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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

IIT Admissions: 80 percentile diluted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

MHRD agrees with UGC

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

IITs can grant only UGC recognised degrees - Hindustan Times

IITs need UGC nod to open new programmes - Mint

IITs told to toe UGC line on degrees - The Hindu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UGC Decides Maximum Standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live, UGC!!!