Search This Blog

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Common Admission Portal for Engineering Colleges

In my previous two posts, I have suggested that it is not practical to have a common entrance exam, and that multiplicity of exams is really not the reason for stress amongst students. It is the logistics behind multiple exams that is at the root of the problem.

In this note, I will argue that the admission process of various colleges and universities is a much bigger nightmare for a common student than taking a couple of extra exams. And then suggest a solution which creates a win-win situation for all stake holders.

Starting January every year, the 12th class student has to monitor various websites to know when the admission forms for different colleges and universities are available. There are lots of places, which do not hold their own exam, but admit students on the basis of performance in other exams. They all have their own separate forms to be filled in, along with the application fee. If you miss any deadline, you won't be considered for admission by that college.

The problem starts in June when results of all these entrance exams and the 12th class board exams is declared. You need to make sure that all the places you had applied to has the updates on your result. And then you start receiving admission offers.

One deposits fee in one university, and then receive admission offer from another university. One somehow manages funds to deposit fee there. And now, one is in dilemma. Should one withdraws admission from the first university, and seek refund. Or should one hold on to that admission offer in the hope that one might get admission into a more preferred program there. Notice that most universities will not consider you for the higher preference, if you withdrew your admission to the lower preference. And while you are debating all this with your friends and family, a third university makes an offer.

Arranging funds to keep admission offers alive at multiple universities is not an easy task, when all of them ask you to deposit at least the entire fees of the first semester, along with all security deposits (and sometimes even fees for the second semester).

Also, most of these places would want to see you in person to check your documents, etc., and you have no more than 3-4 days between the offer and the last date to report. There is no way you can get train reservations on such a short notice. So you either go unreserved, or by bus, or if you can afford it, fly. Airlines in India do roaring business in July (which is traditionally the lean period for tourism) because of admission related travel.

Even worse, some universities will want you to deposit your original documents with them, to ensure that you don't take admission in any other university. This is illegal, but still prevalent.

This is the real nightmare for students, and not giving a couple of extra exams in April/May. But unfortunately, not many in the government are concerned about this.

Is there a solution to this. Of course, there is an easy solution. Someone just needs to implement it. Consider an alternative scenario. There is one common admission portal for a large number of engineering colleges. A student registers there, and applies to as many universities/colleges, as he is interested in. There is a single form to be filled in, which has all the questions which any of these universities ask an applicant. So, you don't type your name 20 times, if you are applying to 20 universities. You give your registration number or roll number of various exams that you have given (and any of these universities are interested in knowing). You pay a consolidated application fee, which is sum of application fees of all the universities that you have applied to, in one online transaction (though there are offices across the country, which will accept drafts, if someone prefers that).

Each university will give this portal information on various programs - how many seats in each program, including any reservations, etc. A student can give one's choices for admission in the order of preference. These preferences could be across all universities, or just within a university.

When the results are announced, this portal will have a link to all boards and all exam conducting bodies, and will be able to download all results. So, the student is not responsible for informing each university the result of each exam.

Each university will tell the portal its process for creating the ordered merit list - it could be as simple as just following the AIEEE rank, or it could be in conjunction with some filters (like minimum 60 percent marks in 12th class), or it could be a combination of various factors.

Based on all this information, the portal will create a merit list for each university, put out the information as to which student has got admission in which university/program. If the student had indicated his/her preferences across universities, then s/he is offered admission in only one university/program. But if the student had indicated preferences only within each university, then s/he may be offered multiple admissions, but has to choose only one within a limited amount of time. As one chooses one option over the other, waiting lists are automatically triggered.

The student can pay the fee online again, and upload any documents also on the portal. The physical verification of the document can then be postponed to the time of actually joining by the student.

The portal will also know the refund rules of each university, and in fact, need to ask each student only that much amount immediately, which is the non-refundable part of the fee. The rest of the fee can be paid on the last date, after which the refund rules of the university changes. For example, if a university says that the fee is Rs. 1 lakh, out of which Rs. 90,000 will be refunded, if withdrawal happens by 15th July, and this admission offer has to be accepted by 5th July. The portal could ask the student to deposit only Rs. 10,000 by 5th July, and the remaining Rs. 90,000 by 15th July, to confirm the admission. So the students and parents won't get into cash flow problem.

If a student is offered admission in University 'A' and then later in University 'B', the student may decide to opt for the program in University 'B' while vacating the seat in University 'A' (so that the wait list can move immediately), but without losing the right to be considered for a higher preference at University 'A'. All this is trivial to program on the portal.

The portal can communicate with students using email, SMS, and postal letters, whatever mechanism is convenient to the student. The university will have an interface to generate all sorts of reports and statistics. By ensuring that a student has limited time to accept one of the multiple offers, the portal will ensure that universities are able to have quick movement of waiting lists, which result in early offers of admission to students and higher chances of filling up of seats for the university.

If someone can come up with such a portal, I am sure many universities will like to seek the services of such a portal. This will be a win-win situation for both students and universities, and a very profitable business for the organization running this portal. And if no private sector company is coming forward, perhaps NIC can run this. They already run the counseling site for CCB (which does joint counseling for all NITs and several other universities who base their admission on AIEEE ranks). This site can be upgraded to include features mentioned in this note.

Yes, it is possible to reduce stress from the admission process.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stress due to multiple entrance exams: A Proposed Solution

Yesterday, I had written on this blog why it is difficult have a common entrance exam for all engineering colleges. While discussing the blog with a few colleagues, I realized that the problem or the source of stress is not preparing for multiple exams, but the logistics of taking multiple exams.

A student typically sits for 5-6 exams in the months of April/May. Having 1 or 2 less exams is not going to remove or even reduce preparation effort. If the exams have very different syllabi, then either of them cannot be removed anyway. The two universities want different skills or knowledge to be tested presumably for some genuine reason. For example, the engineering admission test would have a different syllabus from the medical admission test. On the other hand, if two exams have similar syllabi, then preparation for the second exam is a small incremental effort, and removing that exam will not reduce the effort much.

The major problem for the student is not the number of exams, but the associated logistics. Sometimes, two exams are on the same day, or they could be on consecutive days, but the centers are in two different cities. Scheduling of exams is inflexible, because they depend on availability of schools in different cities. Most Schools are only available on Sundays, while some schools are also available on Saturdays. So large exams like JEE and AIEEE are held on Sundays, and exams with smaller number of candidates are held on Saturdays. And as I argued in my previous post, all these exams have to be held within a 5-6 week period in April/May, so the number of distinct dates available is much smaller than the number of exams to be held, and some clashes cannot be avoided.

So the primary problem is that the number of exams to be conducted is more than the number of suitable days available to conduct those exams. This results in scheduling conflicts. This results in having to find ways to reach from one city to the other in time, and find appropriate accommodation and transport options, that too, just before an important exam.

The obvious solution that all administrators have been suggesting is to reduce the number of exams. That will take away scheduling conflicts, and will give some peace to the student before every exam and would be easier on him/her to work out the logistics for each exam. But as I explained yesterday, this is extremely difficult to achieve (and perhaps not even desirable, since it gives more options to the students).

There is another solution to the problem. That is to increase the number of days over which these exams can be held. There are two ways it can be done. If we want to hold these exams only in April and May, then find ways to hold them on working days. Alternately, consider the option of holding them prior to April, perhaps through out the year.

To hold the exams on weekdays, we could have dedicated infrastructure only to hold exams. Suppose we were to create about 2-3 lakh seats just for examinations, spread over the 50 largest cities of the country. Given the number of exams of all sorts that we have (not just the admission tests, but exams for jobs in all PSUs, exams by UPSC and State PSCs), such a facility will be in use on most days of the year, and can be a profitable investment. And when there is an exam like AIEEE, which has more than 2-3 lakh candidates, only these large exams need to be held on Sundays, since they will need schools in addition to this dedicated infrastructure.

Alternately, the exams, particularly the big ones, need not be held only in April and May. They could be held on several days, including dates prior to the board exams. In such a scenario, the students can chose the dates for such exams in a way that there is no scheduling conflict with other exams they are planning to take. Of course, as I argued in my previous blog, holding an exam on multiple days invariably would mean a computer based standardized test. And once we have a large question bank, and the process of such tests has been streamlined, there is no reason why these tests can not be held through out the year.

I believe that increasing the number of days on which admission tests can be held is a much more viable option than to reduce the number of tests to one in each discipline (engineering, medicine, law, and so on).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Can we have a common entrance exam for all engineering colleges

Most people connected to education in India agrees on one thing: There are too many exams. Recently, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to Prime Minister (SAC-PM), Prof. C N R Rao, wrote a letter to Prime Minister, saying the same thing, and amongst many suggestions asked that there be only one entrance exam for all undergraduate courses in technical education in the country. He gave example of US where the admission is based on a single exam, GRE. (He probably did not know that GRE is used for graduate admission and not under-graduate admission.) Here is the link to Indian Express news item.

T Ramasami committee, charged with the task of JEE reform, has also made a plea that there should be a single exam in the country for admission to all engineering colleges. Here is the link to Indian Express news item.

Whenever I read such news item, I wonder, why they are wasting their time. If this is a dominant viewpoint for more than a decade, and there has been absolutely zero progress despite several committees, there must be a significant problem in achieving the goal. Why don't these stalwarts think of those problems first, and either tell us how those problems can be resolved, or advise the government that this is an impractical goal.

After all, when the Ministry of HRD asked CBSE to start AIEEE (All India Engineering Entrance Exam), it was done with the definite goal that this will be that single exam for all engineering colleges. Why did that not happen. Why do some states continue with their own engineering entrance tests. Why do many private universities continue to have their own tests. But most importantly, why do IITs continue to have their own test.

I am particularly asking this question about merging AIEEE and JEE, since this should have been the easiest to achieve administratively. After all, both CBSE and IITs are supervised by Ministry of HRD. MHRD can call the stake holders of both the exams, and thrash out any issues. If you can not convince your own organizations to do a single exam, then you should forget about a grand unification of all exams in the country. It is a waste of time even attempting it.

Why can't we merge AIEEE and JEE. I don't know, but I can do some loud thinking. First is the issue of trust. I don't think IITs really trust that AIEEE is organized as honestly as JEE (though there is really no data point to doubt the integrity of AIEEE, if anything they are more transparent). Second, there is a difference of opinion on whether the entrance test should be to select those who are good students and understand the 12th class science, or the entrance test should select those who don't need to be taught science in the first year. And lastly, let us not forget that both the exams earn a handsome amount of money for the organizers. And then, of course, IIT system has time and again shown that they are rigid, and would adopt changes only when the Minister has the guts to call their bluff and force them to change (and then we will all crib about loss of autonomy). So we will not give up JEE unless Minister forces us to do so.

I don't think there are any insurmountable problems in merging AIEEE and JEE. And unless it is done, you do not have any moral authority to ask other universities or states to not conduct their own entrance exam. If IITs have a special need for their own exam, when they test the same subjects, with roughly the same curriculum, then how can you argue that the University of XYZ, who actually has a different admission criteria (may be they test the language, or they give different weights to Physics, Chemistry and Maths, or they have a different syllabus, etc.), does not have that special need for its own exam.

Also, people suggesting a single entrance exam would do well to study the admission process in US universities. If they do that, they will realize that while US does have its SAT, it is only one of the many parameters that the admission office will look at. There is a subjective evaluation of multiple parameters, which is important since different universities may want to (and indeed do) give different weights to components of that evaluation. In Indian scenario, having subjective evaluation of admission applications is unthinkable because of the pressure that it would entail on the admission office, to give admission to well connected ones. So, if a university genuinely wants to evaluate different skills, it has no option but to go for its own admission test.

We have this important requirement that the admission test should be after the board exams in March. We need to finalize admissions by July, and therefore, all results must come in June (preferably early June). All this means that we only have about one month for all the exams, from 1st week of April to 1st week of May. Therefore, we cannot have the luxury of allowing a repeat of the exam, if a candidate does not perform well in that exam on that day. This is too dangerous for students, if we are going to have a single exam. Multiple exams actually allow mental peace to students as they know that if they don't perform well in one exam, they still have hopes of getting admission in the next best set of Institutes.

To have a single exam, we will have to have a system by which a student can give the exam twice or even thrice within the same admission cycle. This would mean that the exam would have to be conducted throughout the year. It means that the syllabus to be tested can only be 11th class syllabus, but that is not standardized across the country. (The combined syllabus of 11th and 12th has a reasonable overlap across the country, but the order in which these topics are taught in different boards vary.)

And, of course, the exams are a major money earner for the state technical universities as well as the private universities. (But this is changing. Private universities have realized that they can charge Rs. 1000 per candidate as application fee, even if they are using AIEEE score for admission. So why conduct one's own exam, which is an additional cost.)

Based on all the reasons I have stated above, I do not see a common entrance exam for all engineering colleges in near future.

So, is there no hope at all. Well, I think there is a possibility of a common entrance test, but it will have to be very different from anything that is going on right now. First of all, it will have to be a computer based test, with a large question bank in every subject, generating random questions for every candidate form that bank. Second, it will have to be conducted through out the year, with students allowed to take it multiple times, and improve their score. Third, it will have to have several optional components so that different universities can consider scores in different sections, depending on their needs. Different sections may be not just physics, chemistry, maths, biology, engineering drawing, english (and other languages), aptitude, general knowledge, and so on, but could also be Maths (low level), and Maths (high level). Also, within a section, the test could be adaptive like GRE, where by the questions asked depend on the level of the candidate. If a candidate is answering most questions correctly, then the computer starts asking more difficult questions from the question bank (and of course, it has historical data to standardize all questions' difficulty level), and the reverse happens, if a candidate cannot answer many questions. This would imply that the higher score is not just by answering more easy questions, but indicate an understanding of the higher order by that candidate.

All this will take at least 7-8 years from now. JEE preparations start an year in advance. So, no change in 2012. The earliest that AIEEE and JEE can be merged is 2013. After its experience will it become easier to convince others. At least 3-4 years will be needed for those negotiations. So if your kids have gone past the primary school, do not hope for the common entrance test for him/her.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rules for Deemed Universities

The higher education in India continues to be over-regulated. Last year, University Grants Commission (UGC) notified new rules for any college who desires to be a university under Section 3 of the UGC Act, 1956. These are called “UGC (Institutions Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2010.”

Among other things, these rules require that the trust or the society that sets up a college will have pretty much no control over it, once it is declared as deemed to be university. The university shall be run by a board of management, which will have widespread powers. Half the board shall be the employees of the university, including, Vice-Chancellor, two deans, two professors, Registrar, and the Pro vice-chancellor, if there is one. The sponsoring society or trust can have only one nominee, while the central government will also one nominee on the board of every deemed university. The central government nominee must also be an academician. Three eminent academicians can be nominated by the Chancellor to the board.

There shall be no one from industry on the board (unless the sponsoring society nominates one as its nominee). There shall be no alumni on the board, something totally against the current best practices for good governance of universities. All members of the board, other than the Registrar and the nominee of the society must be academicians.

The promoters do not even have a free hand in appointing Vice Chancellor. There will be a committee with a nominee of Chancellor, a nominee of the Government, and a nominee of the Board (and remember that the board is not controlled by the promoters). This committee will select the Vice Chancellor.

Lest the promoters try to control the board by appointing dummy deans and professors, who are then nominated into the board, the rules clarify that Deans and Professors will be members of the Board by rotation.

The Chancellor’s post itself cannot be occupied by the president of the society or any of its relatives. It is expected that the society will nominate someone who is a distinguished public figure.

There are far too many problems with this model.

First, is it fair to ask promoters to leave most control of the university? Would it be fair to ask Birla family to have nothing to do with BITS, or to ask Thapar family to have nothing to do with Thapar University, two of the best educational institutions in India, set up with so much passion and hard work (not to mention resources) by these two families.

Second, is it alright to assume that a board consisting of almost exclusively of academicians would have sufficient breadth of experience to manage the university? When most universities in the world are talking about having alumni and people from industry on their boards, India is moving in the direction of having neither.

Third, the Vice Chancellor has to be the Chairman of the Board. In such a situation, who can possibly evaluate the performance of VC on a regular basis. Having someone as the executive head whose performance cannot be evaluated in a routine fashion, does not appear to be a good governance model.

Fourth, if the government believes that this is indeed the best model for university governance, why is it not bringing this model of governance for universities that it has promoted? Let IIT Board have only academicians, only one government nominee, and Director as the Chairman. Let a similar management structure be there for all central universities. Over the last decade, there have been numerous demands for increased autonomy by IITs and IIMs. On every such occasion, such demands have been rejected by saying that as a promoter, government must have some control over these institutions. If Government feels that IITs and IIMs cannot be given autonomy, or their boards cannot be re-constituted without many government nominees, simply because government has funded these institutions so far, why does the same logic not apply to privately funded universities?

Recently, UGC started sending reminders to deemed universities for implementing all these changes. But interestingly, the government promoted deemed universities, including IIITs, IIST, etc., have not bothered to ask government to change their boards. Are they above the law of the land?

The rules go on to even specify even small details like a 15 day notice requirement for holding a meeting of the Board, and a quorum of 8 members. I have never heard of a quorum requirement of 8 persons in a Board of 10 persons. They even specify the membership and functions of Academic Council in detail. They also list the standing committees of the board and the functions that should be delegated to them. The message is clear. Innovation is not to be allowed in India.

Beyond governance, the rules take away most of the autonomy that typically universities should enjoy. The admission, they say, should be made strictly based on an All India examination. Many deemed universities give direct admission to toppers of various boards in under-graduate programs. This will now be illegal, even though the research has shown that 12th class marks are a better predictor of success in higher education than performance in various competitive exams. Many universities consider GMAT for admission to MBA programs, which will now stop. Similarly, having a limited number of seats under sports quota to encourage sports will become illegal. And, once again, the government universities can continue to do all this. No one will ask them any questions.

The rules also mandate that a deemed university must be residential. While most good universities are residential in nature, it is by no means a requirement to achieve excellence.

Deemed universities are no longer autonomous to decide which programs they want to run, and which one they wish to discontinue. Any time a new department is to be set up, permission of UGC will be needed. If they want to grow beyond their current campus, they will need the permission of UGC. And, of course, offering education in distance mode has always been highly restrictive.

The new rules forbid offering of joint programs by deemed universities, without approval from UGC. And it is not just that UGC wishes to control back-door entry of foreign universities through joint programs. Their approval is required even if two Indian universities wish to collaborate and jointly offer a program.

These regulations also bar the use of the word “university” in the name. Only those deemed universities, who started using the word “university” in their name earlier and have a stay from a court, can continue to use this word. Again, the logic is not clear. If these are universities, why not allow them to call themselves universities.

A deemed university will have to have a minimum of five disciplines. In general, universities with undergraduate programs should provide diverse exposure to their students, but there have been several examples of successful educational institutions that are narrowly focused. ISB is a great example of such an institution, which cannot become a deemed university under these rules, even if it wanted. (I am sure they don't care.)

These rules also threaten to take away another aspect of university autonomy – that of determining fee for various courses. It says that deemed universities shall have to follow any fee regulation that central government may impose. One of the most important reason why deemed universities have been able to provide good quality education compared to thousands of affiliated colleges across the country is that they are free to charge higher tuition. Good quality education costs money, and one cannot provide quality education at the fee that the current levels of fee various state governments allow to colleges.

Overall, the rules are a disaster for higher education. They remove the role of promoters from the universities, thereby discouraging companies and rich individuals to invest in education. They take away all autonomy from the universities and strengthen the role of regulator to an unacceptably high degree. They intend to destroy what has been the island of quality amongst the sea of mediocrity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trends in IIT JEE Counseling

I have the closing ranks of all the programs offered through JEE from 2003 through 2010. I thought I will spend some time studying the trends and see what patterns emerge as a result. I have done two kinds of analysis. One, comparing 2003 preferences to 2010 preferences. This gives us the longer term trends. Two, comparing 2009 preferences to 2010 preferences to capture any sudden or recent trends. This was particularly done for programs in recently started IITs.

Please note that there are far too many variables which could have affected the preferences and the closing ranks. First of all, in these 8 years, the number of seats in IITs have almost doubled. We now have reservation for OBC (Non creamy layer) candidates. We also have two rounds of counseling to fill up vacant seats after the first round. There have been several new programs started in these 8 years. Also, the number of selections from each zone influence the closing ranks each year, as people tend to prefer the IIT of their zone. All this would affect the preferences and closing ranks. But the hope is that if consider the closing ranks for programs which have continued in existence for all these 8 years, the changes in other conditions should have roughly affected them in similar ways, and therefore, this study is at least indicative of what the students and parents are thinking about.

I did briefly notice the trends from one year to the other for a few popular programs in various IITs. I noticed that such changes are minor in nature. However, the changes over the 8 years' period are very significant. This happens mainly because most candidates fill up their choices under the influence of their parents. And the parents have generally no idea about various programs (not that candidates are much better at it). So the parents insist on looking at last years' closing rank and barring a few minor changes (generally related to geographical preference), ask the candidates to fill up in that order. A few brave souls do things differently, talk to a lot more people to seek advice, and actually follow that advice. These small changes become a trend over longer duration.

For the 8 year trends, I have only considered those programs which have been in existence over these 8 years.

First the programs where the closing ranks have gone down. Architecture programs are the worst affected. BArch (Roorke) closing rank has gone down from 4365 to 9490, and BArch (Kharagpur) closing rank has gone down from 3624 to 8721. Next the Design program at Guwahaty, where the closing rank has gone from 3773 to 6582. Almost identical decline is in BPharma (IT BHU), going from 4349 to 7087. All programs that have anything to do with Bio (Bio Science, Bio chemistry, Bio technology, etc.) have seen the closing ranks becoming worse in this period. (This is surprising as a large number of academicians believe that this century belongs to Biology.)

Generally, the science programs (resulting in MSc degree) have lost popularity, but where the science departments have started offering an engineering like programs, they have done better. So the programs in Engineering Physics, and Maths and Computing, have done better than programs in Chemistry and pure Physics.

The programs that have really improved their perception and ranking are those of Civil Engineering. None of the Civil Engineering programs closed within 2000 ranks in the year 2003. Now, despite such a massive expansion of IIT system, the BTech programs in Bombay and Madras closed around 1500, while at Kanpur closed just before 2000 in the year 2010. In fact, Civil Engineering has shown the most consistent improvement of closing ranks throughout this 8 year period.

There are some interesting short-term trends about other engineering disciplines, but that is later.

In terms of locations, the preference for IIT Bombay kept increasing throughout this period. Popularity of IIT Delhi has also improved quite a bit in this period. While IIT Madras has shown some improvement, IIT Kanpur and IIT Kharagpur have not been the favorites of today's generation. In general, increasing number of students are preferring bigger cities over smaller ones. (This is not to say that the meteoric rise of IIT Bombay in this period is only due to its geographic location. Far from it. There are some solid improvements in their programs, faculty, and infrastructure, last decade.)

A decade ago, when IIT Kanpur started its decline and IIT Bombay started its rise, Metro IITs offered a very regional experience, with most students from nearby areas, and non-Metro IITs offer a more cosmopolitan experience, with students coming from all over the country. And I used to recommend that people should prefer non-Metro IITs for a more diverse experience. But that has changed now. Metro IITs are offering an equally (or even better) cosmopolitan experience, with people from all over the country preferring them over non-Metro IITs.

Comparison of 2009 with 2010

If we just compare the closing ranks of 2009 and 2010, one thing that comes out strongly is the improved closing ranks for lots of programs of IT BHU. I would attribute this to the news at that time that IT BHU would be soon converted to an IIT. Since, now the bill to convert IT BHU to an IIT is already in the Parliament, I would expect this trend to continue this year.

IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi continued their improvement in closing ranks. Many more people showed willingness to opt for Guwahati last year. I think this is because of the improved connectivity through cheap airlines as well as a few more trains to the city. IIT Madras could not maintain its closing ranks, primarily due to decreased number of selections from nearby areas. Surprisingly, the number of selections from Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Kerala are minuscule, and that affects the closing ranks of IIT Madras. IIT Kharagpur continues to get bad press, and hence fewer preferences. Given that this year, it has probably seen more scandals than ever before, I would expect even more candidates to avoid IIT Kharagpur in 2011.

In terms of programs, some of the longer term trends continue. Decline in Architecture, Design, Sciences, Bio-related programs, and so on. The core engineering branches were on strong upsurge, primarily Mechanical, Chemical, and Civil. Surprisingly, Aeronautical and Metallurgical engineering were in less demand, despite the fantastic news from ISRO and continued upturn in metal industry - primarily, aluminum and steel making. I guess the problems in setting up greenfield plants due to land acquisition and environmental concerns has been causing concerns amongst the students. So no hope for Metallurgy this year too.

Computer Science lost its sheen this year. For the first time in over 30 years, the first closing program was not computer science. BTech program in Electrical Engineering at IIT Bombay closed at 98. But besides IIT Bombay, everywhere else Computer Science was preferred over Electrical or Electronics. But the gap has narrowed down significantly. I expect Electrical/Electronics to continue gaining over Computer Science in 2011.

Amongst the six new IITs started in 2008, the size of the city certainly appeared to be the main draw. Both Hyderabad and Gandhinagar saw improvement in their closing ranks in Electrical (compared all IITs on Electrical, as everyone had this program). The surprise was IIT Ropar, which has improved the most in terms of closing rank. I expect this year too, candidates will prefer IITs at Hyderabad and Gandhinagar.

Amongst the IITs at Indore and Mandi, Indore showed much greater improvements in the closing ranks.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Education Bubble in US - a response

A couple of days ago I had commented in this blog on Peter Thiel's article about education bubble in US. My friend Ajay Bharadwaj sends me link to a blog by Robin Cangie, where she argues that Peter Thiel is wrong, the situation is worse than a bubble.

Here are some of the points she makes:

    "Students pay top dollar, not for quality, but for a name brand education. Classes, even at elite universities, can top 500 students and are disproportionately taught by poorly paid adjuncts and graduate students, not professors. Cheating and grade inflation are rampant and quietly tolerated. All of this points to a spectacular betrayal of the educational principles that these institutions are supposed to uphold – namely, to educate."
Was she writing about US education, I wonder.

At IIT Kanpur, undergraduate students don't pay top dollars or rupees, but they come not for quality, but for name brand education. More than half the students have no interest in the specific program they are pursuing, and will not get into a career related to that program.

Classes at IIT Kanpur exceed 500. For decades, we have followed the model of a large lecture followed by smaller tutorials. But it was a success when the class size was 200-300. Faculty does not necessarily believe that the model is scalable to 500+ size classes, but quality of education is less important than the faculty workload, and splitting the class into two will require one additional faculty member. (This was the reason given for large classes in a recent meeting that I attended.) The tutorial section size has gone up from 30 to 40. The tutors are increasingly graduate students, and not faculty, as they used to be. But we do not have any formal mechanism for training these students on how to handle a group of 40 students. (By the way, I am fully in favor of using graduate students for tutorials and labs, but someone should be telling them what to do.)

Cheating is not rampant, but is quietly tolerated. In last few annual reports of the disciplinary committee, there is hardly any mention of cheating cases. And now, it has been decided that in most cheating cases, the matter can be resolved by the instructor hirself, and it may not even be reported to the disciplinary committee.

Grade inflation has been encouraged in the last few years. The failure percentage now is little over 2 percent - mostly those who did not give the end-semester exam, or were ill. And the graduation requirement has been reduced from a CPI of 5.0 (on a 10 point scale) to 4.0 (from 2011 batch onwards). If you can pass JEE, you deserve to get a degree from IIT Kanpur.

And yet, I have no doubts that IIT Kanpur continues to be one of the best technical education providers in the country. I shudder to think what will be happening in thousands of other colleges across the country.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Education Bubble in US

My friend, Sunil Bajpai, shared this interesting article, based on an interview of Peter Thiel, who is claiming that there is an education bubble in US. Some quotes from the article:

    A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed.

    [It is intensely believed] that you will always make more money if you are college educated.

    It used to be a given that a college education was always worth the investment– even if you had to take out student loans to get one. But over the last year, as unemployment hovers around double digits, the cost of universities soars and kids graduate and move back home with their parents, the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia.

There have been other reports which have questioned whether spending a crore of rupees on a bachelor's degree is a good investment for an american.

I think India must take advantage of this situation. In India, the most expensive (not for the student but the total cost to government/student/others) engineering education is in IITs, where the total cost to government and student combined is about Rs. 5 lakhs per year, including tuition, hostel, mess, and all sundry expenses. The top US schools may be providing a better quality education, but certainly not worth 5 times the cost.

Would it be worthwhile for some foreign universities to setup a campus in India, solely to bring in students from US (and other such countries where the cost of education has reached a stage of bubble), and provide the education experience here, since the cost of faculty, staff, building, and everything else is less here. To attract the best faculty, they could pay a significantly higher salary than IITs. And they could provide them with an even better research environment than IITs. The student services (hostels/food) could be improved too. But with all these additions, the cost to the student would still be a fraction of Rs. 25 lakhs a year that students are spending to study in top US universities.

Of course, since this model does not increase the availability of faculty in India, at least not in the short term anyway, it will lead to poaching of existing faculty in IITs. Not a very comforting feeling, I must say.

Medical tourism is passe. Get ready to welcome education tourists.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Plagiarism case in IIT Kanpur

Just to refresh the memories of the reader, a journal retracted two review articles published by an IIT Kanpur faculty member (and some students). This came to the notice of IIT Kanpur in September 2010. Nothing was done about this till the media published this news item. Here is the link for news item by Times of India on 9th October. At the same time, faculty of IIT Kanpur also demanded that the charges be investigated and a quick decision be taken. Soon a committee was formed to look into the charges. Here is the link for the news item in Indian Express. The committee was expected to give its report within 10 days. It was promised by IIT Kanpur that the report and the proposed action will be discussed in the next Board of Governor meeting on 2nd November 2010.

Of course, one does not expect IIT Kanpur to release the report of the committee till someone asks for it under RTI. But no final decision has been taken on this issue.

The News report in Indian Express tells us that Director has promised that the final decision will be taken by May 2011.

Why is so much delay. We criticize judiciary all the time for postponing trials. But do we complete trials that we are responsible for. When we are in an administrative positions, how many times do we put that file in one of the drawers and forget about it. How much time does it really take to read two papers, and the papers from where the alleged copying has taken place, and talk to authors and seek explanation, if something unusual is there.

In the meanwhile, the faculty member does not know what to do. With such a charge, he will not be able to write project proposals, get PhD students and carry out research as usual. If the charge is false, he should be cleared at the earliest. If the copying is such that it constitutes a minor offense, then he should be admonished, or given a warning, and allowed to get on with life. But if the copying is such that it constitutes a major offense, then a harsh decision has to be taken, perhaps asking him to find another job.

Why is it that IIT Kanpur is delaying the matter. One can only guess, but my feeling is that it is waiting for the faculty member to resign. No one wants to take any decision in such a case. So they will just let the faculty member remain in the state of stress for a long enough time that either the press and public forgets about it, or the faculty member for his own sanity resigns and moves on.
And once the faculty member resigns, no decision needs to be taken.

The administration is not comfortable taking a decision, since it opens up all the past cases where no decision has been taken for years.

Monday, April 11, 2011

IIT Joint Entrance Examination Completes Half Century of Secrecy

Finally, it is over. The 50th edition of Joint Entrance Exam (unless you count the 1997 JEE twice, when the first exam was cancelled because the question paper was leaked) is very different from the first edition in 1962, in format, in terms of number of students, number of IITs and programs, and of course, the hype that JEE generated then and now. But the two editions are not different in one important way - everything about JEE is confidential. The whole organization lacks transparency despite the flaws which has been repeatedly pointed out. At least now we have RTI, and we do come to know of some information about JEE, but often this information is delayed past the time it becomes useless.

JEE always raises more issues than other exams. This is supposedly the key to the greatest career, and hence media reports every little detail about JEE, much more than it cares for AIEEE, even though latter is taken by 2.5 times as many students as JEE.

This year, media has latched on to a couple of announcements by the organizing IIT. The first one said that the answer key will be available within 48 hours of the exam. The second one said that a scanned copy of the answersheet (ORS) will be posted online for all students, even before the result is formally announced. The third one said that the marks obtained by every candidate will be put on the website on the day the results are announced.

The links to media articles are as follows:

Deccan Herald

Times of India

Indian Express

Hindustan Times

These were great announcement. But sceptics were not convinced that this was really going to happen.

JEE already has the answer keys prepared by the same group who prepared the question paper. But the key is not announced because there is a fear that some mistake might have crept in, and if that mistake is detected, there will be a loss of face for the venerable IITs. This time, they promised that the keys will be announced soon after the exam is over, so that students and others can point out mistakes, if any, and then JEE can take those objections into account to decide the final key or grading policy, which will be fair to everyone. Seems like an excellent idea, but an organization built over secrecy for 50 years is not going to let out even the genuine information. It does not matter whether this is fair or not. And sure enough, JEE has gone back on this announcement.

Here is the link for the news report:

Times of India

Now, the key will be announced only after 15th May. How will this enable others to offer feedback before the result is out. We don't know. Why couldn't it be done on 11th April. We don't know. But JEE is sacrosanct within IIT system. You don't ask such questions about God.

Posting of scanned answerbooks (ORS) was to give confidence to students that the technology used by IITs in scanning and recording answers is fool proof and does correct evaluation in all cases. Of course, if it did make an occasional error, then the student can point that out and IIT will fix it before the result is formally out. Seems fair enough. This was done after Allahabad High Court gave a ruling in another exam of BHU that the students should have access to the ORS sheets. (As one would notice that almost all "reforms" in JEE are forced either by courts or by RTI or by Ministry, and the only role of IITs is to delay those reforms till they can.)

However, just putting the scanned copy of the ORS on the web was not good enough. This does not help the student at all, unless you also put on the web how each has been graded. Ideally, the website should have a scanned copy of ORS and what was the right answer for each question, and what is the answer that the JEE evaluation mechanism has recorded. If all this information is there, only then a student can request correction. But this was not to be.

Even the announcement of putting scanned ORS on web has been diluted and now there are doubts whether it will be done before the result is formally announced and counselling process is launched, giving time to students to request correction. The link to the media is:

Hindustan Times

Why is IIT doing this. Apparently, they are afraid that a large number of students may request regrading. Actually, that can be handled very easily. Put a charge of Rs. 1000 for regrading request. After several boards handle many more students, many more exams, and still allow the option of regrading. And the regrading requests are small because one wouldn't pay the regrading charges unless there is a real chance of making to IITs or improving the rank. The real reason is different. I don't think IITs have the confidence in their own processes. There is a fear that if they give out all this information, there may be a large number of cases where the scanning has resulted in significantly different marks. And if that indeed happens, then IITs lose respect, and there is a delay in admission process. And for IITs, the brand equity and the timetable of admission process is lot more important than the fairness to all candidates.

JEE is also afraid that some students will go to court on frivolous counts if a lot of information is revealed before the admission process is over. (Later on, they are forced to reveal it through RTI anyway, but it is too late for most students to approach courts.) But is this fear out of some genuine experience. Have courts stayed admission process through AIEEE which is much transparent than IIT JEE, and which provides the basis for admission into hundreds of engineering colleges. Have JEE lost court cases in the past which were frivolous in nature. What they are really saying is that they don't trust the High Courts of the country, and they can act like that since they are the IITs.

There is still time to act. One hopes that if enough people put pressure on IITs to do the right thing, they may actually do what they promised last month. Improved transparency will be a great move forward by JEE in its Golden Jubilee Year.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

IIIT Allahabad Closed Sine Die

Some sad news from our neighborhood.
As per the ToI Report, a student of IIIT Allahabad was run over by the Institute's bus.

Students have set up a blog in protest. Here is the link to Students' Appeal.

The Institute has been closed sine die. Here is the ToI Report on this.

I must also add that I did not find any mention of either the accident or the Institute closure on the Institute website, though friends in IIIT have confirmed the news.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dr. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and the state of education in Jharkhand

Well done, India. Theirs have been an exceptional performance. Beating all past WC winners convincingly. And while the credit in a team game must be shared by all team members, there is no doubt that the captain plays an extremely important role in executing the strategy and fine tuning it on the ground. The team members and the captain deserve every accolade, prize, gift, etc., that are being announced by one and all.

But there is one announcement that has bothered me. If news papers are to be believed, The Human Resources Minister of Jharkhand has announced that the state government will confer an honorary doctorate on MSD. To me, this is a clear indication, if any was needed, of the state of education in Jharkhand (which I suspect is not too different in many other states). A degree, whether honorary or not, is awarded by a university and not by a government. Each university has its own process for determining who qualifies for a degree, including an honorary degree. And government should have absolutely no role into this.

So the statement of the minister shows how much autonomy does a university have in the state of Jharkhand. The minister must be absolutely sure that he can just call up a vice chancellor and ask him/her to go through the motions, but none dare to oppose the motion, since the minister has already announced it publicly. Can education flourish in an environment where a university cannot even determine whom to give a degree.

(As an aside, even central government is culprit on this count, though not on the same scale. Central Government Institutions cannot award an honorary degree without approval of the central government. So they hold a veto power on an honorary degree. But thankfully, they don't force universities controlled by them to award an honorary degree.)