutions, since there will be no monetary loss on withdrawal. Most students and parents invariably wait till the last day to actually withdraw from the institution. If everyone, on an average, paid fees at even two places, and withdrew on the last day, one should expect about fifty percent of the seats to be vacant at the beginning of the semester.

As per AICTE, each institution is expected to maintain a waiting list, and offer admission from this list. But when do these students join. One needs to give at least a week for the admission offer to reach the students, the parents to arrange funds, seek withdrawal from the previous institutions, get train reservations, and come to this new Institute. Since there is chain reaction to this, the institutions have to do this for several rounds, and often the admission process continues for 5-6 weeks into the semester.

A very large number of students are shifting from one institution to another AFTER the classes have started, and as per the AICTE rules, these students may NOT get refund. AICTE rules require that if the seat has been filled up through the waiting list, then proportionate amount of fees be refunded. But here is the catch. If a college has 500 seats, and after all the rounds of admission, only 499 seats are filled, the college claims that since the seats are not filled, we will not refund the fee.

The rule helps good students. They can apply for multiple places and keep those seats till the last minute. The AICTE rule has given them an additional 2-3 weeks to decide where they want to study. But most other students take admission in the first college that offers them admission. As and when one gets admission in a "better" college, one shifts there. And since most seats get vacated after the beginning of the semester, most of the shifts take place after the beginning of the semester. And in such cases, there is no refund usually.

So more students are losing their money now than they were before this rule came into bring. More students are getting delayed admission, causing a lot more anxiety and stress. Also, since the colleges give much smaller number of days to join after the semester has started, a lot of people have hard time arranging large amount of money - and they lose admission just for that reason. Many students and parents have to catch flights, since train reservations at short notices are often not available. So a lot more money is spent by them.

The academic calendar at engineering colleges are going haywire in the first semester. Last year, NITs did admission even two months after the semester began. If the regulator of technical education in the country is not bothered about loss of several weeks of classes in the very first semester of college life of a large number of students in the country, then it is no surprise that quality takes a beating in most colleges.

One also wonders the sanctity of Rs. 1000. Why has AICTE been so magnanimous as to allow the colleges to retain Rs. 1,000. Apparently that is the processing fee. But generally, the admission process is hugely expensive with several advertisements in various newspapers, glossy brochures, and so on. The cost of admission is much higher than Rs. 1,000 that the colleges are allowed to retain. Why not at least have a more reasonable amount, which takes care of real costs on one hand, and acts as a small deterrent against booking multiple seats.

But the good part of this rule is that no one is complaining.

When parents used to lose Rs. 10,000 in every college, they used to complain a lot. Now, even when they lose a lakh of rupees, they only request. They understand that it is fair to lose money after the semester begins.

The universities and colleges are not complaining, except a few at the top end. Because they are able to retain more money under the new rules than they were retaining when there was no such rule.

Students are not complaining. While the rule increases the anxiety and stress levels, but at the end, everything is forgotten and what they remember is that they were able to officially miss classes for two months. (And, the only reason to join a college is to miss classes, something many people are not able to do at the school level.)

The airline companies are not complaining. By some estimates, their business have gone up by about Rs. 100 crores due to this rule.

But, unfortunately, even though everybody is happy with the rule, some people are trying to change the system. There are people who want admissions to largely stop after the semester has started. Their solutions include: Having joint counselling of IITs, NITs and other central government institutes, and perhaps include others as well. This will force you to chose between IITs and NITs early. Yes, it will help. But these people should realize that IITs and NITs only contribute 2-3% of the total engineering seats in the country. So unless there can be joint counselling of thousands of colleges, the problem will remain.

The solution lies in doing two things: First, the colleges should offer more admissions than the number of seats. They should estimate the drop out rate based on past experience, and offer more admissions accordingly. (This is how admission process works everywhere else in the world.) Second, the last date for significant fee refund should be much before the beginning of semester. So the rule may say that withdrawals till 1st July will lose Rs. 5,000, withdrawals till 8th July will lose Rs. 10,000, and thereafter for every week, an additional Rs. 5,000 will be charged. This will give incentive to students to decide early. Admission from waiting list should happen in the month of July. There should be no admission once the semester begins.

The supposedly student-friendly rule has wreaked havoc with our admission system, and it is time to change.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Report by IIT Directors on JEE

In March 2010, a committee of four IIT Directors was formed to explore possible alternatives to the large number of entrance examinations for admission to engineering programs in the country. The report is out. The report has far too many problems to be taken seriously. And I will point out a few.

First of all, let me point out a contradiction in their statements. In Section 5, they say, “Multiple Choice ORS based examination is pedagogically not as effective as the long answer format.” In Section 6, however, they say, “An analysis of the performance of students in the screening and main tests of IIT JEE between 2000 and 2005 showed a considerable overlap between the sets of top 5000 students although their ranks within the set showed little correlation. Hence it would be expedient to settle for a completely objective single examination.”

One of the main issues that the committee confronted was that "the entrance exams have shifted the focus of better students from +2 science education in school to coaching for the entrance exams. As a result school attendance has become a casualty."

The country was hoping that the committee will somehow resolve this problem. The problem is decades old, though it has been worsening in last several years. Every one who claims to have anything to do with education has a solution, and the solution is to somehow consider performance in the school and board exams for the admission. The problem has been that with multiplicity of boards, differing curriculum, different type of question papers, and so on, it was not clear as to what should be a fair mechanism to consider school performance. BITS Pilani considered school performance for admission for a long time, but finally gave up in favour of an entrance exam. They had a normalization mechanism, which had many problems.

So what does the committee says on the most important issue. “Standard 12th scores normalized appropriately across boards should be used to capture the School Science Performance.” Great wisdom. We did not need four IIT Directors to make this statement. You could ask any 12th class student.

After analysis of these entrance exams, and having discussions with stake holders, they identify some desirable features of the admission process. The first one amongst them is, “Decision based on one time test needs to be re-examined. Opportunities to improve must be built in.” And what do they suggest. 70 percent of the weight in the screening should be given to normalized board marks, which have no opportunity to improve. And IITs should continue to have a separate JEE (though with smaller number of students taking it), which will have no opportunity to improve. In any quality work, we normally would write in conclusion how we have taken care of issues that we had identified in the introduction. IIT Directors do not need to do the same.

Another desirable feature that they have identified for the admission process is that students must be relieved of the pressure of multiple entrance exams. And what do the committee suggests. It suggests that everyone else must admit through the normalized 12th class marks and the performance in the proposed NAT (National Aptitude Test), but IITs having special requirements would continue to have its own JEE. How strange. A committee is set up to come up with recommendation for admission process in India. It comes up with a half baked idea, and then it says that the idea is not good enough for IITs themselves. But others must adopt it. Why. Aren't other universities autonomous. Can't they have special requirements too. Can't a university say that we want to test one more parameter than what 12th class board and NAT will test. If you follow your own recommendations, then it is possible to convince others that you were serious while framing them. Otherwise, you are just perpetuating the feudal system in Indian education. And the number of entrance exams would continue to be large.

The committee recommends that all boards should have the same curriculum, that all boards should have the same question paper, that all boards should have same model answer and grading scheme, so that there is no need to normalize in future. Till all this is done, normalization can be done (but as I said above, they don't tell you how). The committee leaves no scope for any innovation in school education. Will they follow their own recipe and say that all IITs should have the same curriculum, same exam papers, same model answer, and same grading scheme, so that we can compare the students for the purpose of admission into M.Tech and Ph.D programs.

Finally, when they provide the timetable for admission, they suggest that counselling shall start by 1st July, and finish by 15th July. Is it practical. Unless you force everyone to be part of one large on-line centralized counselling, and you force the students to give hundreds of options in the serial order of their preference, this certainly is an impossible goal. Today, it normally takes about three months for the admission process to settle down. It starts around mid-June, and ends in the mid-September. The committee does not tell us what magic they have in mind to compress these three months into two weeks.

It is quite obvious from the report that the Directors of IITs have no clue about the realities of Indian higher education system, but they are willing to suggest solutions to be adopted by all educational institutions, but which they find unsatisfactory for themselves.