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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Railways introduce Dynamic Pricing of Tickets

A little more than two years ago, I wrote a blog article on Dynamic Pricing of Tickets in Railways. I argued that this is a fairer system public, generates higher revenues for Railways, and is basically a win-win situation for all stake holders.

I was extremely happy to see the news paper article a few days ago that the Railways is introducing Dynamic Fares on a Rajdhani like train between New Delhi and Mumbai. Here are links to news articles in Times of India, Mint, and Outlook. And an even better news is that the public seems to be lapping up all the seats available on these special trains. Read the articles in Times of India, DNA, and Business Standard.

As I had said in my earlier blog, the public has gotten very used to the idea of dynamic pricing because of the low cost airlines, and they will be happy to pay the premium to Indian Railways that they currently pay to a tout.

This is a very limited experiment. Just one train. And with a lot of unnecessarily harsh rules, which will not be in the interest of either passengers or railways. But a first step is essential to cover any distance. As of now, the Railways have announced only a few journeys on a special Rajdhani type train, like a holiday special. I hope the success of the experiment will encourage them to keep this train running and extend the scheme to more trains.

The scheme has been kept simple - only end to end tickets, no discounts of any kind, no waiting list tickets, and the fare starts from the Tatkal fares of other Rajdhanis, and keep going up as the seats get filled. All Tatkal rules are applicable, including no refund on cancellation. It is the last rule, which I find strange. Who does it help. In my opinion, no one. If there is to be no refund, then why have RAC at all. After all RAC is supposed to be Reservations against Cancellation. You are not allowing cancellations. Does RAC make sense.

If Railways were to allow cancellations albeit with higher charges than usual (say, Rs. 200 per passenger), then they would be able to sell more tickets, and generate more revenues on most days. I hope that IR only wanted to have very simple rules in the beginning, and soon would introduce cancellation on such fares. These fares are different from Tatkal in the sense that in Tatkal, you buy the ticket only one day in advance, but here you could buy tickets up to 15 days in advance. One could argue that cancellation of trip in the last 1 day is rare, and it will be difficult to sell that seat at the last minute, but cancellation of the trip in the last 15 days is not rare, and hence a lot more people will wait till the last day to purchase tickets, causing uncertainties to passengers, but also, Railways would not be able to guess the demand till late and hence unable to increase the prices to the extent it could otherwise, thus losing revenue.

Also, they can be a bit more aggressive in pricing than what they have been for the first train. That the whole train was sold out about a day before the departure time means that there would have been people willing to pay even higher price than the 35% or so premium they could charge. My goal would be that anyone should be able to travel in a train with just 8-10 hour notice at a price less than what one currently pays to the touts. If a train is getting fully booked 24 hours in advance, it means that pricing was not right.

How do we move forward from here.

First, as I already said above, they need to fine tune their algorithm. And remember, that this would become lot more complex when they introduce in more trains, introduce it for tickets booked from intermediate stations, in different classes, and so on.

Two, reconsider the refund policy. Railways will have to do it at some point in time. They can not have a zero refund policy even politically when dynamic fares get extended to many trains and many classes. So they better rethink this now, before the parliament forces them to do so.

Three, introduce it in AC-1, AC-2, Executive class in all trains. Don't have to start with Tatkal fares. Start with regular fares. And slowly increase based on seats sold and the rate of selling those tickets, and also the history of those trains on certain days of the week and holidays, etc.

Then introduce in AC-3 class in all trains. When it comes to SL and sitting classes, may be they should first introduce them in holiday specials (but then they better run on time), then on superfast trains, and then slowly on trains which are always in demand, and then all other trains.

Another excellent idea that Railways have introduced is that dynamic fares will be allowed only on IRCTC website, and not available through PRS terminals. This would ensure that there are no fights at the ticket windows, where the clerk tells the price to a customer, and by the time he types in all the names and other details, the fare has gone up. Given that they are only available online, you can only fight with your PC. In the beginning, protecting their clerks from people who don't understand dynamic pricing was very important. But also, we all know that the cost of booking tickets through PRS is much higher for Railways than through IRCTC, but we pay more for IRCTC and less for PRS booking. There is a need to move passengers to online booking, simply because it costs less to the railways. Such moves will definitely make online booking more popular, though eventually, Railways would have to start charging a surcharge for PRS booking and remove surcharge for online booking.

Overall, a great beginning and I hope this will be extended to all trains.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bharat Ratna

I am not a sports person. The highest level that I could ever achieve was to play in Inter-IIT. And I won't call myself a cricket enthusiast, though I have a son who is crazy about it. I have watched exactly one ODI, World Cup Quarter final in March 2011 at Ahmedabad, where Sachin scored a half century, though I am looking forward to the ODI in Kanpur later this month. And yet, I felt nice when the Government announced a Bharat Ratna for Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. Nice enough that I looked up some information about the awards on wikipedia.

All the media is full of reports that Sachin is the youngest recipient. Actually, he is the ONLY recipient born in independent India. In terms of birth year, the next one would be Rajeev Gandhi, who was born in 1944. And if exclude posthumous awards, the next year of birth would be 1934. Yes, we are referring to Prof. C N R Rao. The youngest recipient living at the time of award was Indira Gandhi who received it in her 54th year (as opposed to 41st year for Sachin).

The oldest recipient was Maharishi Karve who received it in his centenary year, and if we include posthumous awards (and consider the gap between birth year and year of award), the oldest would be Sardar Patel (b. 1875, awarded, 1991). Out of 43 recipients (including the two announced today), 22 were born in 19th century.

Mostly the award is given at an advanced age. Besides Indira Gandhi and Sachin (and Rajeev Gandhi, if you include posthumous awards), there is no other recipient who was younger than 65 years at the time of award. Infact, out of 30 awards to living individuals prior to this announcement, 7 passed away in the year of the award or the next, and 15 passed away within 5 years. The longest survivor is Nelson Mandela, who already has enjoyed the award for 23 years. The next best was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who lived for 21 years after the award.

Sachin should have got it two years ago, just after the World Cup victory in 2011. However, there was a technical problem. The award criteria said that it is only for highest achievements in arts, literature, science and public life. But after the world cup, the government decided to change the criteria and made it for highest achievements in any field. Interestingly, it was almost never given for literature (in the sense that people like Dr. Kane also had a significant impact in public life). And in Science, we have had C V Raman, Amartya Sen, and now C N R Rao. The only engineer to have received it was Visvesvarayya, unless you wish to include Kalam as Scientist or Engineer. The only industrialist has been J R D Tata.

With so many voices asking the government to confer Bharat Ratna on Sachin, I have been thinking of others who could be considered. I was really hoping that whenever Government announces Bharat Ratna (was expecting the announcement in January, not now), it would include Ratan Tata and N R Narayana Murthy. And when V Anand retires from Chess, he too would be given the same honor.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hiring of Foreign Faculty by IITs

Today, I came across this Telegraph news item.

This telegraph story suggests that what is limiting the growth of IIT faculty (and that of other central universities) is the rule that no one can get a work permit in India unless his/her salary is at least US$ 25,000 per annum. Wow. I did not know that there is a queue of foreigners lining up to join Indian universities, and if only we are allowed to pay them less than 25K USD, they will fill up all the vacancies, and we can grow and all that.

I would have ignored the article and what it says, if I hadn't heard from some IIT Directors in the past the same lament that if the government could give some foreign professors work visa even if they are paid less than 25K USD, then they can attract foreign faculty to their campuses.

Why does government have this 25K US$ limit. The answer is obvious. The Government wants to protect Indian jobs, and does not want companies in India to hire a whole lot of Chinese and Bangladeshis. It is assumed that the number of jobs at the middle level and higher levels are few. Not many foreigners are interested in coming to India at those levels, and in any case, there is enough competitive talent at that level in the country that one does not expect foreigners to be all over the place.

Is 25K US$ too high, and indeed so high that IITs can not pay this much to their faculty. Let us look at the salary of an assistant professor who is regular employee, that is s/he has completed 3 years of experience after PhD, and completed the contract. The minimum basic will be Rs. 30,000, AGP is Rs. 8,000, DA is Rs. 34,200, HRA (assuming 30%) is 11,400, Transport allowance (including DA) is 6080, contribution to NPS is 7,220, that is Rs. 96,900 per month. Remember, this is the MINIMUM and selection committees can allow a somewhat higher payment. Also, the DA will increase from 1st Jan. 2014 and hopefully the dollar value will remain stable. But let us look at the current figures only. In addition, many IITs pay Rs. 25,000 per month of joining bonus or initial settling down bonus, or whatever you call it. We then have many perks, not the least of which is earned leave, which can be encashed when you resign and go back. The bottom line is that the salary of a young assistant professor with just 3 years of experience after PhD is more than 25,000 US$ a year (and if you feel that the numbers add up to 24,999 $ and not 25,000 $, let me also point out that our boards are allowed to offer higher payments, and we have used this flexibility to offer 25,000 rupees per month to new faculty members, and this number could very well be 25,100 for the foreigners).

I can see that there might be issues in recruiting a foreigner who has just completed his/her PhD, but not others. Also note that these issues have come about only in the last one year with value of rupee vis-a-vis US$ going on a free fall. The issue wasn't there a year ago, and yet our performance in recruiting foreigners last year wasn't quite spectacular.

So the only thing that an IIT needs to do to take care of this lower limit of US$25,000 per annum salary is to give details of all components of the compensation in the appointment letter, monetize the perks, and then offer the total compensation package on so-called cost-to-the-institute basis.

But this will require hard work. One will have to design a new appointment letter, which might take an hour or two of someone's time, and we are all busy doing research.

Even now, if we do not want to do any of this cost-to-the-company stuff, the problem will still be only for people with less than 6-8 years of experience after PhD. How many faculty members have we been able to recruit who have more than 8 years of experience. I must say that the number is close to zero.
Excuses, excuses and more excuses.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life after Death

This is the last of the three posts that I had planned to talk about my father's demise. The other two are here and here.

The first few days pass by as if you are in a trance. You get up in the morning, and want to inquire about his health. You want to check if he has taken his medicines. But then you don't find him on the bed at the usual location. So you want to ask who shifted him, to which room, why. But before you can actually ask that question, you remember carrying him on your shoulders to the cremation ground.

Of course, morning is the only time when you can think. For the rest of the day, there will be a stream of visitors, same questions, same answers, same advise, same prayers. But believe me, repeating the same stories hundreds of times help you to get normal. Slowly, you start believing that he is really gone for ever. And that realization is the most important first step in the normalization process after death. Also, there is strength in numbers. When a large number of people visit, offer their support and prayers, you feel that your father must have been a great soul, perhaps greater than the credit you ever gave him when he was alive, and you get a sense of pride, the pride of being his son. You also start believing (correctly so in our case) that with all these people willing to help, all the issues will get sorted out soon.

Those issues, of course, relate to things like my father's bank account, pension, PF, medical bills, insurance, and a whole lot more. But to start taking care of those issues, you need a death certificate, and that is when your first interaction with government happens. The Municipal Corporation understands Hindu scriptures better than anyone else. Our scriptures very clearly say that we need a mourning period of 13 days, during which we should not go out of our home, and just talk to the visitors. Compressing this period, as is very common these days in cities, is not good for the near and dear ones, as they would not have gotten out of the shock by then. The municipality ensures that you can do nothing for 13 days by not giving you the death certificate (DC).

Once we had the DC, we made a round of all the offices, collected all forms to be filled in, found out the process, and every bank will have a different process, what all documents we will need and all that. For every account (and each Fixed Deposit is a separate account), one needs to fill up long forms, and attach all sorts of documents about father, about the nominee, about the witnesses, and so on. For each account, one could easily have 20 pages of xeroxed documents.

Father had a habit of keeping all records. There was a list of all accounts, along with account number, financial institution, date, amount, name of nominee, and so on. Every single account had a nominee or it was a joint account. On top of that, he had left a will, properly registered. Thanks to him, we were not anticipating any real problem. It was just the pain of filling long forms, getting a whole lot of stuff xeroxed, and doing it for each account. We could not write down all the accounts in the same form. And then you go to the bank, and they all follow the shortest job first policy of service. Since it will take time to go through all those documents, and check them against the information in their computers, they will look at them only when there are no customers demanding their 2-minutes.  So something that should normally happen in 30 minutes, will take 3-4 hours. So only one institution in one day. Of course, all this because they knew my father. Otherwise, they could ask you to get one more document. We actually would carry xeroxes of all our IDs, photographs, revenue stamps, blank sheets of paper, envelopes, file covers. One never knows what they might ask for.

But there is a goal in all that madness. They want you to forget mourning and become normal. And standing for hours will cause enough pain in your body that you will forget the other pain you had.

Transferring LPG connection was more interesting. There is no nomination facility with the LPG connection. So they wanted an affidavit from my mother on a stamp paper that no other legal heir would claim inheritance of that LPG connection. They also wanted the original document that gas company would have given when the connection was first taken. That was 43 years ago. But my mother was not at all bothered. She knew it must be in the file, and there it was.

The medical reimbursement required the maximum number of documents, and thankfully, for a change, the doctor had to sign more often than my mother. I really felt that doctors should charge extra from those who are going to seek reimbursement from some agency. Instead they charge less.

But now we are stuck. How do we transfer the telephone to our mother's name. MTNL believes that a landline telephone connection from MTNL is an asset, and should have been mentioned in the will. He should have clearly said who shall inherit the connection. MTNL clearly hasn't grown up. It was created in 1986, and it is still living in 1986 when it was entirely possible for the legal heirs to fight over that connection. It took years to get a new connection then. But today when landline customers are deserting them every day, and the connection is available instantly, to still treat the connection as an asset does not make sense.

Of course, we can lie to MTNL that he did not leave a will. At least they won't laugh at him for failing to include such an important asset in the will. But that process is also not very simple. They need a no objection certificate from all legal heirs (that is, all four siblings) that they have no objection to our mother inheriting the MTNL connection. And the problem is that my sisters have gone back to US. At least the Indian Oil (for LPG connection) accepted the affidavit from my mother. MTNL wants it from all of us. Of course, the simpler thing would be to start giving mobile number in all offices, and after a while give up the phone. And during this period, keep paying the bills that come in father's name. MTNL, I am sure, would be happier to have one less landline customer.

Another asset that my father did not list in his will is the water connection from Delhi Jal Board. And they are even less forgiving than MTNL. It is not acceptable to them that the four siblings give a No Objection Certificate. They want a succession certificate from the court. Otherwise, what is the guarantee that there is no 5th or 6th legal heir who may claim to inherit that water connection in future. This is the most ridiculous. With MTNL, one could at least think that while the "connection" per se may not be an asset in today's world, but the "number" could be still important. But with Delhi Jal Board, it is just that someone has to volunteer to pay the bills. And my mother is telling them that after my father, she is agreeing to take the responsibility of paying the bills.

I am sure he is watching us from up there, and kicking himself for not including such important assets in the will. With all his planning, and all his record keeping, he still forgot about them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

My father's education

Yesterday, I wrote about my father's illness and death. Given that this blog readers mostly expect me to write about education, I thought of sharing some very interesting education related experience of my father.

He was a very quiet person, but after his illness, lying on his bed, he loved to talk. He particularly enjoyed remembering incidents and experiences from his early part of life. One day, when he was visiting us at Kanpur, he told me about his education, and it is a rather interesting, though sometimes a sad story.

Our village is only 75 KM from Pilani. My father studied in Birla School, Pilani. In the Inter final exam, there were five subjects, and there were 3 papers in each subject. So a total of 15 exams. (Inter was equivalent to 12th class, but the exam was conducted by a university, and not a school board. In this case, the institute was affiliated to Rajasthan University, Jaipur.)

During the exams, he became ill. He somehow managed to take 14 exams. But on the day of his 14th exam, his condition was serious enough that the warden forced him to go to a doctor, and the doctor promptly advised that he be admitted to a hospital. The next day, he pleaded with the doctor to let him take the last exam, even for just an hour, but the doctor was unmoved, and he had to miss that exam. It was Maths III exam, worth 33 marks.

When the results came, the marksheet showed 33/33, 34/34, 0/33, a total of 67 out of 100 in Maths, the first time in his life when he had received less than 100%, and it pained him, even though it was not because he did not know the answers. But the good thing was that he was in the merit list of Rajasthan University. It was amazing and unheard of that someone who had given only 14 exams was in the merit list.

With this performance, he could have walked into any engineering college. Yes, even in 1950s, there were only two careers which were considered attractive - engineering and medicine. But the village people had only heard of Pilani and Thapar. That Hijli jail had been converted to an IIT was not yet known to the mankind at large. And he chose Pilani. He filled up the admission form, submitted and came back home.

BITS was not yet a deemed university, and it was an affiliated college of Rajasthan University. So its admission was controlled by RU. After a few days when the list of approved admissions came to BITS, there was a shock. My father's name was missing from the list. They immediately sent a man to Jaipur to get the inadvertent error corrected. But he was told that this was not an error. My father had failed one of the 15 exams of Inter, and hence not eligible for admission to college. But if he had failed one subject, and passed all other subjects, then as per rules, he should be allowed to give supplementary exams, and the admission can be given provisionally, subject to his passing the supplementary exam. The engineering admission wing of Rajasthan University was OK with this argument, if the office controlling Inter exams allowed him to sit for the supplementary exams. When this man went to the neighbouring office within the same university, he was told that my father was the topper and how could a topper be allowed supplementary exam.

BITS Director (or Principal) immediately left for Jaipur to meet the Vice Chancellor. He argued with him that the University should make up its mind whether my father was the topper or a failure. One office calling him topper and the other office calling him a failure was not right. If he is a failure then he should be given supplementary exam, and provisional admission. If he is the topper, then of course, he should be given regular admission. But VC could not resolve the issue, and my father did not have any admission, as he had not applied to any other college, and the last date for every program was over.

That BITS would do so much for him really impressed him, and to his last day, he had a soft corner for Pilani. How many of our current academic administrators would do anything to get a good student to their respective colleges. And, by the way, similar stupidities continue till today. If you see IIT JEE (now called JEE Advanced), if you do extremely well in one exam and have good enough marks to get into an IIT, you are still denied admission if you were absent in the second part. If you come to the second part, mark your presence, don't answer even one question, and get a zero, you are eligible for admission, but an absence makes you ineligible. What is the difference between 0 and absence, only IIT Directors know. The story also makes me wonder what would have been his career if the doctor had allowed him to be at the exam for just 15 minutes. Or if he had just casually sent an admission application to Kharagpur or Thapar.

But the story does not end here. It is only the beginning. So if you are allergic to long posts, stop here.

Back in the village, it was obvious that he would have to waste one year, and next year, he could seek admission at Thapar. My grandfather was not happy with the situation, and he thought of talking to the Principal of the local village college to see if he could just attend it for a year. My father wanted admission in no course other than BSc (Mathematics). The college principal had multiple issues. The last date for admission was over. The college only ran BA courses and getting approval for a new program and that too after admissions were closed did not seem feasible. And of course, if at all those hassles could be overcome, who would teach Mathematics in that village. But he was very excited that the topper of Rajasthan University was seeking admission in the village college.

My father made it easy for him as far as the last problem was concerned. He promised that every day during the so-called lecture hours, he would sit in the college library and study those topics himself. The principal was happy to hear that and was confident that this boy would be able to self-study and pass the program. So next day, early morning, he set off to Rohtak, which had a regional center of Panjab University, the one that provided affiliation to the village college. The seniormost administrator at Rohtak looked at the marksheet of my father, and without any delay approved the new program, as well as extended the deadline for admission into this new program. Notice that he wasn't even the Vice Chancellor, for the VC of Panjab University had an office in faraway Solan in what is currently the state of Himachal Pradesh. A lower ranked officer could take such a decision without even a meeting of the Academic Council.

There was critical difference between how Rajasthan looked at education and how PEPSU state looked at education. Rajasthan was just trying to create a reputation of being part of BIMARU states and would do anything to thwart the progress in education. But PEPSU had realized that education would be key to growth in the newly independent India, and there was massive expansion of higher education going on throughout the state. (Of course, that was then. As I have written in some of my earlier blogs, today Rajasthan has amongst the most liberal policies on higher education.) So any college wanted to start a new program and requested more seats, they were easily allowed.

So the principal comes home in the night to deliver the good news that my father could start college from the next day. But the principal had not anticipated some problems when he did all this. The next day, some other kids from village who had taken admission in BA courses, also applied to shift to Mathematics. Now, the principal could not say no to them, but at the same time, he wasn't sure that these kids could pass the courses without a faculty member teaching those courses. And that could lead to violence. They would obviously demand that classes be held, and there was no way that the village college would find Mathematics faculty so soon.

My father solved the problem for him. He would study all Mathematics courses in the evening, and take lectures for all other students in the day time. So at a tender age of 16, he became the de facto college lecturer, of course, without any remuneration. And he really had to work hard for this.

One year went past. Remember, he was expected to apply for admission to Thapar. But he shocked the family by telling them that he was happy studying mathematics and he was dropping the idea of doing engineering. Not only was he deeply interested in maths, but he also felt a responsibility towards his fellow students whom he was continuing to teach.

Three years went past, and he passed the BSc (Mathematics) course with flying colors. He was the topper of the university in the Rohtak zone.

He took admission in the MSc (Mathematics) program at Delhi University. This was a dream place for him. All the great mathematicians whose books he had been reading for the last three years, were there. He could see them, hear them, and even talk to them. If there was heaven on earth, it was here, it was here, it was here. But he had some handicaps. There were some topics which were part of curriculum of BSc in Delhi University but not in Panjab University, and they were assumed as pre-requisites by all faculty members. There were some topics which he wasn't very confident in, since he had received no formal guidance in the last three years. So he had to work extremely hard to perform well overcoming those handicaps. And, of course, first time in a big metro city for a person from village is never very easy. But he worked hard, day in and day out, and when the result came out at the end of the year, he was ranked #2 in the university.

This encouraged him a lot. If with all those handicaps and initial teething troubles, he could secure the second position, now that he was well settled, it should not be very difficult to be the topper. He had heard that the University offered a lecturer position to the topper of the MSc program, and one could do PhD while being a lecturer. Just imagine being the colleague of those Gods of Mathematics. That was a huge motivation and he worked as hard as any human could possibly do. He just had to top the MSc program. But in the process he forgot that to survive, he needed to eat and drink as well.

Just a month before the final exam, he became seriously ill. My grand-father came to Delhi and took him to a doctor. The doctor simply said that his illness is Mathematics. The moment he leaves Maths, he will be alright, and if he does not, he will die. Grand father did not take even seconds to pronounce the judgment. By evening, he had to pack up and leave for village.

My grand father was a good man. He gave a lot of freedom to his sons to take decisions. But, once he had decided something, it was final. You could appeal a decision of Supreme Court, but there was no appeal against his decisions. It wasn't a question of just one month, but it was this whole career plan to study Mathematics for the rest of the life that scared my grand father, and he wasn't going to risk the life of his son for the sake of Mathematics.

Back in the village, my father joined a school as a teacher, and soon started enjoying it. He had enjoyed his stint as a de facto lecturer earlier, and really felt that teaching is his calling. If not at the college and the university level, then let it be at the school level. Soon, he shifted to a school in Delhi. But to get a permanent job as a school teacher, he needed a Master's degree and B.Ed.

He was advised that the easiest subject to pass at the master's level without a bachelor's degree in the subject was History. So he enrolled in MA (History). He admittedly had no interest in the subject. He was teaching Maths in the day and studying history in the night, that too without any passion, and without any background at the bachelor's level. All he could manage at the end was 59% marks in the university exams.

The marks weren't bad for those days. First divisions were rare, and he actually had a decent rank in the university. And most importantly, he could have managed a permanent job with that. But he felt ashamed of getting a second division after such a brilliant academic career throughout. He had to do another Master's degree.

He thought about the subjects that he might enjoy studying (besides maths, of course). In the post-independence India, there was a lot of curiosity regarding the constitution, the form of government, and how everything was supposed to work out. He used to read a bit on these topics. And thus, he decided to do an MA in Political Science, which he followed by a B.Ed., and then secured a job in Delhi Government school system as a Political Science teacher. Of course, through out his years in schools, he had to take all the classes of political science or civics, and in addition the school principal, knowing his background, would ask him to teach mathematics to some class. So he did double duty throughout his career. But he loved teaching so much that he would never mind putting in extra hours for it.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

My father is no more

My father was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a form of cancer, about 7 years ago. He fought a valiant battle, but the inevitable happened on August 25th, 2013.

The journey was difficult, perhaps more so for him, and a tiny bit less for us, and we had the usual ups and downs. But the good thing was that the immediate family was not alone in this journey. He had helped so many people in his life, and the goodwill was tremendous not just in the extended family, but also in the neighborhood, in schools where he taught, his ex-students, and a whole lot more. We never really were alone. There was never a day when we needed some help, and some angel won't drop by. Just to give an example of my father's generosity, we are four siblings, and along with our parents, six of us lived in a one room efficiency for most part of our childhood. But no, we were almost never six of us in that room. It would always be 7 or even 8, because anyone in the family wanted to study in Delhi instead of being in the village, was most welcome to come and stay with us, not for a day or a week, but for years together.

And the support that we received from the doctors was just fantastic. May be we were lucky. Starting with AIIMS seven years ago, we moved to Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute near our house, and for the last three years, he was under the care of Dr. Ganapathi Bhat in Mumbai. There is an Indian saying that a doctor is next to God on this earth, and we had exactly this feeling with him. The way he would explain us all the details of the illness, explain options, counsel us, it has been amazing. Today, we can confidently say that our father received the best possible medical care throughout his long illness.

A cancer and its management is far more complex than a game of chess. Think of a chessboard which is so huge that you can't see the whole of it at the same time. Every now and then you will look at the pieces on some part of the board (in form of pathological tests). And then you will make your moves. But the opponent sees everything all the time. It will make a series of deliberate moves, and when you are convinced about the direction and speed of those moves, it will suddenly unleash a violent series of moves. And it won't even wait for your turn. It is a game that you are guaranteed to lose one day.

I have often wondered what is the motivation for anyone to even play a game which you know you are going to lose every single time. It is like asking why should Afghanistan play cricket with India. But then the losing team can still enjoy the game if they can think of milestones other than victory. Can they make sure that they don't lose in less than 40 overs, just to give an example. Physicians too can have similar motivation. Can we improve or maintain the quality of life, if we can't cure. This seven year journey has caused me to have a huge respect for the medical profession. It is not easy what they do, combining art and science, combining spiritual and real, and balancing difficult choices.

Every few days, there will be blood tests, and we will read those numbers. Ours and his mood, confidence and will to fight was intricately linked to those numbers. 10.0, 9.6, 9.3, 8.9, 8.5, 8.3, 7.9, and there is gloom, the will to fight is receding, the end appears near, he will start evading some medicines, and then an RBC transfusion will take the haemoglobin back to 10.0, and he will once again become punctual with all the regular medicines.

 The journey has also left some very uncomfortable questions. If we had not made him go through the chemotherapy in summer, would he have had a less painful departure. If we had agreed to another round of chemotherapy, would he have lived a few more weeks. A couple of weeks before his demise, when he still appeared to have a sound decision making abilities, he told us not to take him back to a hospital, not to give him anything intra-venous, not to have any more blood tests, and not have any injections. He desired a quick and relatively painless departure. But when the condition became serious, we couldn't resist taking him to a hospital and doing everything that he did not want. We perhaps delayed his departure by a week or so. Should we let someone go easily, even when a doctor says that there is a one percent chance of his revival and staying live for a few more weeks. These and many other such questions will keep haunting me for a long time to come. I know there are no good answers to any of these, but the heart keeps debating.

My father lived by his principles and cultural norms till the day he was in control of his body. Just three weeks before his death when he was in a Kanpur hospital, his greatest problem in life was not his cancer, but that the visitors were not being treated properly. If they had come home, he would have ensured tea and snacks for them, and if they come at the meal time, then they had to share the meal. But in the hospital, extending such hospitality was logistically difficult, and that pained him more than the pain in his bones. So he would ask each one of them to visit him at home after he is discharged from the hospital.

The most striking quality of my father was his honesty. I remember when I was going to US for higher studies, he went to the PDS office and applied to remove my name from the ration card. Seven years later, when I returned, he went back to the office to add my name. No one in the PDS office would believe him that my name was removed just because I was going out of India. People only removed names when they are getting another ration card somewhere else in India. There was no possibility of getting caught if the person is abroad and does not have a second ration card. Did he not want another few KGs of cheap sugar every month. But the issue with him was not the possibility of getting caught. The issue was always, what is right. This was such a rare case of addition that the file had to move up to a very senior officer, who was shown my passport and all other proofs that indeed this was the case.

While the death of a parent is always an irreparable loss, it does have its own silver linings. Our close knit family came even closer. A tragedy always brings out the best in people, and we are really fortunate to have been surrounded by a sea of good people at this difficult time.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

JEE 2013: More on Normalization

That some students and parents are upset will be an under-statement of the year. They are really angry. And the least I can do is to write my side of the story.

First of all, let me explain my role and JIG's role in deciding the formula.

The process to find a normalization process started soon after the August 14th notification of the MHRD regarding the admission process to be followed by IITs, NITs and other CFTIs (Centrally Funded Technical Institutes) in the year 2013, which talked about 60:40 ratio of JEE Mains marks and Board marks (normalized on the basis of percentiles) for admission to NITs and other CFTIs. A committee was formed under the chairmanship of Dr. S K Joshi. The committee asked and received several suggestions from people working in the areas of testing, measurement and statistics. The committee first shortlisted two methods as the only reasonable methods to do normalization and then suggested one of them. Their report was discussed in several forums and there was a huge amount of debate on which of the two methods should be chosen for normalization.

In April, 2013, the JEE Apex Board decided to set up a JEE Interface Group, and ask this group to look at S K Joshi committee report and give its recommendation. I was a member of JIG. The JIG decided that we should recommend the average of the two methods. The JIG recommendation was then discussed in JEE Apex Board and they accepted the recommendation of JIG. Soon after that, CBSE published the formula on its website. So note that JIG's role was fairly limited in deciding the normalization formula, and even if I wanted to play a role, it wasn't possible.

As soon as CBSE made the formula public, I decided to write about the formula in this blog. Immediately a lot of concerns were raised about it. I then asked in one of my comments for people to suggest an alternative. The comment page was kept open for about 5 weeks, and there was no alternative which I could be convinced about as being better than the formula arrived at by the S K Joshi Committee.

Indeed, almost all the suggestions were a variant of just taking the percentile score of the student in the board. I had written in one of the comments, why this was a bad idea. This idea essentially said that all boards are equal, which I could not agree with. Also, this idea meant that everyone will have very similar marks at the upper end, and at the upper end, the ranking essentially becomes same as JEE Mains ranking, with minor perturbations being introduced by board marks.

Since, there was no proposal better than the one which had been proposed by Joshi Committee, despite such a large number of people reading the blogs, and in my final comment on that blog, I clearly announced my support for this formula, and said that it was now too late to change, and any newer suggestion, I will forward to who ever are in the committee for 2014. It was clear to me that one cannot hold admissions in the entire country in order to continue a debate in which for over 5 weeks, no better idea has been generated.

I find it extremely strange that people are talking about my appearance in Delhi High Court as going back on my words. I had announced my public support to the formula (which, as I have repeatedly said, is not my formula or even JIG's formula) about one month before the Delhi High Court appearance, and I have not said anything in the court which I had not said on the blog. So why are people surprised, shocked, angry, I do not understand. I have only repeated which I have publicly said earlier, nothing else.

Let me come back to the Delhi High Court case a little later. Continuing with the formula, I did take all those initial complaints and examples seriously, and requested CBSE that I want to see the data of all those students before the result is announced. I went to Delhi on 1st July, despite the visit of President of India to IIT Kanpur campus on 5th July, where I was the Chairman of the Organizing Committee. CBSE had told me that they were trying to announce the result on 1st evening, and latest by 2nd.

And let me tell you what I noticed in all those complaints. In most cases, the student had a decent JEE Mains score, but was not in the top 2-3 percentile in the board marks, and hence lost the ranking. I even exchanged a couple of emails with a couple of such students to understand what their complaint really was, and I quickly realized what the problem was.

When MHRD announced the new admission policy which said that the board performance will have 40% weight, it had two kinds of impact on the students and parents.

In one group (let us call them Group 1), there were students who were convinced that somehow a formula will be used for normalization that will render the difference in board marks meaningless. They were convinced since many of the influential persons were going around in media giving some formula and claiming that this formula will only cause minor perturbations in the ranks of JEE Mains. (This was wrong as one could easily see that even if we were to use that formula for normalization, it will lead to top ranks being decided on the basis of JEE scores and board marks causing minor perturbations as they called it. But the latter ranks being decided by the board performance with JEE marks causing minor perturbations. So the best institutes will continue to admit students on the basis of JEE marks, while the weaker institutes will have to admit students based on board marks. And all this is besides the fact that such a process would have been completely unfair to students from good boards.)

There is another set of students (let us call them Group 2) who did not believe this theory that 40% weight should lead to only a minor perturbation of the ranks. These students realized that a 40% weight means that the board exams would be almost as important as JEE Mains and should cause serious impact on ranking. They did not know what that formula was going to be, but they were convinced that there can be a mechanism where 40% weight would lead to and should lead to a serious impact on ranking.

The Group 1 students continued to focus on JEE Mains, while the Group 2 students gave some additional time to Boards as well.

Now, it was unfortunate that the students had to decide their strategy for the year (to be in group 1 or group 2) without knowing what would be in their own interest. And this is the reason why I said on my blog that the 60:40 rule should be challenged in a court. A few groups approached me in August/September last year. They wanted to file cases in High Courts, but only on issues related to IIT admission, whether a limit of 1.5 lakh is reasonable, whether an 80 percentile is a reasonable restriction, etc. I advised them that these things, while we may like or dislike, are on strong legal footing. I have read in the last decade more than 100 Court decisions on education related cases to understand what courts sympathize with, and what they don't. I advised them that if they have to go to court, they should challenge 60:40 rule and ask the courts to postpone its implementation till we have clarity on implementation details, and some other things.

Surprisingly, no one challenged 60:40.

Anyway, I digress. Back to normalization and Group 1 and Group 2. Which assumption about normalization is more sound. The assumption of Group 1 is based on statements made by some influential persons. The assumption of Group 2 is based on a more common sense approach - 40% weight should have significant impact on the rank. The final normalization process is essentially saying that Group 2 was right in its assumptions, and not Group 1.

Group 1 took a gamble because they believed some statements, they lost the gamble, and now they don't want to admit that they took the gamble and lost. They need to put blame on someone else, and I become the villain.

Let me give you an example of the complaint. There is a student who says that he had a little more than 98 percentile in JEE Mains, giving him a rank of about 21,000. He has about 88 percentile in boards, and he is shocked that his rank has gone down to 39,000. If his rank in one exam is 21,000 and in the other exam about 1 lakh, and we are going to have 40% weight of the other exam, should he not expect that his rank will go down to 39,000. The formula has worked perfectly for him. But he wants his rank to remain 21,000 and that is why he is upset and angry.

So the anger in Group 1 is really about the 60:40 rule. They always believed that 40% weight would have close to 0 impact on their rank, and this formula is causing 40% impact, and they are not willing to accept that 40% weight should have 40% impact. But I am surprised that your anger is not directed towards people who told you that 40% weight will have 0% impact. (Don't direct your anger at them. They are still very powerful people. They may even now go to Ministers and ask them to change the normalization to make a 0% impact. So work with them, and keep your anger directed at me, who kept warning you through out.)

If there are only 15,000 general seats in all CFTIs (including NITs), to claim those seats you need to be in the top 15,000 ranks. If there are two exams which, for the sake of simplicity let us assume will be combined in 50:50 fashion, it is obvious that you need to be in about 20-30K ranks in both the exams. If you are 10K rank in one exam and 100K rank in the other exam, you will not make it. If you don't understand this, I can't help it. And most of the complaints are from such students, those who have a significantly better rank in JEE than in the boards.

So, as I was saying, I sat down in CBSE office on 1st July, checked out each complaint and figured that in most of the cases, the issue was his/her expectation that the board marks will have 0 impact. Of course, in some cases, the issue of "long tail on the right" distribution of JEE Mains versus the "long tail on the left" distribution of Board marks was causing unexpected gains or losses. But that would happen in any normalization of 12 lakh students.

After the result was announced on 2nd, another round of criticism started. It was mostly, again, based on Group 1 expectation that board marks will have no impact on the ranks. Many people in the JIG were concerned, and we requested CBSE to organize a meeting between JIG and the Professor in Oxford who had written the original paper on this sort of normalization, and another colleague of his. We had this meeting on 9th July. They went through the entire data carefully, showed us some graphs, and explained to the group that a few unexpected outcomes are because of reasons that we had suspected - the long tail stuff that I said in the previous paragraph. But these are few and mathematically acceptable. In any case, these are not the complaints.

Unlike the original decision of the government to do 60:40 without any data, analysis, etc., S K Joshi committee did extremely exhaustive analysis, how the scores in different boards are distributed, what would be the rankings (working on 2012 data) with different tweaks of normalization process, how much is the impact on each board, and so on and so forth. And they have communicated with so many experts in ISI, IITs, NITs, and so on. A rare situation where a decision has been reached at after talking to so many people outside the committee. But those who feel that 40% weight should have 0% impact will find no solace in all this.

For a long time I had no idea what is happening about normalization. The first time I heard of S K Joshi committee was sometime in January. I was given a copy of the interim report. I did not know at that time that they had shared it with several people. I felt that I have been given a confidential copy, and hence I did not share it. But when I read it, I realized that the so-called Group 1 (as above) would be upset with this. People who have got good ranks in JEE Mains and had a weaker performance in Boards would have to have access to some good institutions, if they will not find access to NITs and CFTIs. So, in January, I sent email to a few institutes, including IIIT Hyderabad, asking them to do admission on the basis of JEE marks alone for this year. I mention IIIT Hyderabad since they had a detailed discussion with me. Others either did not respond, or told me that they will just use the final rank on the JEE score card. The confusion that happened in May/June was because they put on their admission website that admission would be based on JEE rank. They were assuming that there will be something called "JEE Rank" which will be based on JEE marks alone, and there will be some other name for overall ranking after 60:40. Anyone who approached them for clarification on "JEE rank" between February and June, they explained to them that it was only JEE marks. But in June, when it created confusion, since CBSE started using "JEE Rank" for the final overall rank, I (and lots of others) asked them to clarify and they did.

Now coming to the case in the Honorable High Court in Delhi. As I said in the beginning, there is absolutely nothing that I have said in the Court that I had not already said on my blog. In fact, I did not have to say much in the court anyway. The judges were brilliant. They had read the formula, understood it, and understood it so minutely that I was absolutely amazed. Their main area of expertise is law, but they showed better understanding of nuances of the normalization than what I have seen in most academicians. I mostly had to only confirm whether their understanding of the formula is correct. They only asked me about the outliers, and I told them that it was due to long tail distribution of JEE Mains marks. They intuitively understood what a long tail distribution is. And I did not have to say anything else. I may have spoken for
about 2 minutes only.

Now the learned judges started asking questions, very similar to the questions that anyone should ask of normalization, and what I have asked on my own blogs. And throughout this discussion, CBSE lawyer was silent and I was silent.

The first contention was that there is a change in the process. Judges asked how the process has changed. They could say that the August 14th MHRD notification was different from the formula. The judges said that the formula is not different but just implementation details. Nothing in the formula is inconsistent with the August 14th notification. If it was obvious to a judge, shouldn't this be obvious to students, parents and academicians.

Regarding the delay in announcing the formula, the Court was clear that if the formula was announced a few days in advance or even a few weeks in advance, it would not have had any impact on the study pattern of the student, and hence the delay is irrelevant in this case. (Of course, this does not answer the question why the formula should not have been announced six months in advance of the board exams, when the students could indeed take advantage of that knowledge and adjusted his/her study pattern. But CBSE lawyer, I am sure, would have said that the implementation of a policy requires at least some time, and hence the formula could not be announced in September. So if delay in knowing the exact formula was affecting you, you should have gone to court in September 2012, and not in June/July 2013.)

The judges even asked them to give an alternate normalization formula, if they were not happy with the current formula. They could only come up with the "0.4 * percentile in board" formula, which many of the students and parents are asking for, and about which I have already explained why it is not a good formula. And something amazing happened. The judges took just five seconds to understand the implications of this formula, and they said, "but this formula means that the topper of one board has identical academic credentials as topper of another board." When the other party agreed, they said that they cannot agree with this, and asked a counter question, do they believe that Delhi university topper in a particular subject has same academic credentials as topper of another university. Thankfully, the other party agreed that that is not the case, but I could see where the learned judge was going. If they had said that indeed the two toppers are same, the judges would have perhaps suggested that in that case it does not matter where the appellant studies. All universities are identical. Let him study where ever his current rank is allowing him to study in. So something that most academicians find difficult to understand (that percentiles of two boards are not comparable), the judges understood it intuitively without either me or the CBSE lawyer having to explain.

I was thoroughly mesmerized by their brilliance, not just in this case, but in all cases that preceded this one since morning.

The other party told the judges that I have written on the blog that the policy of 60:40 was absurd. (I chose to not react to it, since what they had said was correct. I still believe that 60:40 policy is absurd. The current issue is not about 60:40, but if 60:40 is forced upon you, then what is the best way to implement it. And I am only supporting one implementation of it. And it does not mean that I like the 60:40 policy.) But the judges, brilliant as they were, were quick to respond. "We are not asking him to explain his views on the policy. He is here only to explain the process." The judges could immediately see the difference between the policy and the implementation, which unfortunately most people fail to see.

So the summary of all this is:

1. I continue to oppose the inclusion of board marks in ranking.
2. But I do not want the admission in the entire country to be jeopardized, and hence have worked towards the best possible implementation of that policy.
3. The formula being used was neither devised by me nor by JIG, but it was given to us by S K Joshi Committee, who have done extensive consultation, and data analysis, and I have had no impact in acceptance of this formula. The charge of JIG was fairly limited.
4. However, as an individual, I am yet to see another normalization process which is better than one being used.
5. The real problem with the normalization process is that students expected 40% weight to have 0% impact, while this process is based on the premise that 40% weight should have 40% impact.
6. I have been publicly saying that this formula is the best (read the comment #201 on my blog, where I have summarized the other suggestions and why this one is better), and that is exactly what I said in the Delhi High Court. There is not an iota of difference between what I said in the Court and what I have written on the blog. So I don't know why some students are upset and feel that I betrayed.

And, of course, I won't allow any abusive comments on this. They all go to spam folder.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

IIT Admissions 2013

The admission process in 2013 was expected to lead to many litigations, confusions, frustration, and all that, and it is turning out to be exactly how it was predicted. Sadly, a large number of kids are having to go through a new system which was not well thought of, for which there was no data, no analysis was done, and it was imposed from top.

Some of the readers would like to blame me for contributing to it, though as I have said elsewhere I think my role has been to see how an irrational policy could possibly be implemented, and any other implementation of such a policy would have led to either giving no weight to board marks and essentially overruling the Government, or would have led to strong heartburn. Any way, the role that I have played is under scanner of multiple high courts, and since the committee of which I was a member is responsible to provide support to CBSE/MHRD in such cases, I would not like to say anything further on the topic.

I am going to focus on IIT admissions today. The issue of computing 80 percentile is coming up as a major cause of confusion. This newspaper report states that IIT JEE has computed 80th percentile based on "successful" candidates of a board. Where on earth do you compute percentile of successful candidates. We compute GATE percentile based on all students giving the exam. In JEE Mains, we are computing percentile based on all students giving the exam (and those who would have been eligible to give JEE Mains). It has been pointed out that while percentile from all students giving the exam is a reasonably stable number, but the percentile from amongst the successful candidates would vary significantly from year to year, as the pass percentage vary significantly from year to year in some boards. It has also been pointed out that percentile from only the successful candidates would give a perverse incentive to the boards to increase their pass percentage.

So now we have a very strange situation. The same exam, JEE, computes percentile in two different ways. JEE Mains compute percentile amongst all candidates, while JEE Advanced compute percentile amongst only successful candidates. How can you have two different ways of computing percentile in the same exam.

The other sad news I see in the media is about the decision of IIT JAB to not have even sharing of data on admission offers made to students so that they can be asked to keep only one seat. This sharing of data would have led to less waste of seats, a quicker convergence and happier students. In fact, this was too little too late. There should be joint counseling for all CFTIs. The software today can handle different merit lists, different eligibility conditions, and a whole lot of diversity in admission requirements, and still offer a common platform for choice filling, seat assignment, and admission offers. One could even implement that if some results are pending, one could go ahead with making offers to other institutes.

But, of course, there is no incentive for JAB to change anything. So why will they do anything. If there was an incentive for JAB to change, we would have seen continuous changes in JEE over the years, and there would have been no need for the Government to interfere.

The students of Andhra seem to be upset that the eligibility condition for IIT admission has been raised from 60% to 91% this year. Too quick, they say, and they are trying to put political pressure to change this according to this newspaper report. We had argued last year that a sudden change in criteria, even if for good reason, will cause severe heartburn, and will only cause more litigation and more problems. A major change has to be introduced somewhat slowly. We had explicitly suggested that we use 70 percentile, or at most 75 percentile. But the IIT JAB did not agree. Of course, I do not agree that AP students have been discriminated against in the process.

And finally, I am amused by the reports that students have lost interest in IITs. With so many changes, so much happening everywhere related to admission, a small increase in the number of students not accepting the offers is hardly news, and one can not judge that the reason for this is lowering of prestige of IITs. But you can't argue with media.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

NIT Admission Issue in High Court

I have just received the following email from Mr. Neeraj Mehrotra.

We have challenged the normalisation procedure being adopted in JEE (Mains) 2013 in AP High Court, Hyderabad vide Writ Petition No. 18252 of 2013. The writ petition came for admission before Hon’ble Justice Ramesh Ranganathan today on 27 Jun 2013.

The hon’ble Court has admitted the writ petition and has directed the respondents viz. Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi, JEE Apex Board (JAB) Central Board of Secondary Education, Delhi and the Executive Director,JEE (Main) New Delhi to file the counter affidavits within two weeks. The Hon’ble Court further directed that admissions to be made into NITs / CFTIs is subject to further orders in the writ petition and directed the respondents to intimate all admitted candidates that their admission is subject to further orders and final outcome of the writ petition pending before the High Court of AP. Sri Ponnam Ashok Goud, Asst Solicitor General, Hyderabad was present in the court and has taken the notices on behalf of the respondents.

He has requested JEE Mains authorities to not release the rank list till the final order is issued in this petition.

I am trying to get a copy of the exact order, but assuming that everything written above is correct interpretation of the order, then JEE Mains can go ahead with declaration of results/ranks, and NITs/CFTIs can go ahead with the counseling and the admission process. But there will be an uncertainty regarding whether they will finally get admission or not.

Two weeks to Government/CBSE/JEE means that they can submit the response by 11th July, and then the court will decide a date of hearing. This is a fairly complex issue, and hence the decision may not be immediate.

Note that the decision appears to be applicable to only NIT/CFTI admissions. Apparently the private universities can go ahead with the admission based on ranks issued by CBSE (if they ignore the request of the applicants and announce the ranks).

Indeed a very interesting development, but given the kind of reaction that the normalization process was getting, it was only to be expected. But how should students react to this (if everything is being correctly interpreted above).

If students have to chose between some NIT and another institute not affected by the court order, it would be preferred to not get into a zone of uncertainty, and choose other fine institutions. I would expect that this order would benefit places like ISM Dhanbad, BITS, IIIT Hyderabad/Delhi/Bangalore, DAIICT, LNMIIT very significantly, as students would rather take a guaranteed seat in these institutions than face the possibility that their admission may be cancelled at any time, or at least their department can be changed any time.

But an interesting development to follow. And expect updates on this page.

Update on 28th June, 07:00 PM.

The issue has been covered by the local Hyderabad media.

Here is the report in Deccan Chronicle and in Times of India, Hyderabad edition.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Guide to JEE Counseling 2013

The JEE (advanced) results are out. And, I am getting emails to write something. But I can't really write much for two reasons. One, IIT Kanpur has its convocation scheduled on 5th July, in which President of India is the Chief Guest, and I am the person responsible for organizing it. Hence cannot afford time to write long blog articles and respond to all emails that it generates. Two, people within IITK tell me that I have lost my freedom the day I agreed to become Dean of Academic Affairs. If I write which can potentially be interpreted as "IIT X is better than IITK in some respect" then it would be highly improper. (Which means that I won't rewrite my guide in 2014 either.)

So this year, I intend to do the following. I will write a bit, and will come back and write a bit more, as and when time permits. So this article will not be static but will keep getting updated.

First of all, you may want to look at the articles I wrote in 2011, and then in 2012.

Next, the changes at IITK. We finally have the rules and framework in place for the most liberal under-graduate program that you can have in India. When you get admission in a particular under-graduate program (including in science), there will be opportunities to do a minor (3-4 courses) in another discipline, or do a secondary major (9-11 courses). There will also be opportunities to do a master's degree along with your undergraduate degree, which could be in the same discipline or in a different discipline. For example, you could do BTech-MTech dual degree in any engineering discipline, or a BS-MS dual degree in any science discipline, or even BTech in an engineering discipline, and MS in a science discipline, or BS in science and MTech in engineering, or BTech in one engineering discipline and MTech in another engineering discipline. All options are open subject to performance of the student. One can also do a BS or BTech followed by MBA, as yet another option. One can also change from existing disciplines to an inter-disciplinary under-graduate program called BTech in Engineering Science. This program is available only after you have completed one year of studies at IITK and is not available through JEE. We have also made our branch change much more liberal than in the past.

Some students of IIT Bombay have created this site which proposes to help students in making the right choices of discipline. I hope other IITs come up with similar sites.

Another very interesting initiative is by IIT Gandhinagar. They are conducting an open house, where anyone within a rank of 4000 can visit their campus and learn about IITGn.  At last, the IITs are learning what the students and parents always knew, that there is a competition for good students amongst IITs, and unless IITs try to attract students, they won't get them.

Added on 22nd June, 09:00 AM

IIT BHU alumni and students have also created this site to provide information to prospective students. The JEE aspirants were never wooed so much in the past.

Added on 22nd June, 02:00 PM

I am fascinated by Economics as a subject, and try to read about it. I was really excited when IITK decided to start an undergraduate program in Economics. Here is a blog by one of the most passionate Economics faculty member of IIT Kanpur for all those who have qualified in JEE advance.

Added on 24th June, 01:00 AM

IIT Kanpur students have started a forum for providing information to prospective students. You will need to have a facebook account and join the group.

Added on 27th June, 02:00 PM

IIT Madras have created a forum on their website for answering queries of prospective students.

I will keep adding such snippets as I find more time and I get to know of more such things. But no comments here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

School Board Results: Moderation or Tampering

Last week, Debarghya Das shocked us by writing a blog on quora, Hacking into the Indian Education System. He revealed two things. One, at least one of the boards did not care for privacy of its students. Two, the marks awarded to the students were not as one would expect in a public exam. The dust had hardly settled (which just means that we were about to forget the story, not that there were any explanations from the board) when Prashant Bhattacharji wrote yet another blog, Exposing CBSE and ICSE: Statistical Insights into the True Lies on your Marksheets. This blog shows that similar things happen in CBSE as well.

When I read the two blogs, I said to myself, there must be some academic reason for the boards to change marks, to moderate the marks as they call it. The search on CBSE site leads me to the following moderation policy.:

Prior to declaration of results of Senior School Certificate (Class XII) and Secondary School (Class X) the Board adopts the Moderation Policy in the following manner: 
  1. To compensate the candidates for the difficulties experienced in solving the question in a specified time due to misinterpretation/ambiguity of questions anderrors, if any, leading to multiplicity of performance and causing constraints on consumption of time for other questions.
  2. To compensate the vagaries and to bring uniformity in the evaluation process.
  3. To bring parity on account of element of subjectivity involved in the evaluation process.
  4. To level up the mean achievements in the set-wise performance of the candidates attributable to the difference in the difficulty level of different sets of question papers in the multiple sets scheme.
  5. To maintain a near parity of pass percentage of the candidates in the current year vis-à-vis preceding years, subject-wise and overall.
The moderation policy is too vague and does not help us understand how the marks are actually changed. The two blogs, particularly the first one, has been covered extensively by media. A lot of questions have been raised which are very uncomfortable and indeed are leading to the public at large losing whatever little faith that had in the boards. This also happens to be the time when the government is asking the public to have faith in the boards, by including the performance in the boards for admission to engineering programs across the country.

Given the timing of these two blogs and the ongoing admission process, one would have hoped that the government would act swiftly and ask the boards to explain the moderation policy at the earliest. They would have explained their policies. We would have pointed flaws in those policies and would have requested them to change those policies in future, but at the end of the day, we would have been happy that the policies were only increasing the marks without any explanation (like fitting the marks on a curve), and the whole process was not completely random. As time passes by, the faith in boards keep reducing and the belief that the changes in the marks are for non-academic reasons keep increasing. Even if there is a good academic reason to do such moderation, it must be made public. We all know what lack of transparency could do even in IIT JEE in the past.

The two blogs strengthen the already strong case that consideration of board marks for engineering admissions was always a bad idea. And notice that CBSE is considered to be amongst the best managed boards in the country. One wonders if that reputation is well deserved, and if it is, then what would be happening in the other boards. But what is clear is that unless boards come clean on their academic processes, they can't be trusted to the extent of using their marksheets in the admission process for highly competitive colleges and universities.

There are other issues that the data is pointing to. There appears to be an extremely liberal policy on grace marks. Do the boards provide an outcome of a course. Do they say things like, "someone who passes an English test can write one page in English on a topic of current interest without too many grammar and spelling errors." Do their passing criteria meet those outcomes. Or are all boards trying to compete with each other in increasing the pass percentage (and making their political masters happy as a result of such a result).

I wouldn't want to use terms like fraud, tampering, lies, etc., for now. I hope the boards will explain all this soon and we will have a chance to discuss their policies as academicians.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

JEE 2013: 30K Missing

We have gone back to a two-tier system after several years. In the first exam (JEE Mains, the erstwhile AIEEE), about 1.52 lakh students were declared eligible to give JEE Advanced exam, which was held on 2nd June. Almost 30,000 students chose not to give this exam. Why would someone not give the exam which is gateway to IITs.

The historical data on AIEEE and JEE exams tells us that it is rare for someone to get a rank worse than 75,000 in AIEEE, and yet get a rank better than 10,000 in JEE. So, if you are close to the cut off marks in JEE Mains, unless you are convinced that this was a particularly bad day and the marks do not reflect your knowledge and preparation, there isn't much point in giving JEE Advanced. And hence a lot of people who were at the bottom of their respective categories decided that it was not worth it.

Of course, this also means that IITs don't need to have15 times as many candidates as the number of seats in the system. The 1.5 lakh number came as approximately 5 times the total number of seats in IITs and NITs combined. Later it was decided that JEE Advanced would decide admissions only for IITs. This should have meant the reduction in eligible numbers to 50,000 (five times the number of seats in IITs). But it was thought that in the first instance of the exam, if we are not changing the format of the exam, a higher number is more desirable. (Indeed, I wrote on this blog that they should have considered permitting 2 lakh students for JEE Advanced in the first instance before we have any data about correlation of ranks between JEE Main and JEE Advanced.)

For future, a formula that I am hearing in the corridors (and hence take no responsibility for its authenticity, but I like it) is that the number of students in JEE Advanced should be decided as higher of the two numbers: One, five times the number of seats. Two, 10 percent more than the last rank of JEE Mains who could get a rank within the top 10,000 of JEE Advanced in a particular year (modulated for categories, etc.). Of course, there is no decision that I have heard of about admission process for 2014. So, only if it is decided to continue with this model in 2014 will the question of how many should give JEE Advanced becomes relevant.

Coming back to the issue of why students have not given JEE Advanced, the second reason that has been offered by some in the know is that since the 80 percentile cut-off has been announced for a couple of large boards before the last date of registration for JEE Advanced, and many of these 1.52 lakh students were not in the top 80 percentile, and hence decided to not register. Since many more boards announced their cutoff after the registration and before the exam, we saw many students who had registered missing in action.

There is an issue here too. The newspapers were mostly reporting only the general category cut-off, while the boards may have announced the cut-off category wise. What if an SC student only read the newspaper, and decided not to register because s/he did not know that there is a separate lower cutoff for SC students. If such a thing has happened with even a few students, it would be very sad. Students work so hard for 2-4 years, and if they lose a chance because of some information gap, it is sad. I don't know what the solution is.

Third reason apparently is that while JEE Mains eligibility is 3 attempts (year of passing 12th class and two years after that), the eligibility of JEE Advanced is 2 attempts. So those who passed 12th class in 2011 were eligible for JEE Mains, but not for JEE Advanced, and hence they decided not to register.

I think we should make the number of attempts as uniform, if we are going to call the two exams by the same name, and pretend that they are just two stages of the same exam.

The fourth reason, as it appeared in one of the newspapers, is that many of the students who declared themselves as belonging to reserved categories, did so on the hope of getting such a certificate somehow. They could not get those certificates (or decided that it was too risky - there are some organizations who, under RTI, are asking for a copy of all caste certificates submitted by students, and getting them verified).

I don't know whether this is true or not, and how many students did not give JEE Advanced for this reason, but if RTI is ensuring that benefit of reservations goes to only those for whom the reservations were created to begin with, it is a good thing.

The fifth reason, which again appeared in one of the newspapers and some people wrote on my facebook wall, is that students who had done well in other exams like BITSAT, or who had admission offers from decent foreign universities, and even if they were in the middle of the selected candidates, they decided that it was not worth trying.

I again don't know how much to trust this argument. I am sure such numbers would be very tiny (at least having spent 25 years in IIT System, I would like to believe that IITs are far superior to anything and everything :-)). But if other institutes and even foreign universities are able to compete with IIT system even for few students, it is a good sign. IIT system needs external competition for its improvement.

The sixth reason that has been suggested on my facebook wall is that the time was too short for registeration. I don't believe this can be the reason. After all, we have had JEE Counseling fully online last year, and we hardly received any complaints about inability of students to fill up the online form. And the time given was similar. The dates were announced much in advance.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My visit to IIT BHU

Last week I traveled to IIT BHU, my first visit to the place after it became the newest IIT. The occasion was a workshop on Academic Affairs that they organized. The first day was a whole day affair where the academic leadership was involved, the Deans, the Heads, Chairpersons of Senate committees, those who are re-writing the academic manuals, ordinances, and so on. The second day (half day, really) was an open interaction session with the entire faculty. I was really touched when during my introduction they pointed to this blog and how I was one of the few faculty members in the existing IITs to support the conversion of IT BHU to an IIT.

The experience was hugely positive. From the intense sessions that we had, it was obvious that they were keenly interested in designing their academic processes with excellence as the only parameter. Not that they were no good earlier, but they were keen to see how the greater academic autonomy could be leveraged to achieve higher quality.

It is obvious that the leadership there has a historic opportunity. How frequently would you come across instances where we have an organization with a glorious history and contributions, and yet not chained to that past. Unlike most older institutions, here was an Old Institute (it is the second oldest institution amongst the IITs) with a strong constituency for change. They were waiting for a new dawn. They wanted to understand the the strengths as well as weaknesses of our processes, so that they can design their own. From the kind of questions that were there, it was obvious that they are doing a lot of homework in terms of knowing other systems.

How often do you get a chance to build a new institute without worrying about civil construction, and immediate hiring of faculty, without which you can't teach in the next semester. How often do you start a new university with a large, distinguished and proud alumni, willing to help every step of the way. IIT BHU gives that opportunity to its leadership.

How often do you see in India a technological institute in the midst of a university with strengths in diverse fields. Indeed, the success of IIT BHU will depend significantly on how they leverage their presence on BHU campus. At IIT Kanpur, we are constantly worried about attracting faculty of humanities and social sciences, and we are never able to offer sufficiently large number of courses in those streams. A typical course has 100+ students, and even that is assigned to the student through a lottery. But on BHU campus, if one can build the right kind of relationships, and the right kind of incentives, the students can be exposed to courses in not just HSS but also performing arts. One could also have electives in law and biology/medicine.

Though I must say that there were some who wanted the changes to happen quickly, let us just copy the IIT Kanpur rulebook lock, stock and barrel. They have to be patient. No system is perfect and each system has grown in its own context and has its own history. The leadership will have to convince them that a bit of uncertainty and lack of clarity for some time will be a small price to pay compared to what an ad-hoc change can cost. One needs to make sure that there is buy in from most of the stake holders. And I must say that the leadership was quite aware of the challenges of change management.

I am truly excited about the emergence of a new IIT in our neighborhood, and look forward to my continued interaction.

Monday, June 3, 2013

JEE 2013: ID Proofs

IITs sent 3-4 representatives to each center to oversee the conduct of the JEE Advanced exam. I was also told to go to one such center.

One of the activities of the IIT representatives is to check the identity of each candidate giving the exam. I did that too. Checked about 120 students in the morning exam, and a different set of 120 students in the afternoon exam. Besides noticing the similarity of their face with the photo that they had provided, we also checked the signatures, and for the first time, the students were asked to bring in an additional ID proof.

About 10 percent students did not bring any. They had to be allowed to give the exam. Then why check the remaining 90 percent. There were many who brought ID cards whose validity date had passed a year or even two years ago. There were many who had brought in school ID cards (which was allowed) but there was no way to verify whether the schools were genuine and the ID cards were genuine.

But most interestingly, there were many who had what I would call a fake ID. Yes, several students had Voter ID cards which would put their age at anything between 19 and 23 years, while the date of birth that they have filled in the JEE forms would mostly put them at 17 or 18 years. Besides, the names on the voter ID card would have different spellings, would either have additional middle name, or sometimes would not have last name.

It shows on one hand that one can not trust the Voters' list, and on the other hand, how the young generation is getting corrupted at a very early age. Someone who can get a fake ID because he does not want to wait till 18 years of age to vote, would he not copy in the exam, if even a small window of opportunity is noticed by him. (I am using masculine gender, since all such cases were of male students.)

One hopes that these students would have written some fake answers, get negative marks, and won't be in the merit list.

Also, when a student does perform poorly at IIT, one has to wonder if the student came to IIT fairly.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Georgia Tech to offer Online Degree

In a major announcement this week, Georgia Tech has said that they would be offering an Online MS program in Compute Science at a cost of just US$ 7,000, which is a fraction of what they charge for their current on campus program. Of course, it is not starting tomorrow. The first admissions are for Fall 2014, but those will be restricted to a few corporates, including AT&T. They are planning to make it open to everyone in Fall 2015.

Here is the GaTech website for Online MS. More information is available in post on Inside Higher Education.

What does it mean for us.

At US$ 7,000, the price is really low. I am assuming that the university wouldn't want to make losses on a program in which it is expecting to admit about 10,000 students. And hence, its own cost (including revenue share with Udacity) would be less than this. The cost of an MTech program within India is going to be higher than US$ 7,000 (unless subsidized by Government, which is the case with government institutes like IITs, NITs, etc.). And my guess is that besides the top 50 institutions in India, the quality of on-campus MTech program will not be significantly better than the online MS program by GaTech, and certainly will not have the reputation and brand value of the GaTech program.

What this means is that the MTech program in most institutions (except those who are heavily subsidized by the Government) would find it difficult to attract students. While we are currently talking about Computer Science only, it will spread to other fields as well. This certainly does not seem like a good thing to happen. Our PhD programs in CS are anyway very small, but lately the MTech programs had started picking up in the Tier 2 institutions. That growth will come to a halt.

Of course, one could argue that we will have a larger pool of trained manpower in India, trained through MOOCs. But this comes at a cost. We are already spending a couple of billion dollars every year for education in foreign institutions. The number will keep going up.

What do we need to do. Well, isn't it obvious. We must find a way to provide a low cost (not just subsidized) MTech education, which is available at a price significantly less than US$ 7,000. In other words, we must embrace MOOCs ourselves.

Will that happen. Of course, not. We will keep debating in the foreseeable future, and then one day, the government will become impatient with all those billions going out of the country, and it will force its own institutions like IITs to come out with a program in a few weeks. We will complain about government interference and demand autonomy. But one day, we will buckle under pressure and offer a second rate, if not a third rate program.

We still have time to do something about it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

JEE 2013: Normalizing Board Marks

Last year, MHRD had decided that normalized board marks (12th class) shall be taken into account for admissions to engineering programs in CFTIs (Centrally Funded Technical Institutes) except IITs. The marks in AIEEE (now, JEE Main) and the normalized board marks shall be added in the 60:40 ratio to come up with the final ranking.

Of course, I continue to believe that considering 12th class marks in ranking is not a good idea for reasons we had explained in the last year's debates, but something had to be done for 2013. The main issue was how do we normalize marks across diverse boards. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

Again, if we go back to last year's debates, there were essentially two sides - one side suggesting that all boards are equal. That in any large board, the distribution of native intelligence had to be similar, and hence X percentile of one board had to be of similar intelligence as X percentile of another board. The opponents, on the other hand, suggested that board exams did not test intelligence but academic preparation, and hence whether the native intelligence is equally distributed or not is an irrelevant point. Also, there are several types of intelligence, and we don't need to ensure intelligence of all sorts for engineering admissions. Engineering admissions on the basis of demonstrated performance is a fairer mechanism rather than some unverifiable claims of someone having raw intelligence.

The opposite side, therefore, suggested that there has to be some mechanism of comparing boards. A student with same percentile in a "better" board has to be given higher marks out of 40 than another student with same percentile in a worse board. And this side had suggested that we find a way to compare the boards and come up with a method where appropriate adjustment can be made to someone's percentile performance based on whether the board was better or worse.

In the last 8-9 months, there have been numerous committees, numerous experts from not just within India, but outside India as well, who have looked at this problem, and there have been several reports, minutes of the meetings, comments, and so on.

Out of all the suggestions for comparing the boards, the one which has caught fancy of many experts is where students of all the boards are tested in one common exam (called an auxiliary exam or an anchor exam), and how students of a board perform in that common exam will be taken as a measure of performance of that board per se. And one notices that we do have one common exam across all the boards to whom these students belong, and that exam is JEE (Main). So we could look at the performance of students of different boards in JEE Main and based on their relative performance, we could adjust or normalize their board marks. If from a particular board, most students perform very well, then the same percentile score of that board should correspond to higher normalized score.

There are some issues though. This method of having a common auxiliary exam is a good method to normalize performances if some conditions hold. These conditions include: students appearing in JEE Main from a particular board constitute a representative sample of that board, and students of a particular board do not enjoy any particular advantage or disadvantage over students of another board, in respect of the JEE Main examination.

It has been argued that the stronger boards indeed have an advantage over weaker boards in respect to their performance in JEE Main. This advantage comes from a greater degree of alignment of the syllabus of 12th class with the syllabus of JEE Main. Second, the stronger boards happen to be those who offer education in Hindi and English, and since JEE Main was in three languages - English, Hindi, and Gujarati this year, this would have given some advantage to the students of stronger boards.

It has also been argued that the students from a board giving JEE Main do not constitute (based on 2012 AIEEE data) a representative sample. In fact, we see that even a 50 percentile student of a strong board feels confident of giving JEE Main while even a 80 percentile student of a weak board does not give JEE Main.

Another argument has been that the auxiliary exam should have a similar mix of subjects as those exams which we are trying to compare, which means that at least a language paper should be there too in the auxiliary exam.

However, I consider them as weak arguments. If there is greater alignment of syllabus in case of stronger boards, it is not because other boards are teaching different topics, but it is because other boards are teaching less. Exams like JEE have been around for 50 years. Why haven't those boards aligned their syllabi to such exams in 50 years. It is primarily because they can't. They are the weaker boards.

The language could be of some help, no doubt, but a large number of weak boards have a large fraction of their students learning in Hindi. Second, this option of regional language paper was given to all states, if they agree to use JEE Main for engineering admission. Third, the impact of language is reduced in an objective type test. It would be much higher in long answer type exam. But let us agree that there could be some impact of this.

The students not forming a representative sample is true but its impact on the final normalized marks is not likely to be significant. For example, if there is a weaker board where only top few are giving the exam (this is what the data from 2012 shows), then the performance of that board will "artificially" improve. So this is actually helping weaker boards.

As far as JEE Main not being a good enough common test, even if we agree for the sake of argument, then which is a better test. Unfortunately, there is no other common test. Can we argue that the JEE Main is such a bad common test that it is throwing up all random results and therefore just considering all boards as equal is a better assumption. If this is the case, then perhaps we need to junk JEE Main itself.

So the debate on normalization has been intense. All boards being equal versus JEE Mains being a good enough auxiliary exam to compare boards. Notice that for 2014 onwards, if the government persists with this idea of using the board marks, perhaps someone can design a better auxiliary exam as well (what will then happen to One Nation, One Test). But we need to do something for 2013.

This has been debated in so many committees that any resolution is impossible. The data of 2012 cannot conclusively tell us whether the advantage that a student from a good board enjoys is exclusively because s/he is a better student. I think that those who argue for all boards being equal have no data at all, and hence they arguing that the data on the other side is imperfect and therefore their side wins is quite funny. But then one does realize the limitation of considering JEE Main as the auxiliary exam to compare all boards.

And that is how a compromise has been evolved for 2013. The compromise essentially accepts that students from stronger boards will show a strong performance in JEE Main compared to other boards. But it argues that it is not clear how much of that "stronger" performance is due to their being better academically prepared versus other factors mentioned above. And hence we don't give them the full benefit of stronger performance.

In other words, we consider what would be normalized marks if we were to treat all boards being equal. And also, what would be normalized marks if we were to consider JEE Mains as an ideal auxiliary exam and treat performance of students of different boards in JEE Mains as reflecting on the quality of academic preparation of all students of those boards. And then take the average of the two normalized scores.

I am sure this will annoy everyone. Those who strongly believe in equality of boards will see this as an attempt to favor certain boards. And those who equally strongly believe that some boards have a much greater fraction of academically better prepared students will see this as a political compromise under pressure from weaker boards. But I see this as just a way to ensure that we can do admissions in 2013 without much litigation, and a way to make some headway in a bad situation that we have all been forced into. I also think that we have been able to establish the principle that there are stronger and weaker boards, which was extremely important to me. In absence of relevant data, we may or may not have been fair to stronger boards, but I do hope that someone will start thinking of 2014 right away, and come up with a better process to compare boards (or as one lives on hope, we will stop comparing board marks for admission purposes).

Of course, if you read the exact method on JEE Main website, it won't read like what I have written above. The reason is as follows.

When you are adding two quantities, they must have same units. For example, if I say that I walked for 100 meters and then I walked another 50 meters, how much did I walk, one can add the two quantities and say that I walked 150 meters. But if I say that I walked 100 meters and then I walked for another 30 seconds, now it is incorrect to add the two quantities and give a total distance.

Similarly, it would be improper to add JEE Main marks with either percentile or board marks, etc. All the committees before us had therefore suggested that board performance has to be converted into an "equivalent" JEE Main performance. So both JEE marks and normalized board marks have to be from the same total and should have similar distribution. So if you consider board performance, one looks at it in percentile terms, and then see what would that percentile in JEE Main be and give that many marks to the student. Notice this would be the case when we consider all boards to be equal, and whether a student has received X percentile in board 'A' or board 'B', s/he will be mapped to the same marks which correspond to X percentile in JEE Main result.

On the other hand, when we consider relative performances of the board, then X percentile in board 'A' would map to X percentile in JEE Main amongst those students who gave 12th class exam from that same board. These marks would be higher for a board whose relative performance in JEE Main is better.

And yes, I was a member of the JEE Interface Group whose task it was to look at everything that various committees had done in the last 8 months, and recommend a "final" solution for 2013.