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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How many IITs are there

Question: How many IITs are there?

Answer: It depends.

If you are talking about the number of degree granting Indian Institutes of Technology, the number is seven. If you include the entities named Indian Institute of Technology without the degree granting authority, the number jumps to 15. And if you look at the bill pending in Rajya Sabha, it mentions 16 IITs.

Here is what has been happening. Government of India decided in 2008 to start 8 new IITs in the country (6 immediately, and 2 more a year later), and also convert Institute of Technology, BHU, Varanasi to an IIT. The only small problem they faced was that IITs have been set up through an act of Parliament, and therefore, to create more IITs, they will have to get the approval of the Parliament. They did not think it was important to seek Parliamentary nod before starting the Institutes (even though their own regulation in case of another set of universities - deemed universities - clearly state that a university cannot give degrees to students admitted by it prior to grant of university status). Last year, the pressure started building up. The first batch of under-graduate students would be completing the requirements of a typical UG engineering program in 2012. So the government got it passed in the Lok Sabha, where they have a majority.

And then it was sent to Rajya Sabha. A news report in ToI yesterday alarmingly declared that politics has taken over the process of creating new IITs, and the bill has not been allowed to pass, even though it has been a year since Lok Sabha gave its nod. Apparently some political groups are opposing the "bifurcation" of Banares Hindu University. The same act proposes to set up new IITs as well as convert IT-BHU to an IIT. So, if the Act cannot be passed, IT-BHU remains part of BHU, and the new IITs remain without the degree granting status. The government cannot take IT-BHU out of the Act, because they have promised this conversion to so many people at so many occasions. So, it is either nine or none.

It is sad that very small and emotional issues are being raised now. IT BHU has almost been part of IIT family for a very long time, having participated in joint counseling of all IITs. And they deserve to be full and equal member in the family.

But, one thing in the news report caught my attention. Students have voluntarily not taken degrees in the last three convocations of BHU. Why not? Apparently, they are expecting that their degree certificates will mention the name of their university as IIT, if they wait long enough. Somehow it makes no sense to me. If you joined IT BHU in 2006, and completed all requirements of BTech degree in 2010, and the name of the institute changed to IIT in 2012, does it make sense for this person to get a degree from IIT.

We have an example of another university which was renamed as IIT. The students and graduates there showed so much better sense. Only the students who graduated after the conversion got the name IIT written on the degree certificate. If you look at the CV of the older alumni, it will typically mention the name of the institute as, "IIT Roorkee (earlier know as University of Roorkee)" or "University of Roorkee (later renamed as IIT Roorkee)". That showed maturity and pride in their alma mater. It showed their confidence that a name change can only change things slowly. Skills, Knowledge, Personality traits of an individual matter much more in a career than the name change of the alma mater (though over a long period, it will start making some difference).

The bill not getting passed in Rajya Sabha also has serious implications for new IITs. The first batch of under-graduates in six IITs are looking forward to a convocation ceremony to take that degree in front of their family and friends. However, convocation cannot be held unless they get the right to award degrees. Now, most new IITs would have liked to invite the President (their Visitor) or Prime Minister to grace the occasion. But now, what is going to happen is that as soon as the bill is eventually passed, they would prefer to organize a quick convocation function to award those degrees, and not wait for a VVIP to find time.

I hope the political deadlock is resolved quickly for both IT BHU as well as new IITs.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Effect of Ramasami Committee Report?

March was the month of 12th class board exams, and never a day would pass when there are no detailed stories about copying at various centers in the city and beyond. The perception is that this year there has been greater amount of copying during the board exams than what is the norm because people know that these marks may be very important for admission to any engineering college next year.

I am sure IIT Directors would argue that this is just a perception, and most certainly a biased one, and they may continue to give us hope that once we start giving greater respect to board marks in engineering college admissions (including admissions to IITs), all the board exams would magically improve.

But consider this. A teacher in one of the largest schools around here told me that the students coming to 11th class are choosing Physical Education as the 5th subject. When asked why, I was told that it is easier to get close to 100 marks in Physical Education than Biology or Computer Science or whatever else people used to take. And, of course, every mark will now count towards admission to IITs. So Ramasami Committee has ensured that as a nation, we give physical education the importance that it due. It will help us improve the state of the health of the nation. Hurray!

I am seeing full page advertisements by pretty much all the major coaching companies, which all tell the students that now there is no escape from coaching. They don't just have to do well in a PCM test, but in multiple things, including 12th class board exams, and something called an aptitude test, which hasn't even defined yet by the folks who are pushing it. An increasing number of schools are tying up with coaching companies so that the entire schooling can be outsourced to coaching companies. And silly us, we were looking forward to the revival of school education, by simple waving of the magic wand called ISEET.

But the best interaction was with another teacher. He was telling us that his principal is telling all potential students and their parents to choose their school because he is promising to have the best quality invigilators during the 12th class board exam. I was perplexed. Why not promise the best quality teachers. He said that the marks students obtain in the board are limited by the knowledge of the invigilators. So what you need to get 100 percent marks are the following: A school who has contacts to ensure a specific center, and who can then influence that center to hire specific invigilators. And the rest, as they say, is obvious.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Can IITs be more flexible in admissions

Last month, we had a visitor in the department. He had graduated a decade ago with the President's Gold Medal for the best academic performance in the batch. He told me his story of joining IIT. He got admission to Electrical Engineering program in a particular year. He joined, and did extremely well in the first semester, but due to some illness did not perform as well in the end-semester exams. But still, his performance throughout the semester had been so good that he was awarded an 'A' grade in all courses except one. In the only course related to computer science, the introductory programming course, he did extremely well, and he wanted to learn more. He talked to a couple of CS faculty members, and he was told that the time-table clashes, pre-requisite requirements, and instructors already having large classes and therefore not allowing non-CSE students will all combine to make sure that he can't do any advanced CSE courses. He might be able to do 1 or 2 basic CSE courses as best, if he continued to be an EE student. So he decided to fill up the JEE form again (it was allowed at that time). He focused on his IIT studies, and received all 'A' grades this semester. But he also did better in JEE this time, and he got a rank in the top 100.

So, here is a student, who has done 10 courses at IIT, and received 9 'A' grades, and 1 'B' grade. Simultaneously, he has a JEE rank in the top 100. When he visited IIT campus in the summer after the JEE result was out, and told faculty members that he will be seeking admission again as a first year student, since he wanted to study Computer Science. Faculty members criticized him for "wasting" one seat in the previous batch. He told faculty that IIT is so rigid in its rules that with a CPI of 9.9, he is not being allowed to change the department. He could not even be promised that he would be allowed to do a few CS courses, while remaining an EE student. So it is not him wasting a seat. It was IIT wasting a seat. IIT had an option to let him study Computer Science in the second year. And I think he was right.

Thank God, he at least had an option to give JEE again to study what he wanted to, even if he had to waste an year studying exactly what he had studied in the previous year. Today, we do not even allow students to give JEE again, if they have been given admission to any IIT. IITs continue to feel that students waste seats, and therefore the solution is to not allow students to give JEE again. It does not occur to them that perhaps a more flexible approach, a more liberal branch change policy would make sure that students don't "waste" seats.

In the 70s, IIT Kanpur even offered lateral admission to students of non-IITs, though the senior faculty from the era tell me that only one such student ever joined, and he too left IITK after one semester. But the system at least permitted it. That, I guess, would be simply impossible today because of sheer number of applications that we would receive. But can we start this amongst CFTIs at least. (CFTI means, Centrally Funded Technically Institutes.)

But there was another option of lateral admission that continued in 80s. If you took admission in another IIT, but based on your JEE rank, you could have got admission in IIT Kanpur, then one year later, you could seek admission to IIT Kanpur directly in the 2nd year, if a seat is still vacant in that program. (Same possibility existed in other IITs as well.) IITs felt that if someone wants to change the order of preference given at the time of JEE Counseling, and such a change can be accommodated at a later date, then why not allow it. But, now, when we have all the admission related processes automated, and it would really be trivial to allow flexibility, we don't do it any more. This would really be a token flexibility, since there aren't very many seats vacant in most IITs, and most students aren't likely to shift to a new institute after an year where the first year courses would be somewhat different. But the rigidity is such that even change of one student is one too much.

A liberal regime to choose the program that the student is interested in will make sure that JEE is not a make or break exam, that every mark in JEE is crucial. It would be possible for people to lose a few marks in JEE, and start in a program that they may not be interested in, but based on one year performance, can change the program to the one that the student is interested in. This flexibility will reduce the stress of JEE quite a bit.