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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.


Pramath said...

Dheeraj, well said. Isn't GATE therefore like an BTech exit exam?

rajbull said...

Dheeraj, I was hoping to sleep with a blank mind this weekend. I must say, I am very disturbed reading your article.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Pramath, GATE can be like a BTech exit exam if it is made compulsory, or at least employers start demanding GATE score for jobs. Indian Oil started demanding this last year, and a few more PSUs are likely to do that this year. If many employers come forward, then it will become a de facto exit exam. Of course, GATE also needs some reforms, which I will write about soon.

Atul said...

Really Alarming ... one hope is more people like Pramath, Tiger, Nandan, NRN and other enter India's Education Sector ...

Yogi Raj said...

This is a grave reality.

The questions is. The faculty that teaches these students, can they themselves score better in GATE? (a situation with most engg colleges)

The B.Tech Exit test is a nice thought.

Further a, Faculty Qualifying Test (GATE/NET) before recruiting a new faculty member must be introduced.

Teachers are the Leaders, and they must be role models.

Teaching need to be re-instated among masses as another aspiration among Tech Grads and Post-grads. Competitive Environment to be provided for teachers and lucrative growth opportunities.

This should again be supported by Faculty Training Programs - elective course among all engineering colleges for those who want to pursue teaching.

Every Teacher should have a mandate to engage in a consulting project with an established company or research body.

More industry-academic events/opportunities to empower teachers and network at professional level.

It is sad truth of capitalism that when a sea of opportunities are opened, only few grab them out of their passions, others just blind in the glare.

sameer pandit said...

Hello Sir
I m 3rd year BTech IT student.I have read all of your posted blog articles and i really liked them very much , specially this one .I being undergraduate student strongly feel the need of exit exams . Your blog has been a great source of information to me about trends in GATE and JEE exams . Thank you

RAHUL said...

Professor ;
Sorry For Being A Naive ; But An Exit Exam Doesn't Increase the odds of increasing the quality of education
Consider JEE as an exit exam : It Has Only given rise to purchasable education residing not in schools but in coaching s whose teachers are millionaires without any enthusiastic aptitude for teaching ----

the only way to sort this problem is that MAKING THE USE OF MIT*OCW -SEE*STANFORD -HARVARD*EXTENSION- YALE OCW - NPTEL- REALLY REALLY COMPULSORY and every IIT In it's geography should test all the teachers at least once a year and give them certificates {not doctorates}

and why shouldn't it be done??
AN EXAM can give rise to coaching s only ;

I Am a senior year student :i have seen my teachers taking taking the GATE 3 times ::rest is obvious
when i expose them to things like NPTEL :::i get the reply "itne bhaidiya hote to yaha na hote "
believe it or not nothing compares to this pain professor:

Dheeraj Sanghi said...


If GATE becomes an EXIT exam, and if the coaching can get students to score 40 out of 100, I will be happy with that coaching. Second, I do not agree that every exam will result in coaching. Even in case of JEE, I think it is possible to reduce the impact of coaching tremendously. Thirdly, coaching is not an unmitigated disaster that it often is made out to be. There are some positives out of it too. It should be possible to design our exams in a way that we can co-exist with coaching, without the harmful parts of coaching affecting us too badly.

L said...

First re coaching- it is not a disaster if it is done as an addition to regular teaching and skill development. What makes it a horror story is the intensive and unmitigated rounds of problems/solutions and mugging definitions from the age of 13 or so, with no other activity.
Secondly,particularly in the IT, a moderately skilled person gets a job in the industry where he is paid about three times what he gets in a teaching job. So who gets into teaching in the regular engg colleges ? A person who is less than moderately skilled. This may not be true for the top Instts. but definitely true for the regular engg. colleges and also
for colleges offering BSc comp sc.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@L, you are right about the salaries and the quality. But the two are linked. The Indian State has consciously chosen a model of mass poor quality technical education. The fee determined by the state governments does not even cover the faculty salary, if one assumes that colleges will have as many faculty as AICTE guidelines require, and will pay them as much as UGC guidelines specify as minimum. If you look at the minimum cost of education, if a college were to adhere to all guidelines of AICTE, then the tuition will have to be around Rs. 1.5 lakhs. But state governments allow a fraction of that. And parents and students think it is ok to study in colleges which charge that fraction.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Sanghi, its actually much worse. There is something wrong with higher education in India in general. To provide a foundation to the discussion, I propose the following as desired outcomes of higher education for a student:

1) Awareness of his/her place in society as a citizen

2) Intellectual curiosity, 'learning to learn'

3) Requisite skills and ability to participate productively in the economic system of the society

The third is the most important in the short term, the second important for the long term and the first for the broader society.

Unfortunately, I dont see the current Indian education system providing the first two in any way and as you point out in this post it usually doesnt provide the last one either.

The reasons are varied and probably much better understood by you than me, but I do believe that India's culture of 'Institute of Technology' has much to do with this. The unnatural bifurcation of higher education in our country seriously undermines the capacity of our society to produce new knowledge.

How many books do we hear about published by Indian academics in any field really ? I rarely see any good work coming out of India on the Indian society, the history of the sub continent and India's ecology, areas we should have complete monopoly over, forget Galois theory, computer architecture, algorithms and statistical physics, areas in which other countries are light years ahead of us.

freakygenius said...

Any stats on students from top 50 institutes? How did they fare in the exam?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@freakygenius, sorry, no detailed information about the institutes is shared by GATE office. But I would guess that students from top few institutes would have performed well.