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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Six Months Internships for College Students

Many of the top technology companies have a six month internship program (generally, in addition to their summer internship programs). However, they often draw a blank when they try to recruit students for that. And the reason is simple. Most universities wouldn't allow the student to take a semester off during the normal course of the program. And even if the universities were liberal, most students (and parents) wouldn't want to graduate a semester late. To me that is a very short-term thinking.

A summer internship is good if you want to be exposed to the work environment of an industry, know what kind of things they are doing, what kind of culture they have, and may be just help a little bit to the group you were part of. The company either looks at it as their social responsibility and in such cases does not invest too much of their resources to make it really worthwhile experience for the student, or looks at it as an opportunity to find more about the students so that a pre-placement offer can be made to them. So they save the cost of recruitment, the attrition in this group is likely to be low (since most campuses will not allow students with PPO to sit in interviews for other companies), and the chances of a poor hiring are low, since they have been able to judge students over a long period of time as opposed to a couple of hours in a campus placement scenario.

So, summer internships are useful to both sides to some extent. However, the value of summer internships is limited on both sides. While it helps the companies to recruit later on, they any way have to go through the process of recruitment for finding interns. The only difference is that they can be a bit more relaxed, since it is possible to say no to them after the internship.

It is obvious that a longer internship would be of value to the companies, since in such a case, they can ask the student not just to understand everything and learn things, but also contribute significantly to whatever they are doing. This way, not only they get to judge the student over a longer period of time and hence reduce the errors of recruitment, but get a value for their investment right in those six months. For the student, it can be a life changing experience to work on something that will directly impact a company's business in some way. The quality of six month internship would usually be far higher than that of summer internship. And if the student's interests and skills are in fit with the company's needs, the probability of landing a job will also go up substantially. Even if the student does not get a job offer, the experience of working in a top technology company and working on a live project that had impact on the business would be valued very highly by other companies and that should help in securing a job with anyone else.

So a long term (6-month) internship appears to be a win-win situation on both sides.

But what about the delayed graduation. Well, the way I look at it is the following:

Whether you study for 8 semesters and then do a 1 semester job or you study for 5 semesters, work for one semester, and then study for 3 more semesters, in both cases, after 9 semesters, you have reached the same point in your career path. In addition, because of that industry experience, your learning in the remaining 3 semesters would be enriched. You would know where the things being taught to you could possibly be applicable in real life. You will not just do a passive learning but at all times thinking of possibilities and opportunities. And you are better prepared for a high quality job.

By the way, these six months internships need not be in top companies only. If you are considering higher education and research as a potential career, then spending six months in a great research group would be equally valuable. You would be able to get some publications that would definitely help in getting admissions in top places for PhD, and your application would be strengthen by letters of recommendation from the researchers you worked with. And it is easier to get funding for six months work than for 2 months summer internships.

If you look at students in top universities outside India, this model appears to be quite prevalent. Students take off for not just one semester, but often even 2-3 semesters to gain industry experience and some money so that you can live comfortably in that hostel. The problem in India unfortunately boils down to, "whether I can explain this to all my neighbours and relatives." What will they think. When they see me in college in the 9th semester, will they think that I failed, or will they be convinced that what I have done is good for my future. And unfortunately, people who did their study in minimum period of time are not likely to appreciate the value of such internships. And therefore, you won't be able to convince them.

Convince yourself. And if you are convinced, and your university allows a break, go for it. Don't worry about your relatives and neighbours. They are not responsible for your career.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Variable Pricing of Education

A lot of services are being sold today in such a way that different consumers of those services pay different price for the same. The most visible example of this is airlines, which vary their pricing based on a host of factors like how early you book, how much is demand, how convenient the time is, and also things like whether you agree to sit in the middle seat, or you have to have a window seat, and so on. Even goods have dynamic pricing. You would expect to pay differently for wooden clothes in winter and summer, what with all those beginning of season sales and end of season sales. The price of the same good could be different in the neighborhood shop and an exclusive store in a posh mall, and could be very different if purchased online.

Does it make sense to consider variable pricing in education sector. Different students paying different tuition for the courses that they take based on some factors which we don't yet know. Of course, not. Are you nuts. This is crazy. How can two students pay different tuition for the same course. Variable pricing is ok in the commercial world but education is a noble profession, we must treat everyone equally. I can hear the sound of strong dissent.

But medical care is also considered a noble profession. Does everyone going to a hospital pay the same amount. Most hospitals today would have variable pricing for services. The services would be cheaper for those who come from economically weak backgrounds, and costlier for those who come from richer backgrounds. It is assumed that people who are short on money would not want to afford a Deluxe room in a hospital. So those who go for an expensive room are assumed to be rich and are charged higher for all services, not just the room. And people who are willing to stay in a ward with several other patients, will be charged less for all services. Good hospitals would ensure that medical care to all patients is roughly the same. It is only the "comfort" part which is different, and all patients can self select what level of comfort do they want knowing fully well that higher comfort does not just mean a bit more money for the room, but a lot more money for all tests, doctor's fee and so on. And we have accepted variable pricing because every individual can self select the pricing level at which s/he wants that service, knowing fully well that at least in theory and generally in practice too, the core part of the service will remain the same irrespective of which level of "comfort" one selects. It is also understood by people that without this voluntary cross subsidy, the cost of health care for economically weak would be much higher and that is not a desirable thing from the societal point of view. (Of course, I may add that the "comfort" is not restricted to type of room. Some hospitals would allow richer patients to have less waiting time, appointments, etc. Some hospitals would have a well known doctor do more appointments of richer patients, and smaller number of patients in the ward, which one could argue is differentiation in core service.)

Can we have a similar implementation of variable pricing in education. The core service includes lectures, tutorials, labs, library access, internet, and so on. That would be identically provided to everyone. But non-core services can be chosen by students. And based on what they choose as non-core services, their costs would vary. For example, a university could have several different types of hostel rooms. If you choose to live in an Air-conditioned single room, that would be taken to mean that you belong to financially well off class, and charged higher not just for the AC room, but for every thing else in the university. And if you choose to live in a shared non-AC room, it would be assumed that you belong to financially weak class, and charged less for everything. Just like medical care, there is self selection or in a sense, self declaration of income class. And students and parents know what costs are associated with each declaration. They also know that the core service will be same for everyone. And like in medical care, this could provide a model of subsidizing the financially weak students by charging the financially well off students a higher amount, thereby enabling a lot more students to access costly quality education.

This could possibly work, but the problem is that there aren't very many non-core services provided by the universities which are essential for students to subscribe. If we look at hostel as an example, universities may not have sufficient range of hostel rooms (and thus may not be able to offer sufficiently many price points). It may not even have sufficient rooms, and students may be forced to live off campus, and in that case, it becomes very difficult to find out what kind of accommodation has each student opted for.

By now, I am sure, people are saying, education is unique. It can't be run on the airline model. There can't be variable pricing in education. But, is that really true. in fact, we already have variable pricing model operational in most universities. Let me explain how.

Most universities offer scholarships to those students who are performing very well. Most universities are also offering scholarships to those students who come from financially weaker sections of the society. So we do have merit based scholarships, as well as means based scholarships. And a scholarship is nothing but an instrument of variable pricing. Universities look at all sorts of information to determine whether you really come from a financially weak background. They will look at self-declaration, pay slips of the employer, the tuition that you paid in the school before this one, ownership of certain assets by the family (do you live in your own house, or a rented one, what kind of smartphone you own, do you own a car), etc. But since this is not based on purely self-declaration and based on factors in which some fudging is possible, expanding the variable pricing is likely to face opposition from those who end up on the wrong side of variable pricing.

Currently, one would find that the variability in pricing of educational services through the instrument of scholarships is fairly limited. We either have small reductions to many people, or have significant reductions to a very small set of people. In order to really bring in the benefit of variable pricing in terms of reducing the cost to poorer students and getting them subsidized from students who can afford, we would have to have several levels of pricing, with a significant difference between the maximum and minimum tuition. And before any variable pricing is adopted, communicating it to all stake holders and taking them into confidence becomes extremely important. Otherwise, a mention of very high fees, even if that fees is not paid by most students can become a mental block for people to apply to this university.

Let me also point out another kind of variable pricing, which is very prevalent. Charging higher for the popular programs is quite common across the world, including in India. So MBA fees within the same university will be typically higher than under-graduate programs. Within the under-graduate programs, engineering programs or professional courses in general may be priced higher compared with 3-year programs in science, commerce, humanities, etc. And that difference is not dictated by the difference in cost to the university but difference in willingness to pay by the student.

There is also a difference between price charged to in-state students and out-of-state students. The argument is that there is support available from the state taxpayers (or at least, state would have provided cheap/free land), and therefore, residents of the state should be offered discounted pricing.

Another type of differential pricing which is very common in Indian institutions is the higher price of students admitted under certain categories, for example, "Foreign Students", "Non-Resident Indians", "Sponsored students", "Management quota" and so on. We have had Free seats or Merit seats, and Paid seats or Non-merit seats. (Free seats were just reduced pricing, not free. And Non-merit only meant poorer rank, not that anyone who had failed in 12th class could get admission.)

So, we are actually, quite used to variable pricing of educational services in the country. After all, the coaching classes have a variable pricing for their services.

And finally, there is an entirely new unchartered territory of dynamic pricing, along with unbundling of services of a university. Could we have separate tuition for each course based on the popularity of that course. If you register for this course early, then you pay less, while a last minute registration pays a lot more, particularly when the seats are limited. I don't even want to think of these possibilities. I am afraid that there will be unintended consequences that we haven't thought about.

Monday, July 13, 2015

College Admissions: Infrequently Asked Questions

So, we all know about the frequently asked questions during the college admission season. The top three reasons are as follows:
  1. Which program has the best placement
  2. Which program gets the highest pay package
  3. Which program has the maximum scope
However, not everyone is like that. And every admission season, I do get asked unique questions, which are extremely difficult to answer. Here is a sampling of this year's questions.
  1. I have worked 80 hours a week for the last few years, and after graduation, I will have to work 50-60 hours a week. I have only four years in which I can relax. Which program/college is the easiest to get a degree in. (Can the readers help, so that in future I can answer this question. To my small mind, it seems that if one were to relax for four years, one may get to relax for the remaining lifetime as well.)
  2. Forget faculty to student ratio. Which college has the best male to female ratio. (This question gets asked pretty much once every year. And of course, I don't know the stats for any college, so I can't answer. But even if I knew the stats, I am not sure what does "best" mean. Would 50:50 be considered best, or would 10:90 be considered better. Would the definition of "best" be gender-specific, culture-specific, etc.)
  3.  A bunch of similar and yet distinct questions. Which college has the best festival. Which college has the best band. Which college has avid gamers. (I don't know. Why is it assumed that I might know the answers.)
  4. Which college is safe for my daughter. (It is not the college, but just take precautions in certain geographies.)
  5. Which is the closest airport to the college. How far is it. What is the frequency of flights from there. (I don't run a travel agency, my dear friend. But India is progressing if someone is deciding a college on the basis of ease of air travel.)
  6. What is the RoI of certain colleges. (I intend to write a separate article on this. Seeking help from my Economics friends in understanding this better.)
  7. And the award for the most unique question goes to this. I have a 3-digit JEE (Mains) rank, but not so good JEE Advanced rank. I don't want to sit in the class with 5-digit JEE rankers. Which program should I choose. In particular, should I go to a good private college, where there is no reservation and only a few students have a 5-digit rank. Or should I go to a good government college, where most general category students would have a rank similar to mine, but many reserved category students would be beyond 10,000 ranks. How do I decide which peer group is better on an average. (Don't have a peer group at all. You will be injurious to their health. Join a distance education program. They were designed for people like you.)
I also searched on Google for reasons why students attend a college, and I find this link.  (But, of course, these reasons are frequently stated, and are really not infrequently asked questions.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Campus Placements Broken: Who can Fix it?

IIT Delhi refuses the request of Zomato to allow them to recruit students on day one. Zomato's founder, Deepinder Goyal, is upset. Link to the news.

Deepinder tweeted: Campus placements in India are broken. Placement cells optimise only for money. Growth, esops, quality of work is secondary.

Sure, campus placements in India are broken. On the campus side, it is true what Deepinder has said. Package is the most important parameter, which is very unfortunate. There is very little career counseling in our campuses, very few people to advise students about importance of long term career planning, quality of work. It looks a bit difficult to believe that a placement officer wouldn't understand ESOPs, but that is possible too.

However, I would hold industry responsible for it, and not the institutes. Industry, particularly large companies, have data which can be used to set things right, not just in terms of who comes on day one of placement, but to improve the quality of education in the country.

Why do campuses insist on salary being the most important parameter to decide the order in which companies will be allowed to come for placement. It is because most students and parents primarily look at placement data for deciding which college to study in, and which discipline to study. If a college does not focus on numbers, it can lose its appeal amongst the potential students and parents. Why would a college do that?

And, why do potential students and parents look at placement data as the primary information to select discipline/college? Because any other information is either too complex (like quality of faculty), or simply not available to them (like what is the long term impact of quality education from a college on your career). In US, one has lots of study tracking large number of alumni from several universities as they make progress in their careers. That kind of data is simply not available in India.

If such data were available, I am sure it will show that people who earned the most in the first month after graduation are not necessarily the ones who are earning the most after 10-15-20 years, just to give one example of what we might see in that data. And assuming that indeed this is shown by data, immediately, the focus on just one number will go down. (Unfortunately, the data will not show who is happier, and hence the supremacy of money will remain, data will not be very broadbased, will not include government, NGOs, and so son, but at the very least, people will start thinking more long term than immediate term. So a significant improvement over the current system.)

It is also possible that the data will show (I am convinced based on some anecdotal evidence) that graduates of colleges where the quality of education (education being defined both as a combination of academics and extra-curricular) is better do end up in higher positions more quickly. If such a data is in the public domain, the colleges can start focusing on quality of education rather than just chase the package as the sole number in placement games. And potential students and parents will also start looking at broader quality parameters of a college rather than just perceived placement figures.

So, this data is extremely powerful in improving the higher education of the country. The higher education scenario in India will improve only when all stake holders start demanding quality, and they will start demanding quality only if they are convinced that it leads to better long-term career.

And, who has this data. Well, our industry has this data. If the top 10 companies in software business who jointly employ almost a million engineers, were to make available anonymized data on performance of graduates from hundreds of colleges where they recruit from, the higher education in this country will be transformed.

But will they. Of course, not. They will not, not just because this is strategic information for them. They will not, because there is no scientific system in place for deciding where to recruit students from. The HR divisions of companies which are going to only 40-50 colleges usually take "safe" decisions. Let us include colleges which have been ranked by some list. Let us include colleges which are funded by central government. And notice that the rankings in India themselves are mostly perception rankings, and the perceptions are higher for colleges which have better placements. So it all becomes a vicious cycle, with absolutely no incentive for HR manager to break this cycle. The HR divisions of companies who are going to a much larger number of companies often select colleges for reasons other than quality. (There are hints of corruption as well.)

From the HR's perspective, going to a college which is more convenient to go to, or going to a college who provided excellent hospitality last year, or going to a college whose perception is better though quality of education may not be, it makes a very small difference. They will find reasonable quality and quantity of students for the low tech jobs that are typically asked of a fresh recruit. That they could find somewhat better quality and perhaps some more students who are above the threshold of the quality is really not important to them. But, please understand that while this may not make any difference to the HR, it makes a huge difference to the college, its students, potential students and parents.

If the HR folks could only take decision based on how alumni of those colleges have done in the past, and make that information public, it would push quality like anything. The power to fix campus placement is with the industry, and till they don't come forward to improve the situation, campuses will not be able to do anything, even if they want to.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Expelling Students for Poor Performance

IIT Roorkee has decided to ask 73 students to leave because of their poor academic performance. Here is one of the news report on this. Asking students to leave for poor academic performance is nothing new for IITs. But what is surprising is the large number involved this time. Is it justified? Very difficult to say for an outsider. However, we can certain look at some issues which are really common across IITs.

I have no idea of the distribution of these 73 students (how many were admitted with relaxed criteria). However, from my days as Dean of Academic Affairs at IIT Kanpur, I can say that amongst the students who were asked to leave IIT Kanpur, a disproportionate number were those who were admitted with a relaxed criteria. Let us understand that amount of relaxation offered to these students has been on the rise. Earlier, IITs would offer only a limited relaxation in admission criteria, and hence most students admitted with such relaxation were able to compete well with everyone else. It is well known that people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, if given a proper environment and support, can overcome some weaknesses in academic background. The vacant seats were then filled up by students with lower marks, but they had to go through a one-year preparatory program. The IITs will teach them basic Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Language. Those who came to IIT after this one-year course were reasonably well prepared, and were able to compete with everyone else. The idea always was that we must have inclusive growth, and we must provide additional help to those who may have lacked some background coming into the IIT system.

And then around 15 years ago, questions were raised whether the one year training program was a conspiracy to keep the so-called lower caste folks behind by forcing them to spend an extra year. When the issue got politicized, IITs felt that the most convenient thing to do would be to lower the bar for the reserved seats, ensure that the number of vacant seats are very few, and thus only very few students would need to go through the preparatory program. The gap between the last unreserved student and the last reserved category student has become very large, and even with all the support that IITs provide, it is becoming increasingly difficult for students from disadvantaged sections to overcome their lack of academic preparedness. In fact, now the number of students in the preparatory program is so few (despite the total number of reserved seats having gone up by almost 10 times in the last quarter century) that we don't even run that program in each IIT. A few IITs would get together and conduct this program by rotation.

So, an excellent system which helped so many academically weak students reached a level where they could cope up with the rigors of the place has been dumped because the system was considered politically incorrect.

Now, of course, the poor performers are not all reserved category students. Many students who scored well in JEE (now JEE Advanced) also fail to perform well once they are in IITs. The reasons are varied. Mostly, it is a question of motivation. After studying extremely hard for 4 years, they are burnt out and do not have motivation to study further. There are others who wanted to study a particular discipline but either could not get it, or were forced by parents to study something else, and they have no motivation to do so. Some find it difficult to adjust to a very different life style, miss their homes, don't like staying in non-AC hostels, eat mess food, etc. Some find the learning style to be very different from what they had experienced at coaching places.

IITs help these students in many ways. All of us have counselors where the students can go and discuss their personal issues in confidence. All of us have mechanisms to provide extra help to someone who is not performing well in a course. Sometimes the instructor would provide that extra office hour. Sometimes the TA or Tutor would chip in. Sometimes, a senior student would be asked to provide that extra help within the hostel.

While all these support mechanisms help a lot of students, they don't work with many students. When I looked at cases of many such students, one common aspect was that every student wanted to graduate in least amount of time. When one is in this condition, the best advice for them is that they need to go slow. Do lesser courses, try to focus on them, and do well, and once you have performed well in a semester, you will regain your confidence and be able to perform well. May be even with lesser courses, the improvement will be only marginal and another semester of lower load may be necessary. And it may mean that you need to spend an extra semester to get the degree from the IIT. When I was involved with student advising many years ago, I would always tell a weak student, "it is better to graduate in an extra semester, than not to graduate at all." But in the beginning of every semester, these students would harass you to no end to allow them a normal load of courses. The argument would be that if we try larger number of courses, the chances of passing more courses is higher, which is so obviously wrong that I am always shocked with this argument. I remember that in one semester, I used my authority as the adviser to these students to force the weakest students in the department to take reduced workload. That was the only semester that we could recall where not a single student was on the termination list in the department. Was this semester celebrated. Not at all. Every single student who escaped termination was upset with me claiming that if they had taken one extra course, they would have passed that as well, and they would be that much closer to the graduation.

The problem is that good news is known to everyone, but bad news is private. So examples of very weak students who have passed 5 courses in a semester is known to everyone. But a much larger number of students are unable to cope with such a load is not public knowledge. So most of the academically weak students would demand that they be allowed to take normal course load.

Having said all this, today, in wake of what has happened at IIT Roorkee, the important questions are: What can be done to help such student more, and what are the alternatives to asking the student to leave the program.

Indeed there can be many things that can be done beyond the cliched suggestions of better counseling and better academic support. Those are motherhood statements, and of course, every institute should try to find ways of helping weaker students as much as possible.

As I mentioned above, one of the big problem that academic advisers face is reluctance to go for reduced load. I think the IIT leadership and faculty (and hopefully the society) have to send out this message that getting a degree in 5 years is absolutely fine. Doing well is more important than doing it in 4 years. Further, at IIT Kanpur, we have now allowed the students to drop a course without any penalty for up to three months in the semester. So a student can take 5 courses in the beginning and at any time, he feels that he is unable to cope with these many courses, can drop 1 or 2 courses, and there is no mention on the transcript of dropped courses. This has helped students maintain their CGPA. Of course, they still waste a lot of time in the first 4-8 weeks in doing more courses than necessary. Ideally they should not have taken 5 courses in the beginning of the semester, but still forcing them to continue with that mistake throughout the semester was making things worse. And it does become tricky to insist that students who are adults should be forced to go on reduced load, when they don't want to. So giving them option to drop later is worth trying by the institutes.

The second thing that can be done is to encourage student mobility. A huge problem in today's academic system is that the student who is asked to leave after one year or two years have nothing to show for that period, and not only joining another college is extremely difficult, you lose even what you had passed in that period. So you start afresh, if at all you can retstart. Just because the student failed in an IIT, he is identified as academically weak and hence undesirable by everyone. There is a stigma to failure. If we were to look at the student as someone who has potential higher than many students in many other colleges, and he just hasn't been able to cope up with one particular system, then it is easy to see that one potential solution is for this student to join a less competitive place (if academic competition was an issue), or a place closer to home (if there were personal issues where family could help), or join a place where he can get a discipline of his choice (if motivation was an issue), etc. And except for the top few institutes in the country, all institutes have vacant seats at the end of first year. But none of them want to touch any such undesirable student. I believe that all institutes should have some mechanism to evaluate applications at the end of their first year, and offer admissions based on their vacant seats. If these 73 students from IIT Roorkee could get admission in decent colleges and get credit transfer for courses that they have passed, it wouldn't be as tough on those students and their parents. And if IIT Roorkee could then fill up these 73 seats from students from other institutes who are doing very well in their respective colleges (so mobility in other direction is also desirable), it would indeed be a win-win situation for everyone.

Third thing that can be done in this situation is what FYUP of Delhi University tried to do. If you pass courses equivalent to one year of course work, you will get a certificate, if you pass courses equivalent to two years of course work, you will get a diploma, if you pass courses equivalent to three years of course work, you will get a BSc, and if you are able to pass all courses, then you will get BTech. So give flexibility to the student. Don't force him to leave. Allow him to stay for the maximum duration of the program (which is typically six years for BTech in most IITs), and at the end of six years, he will get whatever he is eligible for.

If we can combine both these ideas, then a student performing poorly can decide whether he would prefer a diploma from an IIT or a BTech from another engineering college.

So, sorry, if you expected me to comment on IIT Roorkee's decision. I wouldn't since I do not understand the whole situation. But, in general, greater flexibility in our academic systems would lead to reduced stress and better learning for everyone.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Only one chance for NITs too?

Did you give JEE Advanced this year, and are thinking of giving JEE Advanced next year again.
Beware. Please read this carefully before accepting a seat from JOSAA.

Ever since I wrote the blog on Joint IIT/NIT Counselling and pointed the issue of not having any option of withdrawal which will mean a large number of students will lose a lot of money and those seats are likely to remain vacant, it has been pointed to me that another rule has been sneaked into the Business Rules of the Joint Counselling without any public discussion.

If you accept any seat in the joint counselling, even a seat in an NIT or another Government Funded Technical Institute (GFTI), then you are not allowed to sit for JEE Advanced in 2016.

Till now, the rule has been that if you accept an IIT seat (or ISM), then you are not allowed to give JEE Advanced next year. But if you accept an NIT or a IIIT seat, then you are allowed to give JEE Advanced next year. But that has been changed.

The Business Rule 59 under section XVII (Eligibility to Appear in JEE Advanced in Subsequent Years) on page 30 reads as follows:

Candidates who accept the allocated seat by reporting at the admitting institute or a reporting center, irrespective of whether they attend classes or not, become ineligible for JEE (Advanced) in subsequent years. 

Notice that the rule has no mention of difference between accepting an IIT seat and accepting an NIT or a GFTI seat. In fact, the emails to me claim that they have specifically with IIT JEE office and they have received in writing that the rule will be applicable even if you accept an NIT seat. (Ideally, I should be verifying this claim from an IIT myself, but I wanted to write this blog right away, since time is really short, and people may have started paying already, and hence I am believing in that claim. But if this claim is incorrect, I will be happy to issue a clarification, and bring down this blog.)

With the joint counselling this year, the gap between the "best institute" and the "worst institute" has increased so tremendously this year, that not allowing the student of that "worst" institute to improve next year is downright ridiculous and though I am not a lawyer, appears to be in violation of the Fundamental Right to Education. And doing so without pointing it out clearly to all stake holders and hiding it as one of the 60 business rules on the last page, is sinister.

I request all those who have received a non-IIT program in the first round, and are considering the option of giving JEE again in 2016, to first verify from IITs whether they will be able to give JEE Advanced 2016 next year if they accept a non-IIT seat this year.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

College Admission or Lottery?

We love lottery. Lottery is the easiest way to get big bucks, never mind the probability. And hence a large number of people buy lottery tickets. But are we choosing the colleges and universities to study in based on principles of lottery?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about how people choose an engineering college. I mentioned in that blog that some students from some engineering colleges in Delhi are writing on quora that their faculty is poor, their infrastructure is poor, their curriculum is outdated (all in comparison with IIIT Delhi) and yet they are recommending that students join them and not IIIT Delhi because placements are better (which is questionable claim, but I will let it go, since I am not very fond of placement as a way to decide admissions).

As the time to decide the options come close (the options can be filled in till 12th July), the number of answers on quora on the above lines have multiplied. A finer argument is as below:

Because the academic quality is so poor, we can pass all our courses with good marks with very little effort. This means that our transcripts look good (good marks). This also means that we have all the time in the world to do what will get us the jobs, viz., extra-curricular activities which develop our personality and soft skills which companies consider more important than academics (and see our placement record, which is so good), or study for CAT and other management admission tests (and see how many of us get into IIMs and other top management institutes). They will argue that the only purpose of an academic institute is to give them space for self growth, and line up a large bunch of companies at the end, and we know what those companies are going to ask us. We will prepare well for those interviews, and we will get those jobs.

When I wrote my earlier blog, I was dismayed by this line of argument and said so, but in the heart of my heart, I hoped that may be just a few people have this line of thinking. But in the last few days, the number of answers on quora on this line have increased, and it is clear that a lot of students in those institutes believe in this answer. I was still thinking that no prospective student or parent will fall for this argument. I was thinking that anyone reading this would immediately say that if there is no academics, I don't want to send my ward there. After all, one of the primary aims of going to an academic institute is to study. Placement may be important but can not be more important than the quality of education itself. The education is what will serve you for the next 50 years.

But then it happened yesterday. We had an Open House in IIIT Delhi where we invited potential students and their parents to come and see the campus, listen to the Director, ask any questions from students and faculty, etc. And at least parents of two potential students asked me why they should be concerned about quality of education. Why shouldn't they send their wards to a college where they will have all the time in the world to prepare for those campus interviews, and get a 50+ lakh job.

Here is the answer.

If a college 'A' had 0.5 percent graduates getting 50+ lakh package and a college 'B' had 0.7 percent graduates getting 50+ lakh package, and to conclude from this that college 'B' is better than college 'A' is flawed for many reasons. You have not tried to find out what are the skills and competencies those particular students had which your ward may or may not have. Even with those skills and competencies, there will be an element of huge luck since there would be many graduates who have similar skills and competencies. It is not obvious that the same skills would be in demand in 2019. It is not obvious that those companies would even be hiring from this college as the placement is a dynamic game. And these are huge factors.

So, by considering only this factor, you are essentially playing lottery with your ward's career. There is no other word to describe it.

But isn't the highest salary an indicator of overall placement. Hardly. Overall placement would be good if a higher percentage of students have got a job, and most of the students have got a good job (which is best indicated by the median package). And you can look around. Most colleges which have a graduate getting a 1 crore offer would not tell you the median salary of their graduates. They will talk about average, since this one student would have increased the average significantly. That is, if they give out authentic data at all. (By the way, I believe that even if you get authentic detailed data from two colleges, it is still risky to compare them based on placement data as primary inputs. I would not do it. But the point I am making here is that at least don't use such limited data which often give a completely wrong picture of the college.)

Another question about the highest salary is. Isn't there a correlation between better placement today and career earnings over the next 50 years. Again, hardly. The current placement depends on past record. Particularly, when we look at these 50+ lakh packages. Companies want to recruit very small number at these packages every year. So they go to a small number of campuses, which were selected at some point in time because at that time, these campuses were somehow known to produce better graduates. But once people start working, companies have a mechanism to evaluate performance, and give you pay hikes based on that performance. And while the number of 50+ lakh offers would be minuscule on the campuses, this number would soon become very large based on performance. (At least 100 times as many graduates will get this package in less than 10 years' time.) And performance in the company would not just depend on your ability to do well in an interview, or have soft skills or people skills (though all that is important), but your basic competence, and your ability to continuously learn. And there you would find that graduates of colleges with good quality of education do exceedingly well.

(I recall meeting an LNMIIT graduate in 2009, who told me that on-campus placement in his batch in 2007 was ZERO. He managed a job with some help, and he was given the lowest level salary amongst all recruits that year in that company. And yet at the time of his meeting me, he was earning more than anyone else hired in 2007, including graduates from top places, and this was purely because of the fact that we had a fantastic faculty quality in LNMIIT at that time - almost all of them were retired faculty from various IITs.)

So if you want to make money, you have two options. One, choose a college treating the process as a lottery and have a chance of one in 100 to make it big. Two, join a good academic place. Work hard. Build your competencies, and wait for a couple of years, and then the world is yours, almost guaranteed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Joint IIT/NIT Counseling

So, finally, the joint IIT and NIT admission counseling is happening for the first time. Also included are a large number of IIITs and several other Government Funded Technical Institutes.

The major advantage of join counseling has always been touted as that it will reduce the number of vacant seats in top institutes of the country. But will this really happen. The answer, unfortunately, is NO.

If we look at the business rules of the Joint Seat Allocation Authority (JOSSA), there is something very interesting there. So you get a seat in an NIT in the first round the results for which will be announced on 7th July. Now, you are supposed to pay Rs. 45,000 (Rs. 20,000 for SC/ST/PH), and visit a reporting center for document verification to confirm that seat.

If you do not confirm that seat, then you are out of counseling process. You will not be considered in a future round, even for your higher preferences. This is how it normally has been in the past.

However, if you do confirm your seat by paying Rs. 45,000 and reporting ans showing your documents before the deadline of July 12th, then you can not leave the process at all. You will certainly be allotted a seat (either the same seat that you were allotted in the first round, or a higher preference in the subsequent rounds, depending on your option of freeze, float and slide).

Now, what happens if this student gets an offer from BITS Pilani (or any other top institute in the country which is not part of JOSSA) on 13th July. If you prefer BITS over NIT (and most people do), and agree to take admission in BITS, there is no way you can inform JOSSA in any formal way. JOSSA will continue to believe that you have a seat through them and will not give that seat to anyone else. (As an aside, it will not refund your Rs. 45,000 either, since it has allotted you a seat, a seat that you asked for and confirmed.) At the end, that seat would remain vacant since it is only the Institute who will eventually find out that the seat is vacant when you do not join them till the last date of registration or reporting to that institute. And then it will be too late to offer that seat to someone else.

In the past, there have been a date for withdrawal which was decided in a way that there was at least one more round of seat allocation after the last date of withdrawal. And if you informed the appropriate authority regarding your wish to withdraw, not only that seat will be available to others in the subsequent round, but you will also get full refund (but for a small counseling fee).

Lack of withdrawal facility not only cause a huge financial loss to the students, but it also means that a large number of seats remain locked in with the students who will not join.

So don't count on joint counseling solving the problem of vacant seats. In fact, this may worsen the problem. Looks like someone is trying to ensure that this is the last year of joint counseling.