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Sunday, March 27, 2011

I was there at Motera

March 24, 2011. The world cup quarter-final between India and Australia. And I decided to watch my first ever ODI match live in a stadium.

The atmosphere was electrifying, and I was asking myself again and again, why did I wait for so many decades. When just before the match, they played the national anthem, 40,000 people sang along. It was an emotional moment, and I couldn't hold back my tears. Each time Australia lost a wicket, the cheers were loud enough that I am sure people in Ahmedabad city could tell without catching the game on TV. But yet, when Ponting completed his century there was a round of applause for him. When Sachin started moving to the pavilion after his dismissal, and the umpire asked him to stop till he had verified whether it was a no ball or not, there was a prayer on everyone's lips. Your personal religion did not matter. There was only one religion on display: Cricket. And there is only one God in this religion: Sachin.

At the end of 39th over, the required run rate had creeped up to over 6. For the first time in the match, people started losing hope. Some people started leaving. But those would regret their decision to leave because right after that in the 40th and 41st over, Yuvraj and Raina scored 27 runs, and brought the required run rate to below 5. Singh was King that night.

But while the game was exhilarating, everything else about the event was horrible. The ticket sales, to begin with. Why couldn't they have an online auction or an online lottery depending on whether you believe in capitalism or in socialism. It is ridiculous to make people stand in queue for hours together waiting for the counters to open, only to be told that the tickets are sold out.

The traffic management was so poor that we took about 1.5 hours in the car for the last 1.5 KM. The reason - people weren't informed that there was adequate parking available near the stadium. So people parked on the roadside, making less road space available for traffic. Then those brave souls who decided to go up to the stadium in their cars were pleasantly surprised to notice that there was parking space available, but security checking of cars was so slow that the the traffic backed up for more than 5 KM. Can't someone do some back-of-the-envelope calculation and plan. If there are going to be 40,000 people coming, and there is no public transportation available, then expect at least 4000 cars to show up, and will need to be parked in about an hour. So have enough security guards to check enough cars in parallel to achieve that capacity. There is no reason to have a long queue.

Then there was this sign pointing us to the direction of Gate number 12, but there was no gate number 12 in that direction. Different policemen would give us different directions, and finally we figured that there is no gate numbered 12. We had to enter from gate number 11. The signs could have been less frustrating.

Well, we finally entered the stadium. We were stripped off water bottles, and no food packets. Presumably the food may have some poison in it, and we may attempt feeding the players on the boundary line. We knew in advance that mobile phones and no other electronic gadgets will be allowed. But what we did not know was that even a plastic pen could be used as a weapon. Perhaps someone in the police hierarchy had read that the pen is mightier than the sword, and if swords are security risks, then of course, pens are security risks too. I wanted to ask the policeman on duty - what if I try to throw my shoes into the ground. But I desisted. They may actually start banning footwear into the stadium. Anything goes in the name of security, and no body bothers asking a question - is there an alternative. (If the main problem with water bottles was that there have been several incidents in the past of spectators throwing water bottles into the ground, then the solution is not to ban water bottles, but to increase the height of the wiremesh barrier between the seats and the playground from 8-10 feet to may be 20 feet. Also, they should ask the security guards to not congregate at one location and watch the match, but to be dispersed throughout the stands and watch the spectators.

One would imagine that the hosts, whether it was ICC, or BCCI, or Gujarat Cricket Association, would have made some arrangements for food and water. After all, people were going to be there for 10 hours, and not everyone was in the mood to keep a fast. There were kids and there were old people in the crowd too. To be truthful, there was a contractor who was supposed to sell these. Every once in a while, there was some noise indicating that the contractor has gotten another 100 bottles of water, and there would be a stampede. People would fight, people would argue, and the one man who was doing the selling would pour water from one bottle of 10 rupees into three glasses and sell each glass for 10 rupees. Never mind the cost. But how do I carry multiple glasses through this huge crowd. By the time I will reach my seat, I would have lost half the water. But wait till the next round of bottles arrive, and this was for a stand which perhaps had more than 3000 spectators.

Food was even rarer. So at the innings break, there was a massive argument between lots of hungry and thirsty souls and the handful of policemen at the gate, and they had no option but to allow people to go out of the stadium, and bring back bottles, food packets, and anything else they wanted. There was no way police was going to be able to check what all was being brought in. We thank our stars that terrorists did not think of this as an option to bring in whatever they wanted to bring in. (And yes, people did throw some of those bottles onto the ground proving the police viewpoint that these can be used to disrupt the match. But as I said earlier, there has to be an alternate way of ensuring that bottles don't reach the ground.)

I was really shocked, seeing the arrangements. You have thousands of captive customers, who have nowhere to go, and who mostly could afford any monopolistic price for food and water. (Most people in the stand were talking about how many thousands they had paid for the 800 rupees ticket.) And we were in Gujarat, the land of entrepreneurship. Didn't someone think that a lot of money could be made by providing a bit of service.

The toilets were filthy. (May be that is why they were not selling water. To ensure that you don't have to face the stench multiple times during the 10 hour period.)

The seats were narrow and very uncomfortable, and were designed to encourage everyone to stand up every time even mildly positive thing happened on the field. Standing was so much more comfortable than sitting on those chairs.

From our stand, we couldn't see the replay board conveniently. So at times we would miss the action and there would not be any action replay.

And I was doing some mental calculations. (Remember my pen was confiscated in the name of security.) If they had charged Rs. 801 for the ticket, instead of Rs. 800, they would have had enough money extra to clean the toilets continuously for 10 hours. I am sure there would be no spectator in that stand who would not have happily paid that one rupee extra for clean toilets. They could further raise the ticket price to Rs. 802, and hire a few cleaning staff who would take away the empty bottles, plastic glasses and all the other waste that was being littered everywhere.

Indeed, I am sure that no spectator in that stand would have minded paying a bit more extra for hiring a few LCD TVs and putting them on the roof, or on the pillars, etc. This would have made the match experience much better.

So on one hand I am kicking myself for not being part of such a fantastic experience earlier in my life, but on the other hand, I am not sure whether I want to go through the mismanagement of the type that I experienced at Motera that day. I know the biggest of the world cup games is on 30th at Mohali, but I am tempted to stay home and watch it on TV.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Education Loans: What is a good collateral

Most discussions on how to improve quality of education start with the suggestion that the colleges be allowed to charge a much higher fee than what they are being allowed currently. And immediately, someone will point out that our citizens cannot afford the cost of quality education. Predictably the discussion moves on to bank loans. While in theory, educational loans till Rs 4 lakhs are without any collateral, and easily given, in practice, students keep complaining about banks' reluctance to provide the loan to students from financially weaker background. Apparently, the default in education loans is rather high, and banks feel comfortable giving loans to only students of highly reputed institutions, or those who has a guarantor or a collateral.

One way out of this problem is to have the degree itself as a collateral. When the student applies for bank loan, there can be a tripartite agreement between the student, the bank, and the educational institution. The educational institution agrees that any certificate/diploma/degree/marksheet, etc., that the institute will give to the student will have a line that the student has not yet completed the loan repayment, and only after the bank informs the institute that it has been fully paid that the institute will provide a degree (or diploma, etc.) which will be "clean," that is, will not have any mention of the unpaid loans.

Assuming that the students will be very keen to have a clean degree, they will try their best to clear the dues. At any stage in life, some employer may insist that they have a clean degree (and hopefully, a lot of employers will insist that at middle level or senior level, all degrees be clean).

And if all students can be given Aadhar number on priority basis, and their degrees and certificates can be put in a national depository (as is being planned by the government) so that any employer or stake holder can look at the status of the degree, then it will not be possible for students to fake a clean degree.

Of course, this does not solve the problem fully. Some students will fail the course and never get a degree. Some students will go abroad where employers may not care about the loan, and, of course, even Indian employers may not care about this line. Also, if one is self employed, then one can ignore having a clean degree. But all these cases put together are still a small part of the graduate community, and the scheme will, I hope, improve the loan recovery by banks. And that will encourage banks to increase the amount disbursed as educational loans, and also reduce the interest rates a bit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Transparency in Educational Institutions

Last weekend was a treat. So many distinguished IITK alumni gathered on campus for various alumni related events - the Alumni Day, Giving out of Distinguished Alumnus Awards and Satyendra Dubey Award, 35-year reunion of 1976 graduates, the Student-Alumni Interaction Day, etc. It is always a pleasure to meet and listen to great minds. But the biggest treat of all was a 2-hour session by Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, the Central Information Commissioner, on Right to Information Act. Mr. Gandhi was here to receive the Satyandera Dubey Memorial Award from IIT Kanpur.

This set me thinking about transparency. Do we follow transparency in our dealings as an educational institute. I also discussed the matter with a few colleagues. Unfortunately, the answer every time was, "we are far more transparent than others." That may very well be the case, but is that enough.

We have seen that the holiest of the holy cow, the JEE, has a tarnished image today because it had no transparency (it still has less than desirable), and till now, there has been no explanation for some of the past acts.

When we give our awards, like the Distinguished Alumnus Awards we gave on Saturday, there are always some murmurs. Would it not be proper to put out a list of all nominations with a brief summary of their achievements (if not all the details) on the website. Anyone can then see that there was no "much better" nominee who was overlooked by the awards committee.

We spend good money to attract students for summer internship at IIT Kanpur. But are we selecting the best ones amongst those who applied. I think we should put up a complete list of all applicants with their brief credentials, and those who are selected.

When we collect feedback from students about our courses, shouldn't such a feedback be available in the public domain. Shouldn't it be known to taxpayers as to how the highest paid faculty members in the country supported by their taxes are doing in terms of tasks that they are expected to do - teaching, research, institution building, etc.

When we set up committees to inquire into misdemeanors, shouldn't the reports of the committees be made public.

When we are constructing buildings at the cost of 10s of crores, it should be mandatory to put up the building plans and the estimated cost (and the final cost) on the web.

When we terminate the programs of academically weak students, and then consider their appeals, shouldn't we be giving reasons as to why some appeals are accepted and some are not. After all, it is a serious matter of career for those whose appeals are turned down.

Doing all this and many more similar things would improve the public confidence in our system, and encourage other institutes to follow our processes, and hopefully, this will improve accountability in all institutions, and thus excellence.

Of course, I can submit a series of RTI applications to the Public Information Officer of IIT Kanpur, each with a check of Rs. 10 only, and ask for all this information, and then I can share that with the rest of the world.

But that is not good enough as far as the Act is concerned. The RTI Act says that the public authorities will take steps to inform public about the information that could be asked under RTI. So all this information should be put on the website suo moto by educational institutions before anyone asks for it by filing an RTI application. If one is not doing that, one is violating certainly the spirit of the act, and perhaps the letter of the act as well.

Thank you, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Suggestions regarding lateral entry

A couple of weeks ago, I had written about a proposal to have lateral admission into IITs. I received a large number of emails and comments. There are two ideas that some institutes are seriously considering to attract research students through lateral admission. (Both ideas are not fully developed, and are not currently implemented. Hence I have been advised that naming the institutes or persons would be premature.)

In one of the ideas, some IITs are considering offering PhD admission directly to students at the end of their 3rd year of studies. These students will join the IIT immediately thereafter. The remaining credits for the BTech degree will be done at the IIT. It is expected that the under-graduate institute of the student will agree to transfer those UG credits that have been earned at the IIT, and whenever the UG requirements are complete, will offer the degree to the student. So the IIT will not offer the BTech degree to these students, but hopefully, being in IIT for the final year will cause the student to adapt to IIT system quickly, and will be productive sooner.

Another Institute is planning to offer admission to the dual-degree program directly in the 3rd year to those who have completed 2 years of studies at another institute. (Most good institutes in the country have a 5-year program at the end of which the student gets both an undergraduate degree and a post-graduate degree, for example IITs have BTech-MTech dual degree programs.) This institute will consider research preparedness and research aptitude as the primary criteria for admission, and will be willing to offer credit transfer for the courses done in the first two years, if they are relevant to the program that the student wishes to pursue in this institute.

I see these two as examples of innovation that academics institutes are thinking of bringing about, and I hope that they will succeed.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pricing Engineering Education: How to Reduce Tuition

After my earlier blog post on pricing engineering education, it has been pointed out to me that not only affiliated colleges, but even universities are now coming under fee regulation in some states. Even Gujarat, an otherwise progressive state, has been controlling tuition for professional courses in the private universities in the state, and that too at levels much lower than what we discussed in that blog post.

Many people asked me that considering the political reality, is there something that the universities could do to manage their finances, and offer cheaper education, with only a limited reduction in quality.

So, here is an attempt to give a few suggestions. Please note that these suggestions are more in terms of "thinking aloud" and may not be well thought through ideas. Feel free to improve/decimate them, as well as give more such ideas.

First of all, let us understand why state governments want to control tuition to such low levels. Obviously, they want to provide access to residents of their state (read, voters) at a low cost. They believe that it is more important to provide low-cost education, even if low-quality, than to provide high-quality education at higher cost. If this be the case, I believe it should be possible to convince the state governments to have a lower tuition for students from within the state and a higher tuition for students from outside the state. Most US state universities have the concept of in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition, and there is no reason why that cannot be replicated here. Currently, states do allow a higher tuition for students under management quota, or NRI quota, and the same can be allowed for out-of-state students. To make sure that colleges and universities do not only admit out-of-state students in such a situation, one can have 50% seats for in-state students. This will be a politically acceptable way of improving the yield.

On the cost front, some of the AICTE norms are simply luxurious in the current scenario. Having a 1:15 teacher student ratio for a teaching only institution is luxury. We need this ratio when we have a substantial post-graduate program. So what AICTE can do is to allow a 1:25 teacher-student ratio for UG programs, and a 1:10 ratio for PG programs. So, if an institute only has 1000 UG students, it should need to have only 40 faculty members. On the other hand, if it has 600 UGs and 400 PGs, then it should have 24+40 = 64 faculty members. This would reduce the cost of faculty substantially for the honest players (most dishonest players anyway have 1:25 ratio or worse). We really need to look at all their norms and cut down the requirement. For example, there is no need to have as many PCs now, since most students come with their own laptops. The library size too should be determined by taking into consideration that most of the material is available online.

The technical universities should realize that it is counter-productive to teach a lot of courses. The students cannot really concentrate and learn 6-7 subjects in a given semester. If they are taught only 5 courses (or god forbid, even 4) in a semester, they will learn much more, and the cost of teaching comes down substantially.

Technology should be leveraged to reduce costs further. Having a campus management software should reduce the number of staff members. Having cameras at important places can reduce the need to have physical security. A digital library can provide access to material more easily to every student without the need to have a large library to host the large printed material and have lots of reading spaces.

Colleges also need to look at alternate sources of revenue. One way to augment revenue is by sharing one's facilities with outsiders. For example, there is nothing wrong in having a coaching center use the lecture halls in the evening. If you have a guest house, rent out empty rooms to outsiders (subject to local laws and tax rules). Similarly, your primary health care room for students can also double up as a doctor's clinic for outsiders at other times. Commercial establishments on campus like a book store, photo-copier, canteens, etc., need not be given space for free or very low rent. Somewhat higher charges by these businesses is a politically acceptable way to get students to pay a bit more of the cost incurred on them. Similarly, a higher charge for hostel and mess facilities and generating a surplus there is generally tolerated by governments. Of course, all this will be minor unless the institution has excess land at disposal and can plan its commercial establishments properly.

Another revenue source, at least, for institutions providing higher quality of education, are workshops and short term courses. Most institutions anyway do these things for their students and faculty. If marketed properly, they can attract a lot of high paying industry persons. Management institutes already earn significant revenues through this route, and there is no reason why other professional colleges cannot do the same.

The faculty should be strong encouraged to write research proposals to both government an industry sponsors. The research cost should preferably come from such funding sources instead of dipping into student tuition. In fact, the monitoring of such funding is so poor in India, that most institutes (primarily government ones) who are in this game, are able to buy excess equipment from projects and use them for teaching.

One source of revenue which Indian institutions seem reluctant to tap into are philanthropists, foundations, and alumni. IITs have been trying to attract some money through this route for the last two decades, but the amounts are still not very large, compared to what their alumni are capable of. This apparent failure of IITs has discouraged other institutes to get into this mode of revenue generation. But, I believe that IITs have not reached even a fraction of their potential because they haven't yet learnt how to do it effectively. Of course, government can help by giving tax incentives for the same. Currently donations to educational institutes give you income tax rebate on 50% of the donation (except institutes of national importance like IITs, where you get income tax rebate on 100% of donation). The new budget proposes that a company giving money to educational institutes for research can deduct 200% of the expense from its income. There is a need to give that 200% rebate to contributions towards teaching as well.

If there are any more ideas, I would love to hear from you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Language skills and JEE

Recently, there was a strange drama in the parliament. Due to some confusion, some Rajya Sabha MPs thought that JEE was conducted only in English. The Minister HRD added fuel to the fire by responding to the question in English, and maintaining that the decision on the language is best left to IIT Council, an autonomous body. Finally, the Rajya Sabha had to be adjourned for 15 minutes, to bring the situation under control.

Of course, JEE question papers are available in Hindi too. So the whole discussion was unnecessary. But just imagine the uproar that will happen if IITs were to decide that they will introduce a language test in JEE. The language test could be in multiple languages - it is only to test linguistic abilities of the candidate. But there will always be criticism that English test is simpler than non-English tests. And, therefore, forget about testing language in JEE.

A few years ago, I met a German student who was carrying out research on the success of Indian IT sector. He told me that he is shocked by whatever he had learnt about the Indian higher education system. One point that he made was that India was a unique country in the world (well, amongst the 50 largest countries anyway) in that it did not consider language skills for the purpose of admission to professional courses. There is a huge amount of research which shows that the language skills are the best predictor of being a successful professional, and that is why the entire world considers these skills as amongst the most important parameter for both under-graduate as well as post-graduate admissions. But India did not do it. (And as I said above, language skills are not synonymous with English skills. It should be possible to design a language test in multiple languages.)

Today, I met a professor of another institute, who has been doing a lot of traveling to various institutes in India, and he told me that he found BITS Pilani students to be amongst the best, and we started discussing this. We felt that the reason for this (perception?, how does one really check this?) could be that BITS Pilani is the only institute in India amongst the top rated institutes which considers language skills as important, and includes them in its admission test. (And also a section on logical reasoning.) It also happens to be the institute with perhaps the highest cutoff for the 12th class marks. (It requires 80 percent in aggregate of Physics, Chemistry and Maths.) And of course, there is a lot of research which shows that the performance in school has a better correlation with the performance in college compared to the correlation between entrance exam with performance in college.

As a result of different admission processes, while a lot of good students in schools (including those who are really good at at least one language) do manage to get through JEE and join IITs, but a lot of students who manage to get admission to IITs do not have good performance in school or do not have good language skills.

Is there a way to influence stake holders to include an exam component in JEE on a language (of the choice of the candidate), and also increase the cutoff marks in 12th from 60% to at least 65%.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Young India Fellowship

Recently, I came across this new program, Young India Fellowship, which is being touted as India's own Rhodes Scholarship.

If you check the website, you will find that the first batch will have 50 students, those who are graduating in 2011, or have graduated at most 2 years ago. These 50 students will go through a one year of fantastic experience. They will be taught by leading experts, with workshops, and guest lectures thrown in all the time. I was so excited about the program that I immediately contacted one person associated with the program and asked if they could make just one exception and allow someone who graduated 25 years ago. Alas, they did not agree.

This is a one year program, divided into 8 terms of 6 weeks each, with some time in between for on campus interviews. Yes, the program will provide help with placements as well.

And the best part of this program is that it is free. It costs about Rs. 8 lakhs, including tuition, lodging and boarding, but all participants will get full scholarship to cover all these expenses.

The list of founders, mentors, sponsors, and faculty is truly awe inspiring, and include the who's who of Indian industry, truly outstanding academicians, and distinguished persons from many other walks of life.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pricing Engineering Education

Economic Times has had an excellent article on 4th March by V Raghunatahn, titled Pricing Engineering Education.

He argues that the fees approved by the state governments do not even cover faculty salaries, if the educational institutions have to follow all AICTE guidelines, and offer 6th pay commission mandated salaries. He does not show complete maths, so I thought of doing it myself.

AICTE requires a faculty to student ratio of 1:15. AICTE also requires that professor to Assoc. Professor to Assistant Professor ratio be at least 1:2:4. That is, you could have more senior persons if you want, but you cannot have all fresh graduates as teachers.

What this means is that for 105 students, there should be a minimum of one professor, two associate professors, and four assistant professors, with minimum qualifications that AICTE has specified. Given that even the worst government college is offering 6th pay commission salaries now (in most states, the few remaining states are expected to pay arrears), the private colleges, if they want to recruit faculty with similar quality as the worst government colleges, will have to pay the 6th pay commission salaries.

The minimum salary of a professor today is about Rs. 12 lakhs per annum. The minimum salary of an Associate Professor is about Rs. 10 lakhs per annum. And the minimum salary of an Assistant Professor is about Rs. 7 lakhs per annum. (I am including basic, grade pay, dearness allowance, transport allowance, HRA, and pensionary contributions, though governments also give other benefits such as LTC, Medical, Earned leave, Sabbatical, gratuity, extra opportunity for consultancy, telephone re-imbursement, school fee support for kids, and so on.)

So, for 105 students, the bare minimum salary outgo on faculty has to be 12 + 10 * 2 + 7 *4 = 60 lakhs. Considering that at least some professor (who will be Director, Dean, Heads, etc.) will be paid more, and everyone has to be given some increment every year, etc., it is reasonable to assume that at least 70 lakhs will be spent on faculty salaries alone, if all AICTE norms are followed and the salary levels are same as the worst government colleges.

Of course, in an engineering college, typically the faculty salary is about 1/3rd of the total cost, which includes salaries of technical staff, administrative staff, outsourced staff for mundane things, labs, and the basic infrastructure itself (assuming that the loans for the basic infrastructure has to be paid through tuition).

So the minimum cost of engineering education has to be around Rs. 2.0 lakhs per annum with any reasonable quality. Out of this, you can expect the promoters to do a little bit of subsidizing by way of creating an endowment, gifting some money in the beginning for land and initial buildings, etc. Over a period of time, some revenue can be generated by generating a surplus from hostels, guest house, and some commercial activities on campus. But, anyone charging you less than Rs. 1.5 lakhs is either a great philanthropist, or is reducing quality tremendously. And if someone is giving you quality of a decent NIT, the cost has to be no less than Rs. 2.5 lakhs. Some good institutes are able to charge less since the promoters have left an endowment, or have donated money to pay for the entire capital cost, or they have some other program where the regulation is weak and therefore there the surplus is very large, or they have an active alumni donation program, etc.

When state governments insist that one can only charge Rs. 40K to Rs. 70K per annum, they are essentially saying that they are not bothered about quality, and they don't care about AICTE norms. Is there any wonder that most graduates of these colleges get very low paying jobs.

I am very curious to know how do fee committees in the states come up with numbers like Rs. 40,000 per year, or even Rs. 70,000 per year as tuition of engineering colleges in their state.

The reader will obviously ask, if the cost is so high, and tuition is so low, then why is there a long queue of promoters interested in opening colleges. That is a legitimate question, and one has to see the real operations of these colleges. They depend on a large number of ad hoc teachers whom they will pay as little as Rs. 1 lakh per year. Typically, these are those poor quality undergraduates who were deemed unfit for any kind of job by industry. Also, no college maintains faculty, or any other resource to the level that AICTE expects. And when a team goes to colleges for inspection, one either brings in resources that day, or the team members knowing the real state of fee regulation ignore the shortcomings, and the whole charade continues.

Serious quality players do not want to enter the education sector, since the only way to operate in this sector is by violating guidelines, and then paying bribes to avoid being caught. They will enter only as university since the fee regulation is not as yet applicable to universities.

I wonder how this system has continued for couple of decades, when anyone could do these numbers on the back of the envelope.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Inter-IIT movement of students

My last blog titled, "Proposal for Lateral Admission into IITs," resulted in a large number of emails to me, and they had some excellent suggestions and a few questions. I will deal with them in due course. But one question that was too important to be delayed was whether IITs allow lateral admission amongst themselves.

I have checked and unfortunately, the answer is that they don't, except in some medical situations. When I was a student, there was a provision to change from one IIT to another with some conditions, which ensured that very few people will use this route. But over the last three decades, instead of becoming more flexible, we have become more rigid, and such transfers have become rarer and rarer.

Apparently, there is a fear that if we allow such transfers to take place, some IITs would lose many while some other IITs would gain many. And IITs that fear losing many are opposed to these transfers. How many students did an IIT lose the last time such transfers were allowed. No body has given me an authentic number, but the suspected number is less than 5.

It can't be much larger number for the simple reason that often there are no vacancies in the popular programs, and not too many students want to shift to another IIT for an unpopular program. Also, normally, the students from top few of an IIT would not want to shift to another IIT.

So, apparently, an important flexibility of student seeking transfer from one IIT to another has been taken away because some IIT lost less than 5 students, and that too not from the top performers of that IIT.

If this is the type of rigidity that IITs would follow, what hope do I have to influence IITs in any way. But I am not giving up. You will keep seeing me writing on this blog.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Proposal for Lateral Admission into IITs

Last couple of days, I was at Indian School of Business, where I was attending a program on "Strategies for Building Excellence in Higher Education."
Prof. Rafiq Dossani from Stanford University was the faculty for the program.

There were many interesting things that I learnt, which I may write about later. One thing that really surprised me was the information that state universities in US admit a large number of lateral or transfer students. And we are talking about the top schools only. In fact, the example that Prof. Dossani gave was about University of California, Berkeley.

Apparently, about 30 to 40 percent of UCB graduates (those who graduate with a BS degree) are those who are admitted as transfer students. A very large percentage of these transfer students are those who have done two years of college from local community colleges within the state of California. I did my own google searches, and found out that indeed this is true.

Since very many readers of this blog may not be aware of the state (government) system of higher education, let me explain that a bit. The state governments typically have three types of higher education institutions. First are the flagship state universities like UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, and so on. Second are state universities which are more focused on teaching,though research still takes place, and at the lowest level are the community colleges, which provide 2-year college education, directed towards either vocational training, or one could study a variety of subjects just out of interest, or one could take credits which will help in lateral entry into bigger universities after some minimum number of credits. So, there is generally, significant difference in the quality of infrastructure as well as quality of faculty between community colleges and the flagship universities. Community colleges focus on teaching alone.

As I said earlier, UCB gets 30-40% of its class through lateral admission, most of them are those who have performed exceedingly well in the community colleges. If one gets a CGPA of 3.6 (out of 4.0) in the community college, one is guaranteed admission in UC Berkeley, and all relevant credits are transferred so that the student can finish the degree program at UCB in two years.

What is interesting is that this has huge benefits for all stake holders, including UC Berkeley, Community colleges, and students.

The student wins in obvious ways. Those who could not get into UCB based on their profile at the end of high school get another chance to get into a top rated school. That too at a fraction of the cost. The tuition at Community Colleges is a fraction of the tuition at UCB. Also, University tuition for undergraduate is typically semester based, while the tuition at community colleges is typically credit based. So those who are doing part time work and part-time study, the tuition differential between the two systems will be really huge.

Community colleges win since if their students have a chance to get into UCB, they attract reasonably good students too, and therefore, they are able to maintain a decent quality of instruction, since a significant amount of learning is based on peer learning, which improves when the quality of peers is better.

Interestingly, this has significant benefits for UCB also. No admission process can really predict who will be the best performers in the 4-year of education and beyond. Invariably, some excellent students will not make it your university because your admission process could not recognize them as good enough. This is, of course, worse if your admission process is based on a single exam, and that too on a single day.

If a university is committed to excellence, it must find ways to admit those excellent students whom the initial admission process somehow missed. And UC Berkeley is doing exactly that. It has been found out that the first two years of college are better predictors of one's success in the remaining two years in college and beyond, compared to performance in high school, SAT score, and everything else one is able to consider at that time.

Of course, the quality of teaching at community colleges is inferior to the quality of teaching at UCB. But what they have noticed (and has been corroborated by large number of studies in different places) is that the toppers of even much inferior systems perform better than weaker students in much better systems. In fact, Berkeley has been doing this for a long time, and have detailed data about the performance of these lateral students. They have found out that the average performance of these students is same as the average performance of those who were admitted right after the high school. (This is true for the current mix of students. If the number of fresh admissions go up and the lateral admissions go down, then the average performance of lateral students will become better, and on the other hand, if the number of fresh admissions go down and the lateral admissions go up, then the average performance of fresh students will become better.)

The system is so well established and is so student friendly that now they have started noticing that some students who could get admission in UG program at Berkeley after high school chose to join community college (mainly to save money), and then get into Berkeley directly into junior (3rd) year.

That, of course, set me thinking, whether it would be in the interest of IITs to do the same here. We all know that our admission system, based on a single exam, on a single day, misses out on a large number of excellent students. If we could have a scheme by which we agree to admit the top 5% of the NIT students and offering them credit transfer for the relevant courses that they may have done in their respective NITs, we will have very significant advantages.

We will get students who perform better than the lower end of our current students. We will reduce stress in the society because now there is a second chance to get into the elite institutions. We will be more fair in the sense that we will be admitting students who have demonstrated excellence over a period of time, and not just on that one exam. We will improve the quality of NITs, since even though we take a few of their top students, overall they get much better students, since they all will be hoping to get into an IIT through this route. We enable government institutes (NITs) to compete with top private institutes like BITS Pilani in this fashion.

We will also reduce the number of students who give JEE twice. It might be easier for students to join an NIT, do well there to get into an IIT, than to spend one more year at Kota and play the lottery called JEE once again. And that reduces the market size of coaching too.

Also, the IIT review committees have repeatedly asked IITs to support other government institutes nearby. If news reports are to be believed, this will be included as one of the obligations of IITs when the IIT Amendment Act is introduced in parliament this month. This scheme allows us to fulfill what is likely to become our legal obligation very soon.

This will also solve the issue of having large classes for the compulsory core courses, which are taken by students of all disciplines. Normally, most institutions have a bottleneck in terms of common infrastructure, common labs, instructors for those large classes, etc. Departments generally are able to handle larger classes (since they are still a fraction of what the common core courses see). This model, therefore, makes it easier to admit more students. You don't need to offer Physics and Maths and Workshop Practice to them.

Of course, one must still come up with a detailed implementation plan. How will we allocate programs to students. How will we compare a student of one NIT to a student of another NIT. And, of course, this implementation plan must not have any subjective evaluation since I don't think that the IIT system is as yet strong enough to withstand pressures that a subjective admission process will bring. But I am convinced that if conceptually such a plan is acceptable to the stake holders of IITs, then coming up with a detailed plan would not be an impossible task.

Can anyone see a negative fall out of this?