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Sunday, May 15, 2016

JEE used to be student friendly

I am surprised by looking at this news item today. All sorts of restrictions on the students sitting for JEE Advanced next Sunday. I must thank my stars that JEE used to be so student friendly in my times.

It now appears that JEE wants to put the students through extreme stress (as if the stress of JEE was not bad enough) and the selection criteria is not who knows Physics, Chemistry and Maths, but who can handle stress. Obviously, anyone who can handle this kind of stress, is less likely to feel stressed once at IIT, and IIT Guwahaty should prefer that.

Reporting 90 minutes before the exam. Not everyone lives near the centers. Someone traveling long distance, of course, would have to come to town the evening before. But now you are insisting that even people coming from 50-100 KM distance check into a hotel near the center the previous evening. That will allow the candidates to have a proper sleep in the night, get up at a reasonable time and still reach 90 minutes before the exam. May be the hotels near JEE centers should have a special JEE offer. We will drop you at the center in the morning, keep your mobile and other things, bring you back for a quick lunch, and so on.

Does frisking take that much time. At the airports, we see lines moving rather quickly and they handle a huge amount of traffic under quite stressful conditions. Why can't we plan to have multiple frisking points at each center. I also understand that collecting biometric data for each candidate takes time, but is it necessary to ask everyone to report 90 minutes before the exam. Of course, an easier solution would have been to do the biometric data collection during the exam. Increase the time of the exam by 2 minutes, and every candidate will be disturbed once for 2 minutes during the exam for biometric. But that would be student friendly.

No watches. Of course, Samsung watch can communicate with the outside world, and you can't differentiate between one kind of watch and the other. But I won't be able to give an exam with this condition. When I am under stress, I need to have the time in front of me continuously. Even 1 minute is important. Announcing the time every 30 minutes is quite useless. (Wouldn't it be better for IITs to insist that there be wall clocks in every room, may be more than one, where exams are being held. But that would be student friendly.)

No shoes. I guess, you could hide a bluetooth device in the shoes. But how would one use that device without the invigilator noticing it. Wouldn't it be better to ensure better invigilation than to put such kinds of restrictions.

No full sleeves shirts or . I guess the idea is to bare more of your flesh since the hidden parts of the body could be carrying small communication devices. But where do we stop. May be force shorts instead of pants. And frankly, if someone wants to put a small communication device inside the clothes, even small size clothes are good enough for that. The rules also say that large buttons are not allowed. Apparently, large buttons could be the communication devices. Now, who decides what is large. And what happens if the size of the button is slightly larger than the normal. There is a disagreement between the student and the invigilator on what constitutes large. Would that person be allowed to sit in the exam without a shirt.

No metal. Many girl candidates are unlikely to realize that ear rings are made of a metal. What happens - you put away that gold ear ring outside and we are not responsible for its safety? Would my spectacles be allowed. Or would I have to buy a new pair made of plastic. Would the bracelet worn by Sikhs be allowed. Why no metal. I am sure IITs want to make sure that those with various superstitions about some rings doing wonders for them are not selected. Only those who have a strong belief in rationality and scientific processes should study in IITs.

The primary reason to do all this is to avoid cheating, which can normally be done by good invigilation. But instead of seeing how invigilation can be improved, we will put all the burden on the students. I recall when IITs had moved to 2-stage process in 1998. It was said that it is impossible to be fool proof about security when 10 lakh students are taking the exam. So in the second stage in which a much smaller number will be allowed, we can have a much tighter security and invigilation. So you can't do a tight invigilation when there are 2 lakh candidates. But what was the need to shortlist 2 lakh candidates. Why can't we trust JEE Mains a bit more and shortlist say only 1 lakh or even less.

If you look at the recent history of IIT JEE, the thought process is not "will this give us better students" "is this going to be student-friendly" but only "how can we organize JEE in a way that courts don't intervene and its reputation remains intact."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

GATE 2016: Problem with CSE key

I have never been fond of GATE exam. In fact, this is a terrible exam and I have written about it several times on this blog. So often one finds ambiguous questions. This blog is to report one such ambiguous question in GATE 2016 Computer Science and Engineering paper.

Q. Which one of the following protocols is NOT used to resolve one form of address to another one?

(A) DNS
(B) ARP
(C) DHCP
(D) RARP

The official answer is (C).

Obviously, the question was set by someone who does not understand protocols. They would have checked some book which would have said that Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol is used to dynamically assign IP addresses to hosts. They would have assumed that DHCP can only do this, and nothing else. In particular, they would have assumed that DHCP is NOT used to resolve one form of address to another one. But, of course, DHCP can very much be used to provide static addresses by using MAC address as one possible identity of the node seeking an IP address.

So far, so good. I guess that the committee that sets up a question paper can not be a very large committee in the interest of secrecy. And hence one cannot possibly have an expert from each sub-discipline of Computer Science. And therefore, such misunderstandings can happen. And this is really the cause of ambiguous questions in GATE, for which there is no easy solution.

I was hoping that at least after such an ambiguity has crept in, and they have been informed about it, they will take appropriate measures to reduce the impact of such an error on students. But, unfortunately, at least in this case, they decided to ignore the appeal, which is very strange to me.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Budget 2016 for Higher Education

We eagerly await this day. While the government works 365 days and announcements are made every day of plans and proposals and decisions, but a fairly significant number of them are announced in the budget speech. Also, while most other decisions of the government are discussed openly prior to them being announced, the budget announcements are somehow considered state secrets, and therefore, we don't have any inkling for many of them.

While I have generic interest in economy, my primary interest these days is finding out what is in store for higher education.

Let me start with what I consider as the most crucial announcement for higher education.

61. It is our commitment to empower Higher Educational Institutions to help them become world class teaching and research institutions. An enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to ten public and ten private institutions to emerge as world-class Teaching and Research Institutions. This will enhance affordable access to high quality education for ordinary Indians. A detailed scheme will be formulated.

This is important because of the realization that it verbalizes. That the regulatory architecture today does not support or empower rather hinder the higher educational institutions to become high quality. The institutions in India who provide high quality education do so not because of regulations, but in spite of them. UGC and AICTE can only think of specifying minimum standards through force, which end up becoming maximum standards for many educational institutions to achieve. UGC and AICTE do not understand that by having so much regulation, they are letting these institutions off without any accountability, since they simply have to follow UGC/AICTE regulations.

The second important aspect of this statement is that the government expects private institutions to emerge as world class institutions. Again, it is an important statement since for all these years, we have heard only one thing from regulatory bodies as well as from the government - that the private sector is poor quality, notwithstanding the fact that some private sector institutions like BITS Pilani and IIIT Hyderabad are outstanding in every sense of the word, and a large number of government institutions are really bad in quality. That narrative has been balanced to some extent. That most of the higher education happens in private sector is a reason enough to find ways to support private sector, and I am glad that a beginning is being made.

Of course, the devil is in the detail. How will these institutions be selected. What kind of regulatory support will be given to them. How will that support be worked out so that other institutions don't go to court demanding the same treatment to them. (And I hope, if the differential regulatory mechanism does help these 20 institutions, we will then not limit ourselves to just these 20, but could be more, many more.) Let this be an experiment in education regulation.

62. We have decided to set up a Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) with an initial capital base of `1,000 crores. The HEFA will be a not-for-profit organization that will leverage funds from the market and supplement them with donations and CSR funds. These funds will be used to finance improvement in infrastructure in our top institutions and will be serviced through internal accruals.

Are these top institutions same as the 20 in previous announcement. I hope not. I am hoping that this will lead to educational institutions getting access to loans cheaper than what banks would have given otherwise. Also, banks have not been giving long-term loans to educational institutions. They require payment in small number of years, which is not possible unless the fees charged are very high. This body, hopefully, will give loans on long-term basis. This should allow for improvement in infrastructure. Those pieces of infrastructure where there is a clear internal accrual like hostel would be easy to fund through this. But, of course, it is extremely important that loans are given only to worthy institutions. This body should not be stuck with bad loans.

63. To help Students, Higher Education Institutions and Employers to access degree certificates of candidates, it is proposed to establish a Digital Depository for School Leaving Certificates, College Degrees, Academic Awards and Mark sheets, on the pattern of a Securities Depository. This will help validate their authenticity, safe storage and easy retrieval.

This is something that I have been hearing for a decade. Fake degrees and certificates is a serious problem, and as a result, the number of agencies who want these things to be verified is increasing by the day. For some institutions, the verification process has become a profit making venture, but for most institutions, it is a pain to reply to a large number of verification requests. But I don't know what has been the problem all these years. This seems like such a simple idea which should have been implemented long ago. But anyway, I hope this announcement will actually be implemented before the next budget speech.
 

Others:

There are several other announcements which are related to skill development and building companies. These are all good things, very much needed to take advantage of the so-called demography dividend, but I would consider them outside the scope of this blog.

On the other hand, I am very disappointed by the amount of money allotted to MHRD. The actual expenses in 2014-15 was Rs. 68,875 crores. The revised estimate for 2015-16 is Rs. 67, 586 crores, and the budget estimate for 2016-17 is Rs. 72,394 crores.

Notice that in 2014-15, the budget allocation was significantly higher but later the government slashed the budget.  In 2015-16, there is another reduction in budget. And in 2016-17, while nominally there is a 7% increase in allocation, we have to see whether we will see reduction in actual expenses that we have seen in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. Even if there is no reduction and the entire budgetary allocation is spent, a 7% increase will not even take care of inflation and 7th pay commission raises, not to mention the increased expenditure on setting up of new IITs/NITs and other institutions that have been announced in the last couple of years. There is also major expansion taking place in the university system. So if we look at the budget on a per-student or a per-teacher basis, there is a third continuous year of decline in funding of higher education.

This is extremely serious. I do understand that there is greater amount of resources being shared with states and the state governments are supposed to spend more on education, but even with that, it is going to pinch at least the central government institutions which do not get any funding from states. It will only put pressure on the government to allow higher tuition. IITs have already demanded that tuition be raised sharply, and with this budget, it would be difficult to not agree to those demands.

Institutions which can diversify their revenue sources will become stronger over a period of time. The budget for the last two years and the proposed one for the next year should convince every administrator in the higher education sector that the priority of this government are more in terms of skill development and they have to live with reduced support. Skill development is, of course, extremely important, and it is a much more important merit good than higher education is. So no complaints really, except that I believe that money could be found for both skill development and education. They should not be considered either-or. Institutions should become more aggressive in raising philanthropic funds, including from alumni as well as CSR funds from industry.

Overall a mixed bag. A couple of exciting announcements and I hope the details will be worked out soon. The budget on the other hand is much less than what was expected.


Added Later:
I have been told that though the overall increase in the MHRD budget is minuscule, the increase in higher education budget is good, while the budget for school education has been cut.
I would request readers to put such information as comment and don't be shy. But, of course, if you don't want to write on the blog, I will post important information that I receive on email.