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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.