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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Joint Counseling of IITs and NITs: Delhi High Court Decision

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

Here are the relevant portions of the judgement:

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

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

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

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

My comments:

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

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

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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why I want to be a Professor

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What is the Role of UGC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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