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Monday, December 22, 2014

Can I study History in 11th class?

My daughter is in 10th class, and a few months ago, we asked her what she would like to study in the 11th class. And she replied with the question that is the title of this blog.

It seems a simple enough question with a simple, obvious answer. Of course, you should study what interests you. And we have seen her interest in history. I can sit with her and watch history videos on Khan Academy. She had attended all lectures given by the famous historian and indologist, Michel Danino, who visited IIT Kanpur for the previous semester. She had gone on a trip to Dholavira last year to see the largest Harappan site in India.

But there was one small issue. We wanted her to study in a school where it is not assumed that only those students who did not get admission to science or commerce streams study arts and humanities. So the search for the school started, and it wasn't an easy search. Other than perhaps in Delhi, there are hardly any places where this condition would hold. So eventually, we dropped this condition, and said that any school which has a CBSE affiliation (since she has been in CBSE schools for the first 10 years), and has history in 11th class, and is considered a good school overall would do, and of course, we will search for the school only in cities where rest of the family would be willing to shift as well.

And, this is when it became frustrating. The number of schools which offer arts and humanities subjects in 11th class is abysmally small. I had heard all along that we have a serious shortage of students interested in science, and that is why DST spends a huge amount of money on the INSPIRE program, that is why we opened so many IISERs at huge cost. I guess I wanted to believe the propaganda of my colleagues. It has turned out to be completely different. Everyone wants to study science, and no one really wants to study subjects such as history, psychology, etc.

I tried to ask around. We still have a very large number of students doing Bachelors of Arts. Why is this not getting reflected in the enrollments in 11th and 12th classes. And that is when I heard the following explanation.

OK. So you are interested in history. You should study history at the college level, why would you want to study history at the school level. You are interested, that is not good enough reason. You first have to secure admission at a good history program at the college level, and remember to secure that admission, they will not look at whether you have studied history at the 12th class level. Your total marks will get counted. So the best thing would be to study subjects that are hugely scoring, and over a period of time, science subjects have become hugely scoring. And since in that history class at the college level, 90% of the students would not have done history in the 11th and 12th class levels, the college and the university have no option but to follow a curriculum that assumes that you have done no history in school. So, if you study history in school, you get no benefit (like being able to do more advanced courses) at all at the college level. You just repeat everything there.

So unlike science and engineering programs which require one to study science subjects at the 12th class level, history programs do not have any such requirement, and smart kids and parents have figured that one should not study subjects based on interest but based on their scoring potential.

Of course, my daughter wants to study history just because she likes it and has not yet decided that she really would take up history at the college level, and hence the above suggestion that she just takes up scoring subjects (read, science) and delay her interests by two years is not entirely satisfactory.

Now that I am getting more interested in school education, I am realizing that the problems of school education are worse than the problems of technical education that I have so far been writing about.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Professors of Practice

When a good university thinks of faculty recruitment, it thinks of research. Research brought in money from funding agencies (with huge institutional overheads, it was profitable business to do research). But more importantly, research brought in prestige. And prestige attracted better faculty, and better students. And all this attracted even more funding, including philanthropic funds. Balancing the books was important and high quality research was necessary to raise those funds.

But should universities only focus on knowledge creation, and not work on knowledge dissemination. Universities were ready with an answer. Research and teaching are two sides of the same coin. Good teaching leads to innovative ideas coming from students in the class, which can be pursued as research. And good research, of course, meant that the faculty member will have deep insights into the discipline, would be able to bring the state-of-the-art to the classrooms. Since good research implied good teaching, and research was easier to evaluate, and in any case the goal of the university is neither knowledge creation nor knowledge dissemination - it is simply prestige and prestige is to be enhanced through research - we might as well focus primarily on research credentials of the faculty applicants. The past research output was an excellent predictor of success, the success being defined as good quality and quantity of papers, patents, and other such measurable output on one hand, and the ability to not make a complete fool of oneself in the class on the other hand.

But over the last two decades, some of these equations have changed. Research problems which can be addressed by a faculty supervisor and his/her PhD student with just a paper and pen are few, if not non-existent. The research infrastructure is getting costlier and costlier. And funding has not increased at the same pace. Now, getting funds from a funding agency is much more difficult than to have a paper published in top journal/conference, with acceptance rates in single digits in case of US. At the same time, state support to education is coming down. Balancing the books is becoming extremely difficult. And guess what. Even with reduced state support, it is turning out that the tuition paying students are the real important source of funds. Universities need to attract more of these students. Teaching has suddenly become important. But prestige is still brought in by the research output.

College enrollment in the world just keeps rising, requiring more and more teachers. Eventually technology (e.g. MOOCs) will reduce the need of teachers, but that is not happening now. In the disciplines where the shortage of faculty is most acute, universities have become smarter. They no longer chant the mantra of teaching and research being the two sides of the same coin, and good research being necessary for good teaching, etc. The new mantra is that a practitioner of a discipline can also have deep insights in that discipline, they can also bring in the state-of-the-art knowledge to the class, and of course, by not needing millions of dollars in research funding, they are significantly cheaper to hire, even if salaries are comparable to that research professor. (And in many cases, the salaries too are lower.)

In certain professional fields like medicine and law, it was always known that a practitioner is actually better in a classroom than a blue-sky researcher. Business schools too have stressed on visiting faculty from industry to give that insight to students which researchers might not be able to give. But over the last several years, other disciplines too have been forced to revisit the "research and teaching being too sides of the same coin" mantra.

Frankly, this mantra never made sense. Active research is not the only way to learn the subject, just implementing projects or practicing the discipline can also cause learning. And on the other hand, teaching alone does not give you great ideas to pursue, all collaborations and interactions can give you those ideas. The real use of that mantra was to justify an exclusive focus on research by arguing that it would ensure good quality of teaching. But repeating that mantra had its cost. It kept a large number of potentially great teachers outside the classrooms. It was a way to improve and maintain the importance of full-time research faculty, but now the same research faculty is being overloaded with teaching duties, and suddenly they have woken up to the possibility of having some faculty members with a greater focus on teaching.

This brings us to "Professors of Practice" which was always there in medicine and law disciplines, and to a large extent in business schools. While the exact description differs from one university to the other, this is primarily a way to attract persons who have been working professionals in their respective disciplines, typically through a contract of 3-5 years, and renewing that contract based on performance as a teacher. However, some universities have also seen this as a way to retain their existing faculty members who after an active research life would like to increase their teaching commitment and would want them to be evaluated for their teaching contributions instead of their research contributions.

This is a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Universities get more faculty. Students get smaller classes and better teachers. Research focused faculty gets lesser teaching loads. There is greater interaction between academia and industry. There is really nothing that can go wrong with this model. The only concern is how would we recruit such people. Over the last 50 years, universities have honed the art of evaluating research output of faculty applicants. They involved outside professionals in checking the CV, write recommendation letters, be part of selection committees, etc., but in checking the teaching quality, it would be difficult to do all this. However, I do not see this as a major concern. When we ask a candidate to give a seminar, let us judge that seminar not on the basis of quality of research, but from the perspective of a teacher, and then we are only talking about a 3-5 year commitment and not a 30-40 year commitment.

As a first step, universities can strengthen their existing programs to involve professionals - visiting faculty, adjunct faculty, etc. Have more of them on campus, give them a deal which they can not refuse. And we can make a real dent in the shortage of faculty on our campuses.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Premium Tatkal: Another wonderful step by Railways

I have been through this blog writing about dynamic pricing in Indian Railways. My logic is simple. Someone who can plan a journey 60 days in advance and someone who needs to travel on an urgent basis - both have a right to travel on Indian Railways. To have a transportation system in the country which says that you can use it only if you can plan 60 days in advance is downright rotten. Further, that those who can plan 60 days in advance should be given so much subsidy to thank them for their ability to plan that there is no money left to expand the transportation system is absolutely regressive. We then build a system wherein the benefit of this subsidy often goes to touts and other middlemen, and not to the traveling public.

Furthermore, while one can perhaps argue in favor of subsidy in non-AC classes of travel on the basis that they are used a lot by the poor (though this can be argued only if you define 98% of Indians as poor), no such argument is possible for AC classes. (We still argue any way claiming that 99.9% of Indians are poor and we must not discriminate against the poor's desire to travel in AC first class. Notwithstanding that cross subsidy through freight hurts all poor significantly, even those who did not travel and did not enjoy that cross-subsidy.)

So I was very happy when Railways finally introduced dynamic pricing last December and I wrote a blog about it. The budget brought many more special trains with dynamic pricing. However, most trains ran only on specific days, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute. Sometimes their timing would not be comfortable and so on. We needed dynamic pricing on our favorite trains, and the recent decision of splitting the tatkal quota into two and making available half of tatkal under dynamic pricing is a great step.

Of course, this is available only on a few trains, but I am hoping that at least on those trains I will be able to book a ticket after the mad rush of Tatkal is over and the IRCTC site start responding to your clicks. Yesterday morning, I checked for AC-2T berths on Shramshakti for the same evening, and I was pleased to see that 3 of them were still available. I suspect that it was because not many people are aware of this new scheme, since at 1850 Rupees, they were still a steal compared to the alternative of taking a taxi to Lucknow airport and buying an air ticket.

So my reaction to this is, a very positive step forward, but a very small step. We must do more. To have about 5% of all seats on Indian Railways on dynamic pricing is too little. I can see that within a few weeks, the scheme will be known to all, and then this quota will also last for a small time, and my desire that a last day ticket be available with high probability will not be met by this step.

As I have argued multiple times, there is really no need for subsidy in AC classes. And hence not just 5% of AC seats but at least 50% (if not 100%) of AC seats should be under dynamic fares. If the political class wants to continue heavy subsidies in non-AC class and have only 5% of seats under dynamic fares, it is ok with me. We need politicians to sell the scheme to masses.

By having 50% or more seats under dynamic fares would mean that it is not just Tatkal seats which are under dynamic fares but all seats. So I can buy a ticket any time. The current system forces me to buy the ticket either 60 days in advance or one day in advance. The new scheme has improved my chances of getting the ticket one day in advance. But I would want a system where I can buy a ticket 7 days in advance as well. So give some AC seats at subsidized prices to those who can plan well, but other AC seats should be given to those who are willing to pay the real cost and some profit to Indian Railways.

In fact, if we implement dynamic fares for a large number of seats, there will be no need for Tatkal at all. Seats will be available at a price even at short notice. But if Government wants to give away 5% of seats at lower price one day before the train journey, that is irrelevant to the whole transportation issue. (But a better system would be a lottery where everyone can participate equally, for example, register your demand the day before, rather than a lottery based on who gets through the IRCTC.)

Indeed, if we have dynamic fares for a large number of seats, it would be possible to get rid of most quotas as well. Most passengers, including the influential persons like MPs, would prefer a guaranteed seat at the time of their choice than face the possibility of not getting any seat through the Emergency or VIP quota and coming to know of it only at the last minute. (Have you heard of quotas at the airlines?)

Further, even AC 1st should be brought under dynamic fares. It is very strange to see AC-1st fare to be lower than dynamic fare of AC-2nd in the same train on the same day. (Or at least ensure that the IRCTC site offers a higher class with lower fare when one asks for premium tatkal ticket.)

So a great step forward, but many more steps needed in this direction.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Affiliation on a publication

Here is an interesting question. If an employee of an organization (OrgA) is on a long-term (several years) leave without any pay and benefits and working for another organization (OrgB), and publishes a paper, what affiliation should be mentioned on that paper.

I tried searching on the net and found a whole lot of opinions, but there does not seem to be a consensus on the issue. From reading those views, it seemed to me that the following would be a reasonable algorithm:

1. If either of the two employers have a specific policy on it, follow that. If the policy of the two employers are in conflict, and can not be accommodated simultaneously, ask the legal cell of the two employers to work something out.

2. If the organizations have no official policies on this, then ask the publisher if they have a default policy. If yes, follow that.

3. If publisher too does not have a policy, then what is the convention in your discipline.

4. If there is no strong convention of the discipline, then of course, it is up to the authors.

So how should an author decide.

Some argue that affiliation is primarily to get in touch with the author, and hence the current affiliation should be used. Some argue the same point (about affiliation being primarily a way to get in touch) but they lead to the conclusion the "permanent" affiliation should be used since the contact may happen much later than the time of submitting the article. Of course, in the age of Google Search, it does not seem convincing that affiliation should primarily be a way to get in touch with the authors. Who writes letters these days?

The other set of arguments are based on the credit to the organization for supporting research. So if the work was completely or mostly done when the researcher was at OrgB, then only OrgB affiliation should be used. On the other hand, if the work was mostly done when the researcher was still at OrgA, then OrgA affiliation should be used. And if the two institutions contributed significantly to the research, then show both affiliations. Seems simple, but if support is the primary parameter, then what about the funding agency. It seems to me that Department of Science and Technology should make all it grantees adjunct scientists in DST, and then insist that they write the affiliation of DST in all the papers where DST grant was a significant component of the research support.

I don't have an answer, but I want to raise an issue here. Many universities have started to have a policy that insists that anyone who maintains a lien with them must use their affiliation in all scientific publications. Does it make sense. If someone is on long leave, and the other place is not just providing the salary/benefits, but also the entire research support, why should the previous organization name be listed in affiliation. At best, there can be acknowledgement somewhere that the person continues to maintain its lien with the previous university. (And this is how it used to be.)

What has changed are the rankings of the universities and how rankings are decided. Most rankings would check the number of papers published by the researchers of a university and they of course, check only the formal affiliation and not what is written on a footnote or an acknowledgement. So a university wants to get credit for a paper for which it has made not an iota of contribution. Just because they promise to hire you back when you come back.

To me, it seems very similar to "if you use any facility in my lab, you must put my name as a co-author in any publication, it does not matter if I have made any intellectual contribution to the paper or not." So for a large lab, the lab director may have even one paper per week. This is quite rampant in academia, but the good thing is that most people who are not lab directors dislike the system. And I am hoping that most faculty members would find out their university policy and if indeed it is trying to garner credit for research done elsewhere, they will actively oppose such policies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

IIT Admissions: 80 percentile diluted

If newspaper reports (one here) are to be believed, the IIT Council has decided to dilute the requirement of 12th class performance to get admission in IITs. Instead of 80 percentile as of now, it will be lower of 80 percentile and 75 percentage from the next year.

Apparently, the Directors and Ministry are very concerned that about 2 percent students are denied admission to IITs even after passing the JEE Advanced.

This is very interesting, to say the least. When this system of 80 percentile was introduced in 2012 (from JEE 2013 onwards), it was stated that the criteria for school marks should be such that a couple of percent of students are denied admission to IITs. This was supposed to put pressure on all JEE candidates to take 12th class seriously. And the policy achieved exactly what was predicted - about 2 percent of students were denied admission to IITs. So when the policy achieves what was predicted to be achieved, shouldn't we call this a successful policy and the Directors and MHRD should pat themselves on their respective backs. So what went wrong?

There was another problem that people like me had pointed out. It was pointed out that in many boards, the grading is totally arbitrary, and there can be wide variation in marks depending on who grades the paper, and this wide variation in marks can result in significant variation in percentiles, and hence a high percentile in boards can be a matter of lottery and not a matter of academic performance. This was particularly true of boards which have extremely liberal marking.

If the marking is consistent, and the luck can only cause a difference of couple of percentiles, then a steep cutoff to encourage focus on school education can be justified. Someone with 79 percentile cannot claim that in a fairer grading s/he could have got 80 percentile. Well, you should have focused more on 12th class exams and tried for 85 percentile. But if someone with 79 percentile can claim that in a fairer grading system, s/he could have got 90 percentile, then the argument is that much stronger for not having the 80 percentile cutoff. Unfortunately, some students could actually point to such arbitrary grading in some of the boards.

Just two years ago, MHRD and Directors had argued that once we start focusing on the 12th class performance, the boards will be under pressure to reform. They will start having better question papers, more consistent grading, and so on. So it was just a matter of time, when everything in this country will improve and we can all live happily ever after.

Yesterday's decision of the Council is essentially admitting defeat. It is an acceptance of reality that MHRD and Directors have no control over the boards. That the boards in the last two years, instead of improving the exams and grading, have actually made it more random, more liberal. The 80 percentile cutoff in 2014 was higher than 80 percentile cutoff in 2013 in many large boards. And hence there is no evidence that boards will improve in future. I stand vindicated.

But there is an interesting side effect of this. If MHRD and IIT Directors  have started believing that the boards will not improve and that the grading is quite random to the extent that different people grading the same exam copy can result in wide variation in percentiles, should the use of 12th class marks be not stopped even for NITs and other engineering colleges.

You can't argue that boards have arbitrary grading and hence we need to dilute the 12th class marks requirement to an extent that it becomes a mere formality for IIT admission, but the same arbitrary grading can be considered for admission to all other engineering colleges.

But then consistency has never been the strength of Indian academic leadership, regulators and administrators.

Friday, August 22, 2014

MHRD agrees with UGC

The media today is full of the latest development. Apparently, Ministry of Human Resources and Development is trying to see if IITs and UGC will have a meeting to sort out the matter. First the links to all the media reports in this regard:

IITs can grant only UGC recognised degrees - Hindustan Times

IITs need UGC nod to open new programmes - Mint

IITs told to toe UGC line on degrees - The Hindu

HRD Ministry sides with UGC in course clash with IIT Kharagpur - Economic Times

Big Brother UGC casts its eyes over IITs - Told torename course and change duration, tech schools citerules to assert autonomy - Telegraph

I think we must understand the ministry's compulsions. UGC Act is unclear whether it is purely a funding body or it can dictate terms to universities. It has been charged with maintenance of standards in higher education. But does that mean only advise and issuing best practices, guidelines,
or does it mean rules that must be followed by the entire higher education sector.

What is clear from the Act is that there is no distinction between the universities created by an act of parliament and universities created by an act of state legislature. So, if UGC can not dictate IITs, then it can not dictate any university (except through threats of funding cuts). And hence if MHRD were to accept the view that IITs are not under UGC because they have their own act, then MHRD would have to accept the view that no university in the country is under UGC because all other universities also have their own acts. And this is something MHRD and Governments who are so used to interfering in the autonomy of all universities can not accept. This is really a nightmare for them. 

So obviously the next best thing is to have a dialog between UGC and IITs and one can come up with a resolution which can maintain the relationship between the two in grey area. UGC can continue to claim that they can dictate to IITs (and hence to all the universities in the country) and IITs can continue to claim that they are independent of UGC.

The real issue is this. The parliament in its wisdom decided that universities must have autonomy to a very large extent, and they wanted only a regulator whose primary job will be to support higher education financially and of course, also act as someone who keeps a watch on the quality of education in the higher education sector. People who have manned UGC and also those who have manned MHRD never bought into the parliament's vision of universities being autonomous. These have mostly been power hungry people who have got used to a control regime. Autonomy is anathema for them. By destroying autonomy, they have destroyed the complete higher education sector, and yet they are not willing to change their mindset.

And frankly, IITians and all these academicians in ivory towers of Indian higher education do not help matters. You talk to a typical faculty member, and the comment is: "IITs should be autonomous, but others should be controlled otherwise the quality will deteriorate further." What is the evidence for that. Indeed, there is pretty much no university today which existed prior to UGC Act and which can claim that it is better in quality today compared to its pre-1956 status. Such statements only divide academia and give more power to bureaucrats, politicians, and regulators. If IITs try to fight their own little battles which cause inconsistency in the overall regulatory processes, some time those inconsistencies will be taken advantage of by those with control mindset. We have to think and act consistently. Either universities should be autonomous, or they should have some/many controls. But either way an IIT is just another university.

UGC Decides Maximum Standards

One often hears that the job of the regulator is to specify the minimum standards and ensure that everyone follows those minimum standards. Normally, doing better than minimum standards is not just acceptable but actively encouraged. But University Grants Commission is a unique regulator. It is telling everyone that you can not be doing more than what UGC wants you to do. If you run a program with better quality than what is the upper limit mandated by UGC, they will ask you to stop the program, or de-recognize it.On the other hand, we all know the quality of higher education and how many programs have been stopped because of poor quality.

We also have this national policy of education, which we did not know about till a couple of months ago, when this document was dusted and taken out of its file, and used to bar four-year undergraduate programs. We were told that the national policy of education by Government of India does not allow any innovation in the sphere of higher education, and hence all the universities trying to do something different will be asked to stop doing that.

I sympathize with UGC. A few small institutes trying to improve quality can be ignored. But what if several institutes and universities start thinking of higher quality. This has a danger that a few really poor quality institutes may not attract sufficient number of students and may have to shut down. Can we allow this to happen. What happens to the employment of teachers and other staff by those institutes. What happens to students who were barely good enough to get a degree from those institutes and now would be denied of their fundamental right to higher degrees. Obviously, the regulator can not think of elites and has to take into account the needs of the academically weaker sections of the society. Didn't the father of the nation say, "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him." So UGC is just following the advice given by Mahatma Gandhi.

Indian Institute of Science had the courage to start a high quality program, in complete violation of our national policy, and against the philosophy of Mahatma. How could this be tolerated. But then in India decisions are not taken on the basis of policy alone. The right contacts could ensure an innovative interpretation of policy (so while the education policy may not allow innovation, but we can innovate the policy itself). One Bharat Ratna awardee was enough for the regulator. They decided that if a program is inconsistent with the national policy, it can still be allowed as long as the inconsistency is clearly mentioned in the degree. So if IISc were to force poor students to do extra research, the degree must mention the word "research" in its name.

Note that this clever solution is only available to those universities whose ex-Directors or ex-VCs have received a Bharat Ratna. If a certain Dinesh Singh goes to UGC and says that my university is inconsistent with the national policy to the extent of having a broadbased education rather than a narrow education that you specify, and I am willing to mention the word "broadbased" in our degree names, he will be quickly asked to show his Bharat Ratna first. He should first read how to win friends and influence people, and may be then he can get Tendulkar to bat for him.

If IIT Kanpur goes to UGC and says that we are inconsistent with the national policy only to the extent that we ask our students to do a lot of engineering courses as well, and we are willing to add the word "engineering" to our degree, it just might get accepted. While none of our Directors have received Bharat Ratna, but one of our ex-Chairperson, Board of Governors has. We will just have to request him to give a strong recommendation.

But this is creating a problem for the country. Some people think that if IISc can be allowed a higher quality program then they too can dream of excellence. Symbiosis University has decided to continue its four year programs, and that too when they are merely a deemed university. These tendencies will have to be nipped in the bud. If excellence becomes a habit then what happens to weak students. Would we still be able to have a Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) of 100.

We must learn from history. Just look back a couple of decades ago. Everyone in the world criticized us for illiteracy. We had the world's largest number of illiterates. How did we solve the problem. It was quite simple. Just ensure that there would be no exams till 5th class, and in the exams after the 5th class, the only thing one had to do was to be able to copy the designs (known as alphabets to some) from the copy of the neighbouring student. One shouldn't worry about the Annual Status of Education Report which continues to talk about students not able to do much mathematics, not able to write anything meaningful, and so on. On paper, everyone goes to school. We are a literate nation. So these foreign forces who want to destablize our great nation have started this propaganda about GER being too low. We must prove these imperialists wrong by having every child go to college after completing the school and get a degree. Will universities like Symbiosis give degrees to all these millions of youth. That burden will have to be borne by those who shun excellence in the larger interest of the country. So should UGC be concerned about selfish excellence or nationalism.

The elites of the country anyway can afford to have higher education in fatherland. It does not matter if the country can afford the loss of billions of dollars. And the hoi polloi do not deserve excellence. Why waste resources on them.

Long live, UGC!!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Joint Counseling of IITs and NITs: Delhi High Court Decision

IITs will change only when they are forced to, particularly when it relates to their holy cow, the Joint Entrance Exam. In the last several years, Dr. Rajeev Kumar of IIT Kharagpur has been on a crusade to force IITs to improve their UG admission process. Latest is a decision by Delhi High Court where Dr. Rajeev Kumar had petitioned that IITs be forced to have a joint counseling with NITs.

Here are the relevant portions of the judgement:

11. It is otherwise rather intriguing to know that the IITs and the NITs which are providing consultancy to others on technical matters, are unable to themselves find a solution for synchronizing the admissions to eliminate or at least minimize the issue of vacant seats. The said institutions themselves and their students are best equipped to, in today's time of technology, when software programmes developed by IITians are serving nearly every human need, to find a solution to the malady which admittedly exists and cure whereof has eluded all. Certainly they do not need years together to develop a programme for such synchronization of admissions. They cannot afford any red-tapism in this regard and which if becomes known to the world at large, may make them a laughing stock in the eyes of their clients. We have wondered whether it is a proverbial situation of it being darkest beneath the lamp.

13. We therefore dispose of this application with the following directions:

(i) The MHRD to ensure that the Technical Committee constituted vide order dated 13th March, 2014 aforesaid holds regular sittings/consultations, as frequently as required, and sorts out the process for common counselling for admissions to NITs and IITs and the said process is implemented for admissions from the academic year 2015-2016. To ensure the same, the MHRD to call for regular reports from the Committee and fix a date for the Committee to submit the report and ensure that the suggestions in the said report are incorporated in the admission procedure published by the IITs and the NITs in the academic year 2015-2016;

(v) During the hearing, we enquired whether there exists any provision for lateral entry into the IITs in the second year, as exists in some Universities/Colleges. We were informed, there is none. The MHRD as well as the IITs to also on or before 30th November, 2014 consider, whether a provision for such lateral entry into IITs in second year from the students of NITs and other engineering colleges can be made and to place a report on that aspect also before this Court.

My comments:

Joint Counselling will help only a little bit, but it will help. The real problem of vacant seats is that we are trying to complete the admission process to 3-4 million college seats in just a couple of months, and there is absolutely no penalty in the name of socialism to withdraw from a seat till very late. Neither of these real issues are being addressed. We simply refuse to do college admissions before 12th class exams. And to charge fee to someone who withdraws late is considered anti-poor.

But while the joint counseling does not solve major problems, it will still be an improvement over the current system, and hence should have been adopted long ago. I am sad that a court had to intervene in admissions, but there did not seem to be any other option.

I am also quite excited about the lateral entry part of the judgement. If IITs can come up with some mechanism, it will resolve a major stress issue for the students. Now, even if they could not perform well in that one day, they will have another chance to enter IITs. But I am not rejoicing yet. I will bet on IITs reporting to the Court on 30th November that they can't do it, or that they are still working on it, and will take more time to come up with a scheme.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why I want to be a Professor

The placement season is just starting for the 2015 graduates. (In IITs, it will start on 1st December.) And newspapers are already talking about a crore+ salaries this year. That it would be for a very small number of graduates is lost on most people. And in this race to get the biggest package, one career that is often forgotten is that of an academic.

There are some obvious problems with the career options. You can't join it just after the under-graduate education, and hence your parents can't boast about it to their neighbors and relatives. In fact, even after 10 years, they won't be able to boast to people whose only parameter of success is money.

However, there is an equally obvious advantage. If you can monetize smiles, you will be amongst the richest persons on earth very soon.

Just to give an example of how our compensation package works, a couple of months ago I went to UAE on a tourism trip with my family. About 2 months before the trip, I posted on facebook seeking advice. We had lots of advice, but we also had lots of offers of hosting us, of taking us around, of arranging everything for us, many of them from people unknown to us. The only common bond was that they had studied in the same institute in which I am a Professor. (Not all were alumni. We had other wonderful people too, like my batchmate from school days who went completely out of his way to help us in so many different ways, my wife's co-worker who hosted us for two nights and made sure that we had all the comforts. But I am focusing on alumni because every profession will have friends.) We decided to still go ahead with a tour operator, but kept a couple of extra days to meet some of these wonderful people and enjoy their hospitality.

One of the IITK alumnus hosted us for a day. We had not known him. He just called us up one day and told us that we had to accept his hospitality. That he understood our reluctance and shyness since we did not know each other. But for him the fact that I was a professor was an excellent reason to offer that hospitality. When we reached his home, the affection that we received was tremendous. Our kids still would like to go back to this "uncle" and "aunt". They took us around for the whole day. My son only had to mention that he would love to see the Sharjah Cricket Stadium where India and Pakistan have played so many cricket matches, and this alum just drove all the way there. It wasn't exactly next door. Money can buy an overnight stay in Burj Al Arab, but money can't buy the affection with which a professor is treated by an alum.

The satisfaction that you get when you are able to explain a concept to someone who did not know it earlier is immense. Sometimes it could be straightforward, and sometimes it could be frustrating. But the end point is always the same - a smile on the faces of those students. Money can buy all the books, but can't buy that smile. If only there was a way to monetize those smiles, ...

You work on a problem that you want to work on, and not what would add value to the company in the next quarter. I am not trying to belittle the value of next quarter, but there are times when you want to think of next year, or the next decade, or the next generation. Sometimes you don't want to think of just one company, but of the society, of the nation, of humanity at large. Very few professions allow you to work on such a broad canvas.

As a professor, I end up meeting with successful people from all walks of life. When we invite such people to visit our campuses, they usually accept our invivtations. If you are a professor, you are more likely to meet such amazing fellows than any other profession (unless you have really been highly successful yourself and is in the category of people who get invited to campuses). Now consider this. What is the metric of success (other than money) - that you get invited by educational institutions. By this metric, all professors are successful by definition.

I can't think of any other profession which allows you to come home for lunch with kids, or even stay withing walking distance of the office. And if that does not impress young students (they obviously can't imagine what is the value in having lunch with kids), at the very least what must impress them is that I have a bigger area of the house than a majority of my batchmates (many of them don't even live in a bungalow - but in an apartment). Yes, I can't sell this house. But I can live in it for a large fraction of my life, and by the time I have to give it up, I would actually be happy to shift to a smaller flat.

If I compare myself with the top 1% of the countrymen, I guess I can call them rich, there is pretty much nothing that they would have in their household that I don't have. And as I have often said, if one is not happy being richer than 99% of the countrymen, one won't be happy being richer than 99.1% of the countrymen. If you think happiness is relative, you would never be happy. If you think happiness is absolute, then faculty salaries are actually quite attractive. So even in terms of what money can buy, this profession is not bad. But if you add what money can't buy, then this profession is absolutely awesome.

I can go on and on. Actually, I haven't even started to say how great is this profession. So before you plan for that placement interview, think about higher education - MTech/PhD. Give GATE, or any other relevant exam, if needed. But don't trade the wonderful world of academia with the instant fame in the batch of a high paying job.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What is the Role of UGC

After my previous blog on UGC coming up with new rules on dual-degrees which essentially declare IITs offering of BTech-MTech dual degree as illegal, I have been asked by many people whether UGC has jurisdiction over IITs. Can UGC dictate terms to IITs.

Before I answer that question, we need to understand the history and the Constitution of India a bit. In our constitution, the tasks between the state governments and the union (or central) government have been defined in terms of three lists, a union list of topics on which only parliament can make laws, a state list of topics on which only state legislatures can make laws, and a concurrent list of topics on which either can make laws, and in case of any conflict, union law will prevail. Of course, parliament can always influence activities in the state list by suggesting model laws, and by offering financial or other incentives to states to adopt those model laws.

When the constitution was promulgated, the higher education was included in the state list. It meant that parliament could not legislate anything related to higher education. However, as I said above, it was always possible to influence state governments by offering financial incentives.

Nehru was quite wary of having any legislation on higher education passed by parliament since he wanted to maintain the fine balance that the constituent assembly had crafted between the powers of the union and the states. And hence all the central government institutions in the first few years of the independence came to union territories, since parliament could exercise the rights of a state assembly for laws to be applicable in a union territory. The reason for delay of IIT Kharagpur Act (it was not passed in 1951 but in 1956) was precisely this. As per the Constitution, Parliament could not pass such an act, but everyone was advising Nehru that the new institution would lose its national character, if it is set up through a West Bengal act. And it was only after Nehru was convinced that no one is likely to drag the Union Government to court on this issue that the IIT Kharagpur Act was presented to the parliament.

So this was the context in which UGC Act was passed in 1956. Nehru was extremely careful in ensuring that the Act does not contradict any of the state acts which had set up all the universities in the country at that time. The UGC therefore would not have any power to dictate terms to universities. However, it could only push those universities to follow best practices by offering financial incentives.

Things changed in 1976. During the emergency period, a large scale butchering of the constitution happened. Some of the changes were restored later by Supreme Court in the landmark Kesavananda Bharti case through its doctrine of basic structure of the constitution being inviolable. However, the transfer of education from the state list to the concurrent list was considered as regular.

With this change, overnight, the union laws took supremacy over the state laws. The parliament could impose any kind of restriction on state universities, because in case of any conflict, now the union law will prevail. To strengthen the UGC and make it a more powerful body, some changes were done to the UGC Act in 1985.

But the questions remain. Can a body primarily constituted to disburse funds to universities over which it had no legal control, suddenly become all powerful and its directives become legally binding just because the education has now become a part of the concurrent list. Wouldn't this need an explicit and a new legislation by the parliament.

Nobody wanted to know the answer, and still does not want to know the answer. For a long time, UGC was happy because it could control pretty much the entire higher education landscape simply through the carrot of more funding or the stick of reduced funding. A few places where these carrots and sticks did not work were places like IITs, which had a direct funding through parliament, bypassing the UGC. IITs maintained that UGC had no legal jurisdiction over universities, it was only a funding agency, and hence it had no control over how IITs functioned. UGC kept claiming that it had jurisdiction over all universities (which included IITs). However, UGC did not try to force the implementation of its directives, taking the high moral ground of giving sufficient autonomy to universities. It was happy to see most universities follow most of its directives (because of funding). Universities were happy that they did not have to think of making their own rules and in those few situations where they wanted to do things on their own, UGC was not taking a hard stand. Nobody wanted to go to court in most cases, since everyone was unsure of what the courts might rule.

This cozy equilibrium state has now been threatened by the emergence of private universities. These are universities which are not funded by UGC, and hence the carrots and sticks should not necessarily work with them. However, when the first few private universities appeared on the scene, UGC included them in its funding through the so-called 12B route.But with an ever increasing number of private universities, it is no longer possible to provide substantial funds to most of the private universities. Of course, since UGC has a huge nuisance value (it could simply remove your name from its list of recognized university on its website and let you explain the situation to all your students and parents), the private universities have mostly fallen in line too. However, as time passes, and as more and more portion of higher education goes into private hands, questions about the role of UGC will be increasingly asked.

As should be obvious from the description above, there are two schools of thought. One school believes that UGC can issue directives in order to maintain the quality and standard of higher education, and those directives are legally binding on all universities. The other school believes that UGC can issue directives but can enforce them only through the carrot and stick of funding, and has no legal force behind those directives. As an IITian, I tend to believe the latter.

The problem is that either interpretation has its share of problems.

If UGC has all the powers over all universities, then it has powers over IITs, AIIMS, and all such top institutions in the country, and all UGC directives must be compulsorily implemented by IITs. And mind you, it is not just UGC but any stake holder that can take an IIT to court for non implementation of those directives under this interpretation of UGC Act. So our PhD program was always illegal. Our dual degree programs are now becoming illegal. In fact, pretty much everything we do is arguably illegal, since we do not even have 180 days of classes in a year which is required by UGC. So we might as well close shop and go home. MHRD can declare as many IITs as it wants but all of them will either become university-like or will only do illegal things.

On the other hand, if UGC can only get its directives implemented through carrots and sticks of funding, then it has no control over private universities whom it does not fund, and while I think that is absolutely fine (as I have repeatedly argued, we should not have government control in education sector, only accreditation), but most people in academia in Government sector seem to be afraid of such a scenario. Most people in government sector believe that private sector is corrupt and worse, and must be controlled by UGC and perhaps by many other bodies. And unfortunately for this country, the say of the vast private sector is very limited in policy making, at least not in the direct transparent ways, forcing some elements in the private sector to find ways to have influence, thereby proving the critics of the private sector correct (letting them generalize a few to the entire private sector).

As the tension between private universities and UGC increase over a period of time, IITs will get dragged into the debate. After all, from the legal perspective, there is no difference between IITs and private universities - both do not get funded by UGC. And I think it will be good for the education in this country if this clarity of UGC role is provided by the courts sooner rather than later.

Till a bunch of private universities get the courage to take UGC to court, we in IITs can afford to keep throwing UGC letters to dustbin. But how long can that continue?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

UGC Rules Dual-degree offerings of IITs as Illegal

UGC has come up with new rules on Integrated/Dual-degree programs which are so popular not just in India but similar programs have been popular the world over. The new rules essentially ask the universities (including IITs) to stop their current offerings.

The rules notified in the Gazette of India in July, 2014 say the following:

"If the Integrated/Dual Degree Programmes intend to offer two separate degrees with an option for an interim exit or lateral entry, the duration of the Integrated/Dual Degree Programme must not be less than the duration equal to the sum total of the prescribed duration of the two degrees that are being combined in the Integrated/Dual Degree Programme. Provided further that both the degrees awarded under the Integrated /Dual Degree programme shall be individually and separately recognized as equivalent to corresponding degrees and not as one single integrated degree."

The attraction of dual-degree programs are two-fold: They are generally of lesser duration than the sum of individual durations of two programs. And one does not need to worry about admission process after the first degree.

The UGC notification specifically says:

"The academic philosophy/rationale behind offering such integrated programmes should not be for economising on course requirements or award of double degrees in a fast track."

That UGC does not understand education is pretty obvious, for they just don't seem to understand how universities are able to offer two degrees in a shorter timeframe. The shorter timeframe does not reduce the quality of offering, or requirements, if done properly. Because UGC has no competence to check if this is being done properly or not, it takes the easy way out, ban the offering, or make it so unattractive that universities will stop offering them. A very typical Indian way of regulation - if the regulator is incompetent, instead of fixing the regulation, will ban everything and avoid the need for regulation.

So, how are IITs able to offer BTech-MTech dual degree in 5 years, instead of 6 years. Well, first of all, one realizes that an under-graduate degree is expected to provide a broad-based education, preparing the candidate for a variety of careers after the under-graduate program, including but not limited to higher education, a technical job, a general job (what we call as a non-core career), and pretty much everything else. The curriculum is designed keeping in mind that we do not know the career path of the student. And in particular, there are lots of "elective" courses that are part of the graduation requirement which the student can choose keeping in view the specific career goals or the immediate career goals that s/he may have. Now, if the student has made up his/her mind on the next stage of the career, it is considered alright to reduce that breadth by just a small amount (say a couple of courses) and let those open elective slots be used to take the advanced courses. So essentially, there is a small amount of double counting of courses.

Second, in a typical MTech program, we admit students from diverse background, and hence we have a couple of courses to refresh the under-graduate curriculum to cover topics which we consider as important but generally have not been taught or at least not taught well by other universities. For our dual-degree students, we assume that these couple of refresher courses need not be taught to them since they have not only done those courses as we desire, but also they typically are good students (not everyone can enroll for a dual-degree in IIT Kanpur).

Then we look for areas of overlap. We notice that the goals of the project work overlap with the goals of the thesis work. And hence we could remove the project requirement from the graduation requirements of the dual-degree.

Further, since these are good students, we can allow them to take a bit of an overload (a course extra in a couple of semesters) and earn credits at a slightly faster pace then what is expected from students of either program.

And lastly, we allow these students to stay back in the summer term and do a couple of courses, again thereby earning credits a little faster.

UGC has been promoting the virtues of a credit based system of learning over the last decade. And a credit based system should allow someone to graduate early, if one can complete the credits at a faster pace. Indeed, at IIT Kanpur, we used to talk about a BTech program with a minimum duration of 8 semesters. We have now changed our rules and we talk about a BTech program with a normal duration of 8 semesters. This change is important and forms the core of a credit based system. It is possible for an exceptionally bright student at IIT Kanpur to receive a BTech degree in 7 semesters. And there are many examples of students who have done this, typically students who have fallen ill and hence can not earn any credits in a particular semester, work doubly hard in the remaining semesters, and get a degree in 7 semesters. Students do not go for 7-semester BTech for practical reasons - the placement activity is allowed only after the 7th semester, the joining dates are typically after 8th semester, taking overloads may spoil a few grades, etc. But theoretically one can do a 7-semester BTech. And all this was music to the ears of UGC which wanted to promote credit based system in Indian universities.

If we look at MTech programs, typically a student is expected to do 4 courses a semester (or equivalent work on a project/thesis) for 4 semesters. Why only 4 courses as opposed to 5-6 courses that a BTech student is expected to do in a semester. It is because it is expected that MTech students will have some financial assistantship and that would require the student to work for the department about 8 hours per week (roughly equal to one course). But now, if someone comes to us and says that s/he does not want to take financial assistantship, should be exempted from working for the department, and instead be allowed to do one extra course, and similarly, do an extra course in the summer term so that the requirement of 16 courses (or equivalent project/thesis work) can be completed in 3 semesters, UGC should be happy that their mantra of credit based system is being pursued by Indian universities. But, no, credit based system is not important, since there is no competence to check the quality of those credits. The mantras are only to chant, not to understand and follow. The number of years can be computed very easily by a 5-year old, but to check the quality of credits, one will need the intelligence of a 20-year old, or even higher. Our regulators are happy to assume that they have only the intelligence of a 5-year old, and they can only do counting and accounting, number of years, number of courses, number of days in a year, number of faculty for every 100 students, number of computers, number of books, and so on. Anything that a 5-year old can not do, UGC can not do.

What is strange in these regulations is the distinction it makes between the Integrated degree and a dual-degree. As we noted above, if a university is giving two degrees with an option to exit after the first degree, then the program has to be of duration which is sum of the two durations. But if the university is giving only one degree (higher) then the university can reduce the duration by up to 20 percent. This is really strange. So UGC is accepting that there can be overlaps between the credits of the two degrees, that there can be overloads, or in whatever way it is done, it is possible to complete the requirements of the two degrees in 20% less time, but only if you give one degree, and this can not be done if you are giving two degrees. So if IITK has a BTech-MTech dual degree program, it has to be of 6 years duration, but if IITK has an Integrated MTech program, it can be of 5 years. What really is the difference between the credits requirement of the two programs?

What is most interesting in this whole process is the following. UGC is suggesting that if a university (or IIT) wants to run an integrated MSc (or MA or any master's degree program) program, which does not have an exit option for BSc (or BA, etc.) then the duration of the program can be 4 years. So it turns out that its primary objection to FYUP is that students should be given a Master's degree after four years and not a bachelor's degree. I am sure we will soon see a huge rush for Integrated MSc/MA/MCom programs offered as 4-year programs by lots of universities, particularly in the private sector. And very soon, everyone in India will be doing a 4-year program after 12th class, but it will not be called under-graduate program but a master's program. So far we had only heard of marks inflation and grade inflation, now we will hear of degree inflation.

The situation is even stranger for horizontal dual degrees, that is, two bachelors degrees. If IITK wants to start (and we have considered it in the past) a BTech-BTech dual degree program (for example, someone getting a BTech in Electrical Engineering and a BTech in Chemical Engineering), we will have to create an 8-year program. Does it make any sense whatsoever. Do we ask our students to repeat Physics 101, and Maths 101. What do they do for 8 years. It is fairly common in US universities (and even in India, BITS Pilani runs a hugely popular dual-degree program in which two under-graduate degrees are given). And in all cases, the idea is that any course can satisfy the requirements for both the degrees. So Physics 101 can be used to satisfy the requirement for both BTech in Electrical and BTech in Chemical, and essentially only those courses need to be done for the second degree which have not been done while pursuing the first degree. Through this mechanism, one is able to complete the credit requirements for the second under-graduate degree in just one extra year. But UGC would like to ban all this, and require that the student repeats all common courses. Isn't that a waste of national resources. But UGC does not care. Remember they can only do what a 5-year old can do. And a 5-year old can not understand national waste.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Should we open new IITs

This is the question that I get asked most often (second only to, "which college should I join"). And I know I disappoint my readers on this.

Most of the time, the question is asked in a way that they are really asking me, "are you with us or are you with them." And the answer is that I am with neither.

On one extreme, we have this group of people mostly those who have benefited from IIT education and brand and who hope to continue to benefit from the brand. Their viewpoint is that IIT brand is a result of their hardwork, and therefore, only they have a right over the brand, and the Government has no business diluting the brand. Often this group would grudgingly admit that there may be a slow expansion of the IIT system, perhaps a new IIT every decade. Another argument given is that if at all expansion is needed, existing IITs can grow (even that at a very slow pace) instead of establishing new IITs.

On the other extreme, we have two strong lobbies. One is a set of people who want the benefit of IIT brand, and think that the current capacity may not get them that benefit (read, admission to a program in an IIT). They, of course, have as much right to take advantage of IIT brand as anyone else, and hence IIT system should be expanded quickly. The other lobby is that of politicians who would want to have an IIT in their backyard to reap electoral benefits from this, or they genuinely believe that having an IIT in their state/region would help in development of that state/region, even though there is very little evidence of that happening with the older IITs. Both these groups want 10 more IITs in the next one year. The slogan of one IIT in every state is just the beginning. Once we have 25+ IITs, they will point out that UP has two IITs (unless UP is bifurcated by then), and hence all large states should have two IITs.

The anti-expansion group points out that the new IITs started in the last 6 years have not been able to attract quality faculty, and no new IITs should be opened till all existing IITs have a reasonable fraction of faculty on their respective rolls. This group also talks about supporting other engineering colleges and bringing them up to the level of IITs. If at all, new high quality engineering colleges have to be opened, they can be given different names.

These are inconsistent arguments, and the only thing they are saying is that the brand value of IITs is important to them, and that should be preserved at all costs. Otherwise, if new IITs have not been able to hire faculty, how would new high-quality institutes with a different name would attract faculty. How would additional support to NITs would help them attract faculty. I can understand an argument which the planning commission has given - the sudden large expansion of the entire higher education system has spread ourselves too thin and hence we should consolidate before going for further expansion. But to argue against expansion of just the IIT system and support expansion of higher education in general is inconsistent, or elitist. It is essentially saying that they don't care about the quality of education in general. Let everyone in the country get poor quality higher education - they are not bothered - but let the quality education remain restricted to people like them. Sorry, can't agree with that.

I think we need to put our heads together and figure out how to expand high quality education, how do we attract faculty, how do we encourage more of youth to go for PhD and academic careers, and how do we take advantage of technology to offer quality education to larger numbers. May be encourage more philanthropy, may be higher budgetary support, tuition decontrol along with options of loans or subsidy which has to be paid back as higher income tax or whatever.

The pro-expansion groups are too much in a hurry. They would just want that an institute be declared open and the admissions should take place without even the first faculty member being on roll. The labs and classrooms can wait. Note that the government won't allow any private sector player to start a college like this. In fact, this is patently illegal, not just wrong. But then who can read the law to the law makers.

I can not possibly side with such a group either.

My own view is that we should consider expansion of IIT system. This expansion can partly come from expansion of existing IITs and partly from creating new IITs. However, any expansion should be well planned at least in terms of financial inputs and infrastructure. Before a new IIT is announced, it should be ensured that the land has already been allotted for it, just to give one example of planning. Most new IITs had to delay their construction work for years because the land was not available. Temporary structures can be built very quickly in one part of that land. A full time Director should be recruited at least a year before the first admissions take place. The first few faculty members and staff should focus on building infrastructure and creating processes in the new institute, along with very few students, perhaps only PhD students. The larger admissions (particularly, under-graduate students) should happen only after the Institute has finished construction of temporary buildings.

The idea that most expansion should come from existing IITs and not from new IITs is based in the logic that creating incremental infrastructure is easier than building something from scratch. However, the data does not support this. In April, 2008, all IITs were told to go for 54% expansion forced by an act of Parliament. Six years later, how many IITs have built infrastructure to handle that 54% expansion. Perhaps none. Certainly IIT Kanpur is nowhere close to completing that expansion and may take another 3 years at the very least. I am sure most if not all new IITs would have sufficient infrastructure for their first 1000 students by then, even when it took them years to get full possession of land.

And finally, the issue of branding. First of all, Government of India has an important stake in that brand, and not just alumni and faculty. So a claim like it has been built exclusively by the hard work of faculty and alumni is denying credit to the Government, which has generously supported the Institutes for over six decades. I believe that each institute should try to create its own brand, and compete with other IITs. If one promotes a pan-IIT brand, then of course an entry of lesser quality IIT would dilute that brand. But if there was no pan-IIT brand, but an IIT Kanpur brand and an IIT Bombay brand, then these brands would not be so easily affected by the existence of a poorer cousin.

Above all, the issue is not about opening new IITs but how to expand high quality segment of higher education in India. I am all for planned expansion of IIT system as the branding will make it easiest to attract quality faculty and other resources. (And planned should not be confused with "slow" - I suggest a minimum growth rate of 3 percent per year in size, higher than the growth rate of the population in the country.) But this should be done in parallel with significant increase in financial support and granting autonomy to other engineering colleges and looking at bottlenecks that they face in improving the quality to IIT level and even beyond.

And finally, is there nothing that I find wrong with expansion of IIT system. Note that I was one of the few faculty members within the IIT system in 2008 voicing support for IIT expansion and I do feel that while there were a lot of problems that new IITs have faced and continue to face, and that a slower expansion of one IIT per year (and not one per decade as some would demand) would have been better, the quality that they offer today justify their existence.

But what I have noticed as a negative fallout of the same is the following: The IIT Council has expanded and now has 16 Directors and 16 Chairpersons of the boards, besides other members. Such a large group can not have any meaningful discussions. Considering that Minister chairs these meetings, the time for the meeting is quite limited. In a large group, there will always be people who would want to please the Minister and the Ministry officials, and would tend to speak in favor of Ministry's agenda. Given that the meeting times are short, alternate views don't get expressed as strongly as they used to be earlier. Sometimes the minister may be benevolent and allow things which individual IITs want, but it is much simpler to have common policies across the Institutes. And it has become easier for ministers to have their say in the IIT Council. We need to really think about how to safeguard our autonomy in a large system, and without autonomy, the quality will necessarily go down.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Four Year Undergraduate Program

The FYUP experiment in Delhi University is over. And it makes clear that autonomy of the university system in India is only in the namesake.

UGC first agrees to the FYUP. Then the government changes, and it suddenly realizes that the under-graduate program should be of 3 years' duration. That a 4-year UG program is against the national policy. The Delhi University says that this is a 3-year UG program. Students can get a Bachelor's degree in 3 years. They need to spend 4th year only if they want an honors degree. UGC says no, you need to go back to earlier system where even an honors degree can be had in 3 years. Why can a university not offer a program which gives something extra and asks students to do extra credits. Should UGC decide the curriculum, credits, what exactly the degree say, and all that. Or should UGC be only concerned with quality and national policy. If UGC was truly concerned about the quality, our state of universities wouldn't be what it is right now.

When UGC can not force Delhi University to do anything, it starts hitting below the belt. It starts threatening affiliated colleges. They should start admission in the 3-year program. Do people in UGC not know that affiliated colleges have no authority to start programs on their own. But who cares for the rules. It was a political match and no rules are sacrosanct. The idea was that colleges should put pressure on the university and of course, UGC was playing to the gallery - the poor students who are waiting for the admission process to start.

Is it illegal in this country to have a four year undergraduate program (other than professional degrees). One of the UGC members is Prof. Sanjay Govind Dhande, who during his term as Director, IIT Kanpur, gave approval to FYUP in IIT Kanpur (that was before DU started FYUP). I wonder whether he considers DU to have violated the law or IIT Kanpur to have violated the law, or has he written his dissent notes in the commission meetings.

Those who are happy with the UGC stance claim that this blatant violation of autonomy was justified in this particular case because the VC of DU had also not followed the proper process in implementing the FYUP. And hence external pressure is justified. I am quite scared by this argument. It is essentially saying that the rule of law is not important. The process is not important. Whoever is more powerful at any point in time gets to decide everything. Why could FYUP be not challenged in a court of law if it was started without a proper process or if it was illegal. The regulator (UGC) could have initiated a probe in whether the internal processes were followed or not. They had more than one year to do all this.

I recall the saga about change of admission process to engineering colleges in 2012. I have been pretty critical of the way IITs conduct their JEE and the entire admission process, and yet I have always maintained that an external agency (even the funding agency like MHRD) should not interfere in the admission process. If they were to decide the process, it is likely to be worse than the current system. And if you read the original proposals for IIT admissions, they were as stupid as any.

So finally the DU backed down and is starting admission this week to the same original programs as they had in 2012. But what are the lessons to be learnt from this.

To me, there are two lessons. One, there has to be a proper system of checks and balances in university governance. The VC is simply too powerful in a typical university and has pretty much unlimited emergency powers. The checks are all outside the system, which should not be there. So one could force his hands by stopping funding (like UGC can do), or could force him through agitations, non-cooperation, strikes, and so on. There are alternative governance structures like that in IITs where the roles of different authorities have been defined very carefully and no single authority can take arbitrary decisions in an autocratic way. Unfortunately, UGC is encouraging this concentration of power even in Deemed universities where many had a different, more balanced governance system. (Though I am glad that recently Karnataka High Court has struck down the UGC regulations in this regard.)

The second lesson is that we should move towards dismantling this system of affiliated colleges. An affiliated college has no autonomy at all and is vulnerable to pressures from all sides. In any case, having a system where the teacher has very little role in evaluation (because we assume all teachers to be corrupt) can not result in high quality of education. The world has moved to unitary universities. Even UGC is on record saying that affiliating universities should have only a few affiliated colleges. If Delhi University was a smaller university, it would be easier for it to start new experiments.

I remember the words of Prof. P K Kelkar who started a lot of innovation in engineering education in India when he became the founding director of IIT Kanpur. One of those innovations was that the instructor will be fully responsible for all evaluations and the final grade of each student. The Directors of other institutions were horrified and warned him that a single case of corruption (in grading) would lead to his removal, and he was committing professional suicide. And he replied. If the experiments that he had launched succeeded, India will succeed, and if they failed, only one person will fail. And if educational institutions will not experiment, who else will.

We need more experiments in education, not less. But they can succeed only when they are decided in an open, transparent system with proper checks and balances and in relatively smaller systems. Till then, I will support autocracy of the VC over interference in the autonomy of the university.

Added on 30th June, 2014

The success of IITs is not only because of funding (as is commonly believed) but in significant part because of its governance structure. If IIT Kanpur could withstand political interference in its admission process to a large extent, it was because the Director did not have any emergency powers, and it had to seek approval from Senate. So political interference can be reduced though not eliminated by having a proper governance structure.

The power of VC in Indian universities are unlimited because of historical reasons. The VCs of the first few universities were all British and the British gave them unlimited powers to keep Indian faculty and employees under check. And we still keep copying the Calcutta University Act whenever a new university is to be created.