Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Life Lessons from a course on Computer Networks

I have been teaching for 25 years. The course that I have taught the maximum number of times in this period is "Computer Network." I try to ensure that at the end of the course, students have understood how data moves from one place to the other in Internet, be it an email, or a webpage, or a file download. They should also be able to design a network for their home/office/building/campus, etc. They should be able to write a network application, or design a protocol, and so on.

But I hope they learn more than that.I like to teach this course because this has so many important lessons on how to lead our own lives. On the other hand, we some times design protocols based on what works in our own life, in human interactions.

We start with a lesson that one hopes everyone had learnt as a kid. In any group, if someone else is speaking, you should wait for him to stop before speaking. This is nothing but Carrier Sense Multiple Access (CSMA) protocol. We then improve upon it by saying that as you begin speaking, listen if someone else is starting too. If two persons happen to start around the same time, then they should both stop and one of them then restart speaking. Well that is how your good old Ethernet works. We call it CSMA/CD. CD for Collision Detection.

When you have to communicate with someone, would you call them up and start speaking non-stop even before you hear a "Hello" from the other side. Or would you first say, "Hello," and ask if they are free to talk (Connection Establishment). If they give the go ahead, speak only a little and wait for some response, which could just be that they have understood what you have just said. If they ask you to wait for a few seconds, you stop speaking for that much time (Sliding Window Protocol). Well, that is the difference between UDP (User Datagram Protocol) and TCP (Transmission Control Protocol). No wonder, as in real life, even in computer communication, most applications use TCP. No one wants to communicate with people who don't listen.

When I was reading about protocol design and implementation, I came across this guideline. (This was one of the RFCs. If someone knows which one, please let me know. I will add the reference.) The packets that you send must follow the protocol strictly. But when you receive a packet, accept packets even if the sender has not followed the protocol strictly. This is, perhaps, the most important life lesson from the Computer Networks course. Always say the right things, speak the truth. But when someone else is speaking, don't cutoff communication because the other person has said something which shouldn't have been said. Be tolerant of other people's mistakes.

While discussing congestion control, we talk about reducing our own demand as long as there is congestion. An aggressive behavior will result in prolonging of congestion. It might help that particular sender, but it does not improve network throughput. The idea that we must optimize for social good and not for individual good. Of course, given that some persons will always be aggressive, we also want to study systems in which behaviors favoring social good are rewarded (or anti-social behavior is punished) so that it also becomes a behavior for individual good.

While discussing different queuing strategies, we explain that there is no unique definition of fairness. The max-min fairness appears to be a reasonable choice in this particular context, but change the context and something else could be fair. So in any negotiation, don't assume what you think is fair is necessarily fair and if they are not agreeing on what you are asking, it is not because they are selfish or stupid. Try to understand fairness from their perspective.

As I think of more examples, I will add some more. But studying networks has been a fascinating journey because it is so closely linked to how you communicate in real life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Teaching by Temps: It is a budget issue too

Every few months, we see media raising the issue of faculty shortages in our universities. Today, one more article in ThePrint has talked about the same, though the focus is on new central universities opened in the last one decade. When you talk to the Vice Chancellors and others responsible for this situation, they will give the usual reasons every time. There are court cases and there is a stay on hiring. They are located in remote areas and there are not good enough applications. Or simply, there is a nationwide shortage of good people willing to come to academia.

Yesterday, ThePrint had another story on how the ad hoc teachers are running the classes.

Is it really the lack of availability of quality faculty members, or unwillingness to come to a remote area, or court cases. I believe they explain only a part of the story. There is another part to it.

What if, by some magic, universities could get quality faculty in large numbers. Will VCs like that. Faculty comes at a huge cost. On an average, just the salary and perks cost Rs. 20 lakh per faculty. If we include cost of institutional support for research, office, lab, library, Internet, PC, that is an additional Rs. 10 lakh per faculty at the very minimum. Where is the money to pay for all this. Most VCs look at faculty primarily as someone who will teach courses, and not as someone who is going to either do research or do institution building. If the faculty member is going to teach 4 courses a year, that means the cost of teaching a course is coming to Rs. 7 lakhs. Even if we consider the faculty member as doing all what s/he is supposed to be doing, and only part of the salary is due to teaching, teaching one course in a semester will mean about 1/7th to 1/8th of the total hours available in the year. Which means that the cost of teaching a course to the university is Rs. 3-4 lakhs. (I am assuming semester system, with a course being 40 lectures and associated labs, assignments, exams.)

When the same university recruits a temporary person for teaching a course, typically there are two models. One model is that you pay on a per lecture hour basis. In this model, the typical payments are Rs. 1000 per lecture hour. Some good universities will pay Rs. 2000 per hour. That means that the total cost of teaching a course is less than Rs. 1 lakh (including some transport support). The second model is that you recruit a full time temporary person for the semester, and ask him/her to teach two courses. Typical remuneration in such cases is about Rs. 2 lakhs for the semester, which is for two courses. So again, the cost of teaching one course is about a lakh of rupees.

Now think of a VC running a university on an extremely tight budget, where s/he has to try saving every rupee, otherwise it will be difficult to pay the electricity bill. Would the recruitment of permanent faculty members be very high on the agenda. I am afraid not.

If they had budget, and they had genuine difficulty in hiring quality faculty members, they would be offering not 1K or 2K per lecture, but 7-8K per lecture. (Just as an example, at LNMIIT, Jaipur, in 2009, where I was the Director, we used to pay up to Rs. 5,000 per lecture hour to our visiting faculty. That was 9 years ago. Inflation has been more than 100% since then.) We were very clear that if in any discipline we do not have a regular faculty member, we will request only the best to be a visiting faculty. No compromise on quality because of lack of faculty.

The problem of faculty shortage will not be solved by increasing the salary of faculty alone. The universities should also have money to pay those salaries.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

When is Fee Hike Justified?

We keep hearing about the students and parents protesting against fee hike at schools and colleges. Are all fee hikes unjustified and must be opposed.

In many cases, the fee hikes are necessary, but there is no communication from the administration explaining it, and hence the students and parents get upset. Fee hike should be explained in terms of institutional finances, and I believe most opposition would go away. But, of course, there are times when some institutes try to be unfair and that is why they don't explain the hike properly.

The most common charge by students is that they are not improving service, but charging more. This argument is usually bogus. An increase in fee which is commensurate with increase in expenditure can only result in current level of service. Only if the increase is substantially higher than the increase in input costs can the question of improved services be raised.

The second most common charge is: The inflation was 6-7% but you are increasing the fee by 12%. One really needs to look at all costs and all revenues to decide whether a fee hike is justified or not. Let me give an extreme example. In a government college, say, 99 rupees out of 100 spent come as a grant from the government, and one rupee as tuition. At the end of a year with say 8% inflation, the cost would have risen to 108, but if he government grant remains 99, the fee will have to be increase from 1 to 9, an 800% increase without any new and improved facilities, or some services would have to be curtailed.

While this was an extreme example, the point is that a university may have multiple revenue streams, and if some revenue stream doesn't grow at the rate of expenditure, then some other revenue stream will have to increase faster. For example, if you were dependent on philanthropic funds, and they don't grow as much, tuition may have to go up faster.

Also, there can be some sudden increase in expenses beyond rate of inflation, like the 7th pay commission award. Your faculty costs are going very high. So you will have to increase the fee appropriately.

When does a fee hike become unjustified? In the following situations.

If the fee hike is resulting in significant revenue surplus. A bit of surplus is ok, since there are many uncertainties in running any entity. But a large surplus is an indicator that you want current students to pay for future improvements or worse, there may even be a doubt that the institute will find a way to take this surplus out in some way or the other.

The other thing to check will be whether there is cross subsidy. If my fees is going up and my program is making profit, there is an explanation needed for why the other programs shouldn't pay more, reducing my fee.

The controversial part is when the students/parents think there is inefficiency in running the institution and if certain costs are controlled, their fee need not be hiked by as much. My own take is that if tuition is the only or primary revenue stream, then it is the responsibility of the administration to convince students that their fee is being spent efficiently. However, if students are paying only a fraction of the costs, they would have less say in determining what is useful and what is wasteful expense.

The most problematic cost is the cost of building new infrastructure. The problem here is that any building that you are constructing is likely to last 60-70 years, but if you take a bank loan for a shorter duration (say, 15 years), then you are loading all the costs to a few batches. This is fine if the growth rate is small. After all, current batches are paying very little for the infrastructure they are using. So some payment for future infrastructure is fine. But if the growth rate is high then asking a few batches a very substantial amount to take care of bank loans is certainly problematic.

Lastly, consider a situation in which there is a genuine reason for fee hike. The administration has done its best to control costs. They have worked hard to maintain all revenue streams to the extent possible, and yet there is a shortfall in the budget. Even in this situation, there is a need to cap the fee hike to a reasonable number. When someone joins as a student, one should have some idea about the total cost of education. When I am told the first year fee (and other expenses like hostel/mess), my expectation is that the costs will rise roughly at the rate of inflation. So, if the inflation is 6-7%, may be the costs will increase at 8-10%. If once in a rare while, the fee has to go up by another couple of points, I will understand. But anything more than that is a problem because I hadn't planned for it. To take care of sudden increase in input costs (like 7th pay commission) or sudden reduction in some revenue stream, instead of high increase in tuition, the institutions should depend on its surplus. As mentioned above, a small surplus every year is acceptable if it is properly invested and used only for the institution in due course. And may be the new batches can be asked to pay more. This will ensure that everyone who joins can have a reasonable plan for their educational expenses.

To conclude, the issue of fee hike should be handled by engaging with those who are going to be affected by it, and sharing as much information about the reasons for fee hike as possible. Try to limit the hike to little more than inflation every year, and the new batches can have higher cost, if there is a need to increase revenues further.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Ensuring Access to Quality Education

Yesterday, I wrote a blog, which was inspired by the new "Study in India" program, but the primary conclusion was that unless we can find a way to provide financial weak students access to quality (read, costly) education in private institutions, politics of the country would not allow setting up of a lot of high quality institutions. And unless we have lots of such institutions all over the country, we can forget about attracting foreign students or even retaining those who can afford to go abroad.

Since then, I have received several emails and even phone calls asking me for my ideas on how this could be done. And hence, this blog article. I am clearly going out of my area of expertise, just thinking aloud and hoping that my readers would present alternatives.

Instead of working in abstract, let us work with specific numbers. Numbers are not important but aid in understanding. Let us assume that quality education, including lodging and boarding will cost about Rs. 5 lakh per year (roughly the cost of studying in BITS Pilani, one of the finest institutions in private sector today). How can we structure our regulations and financial support to ensure that anyone can attend this college.

Till a decade or two ago, loans guaranteed by the government was a popular option. But slowly with high rate of loan default in US and now the rate creeping up in India as well, this is no longer considered as a viable option. Typical arguments against it are that it discourages students to take up low paying careers like higher education, NGO, etc., and also, if the student is unable to find a well paying job, a significant part of the income may be going to repay the loan, causing stress and eventually loan default.

How about a voucher system. The government gives a fixed subsidy to the college per student. The cost of education for the student will reduce by that much amount. Clearly, the government does not have enough money to pay a significant part or all of Rs. 5 lakh per student per year.

How about cross subsidies within a college. Those who can afford pay a higher tuition (even higher than the per capita cost of education), and the savings from these students are used to provide financial support to students from weaker background. The problem here is that it is unfair to ask for tuition substantially higher than cost, and hence this will work only if most students are from well to do families and only a few are from weaker backgrounds.

Philanthropic funds are another option to provide financial support. This is only in nascent stage in India and very little money is donated to educational institutions. And hence we cannot depend on it to provide significant support to a large number of students.

When I go through these options, it is clear that none of them will work in isolation. But I believe that we can combine all of them to enable access to quality education.

One of the problems that we face in any such discussion is how do we know who needs financial support. A large number of students can submit false income certificates. A whole lot of poor are unable to get admission to quality institutions simply because they did not have access to good schooling earlier. So the real number of financially weak students could be quite manageable, but if we base our support on self declared income, the numbers swell and make any scheme nonviable. We need to solve this issue as well.

Now, first the voucher scheme. I suggest that we identify good students and good institutes in some simple ways and support all good students joining any good institute. For example, we could say top 2% of all boards will be supported, along with top 10% of students giving JEE, NEET, CLAT, etc. So we identify a few exams, and students performing well in them are considered good.(We could provide support to some groups like SC/ST at lower cutoffs.) Similarly, we could identify quality institutions based on accreditation data, and on so many rankings that are going around these days.

Overall I am suggesting that we select 2-3 lakh students for this voucher, and voucher could be worth around Rs 2 lakh per year. This is an expenditure of about Rs. 5,000 crores for one batch, and in steady state when some of the students are doing a 3-year course and some are doing a 4-year course, the annual expenditure on this will be between 15,000 to 20,000 crores, something that can be managed, I believe in the budget. (We could insist that state governments pay a part of it to reduce burden on central government.). Note that the expenditure will be less since there aren't 2.5 lakh seats (per year) in all the quality institutions put together. Also, for government institutes (which the majority of these students are going anyway), this budget is anyway being spent even today. So the net increase in expenditure is only a fraction of the numbers above.

We could have variants of this proposal - may be one voucher is given to every good student, but another voucher is given to only needy students. May be the budget can come partly from central government and partly from state government.

We could then have loans for a much smaller amount than 5 lakhs per year. A student could take a loan of may be Rs. 2 lakhs per year or even less. On top of reduced loan, we need to have repayment models which are different from EMI. US has largely shifted to income based repayments (though amounts may be still large for some people) and if the loan is not fully repaid in 15-20 years, the rest is forgiven. It is not a life long liability. We could do better and link repayment to income tax. We could require that anyone taking a loan must provide a PAN number, and when you compute your income tax a certain fraction of that is added to your liability. We could even think of taxation kind of model. If you took a certain amount of loan, you will pay a certain fraction of your income tax for so many years, irrespective of whether you have repaid your loans or not. So some people may end up paying a lot more, and some people may end up paying much less. But the bottom line is that due to the voucher above, the loan that a student is saddled with is much less and if we can link repayment with income, it will become much more manageable.

Next, we could encourage philanthropic contributions to educational institutions. There are many things that government can do for this. One, there is a confusion in the tax code whether all universities are eligible for 100% tax deduction of donations to them. Donations to some get 50% tax deduction, and to some others, there is 100% tax deduction. We must make it uniform, 100% tax deduction. Second, we could allow a grant from CSR funds of profit making companies to the educational institutions. Currently, I am told that there are some confusions/restrictions. One way we can encourage individuals to donate to universities is if companies can make a matching contribution from their CSR funds to the same university.

And finally, we could insist that any quality institute who participates in the voucher program of the government will have to provide financial support to say 25% of its students to the extent of Rs. 1 lakh, either through cross subsidy or by raising philanthropic funds. This is, of course, based on the assumption that no more than 25% of the batch would need to have complete 5 lakh support. I am assuming that others who need to pay only 1 lakh of rupees in our example here will indeed be able to spend that kind of money in a year.

In order to identify those who need this support, an institute may look at information beyond the income certificate. They may look at markers of expenditure as well as wealth, which are more difficult to hide. For example, IIIT Delhi looks at the tuition a student had paid in 12th class. In interviewing students for determining their status, we look at what kind of smartphone s/he has, whether the parents own a house, car, AC, etc. Income may be easier to hide but these other parameters are more difficult.

If this scheme can work for all quality institutions, states would be much more amenable to not have tuition control on at least such institutions. Once the tuition control goes away, we are likely to have more quality institutions come up in the country (we will have to increase the accreditation capacity to ensure that one gets the tag of quality institution only if they actually deserve it). Hopefully, once we have many more quality institutions, we will not need to have any tuition control since students won't join poor quality institutions then.

To conclude, what is being suggested here is that the government provides some subsidy (voucher) for good/needy students studying in quality institutions, and leverage participation in voucher scheme to require the institute to provide some subsidy to the needy (through cross subsidy and/or philanthropic funds). As a result the dependence on loans reduce and the student is not burdened with heavy repayment after her education. Even that repayment can be linked to income and those who are not having a good income can get waiver from repayments. Of course, it increases government's investment in higher education, but not so much as it would have to do, if it were to depend primarily on public institutions to provide quality.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Study in India

Recently, the Government has launched a Study in India initiative. Under this initiative, a web portal has been created to give all relevant information to any potential foreign student. The government is offering fee waivers to many foreign students. This is one of the rare activities of the government, where four different ministries are working together - Ministry of Human Resource Development, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Commerce and Industry. There is focus on 30 countries in Asia and Africa where a lot of outreach will be attempted. All CFTIs have been told that they can have 15 percent super-numerary seats for foreign nationals. The goal is to increase the number of foreign students in India from around 45,000 now to 2,00,000 in 2023.

There is no doubt that having more foreign students in our universities is desirable. Diversity in the classroom is good for learning. In due course, it may become financially profit making for our poor institutions. And, of course, it enhances soft power of the nation. But the question is whether it will work.

There have been a lot of discussions on social media as to why foreign students don't come to India. A lot of reasons have been provided:

They don't know enough about our programs, which universities are good, how to apply and so on. Well, if lack of information was the primary issue then this new initiative will certainly help. But is that one of the main reasons.

They hear biased news about the country. How women are unsafe. How foreigners, particularly from Africa, are discriminated, attacked, etc. All such news are amplified and a wrong impression of security has been created. Well, the new program can do very little to correct that impression.

The image of the country as a difficult place to live in. Harsh weather. Difficult to negotiate house rentals. Difficult to travel around. And so on.

We can keep debating these reasons, and would never reach a conclusion. But if we really want to understand why foreigners don't want to study in India, the easiest way to find out is to understand why Indians don't want to study in India. Yes, a very large number of Indians go abroad to study. And I bet they don't do so only because they think that international exposure will help their careers. (If that was all, then we should be seeing a lot of people going abroad for a semester or two.)

While we have only 45,000 foreign students in India, more than 5.5 lakh Indians are studying abroad as per a Lok Sabha answer by the Government in August, 2017. Instead of 1.5 lakh foreigners, can we have a goal to attract 1.5 lakh of these back to Indian universities by 2023. I am convinced that if we can attract Indians to Indian universities, foreigners will also get attracted.

So, why do Indians go abroad. They do, because there aren't many good institutions in India. And therefore, those who didn't get admission to any of the few good quality institutions and could afford to study abroad, leave India. If we want to have 2 lakh foreigners, and if we assume that on an average our best institutions will have 5 percent foreign students within the next 5 years, it means that we must have good institutions with 40 lakh Indian students in them. The entire IIT system is only 75,000 students (and I have no hope of IIT system having 5% foreign students within 5 years).

And the reason for not having good enough institutions in India is very obvious. Quality requires resources. In India, government invests heavily only in a few institutions, and most states have tuition control on private universities. We must find a solution to this problem: How to provide students with weak financial background access to good quality education. Today, she has no such access, because there is no (or very little) good quality education. And our public policy has consistently preferred access over quality. Can we find a mechanism by which a poor can get access to quality. This could be by way of allowing high tuition but supporting financially weak students through a variety of means. By government chipping in through some schemes of scholarships for poor. With banks giving easy education loans. By encouraging philanthropic funds to flow into education through which the institutions can provide financial support. It will have to be a combination of all of these. And if we can allow quality institutions to exist on Indian soil, we will not only save huge amount of foreign exchange that we spend on educating lakhs of our youth abroad, but will also be able to attract foreign students to such institutions.

And when we talk of quality of education, it is not just about attracting good faculty and having good infrastructure, but also having a good student experience. Do we have enough freedom on our campuses. Do we have enough flexibility in our academic processes. And when you consider some of these issues, unfortunately even the best in India (like IIT system) do not compete well with even the ordinary outside. There are about 100,000 alumni of IIT system outside India. How many of them are able to convince their own sons or daughters to spend just one semester under Study Abroad program in an IIT. Certainly, in these cases, the issue is not lack of information but actually having the information that their alma mater does not compare well with the options that their wards have.

Of course, it is not my point that the "Study in India" initiative is bad. We must attract as many foreign students as our current quality of education providers can do. Advertising our strengths, pushing public institutions to admit more foreign students, providing tuition waivers, easing visa and other hurdles will increase that number, but to reach 2 lakh and beyond, we will need to improve the quality of our education offerings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

CS + X: IIIT Delhi takes the lead

Computer Science techniques are becoming increasingly important to all other disciplines. On the other hand, inputs of other disciplines is becoming increasingly important for problem solving even in those situations where apparently, we are using computing and related techniques to solve problems. Recognizing this, several leading universities in the world are working on what they call a "CS + X" strategy. While the research component of "CS + X" has been visible for some years now, with several joint conferences and sponsored research projects in inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary areas, it is only recently that the teaching programs under this strategy are starting to be offered.

Stanford University has been offering several "Joint Major" programs under "CS + X" initiative since 2014 Fall. However, the offerings are restricted to only a few disciplines in Arts and Humanities.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a bit more diverse set of offerings under its "CS + X" initiative and one can take a joint major of Computer Science with music, anthropology, chemistry, astronomy and a few more.

Northwestern University has its own "CS + X" strategy though I could not find any teaching program offering on its website.

It may be noted that a lot of universities have one or two programs which involves inputs from Computer Science and one or two other departments. Typical examples are Maths and Computer Science, or Design and Computer Science, or Art/Film/Theatre/Media and Computer Science. When a university has only 1 or 2 such programs, it is done on a case to case basis, and there is no overarching strategy or principle to replicate such programs with other departments. In such cases, we assume that they do not have a "CS + X" strategy.

In India, the only institute which has a well thought of "CS + X" strategy is IIIT Delhi. The thought process started in 2015 when the construction for Phase 2 of the campus infrastructure started. The expansion of the infrastructure was to take care of a student population more than 2.5 times the population at that time. There was a lot of discussion on whether the increase should simply be in the CSE and ECE programs that were going strong at that time, or should there be a diversification in our offering. A lot of people from within India and outside, including people from academia and industry, were consulted. A few workshops were held, and finally it was decided that most of the increase in admission will be through "CS + X" strategy. It was felt that students have or develop different interests and one size fit all will not meet their aspirations. On the other hand, even industry is looking for talent which is different from plain vanilla computer science.

The first program to start in 2016 was Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. Then in 2017, two more programs were started Computer Science and Design, and Computer Science and Social Science (named then as IT and SS). In 2018, yet another program is being started, Computer Science and BioSciences.

To understand these programs, one has to understand different types of offerings that universities have when someone wants to study two different disciplines in an undergraduate program.

Studying two disciplines is possible in the following different ways (not all universities offer all options):

Dual Degree: This is the most comprehensive study of both disciplines. You complete all graduation requirements of Bachelors in 'X' and all graduation requirements of Bachelors in 'Y'. Assuming that bachelors in 'X' requires around 40 courses, and bachelors in 'Y' requires around 40 courses, the total requirement will not be 80 courses, but may be around 48-50 courses. This is because all common requirements need to be finished only once. Also, courses in 'X' may count towards open elective requirements of degree in 'Y' and vice versa. Such a program can be easily completed in 5 years (assuming that both bachelors programs have a normal duration of 4 years).

Second Major (Or double major): In these programs you complete the degree requirements of discipline 'X' and do many courses (8-10) of discipline 'Y'. You do not need to complete all graduation requirements of a bachelors degree in 'Y' which could include may be around 15 courses in the discipline and perhaps some breadth requirement as well. These 8-10 extra courses can be taken in the open elective slots of the degree program in 'X'. And depending on how many slots are available, one may need to take up only 1 or 2 additional courses. So overall you will do 40-42 courses and can normally complete this within the normal duration of the degree in 'X'.

Minor: In these programs, you complete all degree requirements of discipline 'X' and do only a few courses (4-5) of discipline 'Y'. Since any good program in 'X' would have at least that many open elective slots, this can certainly be done within the normal duration of the program.

Joint Major (or joint degree): This is the approach taken by "CS + X" initiatives. In joint major, you look at the graduation requirements of discipline 'X' and remove some advanced courses and final year electives. Similarly, you do the same for discipline 'Y'. So overall, you bring down the graduation requirements to 40-42, similar to a single degree requirements. But you may have less elective slots now. In addition, you may have a few specialized courses which have inputs from both disciplines. You may be additionally required to do your final year project in a way that it requires skills and knowledge from both disciplines. Normally, one is being prepared for a niche inter-disciplinary world, but the program is structured in a way that one can go for Master's program in either discipline 'X' or discipline 'Y'.

The world over, students are increasingly studying two disciplines in their undergraduate programs. While the number of dual degrees and joint majors is very small, the number of students opting to do a second major or a minor is very high. I can see why dual degree did not become popular - it was taking more time which meant not only higher college costs (an additional year of tuition and living) but also joining workplace a year later. But this new trend of joint majors takes care of that issue, and I am convinced that the future of joint major programs is very bright.

So, if you are a 12th class student, looking for options to do engineering, do consider the "CS + X" offerings of IIIT Delhi.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Restricting Numbers for JEE Advanced

For last many years, thanks to the so-called "One Nation One Test" formula (which only meant that all tests be renamed as JEE, so that we can claim there is only one test), IITs have been selecting students from JEE (Mains) who can sit for JEE Advanced. This year, reportedly, 2.31 lakh students were shortlisted.

Why so many?

Historically, when the negotiations for this model were going on, there was an agreement that we would shortlist about 5 students for each seat on offer. Initially, it was suggested that all CFTIs (including NITs basically) would admit students through JEE Advanced. Therefore, there would be about 30,000 seats, and hence 1.5 lakh would be shortlisted. Later on, it was agreed that only IITs (and erstwhile ISM) would admit through JEE Advanced. Number of seats thus reduced to 9000, but the number of shortlisted students remained 1.5 lakhs, since that number had already been announced by the Minister during the earlier phase of negotiations. It was said that in the next year, we may go back to 45-50K students since that would also allow the question paper to have non-MCQ questions, which have to be graded manually.

Could we go back to 5 students per seat?

I am told that IITs have been doing some exercise looking at what ranks in JEE Mains are finally getting selected in JEE Advanced, and noticing that a few people in the 75000 to 1 lakh unreserved category ranks are also getting selected in JEE Advanced, and hence increasing the number of unreserved category ranks shortlisted for JEE Advanced every year. The argument is that anyone with even some chance to be selected in JEE Advanced must be allowed to give JEE Advanced.

Nothing wrong with the argument, except then why have a two stage process at all. A two-stage process inherently means that there is some aspect of merit that is being tested at every stage and the minimum value of that evaluation is necessary to cross that stage irrespective of whether one could directly pass the next stage or not.

But as it happens, IITs have no respect for JEE Mains. They were almost forced to use this to reduce the number of students giving JEE Advanced, which reduced their income substantially. In fact, now there is hardly any profit from conducting JEE Advanced. Their level of mistrust in JEE Mains can be gauged from the fact that for PwD category, the cutoff is -35. (News Item here.) If JEE Mains was believed to be an indicator of any kind of merit, and 0 marks in the test meant same level of merit as someone entering primary school, one would have kept the cutoff as at least 1 mark to move to the next stage. But since, IITs believe that JEE Mains is a useless exam with very weak correlation between merit and score, it is to be used only for ranking and not for evaluating merit, and hence even -35 would not mean lack of merit for IITs.

Now, I am not going to defend JEE Mains. May be it is a useless exam, may be not. But, if IITs believe that it is a useless exam, why use this at all as a filter. If filter is a political reality, then we can decide to allow 5 lakh students to give JEE Advanced, still maintaining the filter to please bosses. On the other hand, if IITs have started liking the fact that they have to test less number of students, there can be other ways of restricting number of students. Just thinking allowed, what if we conduct JEE Advanced in first week of May (the way we used to for decades) without JEE Mains being a filter. We allow everyone to register with a simple condition - you pay Rs. 10,000 to register (less for SC/ST/PH, as usual), and if you score well enough in your respective category (say, 30% for unreserved, 27% for OBC-NCL, 15% for SC/ST/PH), IITs will refund 90% of it.

Conducting JEE Advanced early without the JEE Mains being a filter would allow some of the repeaters to focus on only one test, and the admission process to start early. And I cannot emphasize enough of the advantages of early admissions in top institutions. That allows everyone more time to complete admissions before their respective semester starts, reducing stress among students and parents.

Conclusion: Either have JEE Mains as a filter and allow only a small number of students to register for JEE Advanced. Or have JEE Advanced early and allow everyone to register and if there is a need to reduce the number of applicants, find alternate ways of doing so.

Reducing the number would also help in conduct of the exam. Students can get their 1st or 2nd choices in exam centers, and not having to rush several hundred KMs as they got their 5th choice. In fact, we should plan to have a fully AC environment with a place to sit during the break.