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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.


L said...

Our liberalisation philosophy focuses on all the wrong things. We are liberal in allowing a small time businessman to start an engg college and run it just like his business, but are not liberal enough to allow an interested student to do a few courses in other departments.

Novacaine said...

I was recently speaking to one of my friends who had been to Stanford - he mentioned that he was astounded during his interactions with 2/3rd year B.Tech students there. Most of them knew what they were interested in and were working towards it right from their 1st/2nd year. Well, o'course they are not put into silos (departments) based on the admission exam. Rather they can choose after their 1st year.

This is one of the changes I was hoping would come with the ISEET.

If we can't be flexible in how we take the entrance exam because of the huge numbers, we should become more flexible in assigning the field of study

Though a very valid argument is that departments which attracts the best job in the market (like CS, electrical etc.) would always get the top preference, irrespective of what people are 'really' interested in.

Easy Sea said...

Look at the following developments:
* The number of disciplines is ever increasing. Decades back, we just had three disciplines, civil, electrical and electronics.
* The number of professions which is a cross of multiple disciplines is ever increasing. Biotechnology is just one example.
* More and more organizations are looking for multi-skilled people, as the job demands.
* People no longer want to be single tracked from 1st job to last one. changing profession through the life is not only a trend but a necessity.

This cross over is cutting across, sciences, engineering, management, medicine and much more.

In this scenario, the education system has to transform much more than the flexibility you talked about. Why can't we have the entire degree course be revamped to look something like this:

* 4 or 5 year duration
* 1st or first 2 years are basic and common courses
* Three years of electives that the person can chose cutting across disciplines (as mentioned above)
* You get a degree, with no branch attached to it.
* The courses you have taken will entitle to you take an appropriate job that suits your knowledge and capabilities

This is a raw thought, need lot of refinement, ofcourse by people who are in the education system. But conceptually, what I wanted to communicate that we need to realize the need for cross over skills and our educational system must facilitate that.

My 2 paise.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Novacaine, I fully agree with you that we need to be a lot more flexible in assigning the discipline of study. I don't agree that this will lead to everyone doing one branch or the other. I did a small experiment in IITK in 2007. We organized a half-day workshop where one speaker, who is known to give excellent presentations, from each department was requested to address the students on the excitement in their discipline. At the end of the workshop, we distributed the forms for change of discipline to the students and asked them to submit in the next 2 weeks. The number of students who wanted to move from a so-called popular program to the so-called unpopular program was just amazing. At the end of this exercise, we had vacancies in Electrical Engineering, one of the most popular program in IITK, and we did not have any vacancy in Mathematics, which till that time was one of the least popular program.

The problem boils down to faculty. If they are passionate about their subjects, they will be able to enthuse young minds to work in their disciplines. But when I did this, the most common comment that I heard was that it should not be faculty job to attract students to his/her discipline.

Without a proper counselling, everyone will rush towards a few disciplines, but with proper counselling, we can get them enthused about different things.

iitmsriram said...

I am obviously missing something. You did not / do not have standard branch change process or the process is such that it cannot accommodate even this type of top student (in which case you have a flawed branch change process). Obviously, there was a branch change process in 2007 when you did your experiment.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@iitmsriram, we have a branch change process, but it is quite rigid about number of seats, etc. In 2007, when I did the experiment, there were many who were willing to go from so-called popular branches to less popular branches, and hence we could also accommodate those who wanted to go from less popular to more popular branches.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof Sanghi,

Your experiment suggests a possible way to do the assignment - one could possibly have a few weeks of orientation following which students can pick their choice of study. The JEE rank can be used as a secondary ranking to assign students in case of over-subscription for any discipline. This should be doable, I think.

Anunaya said...

Sir, thank you very much that you have raised this topic. I have graduated from IIT Roorkee, and I can tell that at IITR the provision of electives is just a misnomer. The system to study the courses of one's interest is very rigid.

We had to study 8 electives in our 4 years duration. But we were allowed to choose only from a handful of courses, and these set courses were branch dependent. I can understand that due to restricted number of seats in each course the authorities have implemented such a procedure. But I am sorry to say that such a procedure is seriously flawed.

For example, it was mandatory to study two electives from Humanities Dept. and for two semesters the set of courses for the elective consists of only the course from the Humanities Dept. The result was that students tend to opt for the courses which are easier to score in. Instead of learning the student ends up striving for maintaining/improving his CGPA.

In one semester, I wanted to take the course on cryptography but it was not floated for my department. I waited for the next semester, but the course was not introduced in the next semester or any other semester afterwards.

IIT Bombay is quite flexible in this regard. They also award a minor degree if a student completes a specified number of courses required for the minor degree.

I don't think a student who has just passed 12th class battling the entire year to score good marks in boards and JEE, has much idea about the different disciplines of engineering and where his interest lies. Introducing a flexible system where a student can pursue/discover his interests will produce good engineers. I hope there would be increased flexibility in the coming future in this regard.

Harsh Deshpande said...

Just out of curiosity, did the student have to do the freshman courses all over again or did he get to transfer those credits. Making him do it all over again is as insane as it gets!