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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GATE Results: State of engineering education

GATE 2017 results are out, and once again, there is disappointment all over. This news article is stating that only 16% of those who gave the GATE exam could qualify. "Qualifying" means that these students have the capability to seek admission to an MTech program in the country. I cannot say about all engineering disciplines, and my comments are based on my familiarity with Computer Science/Information Technology education in the country.

We don't yet know the detailed statistics, but we do know that in the last couple of years, percentage of CS qualified candidates was lower than the combined percentage of qualified candidates in all disciplines. Let us assume the percentage of qualified candidates in CS in GATE 2017 to be about 14%.

Note that this 14% is after declaring candidates from reserved categories as qualified at much lower cutoffs. If we were to use the same cutoff for everyone (since that really reflects the preparation levels in Computer Science for all graduates), then this number could be as low as 11-12%. The reserved category students are the majority of the students giving GATE exam.

Are all these students really capable of doing an MTech (which, by the way, typically requires that you know only a few courses in CS). Anyone who has interviewed for MTech admissions, even in tier 2 institutions, would tell you that a lot of them are unable to answer many questions, and their marks in GATE are really a result of sustained coaching effort and not really understanding the subjects. Give them the same question that came in GATE paper in a different format, and they are unable to answer. Give them the same question 4 months after the GATE exam, and they claim that they have forgotten. So the percentage of students who can go through a poor quality MTech program in a Tier 2 institute is perhaps half of these qualified candidates. So may be around 6%. (A lot of hand waiving here. No scientific study. Just my impressions.)

Of course, not everyone gives GATE. How many of the "good" graduates not give GATE versus how many of the "poor" quality graduates not give GATE. I suspect that more than 1 lakh is fairly representative sample, but we may add a couple of percentage to our numbers, just to take care of this. So may be about 8% graduates are capable to doing at least a poor quality MTech program at a Tier 2 institution.

Note that this is roughly the capability required to do routine software related jobs in service industry, and NASSCOM, the industry body which represents the IT service industry, has been saying now for at least a couple of decades that less than 10% of our graduates are employment ready. (There is another class called "employable" which are those who can be readied with substantial training. With that the numbers go up.)

What should be the goal of a 4-year BTech (CS) program? Should the goal be to learn just 4-5 courses in a half-baked fashion which will enable you to do a low-quality job in IT service industry, or get admission in a poor-quality MTech program in a Tier 2 institute. If that was the goal, then about 10% of the graduates are meeting that goal, and 90% are not.

However, as media reported recently, HCL, the 4th largest IT service company will start hiring smart 12th class students and train them on those few things that they really need. The fact of the matter is that what can make you qualify in GATE (CS) is something that you can learn in a few months, you don't need a 4-year program, and that is exactly what the coaching industry is caching on.

In an earlier blog long time ago, I had pointed out that 50% of the graduates actually got a GATE score of 0 or negative in that year. It means that a majority of our CS/IT graduates are no better than a class 1 student (note I am comparing with someone who has just entered the school, not someone who is about to leave the school).

If we consider the goal of 4-year BTech (CS) program to not just learn a bit of programming, data structures and algorithms, but also understand how operating system works, how networks operate, how machine learning can be used to solve problems, and actually solve some of those problems, then the percentage of graduates who satisfy these program goals are much smaller than 10%. We don't have such numbers, but my gut feeling is that the numbers could not be more than 3-4%. Which means that out of about 10 lakh graduates in CS/IT domain, may be 30-40 thousand graduates meet what should be the requirements of a 4-year BTech (CS) program.

(I wonder if GATE would be willing to share the detailed data on each candidate's response to each question, and which colleges these candidates come from, etc., so that we can do a more detailed analysis, instead of making guesses.)

Thinking about who these 30-40 thousand graduates are, I would guess that these are primarily from IITs, NITs, IIITs, some of the state universities, deemed universities, etc. If we consider the entire eco-system of affiliated colleges in the country, there is perhaps less than 1% graduates who meet the requirements of a BTech program. And these 1%, I am sure, are largely because the students were inherently good, and the colleges could not spoil them despite best efforts. (Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, for example, NSIT in Delhi.)

Now, think about it. AICTE is supposed to regulate all affiliated colleges. And the result is that may be around 1% of the graduates of those colleges meet the goals of a 4-year BTech (CS) program. 99% of those who are getting degrees are not good enough for those degrees. What if we were to disband AICTE. What if the government were to suddenly decide that all these affiliated colleges have complete autonomy starting now. They can decide whom to admit, whom to recruit as faculty, what to teach, whom to give degrees, and so on, without any interface with any government department or agency. They can choose to have accreditation, if they so desire. They can decide their fees, and so on. So basically leave everything to the market forces. I am sure a very horrifying thought experiment for most people. But would market fail us even more. Would market forces result in 100% of the degrees being worthless, or is there a chance that may be instead of 99% of the degrees being worthless, the number may reduce to 98% or even lower.

I think the time has come to ask AICTE and MHRD some tough questions. Why regulations?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

IIIT-Delhi admitting commerce/arts with maths students from Delhi to BTech program

There are two ways to attract great talent - one, to compete with everyone else for the same talent, and two, to spot talent in places where others are not looking. We did this with our PhD program right in the beginning - trying to attract students right after BTech including those who did not give GATE. It paid rich dividends. We tried an experiment where we allowed non-science students (but those who have studied Maths in 12th class) for admission to BTech (Computer Science) but we did not receive many applications. Before we started admitting students jointly with other Delhi government institutions, we used to admit students based on ranking in an aptitude test. This, again, gave us excellent students. When we joined the joint admission process based on JEE, we also introduced the bonus marks scheme where an applicant could get his/her JEE score increased by up to 10 percent based on various achievements that s/he may have, including curricular (Olympiads, NTSE, etc.), or extra-curricular (sports, chess, cultural, etc.). We have been able to attract many good students who wouldn't have been able to make it purely based on JEE score.

From the coming year, we are starting a new program called, BTech (Information Technology and Social Science). The program will consists of all the core courses of Information Technology and a few electives, as well as several courses in humanities and social sciences, at least 4 courses each in two disciplines, and a few foundation courses and a few electives. The idea is to prepare individuals who have a strong grounding in social sciences, but are equally at ease with Computer Science. Later, they can take up careers which are typically open to CS and IT graduates, or take up careers (or for that matter, higher education), which are typically open to graduates of broad based social science programs. A program which is unique in the country, and which we believe is the need of the hour.

While discussing the intake for this program, we felt that not only we should try admitting non-science students once again because we can admit great talent that way, but also the students from non-science background would add value to this program by bringing in a different perspective in the classroom. So we are doing a small little experiment. Within the Delhi quota (as a Delhi Government institute, we admit most students from Delhi only), half the students will be from science background (and admitted along with our other BTech programs, that is, through the JEE route), and half the students will be from non-science backgrounds (and admitted on the basis of 12th class marks). After a year or two, we will review the performance of all students and see if any change in admission policy is needed. But we are really excited about teaching students from non-science background.

Will really appreciate if you inform anyone who is giving board exams in Delhi about this program.

Important Links:

BTech Admissions 2017 @ IIIT-Delhi

BTech Program in Information Technology and Social Science

Note: There is another new program, Computer Science and Design, this year. Will write a blog on that later.

Added on 19th March:

Blog by Prashant Bhattacharji

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Scholarships for the needy students: An IIITD innovation

All universities would ideally want that no one should be denied education just because someone can not pay the costs of attending the university. And hence all of them would have some financial support available for those who are coming from economically disadvantaged sections of the society. Usually, there is going to be a limited amount of support available and the number of claimants is much higher.

So a university needs to identify the most needy students from among all the applicants. The process is usually very simple. We ask students for the total income of their parents, and choose the ones who report the minimum income. Of course, we don't trust them. We ask them to share a copy of the income tax return, if their income is in the taxable range. If the income is less then that, we want them to give an affidavit on a stamp paper. I am told that penalty of lying in an affidavit is more than the penalty of lying on a plain piece of paper. Though I wonder if anyone ever has been prosecuted for misreporting his/her income.

The problem in this system is that in India, in a large number of cases, there is no relationship between the reported income and actual income. As our Finance Minister said in his budget speech this year, "India is largely a non tax-compliant society." One immediately notices that a peon working for the government gives a certificate that he is earning 3-4 lakh rupees in a year, but the businessman father of a student carrying a 25,000 rupees phone will claim that he earned only 2 lakh rupees a year. To give financial support to the latter would not really be fair.

At IIIT-Delhi, we have tweaked the system a bit. We realize that the economic background of a family can be judged from three things - income, expenditure and ownership of assets. Out of these three things, it is easiest to hide income, and most difficult to hide expenditure. And therefore, we ask an important question about expenditure in addition to the income certificate. We ask for the amount of money that the student gave to the school in class 12th in the name of tuition and various other fees. Notice that it is difficult to hide as most of the time, the information is available on the website. Also, it is very unlikely that a rich person (who may be hiding income and claiming to be poor) would send his/her son/daughter to a government school or a low-cost school. With this simple addition to the process, we are able to reduce the number of applications very drastically, and able to provide some financial support to pretty much everyone whose income and expenditure is within the limits set by us.

Of course, it is indeed possible that someone has studied in somewhat expensive schools and yet paying our substantial tuition is difficult to afford for them. For such cases, we have a separate process where a small committee will talk to individual students, seek all sort of information, much more detailed than what I mention above, sometimes asking for bank statements, or electricity bill, etc.

In our process of selecting students to provide financial support, we have kept the income limits higher than most government universities. We can do this because we also depend on expenditure (in particular, school expenses) as a significant parameter to judge financial need. We believe that we are able to target support much better than other places which only look at self declared income.

I wonder why government does not define economically backward based on income, expenditure and ownership of assets. My guess is that mostly the schemes for economically backward have political aims and hence there is really no interest in figuring out whether someone is really economically backward or not. Let there be more beneficiaries.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Early Admissions

I have often said in the past that one of the reasons for stress during admission time and finally many seats being vacant is that we are trying to complete admission process of more than 5 million students in just a few weeks in June/July. And we are doing this because somehow marks in 12th class or an entrance exam based on syllabus of 12th class is considered essential for admission to a college. Why can't we do admission before the board exams, I have often wondered.

This year, I am in the same boat as many readers of my blog. My daughter is looking forward to leaving school and start her college life. So the year has been stressful for everyone in the family, like it is for millions of families every year. However, our stress period got reduced because it turned out that many high quality private colleges have early admission process for liberal education. She applied to only one such university, and got selected. And since this happened before the board exams, she is able to focus on her boards without too much of stress. This also means that we will apply to only a small set of colleges after her board exams. A win-win situation for every stake holder.

I have suggested earlier that JEE Mains could be held in May after 11th class (and a few times after that), and JEE Advanced could be held in December. (Similarly, state entrance exams can be any time during the 12th class.). Admission process in all universities where the admission is not through board marks could ideally be finished in December/January. Students who did not perform well in any of these entrance exams would know their performance in December only, giving them a lot of time to try even harder in the board exams. It also allows universities to invite the admitted students before the classes start for removing any deficiency that they may have. For example, a lot of students from rural background may need some support in English language. They could be asked to join a couple of weeks in advance and some help could be given in this period. The current schedule has no space for any such intervention.

Note that tests for post-graduate admissions are usually held much earlier than the final semester exams. So CAT is held in November. GATE is held in February. Even though the number of students to be admitted is much smaller, and the stress levels associated with PG admissions are much less, and yet, the admission process starts so much earlier. But where we need that extra time, we don't do it. The placement activities start more than a year before the expected date of graduation. We don't always wait for the final exam results to be out to decide the next course of action, except for under-graduate admission in India.

A large number of students are dropping one year and repeating entrance exams next year. Can we at least offer these students an early admission. These have completed 12th class, and have every score that we would normally look for in June. So they could be considered for next year's admission based on this year's performance, may be with a bit of penalty. For example, when we are admitting students to IITs, we could ask both this year's JEE and previous year's JEE students to apply. We could say that we will reduce previous year's JEE marks by a couple of percentage points, and then consider them for ranking. If we do this, it almost amounts to early admission, since students will have a fairly good idea about where they will be able to get admission. One can even confirm admissions to next year in August itself.

Most of the universities around the world complete under-graduate admission without waiting for the 12th class performance to be known. We should be able to do it in India as well.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Autonomy and Trust

Our education regulators have always had good intentions. If you listen to folks from MHRD, UGC and AICTE, you will hear statements like, "we will give permission for this or that." UGC allows universities to introduce credit based systems. MHRD is allowing NITs and IITs to close unpopular programs. Just to give a couple of examples. Every week, I see the generosity of bureaucrats and academic regulators and sometimes even the political class in newspapers. (It is another matter that these are often the same statements they repeat after regular intervals. But let us enjoy the positive sentiment and not worry about them not doing even this much.)

Can we look forward to an India where universities have autonomy, at least private ones.

I am reminded of a very old article I read in Manushi (must have been late 80s). It mentioned a husband who is saying something to the effect: "I believe in equality of husband and wife. And therefore, I allow my wife to do anything that I will do myself. I allow her to do a job. I allow her to go out with her office colleagues, and so on." And then the author of the article asked a simple question. Are husband and wife really equal. Of course, not. In this story, the husband seemed to believe that wife needed permission for everything. He was perhaps more enlightened than an average husband of the times and gave that permission more easily or even always, but the basic premise still was that the wife needed permission while the husband didn't.

It is the same thing about autonomy. Every one sitting in MHRD, UGC, AICTE, etc. wants to prove their enlightenment by pronouncing that they want to grant more autonomy, but each such pronouncement only ends up proving that they have no idea of what autonomy means. The fact is that you can't appreciate autonomy when your mind has been trained to "control." Autonomy means that they don't even come to you to ask for permission. They come to you only to discuss how you can facilitate something that they are finding difficult to do on their own.You can audit, not just check whether all expenses are done properly, but also whether the impact of that investment is there or not. As the funding agency, you can influence by throwing in some carrots, but if you threaten to cut funding so drastically that the university cannot even survive then you are not respecting autonomy.

If you talk to people in academia regarding autonomy, they will be quick to blame bureaucrats and politicians. They don't understand education would be the constant refrain. And indeed, it is surprising that there is no educationist or academic leader in the Ministry. Most positions are held by people who have no experience in education, whatsoever. However, is situation at UGC and AICTE any better. Those are mostly staffed by academicians. Do they believe in having autonomous universities. Is situation in our universities very different. Would Vice Chancellors empower their Deans and Heads (not just their favorite Deans and Heads, but all Deans and Heads). It is easy to dismiss this by saying that most of the time the people who will rise in academic administration are those who favor status quo and who have benefited from the current system. And hence the system will only promote those who will not threaten the system from within. While there is certainly a grain of truth in it, there is also a larger cultural issue. Most of us want to get more autonomy from our superiors but wouldn't want to empower people working for us. There is just too much suspicion in the system. So a person can trust oneself (and hence genuinely believe that s/he deserves more autonomy) but can't trust others (and hence believes that others will misuse that autonomy).

How do we bring in more trust in our universities. I think the only way to do that is to somehow find good leaders.