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Friday, June 23, 2017

IIITD: Information Technology and Social Sciences

This article is about a very exciting program being started by IIIT Delhi this year. If you have done 12th class from a school in Delhi and you were NOT a science student but did study Mathematics, and your aggregate marks (in 5 subjects) is at least 80%, you have a chance of getting admission into this really fantastic combination. But hurry, deadline is tomorrow (24th June), 3PM. (Deadline extended till midnight.) Here is the link to apply online. If you are a Science student and has taken JEE, you can apply for this program through Joint Admissions Counselling website.

This program is a unique combination of Computer Science and Social Science. I am not aware of any other under-graduate program in India with this combination. Of course in US universities (and other places around the world), one could do a double major but such flexibility is missing in Indian universities. And even where such options are available, most students consider studying anything other than Computer Science as waste of time. So, IIIT-Delhi has decided that instead of only offering a regular BTech (CSE) program with options of doing a second major in different disciplines, they will offer programs where the student commits to the second major right at the time of admission. This allows tailoring of program right from the 2nd semester. (There are other programs of this nature: Computer Science and Applied Maths, Computer Science and Design, and there are plans to offer more such programs in future.)

The program requires you to study all the core Computer Science courses, and a few electives in CS, but it also exposes you to social sciences. There are three Social Science streams offered: Economics, Psychology, and Sociology/Anthropology. The student has to choose two streams to do at least four courses in each of them, and do at least one course in the third stream. Besides, there are some foundation courses, and a few electives that have to be done in any social science discipline. (Besides these three disciplines that we will be offering several courses in, we do offer a few courses in Philosophy, Literature, History, and so on.)

Since one of the goals of this program is to produce social scientists who can understand and use computational technologies, the social science content has been chosen with a view that a graduate can seek admission in any reputed Master's level program. So suppose you want to do Masters in Economics, not only you will do minimum 4 courses in Economics compulsorily, but can also choose a few more electives, and with 6-7 courses in Economics, will be ready for admission to the relevant Masters programs.

The society and the industry today desperately need people with such combinations. If one wants to be an entrepreneur, understanding technology is not enough, the exposure to social science is extremely important. The same is true for those who want to be managers and administrators. Even product development will be significantly enhanced if one really understand the society for which that product is being developed. On the other hand, there is a serious need for social scientists who can use Computational technologies to improve our understanding of society. Data analysis has become an important tool for social science research. And of course, one can do inter-disciplinary work that overlaps with both CS and Social Sciences. Since there is a huge gap, it translates to a huge opportunity for the graduates of this program.

More details of the program can be read from this link on IIITD website.

We had an open house yesterday, which had a focus on the two new programs, including this one on ITSS. I am mentioning here a few typical questions or concerns that were expressed by students or parents in the open house.

The foremost was this: I am only interested in Computer Science, and I am considering ITSS only because I am unlikely to get admission to CS. Is the social science component a waste of time for me, or is it useful.

There is one question that many students ask us all the time. Why should a CS student study Chemistry or Thermodynamics or Sociology. Vikram has recently explained the need for diversity of courses in an educational program really well. To add to what he has already written, broad based education will really help in future because today, we have no idea what kind of jobs and careers would exist just 15-20 years from now. And remember, the person entering higher education today will probably be an active worker 50-55 years from now. How do educational institutions ensure that today's education remains relevant in an uncertain future world. Really speaking, the only thing we can do is to impart some knowledge and skills which are likely to remain relevant in the next 10 years, and impart the most important skill of learning new things on one's own. And learning becomes easier if you can make connections of new knowledge with the knowledge you already have. And therefore, having a broad based education ensures that you can learn more easily throughout your career, since it would increase the chances of making connections with past knowledge. This is one reason why liberal arts education is getting so popular lately. The hope is that a broad based education will enable you to do anything that you may want to or have to do in future.

So, coming back to the original question, my take is that even if you are not deeply interested in social science, having a diverse set of courses would be immensely useful to anyone. Of course, we would love to have students who are equally interested in CS and SS. That would make for a more interesting class and everyone learns better as a result.

Also, anecdotally, when ever we have asked senior alumni of IIT Kanpur regarding what courses have really benefited them in life, surprisingly, a large number of them mention social science courses. My personal belief is that studying a large number of social science courses is very positive even if someone was only interested in CS related careers.

The second question was: Is this program better or worse than Computer Science program.

It is difficult to compare two programs. However, one should note that whenever any university will think of starting a new program, it will certainly think of whether the program fills a need of the society and whether it can be offered with at least similar quality as its existing programs, if not better. It would be trivial for IIIT-Delhi to expand by simply increasing the number of seats in its existing very successful and popular programs. There was no need for a massive one year effort in planning a new course, which included taking feedback from 100s of people in India and abroad, personally visiting several universities and checking out websites of a lot more, having multiple workshops of subject experts as well as people from industry and academic thinkers of the country. So it is a program that we have invested in heavily because we believe that this combination is a great need of the society and the graduates will contribute in leading India to greatness.

Question 3: Would it be difficult for non-science students to compete with science students in the same class.

The IIIT-Delhi curriculum does not have any compulsory physics/chemistry/biology courses. And Mathematics at the 12th class level is required for admission. There may be 1-2 courses (like a course on circuits) where some exposure to Physics could possibly help, but in everything else Maths is sufficient background to perform well. We believe that a mixed class would lead to better learning and we are really hoping that many non-science students (from Delhi) will seek admission to the program.

Question 4: The all important question of placements/internships.

Howsoever I may like to convince students and parents that if you get good quality education, you will not have to worry about jobs and careers, this question keeps coming up. Well, obviously, we don't have data and won't have data for 4 more years. The only thing we can say is that even the first batch of IIIT-Delhi that graduated in 2012 had great placement, and they are currently either studying in great universities around the world, or working in top companies of the world, or are doing other interesting things like their own companies. And we have not looked back since then. The placement (if we consider the median salary offers) is one of the best in the country. And this is purely based on the quality of education that IIITD provides. If we could have a great placement for our first two programs when no one knew us, it should give confidence to prospective students and parents that it can only get better after we have made a mark in the education sector. So look at our faculty, talk to our students, convince yourself that we continue to provide high quality education and trust us that quality leads to great jobs and careers.

In terms of sectors and kinds of jobs/careers that could find this education very useful (though I must warn again that good quality education allows you to learn many new things quickly and hence get into other sectors/careers quickly), I think the Data-centric approach of some ITSS courses (Econometrics, Networks (Social Science Research Methods), Machine Learning (Pattern recognition, etc.)) are contemporary areas with a lot of job opportunities that will only grow in the shorter-run. Specific sectors include e-commerce/retail, Banking/Insurance sector, credit card companies with risk-management roles, consulting sector, data-driven journalism, new media/social media roles, and many more. Of course, any IT product company like all well known MNCs, would find this education highly desirable.

To end this article, let me quote from an article in Quartz:
As the vociferous Shark Tank host and entrepreneur Marc Cuban has recently observed about business careers: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. [You need] someone who is more of a freer thinker.”
While we are not in the business of liberal arts education, we certainly believe that a more liberal education would be hugely valuable in future.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why are Parents Confused about College Choices

In July, 2015, I was at the Pan IIT Conference in Santa Clara, US. In one of the chat session, the legendary Vinod Khosla said something close to my heart. Let me paraphrase him and change the context from Silicon Valley to India:

"It is understood that you need to live comfortably, that you would want to rent a decent house, and eventually buy an apartment, that you would want to buy a car, have all the modern amenities in your home, take care of all your responsibilities like childrens' education in good places, supporting parents in their old age (including their medical bills), save some for a rainy day, have a vacation every year, and you can add a few more things that you really want to enjoy. This will translate to securing a decent job after your education. But once you have achieved all this, what next. Would you want the second house, a third car, a fourth iphone, more jewellery, and so on, or would you then think of jobs that you enjoy doing. May be the job that you like is also the job that gives you lot more money. But if there is a choice between doing something not so enjoyable but getting lots of money, and doing something that you enjoy and still getting money greater than your threshold for comfortable life, what would you prefer."

I am sure, if the question is asked in this fashion, most people would say that they would follow their interest once they are reasonably secure financially. But do they mean it.

In our country, someone starting with a salary of 4-5 lakhs and a decent growth (say, 5% more than inflation) would mean that everything that we have written above could be done very easily. In fact, one could start at even lower figures and grow from there. And pretty much every discipline in any good institute would enable a good student to get these levels of jobs. So the placement question that every parent is so interested in should really boil down to whether the median salary of the graduates is more than 4 lakhs or not. And beyond that, the student should be free to decide the program and college. But we all know that is not the case. Parents and students are easily excited about large salaries and do not even attempt to figure out what they might like.

Often, the goal is to earn the maximum. The optimization function is the money to be earned over the next 50 years. Unfortunately, this function is very difficult to compute. We don't even know what jobs and careers would be there 10 years from now, what to talk about 50 years. An average person will not remain in the same career for so long, and indeed people change careers every 10-15 years. So what is needed for success is not a particular discipline, but the ability to learn new things. Even if you happen to be in a low paying career in the beginning, when the time comes to change your career, you could then pick up a better paying career, if you had the ability to learn. On the other hand, if you do not pick up the ability to learn, being in the highest paying career is of no use if you are going to lose that job in 10 years.

So from monetary point of view, one should look for education which gives a decent start and prepare you for change of careers (or teaches you the most important skill of self-learning). Again, it would seem that pretty much any discipline in any good institute would meet this requirements.

Since it is pretty obvious to anyone that earnings over the next 50 years are impossible to compute, parents use a proxy. The first month's salary. The assumption is that if the first month salary is high, it would be a strong indicator of higher lifelong earning. That is a huge leap of faith, since as we just said we don't even know what kind of jobs will be there after 10 years.

Let me give you my example. When I was in my final year, and was applying for higher education, the hottest areas were theoretical computer science and Artificial Intelligence (which at that time was really about search and expert systems). I had thoroughly enjoyed the course on Networking and wanted to pursue that. Each of my well wisher advised me that I should write TCS/AI in my statement of purpose, but I was adamant. It had to be Networking. I was lucky to get admission in a good school (UMCP). And I did my PhD in Networking. By the time I finished, all the smart folks were competing for a diminishing number of jobs in TCS/AI and there were extremely few networking PhDs. I got a job in IIT Kanpur, which was considered the best CS department in India at that time, where around the same time, we rejected the applications of PhDs from top departments of the world in TCS/AI, since there were just so many of them. If you were in networking in 90s, the industry lab to work in was Bell Labs, and I could get a visiting position there for a semester. Not having to compete with an army of smart people has helped me a lot in my career. And those who only looked at what is the current favorite actually were so disappointed with the job market, many of them had to change their careers right away. And, of course, today, the networking is no longer hot. One should have morphed into a security expert, or a cloud expert or an IoT expert, or something else.

So, if we don't know what jobs we will be doing 10 years from now, we can not take it for granted that high first month salary will necessarily mean high income over 50 years

But, the first month's salary is important to parents. The next issue is that even if you know exactly what salaries have been offered to everyone in the graduating batch, how do you know what will your ward be offered 4 years from now. Let us consider two programs, both having 10 graduates. In one program, each of those 10 graduates has a job with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs per annum. In the other program, there is one graduate with a salary of Rs. 1 crore, another one with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs, and the remaining 8 with salaries of Rs. 2.5 lakhs each. So the average of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, and the average of the second program is Rs. 13 lakhs. On the other hand, median of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, while that of the second program is Rs. 2.5 lakhs. I can bet that most people will select the second program. My son is the best in the world, and will certainly grab that Rs. 1 crore job. Never mind that since most parents think like that, the competition would be much tougher in that program. So to guess their first month salary, people often look at the highest salary, and if they are a bit more grounded in reality, then average. Hardly anyone ever asks median and hardly any college will give out median.

In summary, the way things get decided are as follows:

1. The optimization function is maximum earning over the lifetime.
2. Since that is not easy to compute, assume that the first month salary would be strongly correlated with the lifetime earnings.
3. Since first month salary is also difficult to guess, assume that the highest salary offered last year would be offered to your ward (suitably enhanced, of course) 4 years hence.
4. And hence the program which had the highest salary package offered last year is the one we want to join.

If the algorithm is so simple, why are parents confused. Well, there are multiple reasons:
1. Do we really know the placement data. (Usually, No.)
2. What happens if the data for the last two years is contradictory (which is often the case).
3. Continuing with 2, will the relative ordering of programs change over the next four years. (That is, if Program 'A' had one student who was offered 100L, and program 'B' had one student who was offered 99L, is it possible that 4 years from now, there would be one program 'B' student who would have a 100L offer, while the highest offer in Program 'A' would be 99L.) Of course, it will happen.
4. The ordering based on highest salary is different from the ordering based on averages, which is different from the ordering based on median. Which one to adopt, particularly when most of the data in public domain is false anyway.
5. Other unknowns.

There is a simple solution that will take care of all your stress. Read the second paragraph again, and convince yourself that beyond a reasonable salary, you wouldn't worry about placement. Stop being a rat. Become a human. And you would be astonished as to how you will actually be able to think of your interests. You will actually be able to think of what you want out of college. And then choosing a college will become that much easier.

I was talking to a philosophy professor a few days ago and discussing this issue of stress during admission season. He told me that the problem of decision making is that a lot of people want to solve an unsolvable problem, and since the problem is unsolvable, they are stressed because they are investing time and effort without any result. If people start focusing on what is possible they will be able to take better and quicker decisions.

Also, as this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post points out, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." Hard work is a more important key than the college itself. So if you are confused, just toss a coin.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Are there Alternatives to IITs

In the series of blogs about various questions that I get asked in this admission season, the question that I am discussing today is:

I have a good JEE advanced rank, and can get a good combination of program/institute. But I also have admission offer from another top place, both within India and abroad. What should I prefer.

One issue is that of foreign universities, both US/Canadian universities, as well as places in Singapore, HongKong, etc. The other issue is that of choice within India, IISc, IISERs, CMI, IIITs (particularly Hyderabad and Delhi), Ashoka University, etc.

First of all, I am extremely pleased to see that a couple of students from within the top 1000 have declared that they are not going to join IITs. Here is the list I know so far:

The JEE rank 5 wants to study Mathematics. And he is planning to join Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

The JEE Rank 10 wants to study a combination of Computer Science and Physics. And he is planning to join University of Pennsylvania.

The JEE Rank 38 wants to study Physics and Maths from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  (Based on his profile on quora.)

The JEE Rank 45 is interested in Physics, and will study in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. (Based on comments on this blog.)

The JEE Rank 446 wants to study a combination of Maths and Computing. And he is planning to join Chennai Mathematical Institute.

(If you come across any story of anyone in top 1000 not joining IIT system, do let me know, through comment, or email.)

I am also aware that every year some students who couldn't get admission to old 5 IITs in Computer Science have been joining IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi instead of going for newer IITs. Of course, many prefer IISc Bangalore and a few even IISERs for science programs over the science programs in IITs. At below 3000 ranks, students start considering other places which will give them a discipline of their choice, including BITS, NITs, IIITs. I think it is important for the parents to know that IITs are not the only places worth studying in, and any time, someone in the top 1000 ranks decide to study outside IIT system, it strengthens that message. Eventually, if we start taking alternatives seriously, the stress of JEE will come down and it will be a great thing for the society.

I digress. Let us come back to the issue of foreign universities. There are multiple parameters that we need to consider. On the positive side, any of the top 50 (or even more) US universities would have a better teaching-learning experience than any IIT. You can choose your courses. You can choose your major/minor. You can do multiple subjects. The infrastructure will be better. The faculty interest in teaching is likely to be higher. The quality of Teaching Assistants will be better, and so on. On the negative side are a couple of issues. The primary one is cost. It is just too expensive and unaffordable for most, and I am not in favor of taking a large loan for higher education which will force you to take up immediate job and that too abroad to repay that loan. The second reason is cultural. Most 17 years old in India have had no freedom at home. They have had very little exposure to different cultures even within India. And there is doubt if such persons would adjust quickly enough in a foreign land. But, of course, if you have family and friends near the place you are considering, who can help you settle in the beginning, this reason will not be very important. A reason related to costs and RoI is that while the quality of education in IITs may not be as good as many of the foreign universities, the membership of Alumni Association is hugely valuable.

So my own summary is that if you can easily afford (no loans), and you have admission to a good university, and you are not considering a job in India immediately after your education, and you think you will be able to handle vast cultural differences, then go for it. If the answer to any of the conditions is in negative, take admission in an IIT.

Comparison of IITs with other institutes within India is really about the specific interests that you have which may be satisfied more by a non-IIT institute than an IIT. If you want to study a combination of Maths and Computing, for example, most IITs would offer this through their Mathematics department and even CS courses will be taught by Maths faculty (but do check each program, there is a lot of variation), and CMI does a fantastic job of offering such a program. At CMI, Maths faculty teach Maths courses, and CS faculty teach CS courses. A few alums of CMI that I know have been extremely happy with their experiences. In case of science programs, IITs force you to choose the program at the time of admission and change of program is very difficult, while IISc and IISERs give you a broad based education and offer flexibility. Programs like Information Technology and Social Science (and also, Computer Science and Design) in IIIT-Delhi offer you a unique combination not available anywhere else in the country. So, if you are one of those few students who know what they want to study, then you must select the best place to study that discipline (or combination) without worrying about the IIT tag. Membership of Alumni Association is valuable but not to the extent that you kill your passion for it.

Added on 13th June, 2017:
Thanks to Prof. Amit Sheth who reminded me of this talk by Malcolm Gladwell who explains "Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder" which means that we are so enchanted by association with Elite Institutions that we forget our self interest. The toppers of average institutes perform better than average students of elite institutions is the main argument. Here is the youtube link for the video.

He also has pointed out this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post. In one line, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." This also points to hard working students getting more out of education at an average place than students not working hard at a top institution

What these two excellent articles are intending to say in the context of this blog article is that there indeed are lots of alternatives to IITs. You only need to make sure that you work hard.

Choosing College or Discipline

A very common question that I get asked is this: I can get admission to Discipline 'A' in College 'X', and Discipline 'B' in College 'Y'. I think that in general, graduates of Discipline 'A' do better in life, but College 'Y' is a higher quality institution in my opinion. What should I choose.

My answer to the question is no different from lots of others who have answered this question on quora or other social media platforms. That is, if you have passion for a discipline, study that discipline. If you are not interested in any particular discipline, choose what you consider to be a better college. One would hope that this is by now a settled matter. After all, you know whether you have a passion for a discipline or not. Most of our school going children do not have enough exposure to develop a passion, and therefore, it really means that you should just go to a college which you yourself feel is better.

But this simple answer is never the end of counseling session.

But what if he starts liking the discipline 'A' and feels sad that he is not studying that. Well, if he can start liking discipline 'A' without ever studying it formally, he can also start hating the discipline 'A' when he actually studies that. If you had chosen 'A' in 'X', what if he started liking College 'Y' and feels sad that he is not studying in that. There is no end to "what if."

What if, he does not know that he has passion for discipline 'A' but he has that. Hmm! One can have secret passions, so secret that they themselves don't know that they have them. (It is like in Hindi movies, the hero keeps thinking that he is "only friend" with heroine till there is a possibility of separation, marriage with someone else, etc., and then suddenly realizes that he did have this secret love for the lady.) Well, I can only advice based on facts on the table, and not based on secrets that may only come out after the admission.

What if colleges 'X' and 'Y' are really not that different, almost same. Well, then choose the discipline which is, in your opinion, somehow superior. But, they are not exactly the same, what if they are different by a small amount. Well, maybe you should visit both colleges and that would clarify things to you. Oh! But travel is so difficult that we prefer to remain confused.

And you can call their bluff very easily. The choice they are seeking is really not between a discipline and an institute, which as many have stated would be trivial to resolve. I always ask these people, what about Discipline 'C' in College 'Z' where it would be undeniable that College 'Z' has far better perception of quality than Colleges 'X' and 'Y' and every single time, the parents would reject that. They really have a secret optimization function which is based on values of both variables.

The reason for all this confusion is that we have never been taught to articulate a problem definition properly. A in X or B in Y, which is better, is an extremely poorly defined problem. It does not state, for example, what does the person mean by "better." (And that is why, in our open house at IIIT-Delhi, our Director, Prof. Pankaj Jalote always asks potential students and parents to think about why they want to go for college education.) Without some sort of understanding of "better" the discussion is completely meaningless. In other words, one can give proper advice only if that secret optimization function is made known to the advisor.

The reason why we don't discuss the meaning of the word "better" is very simple. There is often a divergence of opinion (on why college) between the student and parents, and they don't wish to argue with each other in front of a third party like me. Often, the parents have a simple definition of "better" which is "more money" but they realize that perhaps it is not politically correct to say that. They will keep sprinkling words like "quality," "personality development," and "happiness." It would be so much better if they could first have a discussion within home and figure out what they want out of college education. If money is the only thing that they want, so be it. (I would be the wrong person to advise in that case, but we are a country of astrologers. So should have no difficulty in finding thousands of advisers.)

There really can be several reasons to study in a particular college. Expectation of a good job is a good reason, but frankly that gets satisfied by a large number of programs in large number of colleges/universities. Beyond a good job, one could look for more money, or to satisfy one's interest in learning, or could consider personal growth and many other things.

So the confusion is at two different levels - what should be the optimization function, and second, given an optimization function, what combination is the best. Both are difficult problems, but without an attempt at solving the first problem, the second problem is unsolvable. So please spend some time thinking of the first problem, and your confusion will reduce and you will be able to take a better decision.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

What would I do if I had JEE Rank 1?

Yesterday, we had our first Open House at IIIT-Delhi. And these are always fun events. Nice to meet potential students, feels good when their anxieties give way to a smile. Increasingly one finds that they are quite aware of their options, many of them have done their homework and are asking relevant questions.

There was an important difference between last year and this year. Both years I fielded questions for about 90 minutes. Last year, it was exclusively parents asking questions. This year, for the first 80 minutes, I answered only potential students. I announced in the beginning that we would prefer only such students in IIIT-Delhi who can ask questions in the class. So if they come from families where parents don't allow any questions to be asked, they might as well seek other opportunities. Further, I will take questions from parents only if there is no student asking a question. I know some of the parents must have been mighty upset and they may force their wards to not seek admission to a college which prefers students over parents, but we can only hope that there aren't many of them.

But the real fun starts after the formal part is over and some parents want to talk face to face. And most of them are never happy with my answers, and have a way to extract irrelevant information from me. One of those silly questions is, "treat my son as yours and advise him as you would advise your son." Well, it so happened that my daughter was also in 12th class and was looking for college admissions. And whatever advice I have been giving her, she has chosen to declare publicly that I am quite abnormal since I have been telling her right from her 1st grade that marks, schools, college degrees are not what would define her, but her values and compassion towards fellow beings. Can I give the same advice to your son? Choose whatever college and program and I would love you just the same. And the onus is on you to do the homework and ask questions, and I will find the right person to answer those questions.

No. That is not what they came to hear. So the question changes slightly. Assume you were in 12th class and have all the options available to you. (The boy apparently is expecting a very good rank in JEE Advanced.) What would you study. This is again a silly question because my interests could be vastly different from your interests. My optimization function in life could be vastly different from your optimization function in life. So how does it matter, what would I study. But the lady insisted.

I responded that I would choose Ashoka University. Would you prefer Ashoka over IITs. Of course, I will. And they felt that I was joking and not willing to help them and all that. But I was dead serious. You see, my father had studied three subjects at the Master's level - Mathematics, Political Science and History, and we had lots of books in all these subjects at home. I would read many of them and developed a love for these three subjects. I don't know how and why, but somewhere in school, I started liking Economics, even though I didn't study it formally. When I was seeking admission in 11th class, the question of careers came up. I was told that there are only three careers that can lift our family out of relative deprivation. They were engineering, medicine and chartered accountancy. Besides, only those kids took social science subjects in high school who didn't do well in 10th class. Did I want to study with such peers.

My father wanted me to become a doctor, but I flatly refused. I couldn't draw free hand and biology meant that every week we would be seeing something in the microscope and drawing that. (Yes, schools had labs then which were taken seriously.) And I wasn't excited by the prospect of dissecting a frog. Admission to Delhi College of Engineering was certain given my school performance till then. And I was told, once admitted, almost everyone got a degree in due course, followed by a job. But becoming CA involved lots of tests over the next few years and every exam had a very small passing percentage. So went with the safe choice of career. Also prepared for JEE, just in case lady luck smiled on me (which she did). So that is how I chose my career. But today, things are different. India of 80s and India of 2017 offer vastly different choices, and I am convinced that studying liberal arts would lead to a happy career as well. And hence I would follow my passion and choose Ashoka.

This didn't impress the lady. So she changed the question again. Assume you are JEE ranked 1 and you are forced to consider only programs in IITs. No Ashoka, No IIIT-Delhi. What would you choose? How would my choice help your son take a decision, but anyway, I would choose BS (Economics) at IIT Kanpur. And the reason is clear. I am interested in Economics among all the disciplines offered by IITs, and whatever little I know about Economics programs at different IITs, I think Kanpur's program is the best. But the lady is just feeling more frustrated. This is not the reply she was looking for. She, of course, had a very clear idea of what program she wanted to force her son into, and was hoping that I would say the same thing. But it wasn't happening.

So the question changed again. Assuming that I have no particular interest in any discipline but I know a lot about curriculum, faculty, pedagogy, life at different IITs (notice how people talking to me have learnt to avoid mentioning "placement" in their questions), and I am still JEE number 1, what will I choose.

I promptly responded, "IIT Gandhinagar." And she was completely flabbergasted. Why IITGN? Well, I have been to that campus about 50 times in the last 8 years and I see so many happy faces, so much innovation, so much care and concern, good faculty, good infrastructure, and so on. But are they better than all other IITs, I am asked.

How did you choose your husband? Did you collect CVs of every single male, shortlisted some (based on age/caste/religion/language, etc.) and then employed some complex algorithm over all those remaining CVs to judge who would make you the richest (and perhaps even a bit happy) over the next 50 years. I certainly didn't select my wife like that. Sometimes you just know that this is right for you. All that can be seen is positive. All that can be felt is positive, and I don't have a smart algorithm to predict the future.

But I must give full marks to the lady for her persistence. So, let us change the question again. You are JEE Rank 1. You have no particular preference of discipline. You haven't been to any IIT and you don't know enough about either the disciplines or the Institutes. How would you decide.

Well, 35 years ago, I was indeed in such a situation. Not #1, but close enough that I could get admission to any program in any IIT. And I didn't know much about any discipline, and hadn't visited any IIT. What did I do. I actually visited IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi, and talked to a few students of IIT Kanpur. And traveling in those days in the peak summer rush was very painful. So may be you and your son should travel to a few IITs in which you may have an interest and then decide.

No, no, no. Let us assume that because of some constraints, it is not possible to travel.

Well, basically, you are saying that the only information that I have is the counseling brochure (now online) from IITs, which gives last year's closing ranks. If this is the only information I have then I will use only this information and just order all my choices in the same order as last year's closing ranks, modulate that list with my geographical preference (want to be away from home). In short, I will select CSE program of IIT Bombay.

This was music to her ears, and she felt happy. Now, she could tell her son to look at last year's closing ranks and fill up choices based on that, since Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi would have done the same thing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

HC insists on CBSE Moderation of Marks

CBSE has been increasing marks obtained by students for the last several years. People interested in knowing the details of this must visit this blog. Officially the claim was that "moderation" was to ensure that students don't suffer because of an ambiguous or poorly designed question, an unusually tough paper, etc., and also the marks distribution across the years should be comparable. In reality, there is no evidence that CBSE has ever produced that the increase in marks were related to any of these. People have been quoted as saying that marks were increased to ensure that Delhi students have a  fair chance of admission to colleges of Delhi University. So you could have attempted questions worth 70 marks, but you may actually receive 80 marks.

All this was accepted by everyone in Delhi as long as CBSE was inflating more than others. And usually, CBSE was inflating marks of Delhi students more than marks of outside Delhi students. To enable this difference, CBSE would actually prepare a different paper for Delhi and a different one for the rest of India, and could claim that Delhi students will have larger increase since Delhi paper was more difficult. No evidence of difficult was ever deemed necessary (since the goal appeared to be admission to DU).

Last year, we suddenly had a large number of students from Tamilnadu board take admission in SRCC, one of the premier colleges of DU. It was in national media, and it was felt by many that from this year onward, students from TN board (and other boards with large number of high scoring students) would seek admission in large numbers. The situation is explained nicely by this blog.

CBSE had two options: One, to continue playing the game and inflate marks even more to compete with some of the worst boards of the country, and reduce its own reputation and quality in the bargain. Two, to admit defeat, cry in front of MHRD that others are beating them in their own game, and try to put pressure on all boards to not inflate marks. The third option of going back to being an honest board, and let the universities worry about the fairness in their respective admission processes, perhaps did not occur to the leadership.

So a meeting was called of all the boards and most of the boards decided that there will be no moderation from this year. Here in lies the difficulty. CBSE has never admitted to increasing marks arbitrarily (except grace marks for increasing the pass percentage). Indeed, no board has publicly admitted to this. Everyone claims that what they do is moderation. Not, it is obvious that moderation is the good aspect of conducting an exam, and must continue. And what was going on for last 10-15 years was not moderation but arbitrary increase of marks.

If officially, there was no arbitrary increase of marks, then how can a board say that we are stopping such a practice. The boards could not publicly admit that they were falsifying the marks all these years, and this practice of falsification will now stop. So they used euphemism and said that they will stop moderation. We were all supposed to interpret it as there will be no falsification of marks, and we did. However, this euphemism did not pass the High Court test.

A parent took the matter to the Delhi High Court, and Delhi HC correctly ruled that moderation is an important and necessary part of conducting a large public exam and without this, there may be serious repercussions on the students. Note that Delhi HC has not said that falsification of marks must continue this year. It has only said that moderation must continue this year. The final verdict will come later, but the chances are that the court will insist that moderation continues even in future. (The court even quotes Supreme Court on this.) So the ruling changes nothing for CBSE, and CBSE could have declared the result saying that they did consider moderation after the HC ruling but there was no need.

But I have a feeling that CBSE would continue its policy of falsification of marks this year too. They have been pretty desperate to find ways to ensure that a large number of DU seats are taken by CBSE students. They even wrote to Delhi University Vice Chancellor to give appropriate weight to CBSE marks in the admission process, since other boards were inflating the marks. This was bound to be rejected by DU, and they did. After the result of TN Board was declared the desperation in CBSE only grew, and the HC interim ruling has come as a huge relief to CBSE. Now, they can continue to falsify marks to ensure a greater number of CBSE students in DU.

I find some of the reactions to the Court ruling very interesting. The foremost is that the courts have saved student careers, because without the increased marks, students would have faced serious problems. And why would they face problems. Because other boards increase marks arbitrarily. OK. So let us accept that other boards do it. What is the solution. Is a race to the bottom a solution to this problem. Should people be shouting at CBSE and insisting that they falsify marks. Shouldn't the job of a board be to show you the mirror, give you an honest feedback. Falsification of marks can only lead to (and already leading) erosion in quality of education. If marks are falsified by other boards, we must go to the universities and tell them not to use falsified marks. May be have standardized tests, or their own admission tests, or something else. But how many people will write to DU versus how many people will write to CBSE. Forcing CBSE to cheat is easier than forcing DU to do the right thing. Everyone in India understands that asking someone to do wrong is easier than forcing someone to do right. And hence everyone is after CBSE and not DU.

Let us restate this argument. I have seen students getting undeserved marks for the last 15 years. So I planned my future education and career based on the assumption that I too will enjoy undeserved marks. If I was told one year ago that undeserved marks will be removed, I would have planned something over this one year. So CBSE must roll back the decision of not giving undeserved marks.

This is dangerously similar to the following. Over the last 15 years, I have seen lots of people getting cash which is undeclared to income tax. So I planned my future finances based on the assumption that I too will enjoy my ill gotten wealth. If I was told one year ago that all cash will be demonetized, I would have planned something over this one year. So RBI must roll back the decision to demonetize.

Just imagine the chaos that would have happened if courts had agreed to this argument last November.

And of course the latest news is that CBSE might go to Supreme Court.  This is stupid. The HC has only said that you must have moderation. It has not said that you must have falsification of marks. Falsification was never an announced policy anyway. So just quietly stop falsification, take the high moral ground, and force people to complain to Delhi University. The problem is of DU. They are the ones accepting falsified marks. Why should CBSE care if its competitors are corrupt or not. Why should CBSE care that the corrupt practices of its competitors are hurting its own customers. As a government board, it can just start doing the right thing and not do corrupt things itself to counter the corrupt practices of others.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Merit-based admissions

People who do well in JEE Advanced will mostly tell you that merit is a one-dimensional beast, never mind that it consists of performance in three heterogeneous disciplines, mapped into a single number by the simple addition of three numbers without checking if these numbers are comparable or represent something which can be simply added. It is further believed that admission to higher education is a reward for performing well in an exam under the conditions of extreme pressures. And hence the only justified admission policy is to admit students in the decreasing order of merit or performance in that exam (modulo any laws passed by the parliament, but of course, not before they have pointed out that merit has been violated by those laws).

Should a university consider admission as a reward for performance. Or should it be something else.

Well, it has to be something else. In fact, no university will couch its admission policy in terms of rewarding past performance. University goals are varied: Who is likely to do well in our programs? or Who is likely to do well even beyond our program and be successful and enhance our reputation?

If university goals are somewhat in line with what I have mentioned above, then it is obvious that the admission through a single test is not ideal. No one can perhaps argue that performing in a particular test can both be an indicator of future performance in Computer Science, as well as an indicator of future performance in Economics. No one can argue that India has the best admission process since this is the only major country in the world that does not take language abilities into account for admission. No one can argue that the ability to answer MCQs is a strong indicator of the ability to write long notes necessary in any studies.

The reason for following a single exam is that it provides an objective, transparent mechanism while simultaneously measuring one variant of irrelevant merit. In other words, the most important outcome of JEE based admission has been that we have kept out pressure from the rich and influential as well as won most court cases. And by no means, this is a small achievement. In India, one may genuinely consider keeping pressure out and winning court cases as more important property of admission process than getting students aligned with the university goals. However, over a period of time, people doing well in JEE have started believing that the prime purpose of JEE is to evaluate merit, and that there can only be one definition of merit, which is the JEE rank.

Besides the obvious inadequacy of a single number predicting success of all programs in all disciplines in all institutes, there are other problems as well.

If a university asks the question who is likely to do well in our programs, and let us assume (despite absence of any data) that performance in PCM has a strong positive correlation with performance in Mechanical Engineering. What if we were compare the performance of people who have 80% in JEE after intense coaching, whose parents were rich and provided a good study environment whether at home or in a hostel, with the performance of people who have 75% in JEE without any coaching, and who come from modest backgrounds, and are the first generation learners. When both these groups compete, who is likely to do better. Most universities would have data to show that latter group performs better, and hence they would actually create admission policies to offer more admissions to the latter group.

When we point this out, an immediate reaction is, but how do you evaluate deprivation, and what has been the impact of that deprivation, and how much extra "credit" should be awarded to compensate for that deprivation so that we can compare the merit of the two. Now, in this question, there is an inherent belief that JEE score is a strong indicator of future performance of every sort. Gold standard of transparency and honesty (?) has been converted to Gold standard of merit. Do you ever question why people with same total in JEE score are ranked differently based on marks in some subject or the other. Does that imply different merit. Isn't it true that luck plays a part. If you had a headache that day, your merit may be way down. That any exam performance is only an indicator within a significant band is conveniently forgotten. But when it comes to any affirmative action, we want exact data, why 5% and not 4%. Why not ask data about JEE also.

Let us do another thought experiment. Again, let us assume that PCM performance is an indicator of future performance in all programs. Consider two possible admission decisions. One, take the top 100. Two, take the top 90. Study whether there is sufficient diversity in the class. If certain backgrounds are missing, let us fill the last 10 seats through them. Now, there is a belief (and educationists may even have data, I am not one) that diversity is good for education. That diverse inputs will cause more innovative projects. That having diversity in your peer group in college will prepare you for a much more diverse workplace that you are likely to face. So both performance within the university and success beyond the university is likely to be enhanced if the class is more diverse. Because of these reasons, universities encourage student exchange programs besides having diversified student admissions to begin with.

Let us for the sake of argument assume that there is data to show that diversity helps. What should a university do? Should you admit 100 students whose average performance will be 60, or should you admit 90 students whose average performance will be 70 (helped by diversity) and 10 students whose performance would perhaps be only 50. There is certainly a plausible argument for not admitting strictly through merit (if at all merit can be determined by a single number). But ask someone who was 91st in our imaginary list. Will he agree. If you assume that admission is a reward for performance in a particular test, you will not like what the university is doing.

Universities may have other goals. For example, should we admit those who are the smartest and will benefit very little from university education, or should we admit those who are likely to gain a lot more from university education. So on a scale from 1 to 10, should we admit students at 9 who can be helped to reach 9.5, or should we admit students at 7 and take them to 8.5. In other words, should "merit" be the only criteria for admission or should we also look at what will benefit the society most. This question is particularly important when the society is funding the cost of that education. Again, I know what the "merit" crowd will say, but I will only suggest that most universities around the world will admit both kinds of students in some proportion. (We also are mandated by law to do affirmative action, which means admitting students at lower "merit" but they are likely to benefit the most from our education.)

A lot of universities have a stated goal of helping the society that nurtures them. One way to do this is to prepare entrepreneurs who will create jobs in that society. Depending on the geographical location (and particularly so, if the location does not attract a lot of investments), universities may prefer to have some weight to the nearness criteria, since students belonging to that society are more likely to stay there beyond graduation. A lot of universities will, therefore, admit more students from within the state even when that magic number representing merit is lower for these students.

In summary, the insistence on admitting based on a single number is misplaced. As long as the single number is considered a proxy for transparent/honest process, the insistence has a logic, but when this number starts getting treated as a proxy for merit, there is a problem. On the other hand, it is necessary for public funded universities to not only admit the best, but also give an appearance of admitting the best. As long as public universities like IITs have a transparent/honest process, they should have flexibility in both defining the merit (as combination of multiple parameters, perhaps), as well as bypassing merit to achieve the multi-objectives of  the university.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Improving the gender ratio in IITs

Recently, there have been media reports on a decision taken by Joint Admissions Board (JAB) of IITs where by IITs would create some extra seats for women so as to improve the gender ratio in the under-graduate programs. Two of the reports are here and here. Earlier, JAB had asked a committee headed by Director of IIT Mandi, Prof. Timothy Gonsalves, to look into the ways of improving gender balance in IITs. This decision is apparently one of the recommendations of the committee.

Though the details are sketchy, it seems that there is a goal of having at least 20% women in the under-graduate class in stages. For 2018 admissions, the goal has been set as 14% which will increase by 1% every year to reach 20% in 7 years. In recent years, number of girls admitted to IITs number around 9%. To achieve a 14% ratio in 2018, they will have to increase the number of seats by 6%, and all these 6% will be filled exclusively by women candidates.

A little over a year ago, I had suggested in this blog that we must do some research into why women are not getting selected in larger numbers despite their performing extremely well in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in class 12th and also they perform well after they get selected in engineering. My own contention is that there is an inherent bias in the society which restricts the coaching options for women. The fraction of women in Kota coaching classes is very small, for example. Even in larger cities, the fraction of women in JEE coaching is less than the fraction of women in science sections in schools. Sometimes, it could be lack of willingness to pay high amounts for a girl child. Or it could be the concern for their safety.

I am not sure what data the committee looked at, but apparently they did find that part of the reason for lower number of women is societal bias, and hence that bias needed to be compensated by some mechanism. And what other mechanism do we know of in this country but reservation.

Is reservation the best mechanism to achieve gender balance?

The obvious shortcoming of reservation or a quota system is that its benefits are not directed towards the disadvantaged class but a larger class. The additional seats may not all go to those women whose parents have refused to send them to outstation coaching, or even to a more expensive coaching within the city. At least some of the seats will be taken up by women who actually go for expensive or outstation coaching.

But note that this is the problem of reservation based systems in general. Aren't OBC reservations benefiting students whose both parents are well educated and can hardly be called "Educationally Backward." But in India, we always argue that if we don't use simple proxies for disadvantages faced by people, the whole system will be gamed by rich and influential. In case of simple proxies (like caste for socially and educationally backwardness), some non-deserving people may sneak in, but it helps those who need such help. Something similar is likely to happen with women reservation as well. A few non-deserving women will get admission, but overall, it will help compensate the societal bias to some extent.

I think something more interesting may happen here. Once the parents know that getting admission to IITs is somewhat easier for women, they may actually be more willing to get them coached. Currently, one of the reasons for not investing in their coaching is that the chances of success are so low, and the expected return on investment is consequently low. They are willing to invest in sons' coaching even with that lower expected return, but will invest in daughters' coaching if the expected return is higher. As a result, a greater percent of women may succeed in the admissions process on their own. My gut feeling is that the percent of women in the normal process will keep increasing and they will need only 5-6 % supernumerary seats even as the goal improves from 14% to 16% and all the way to 20%. And because of this hope, I am positive about the reservation.

Are there other methods that they could have used to increase women admission?

Absolutely. JNU has had the scheme of deprivation points in their admission process. Under this scheme, they would add a few points to the other pieces of evaluation based on some criteria of background of the candidates. One of the criteria is gender, and a small benefit accrues to female candidates.

IITs could do something similar. They could increase the marks of every women candidate by some small number in a way that in the top 10,000 ranks, there are exactly 1400 women. And now women have ranks based on this new marks. One could a priori decide what is the maximum number of marks to be added, and if to ensure that there will be 1400 women out of 10,000 ranks require a higher number of marks to be added, then we will still stick to the maximum marks. (And, of course, we would know how many of them were in top 10,000 before these extra marks, and how many have been added, and create that many more seats to satisfy the current policy of not reducing the number of seats for categories not part of new reservation.)

Of course, it is easy to expand this mechanism to implement all sorts of reservations, and we will have data on exactly how much difference there is between various categories. So we could increase the marks of all SC students in a way that there are exactly 1500 of them in the top 10,000 (subject to the maximum number of marks, note that even now there is a limit on how much lower we will go in the merit list).

This mechanism is very useful when you have very small reservations, for example, in case of Physically challenged students. A PH-ST student is competing for a 0.2% quota (3% of 7.5%), which means that in a large number of programs, there will be 0 reserved seats in any given year. But if you add enough marks to their score that they represent 3% in 10,000, they will be able to seek admission to any seat that they deserve at their performance level.

This mechanism will be useful if we want to compensate for any other bias or discrimination or deprivation that candidates have faced.

Of course, what we are arguing now is that a 15% reservation over 10,000 seats means that the reservation is overall and not in each program. This would mean that they may get slightly less than 15% in some programs and slightly more than 15% in some programs. We only need to make sure that the distribution of marks are such that it won't lead to very high or very low presence in the popular programs (which I suspect will not happen). I don't know how courts will look at it, but it is worth trying.

Can we improve gender balance without any affirmative action?

That would be the least controversial and best method, in general. But that would require a lot of research, and we normally want to solve the problem without doing research. For example, if the hypothesis that lower women representation is due to societal bias and consequent lack of investment in their coaching turns out to have some merit, then perhaps we need to have the entrance exam (or at least some components of it) which are not impacted by such high pressure coaching. Small amount of coaching would be enough. One way to do that is to have speed tests, I am told, instead of very difficult to remember tricks. On top of that, something that government has already asked IITs to do, we can get study material prepared by IITs. And, of course, we are also seeing development of apps where by a candidate can practice for speed tests and get feedback sitting at home, all at a very low cost.

Of course, if the research shows some other reasons behind gender imbalance, we will need to tackle that properly.

Will this lead to more demands of diversifying student population?

Tamil Nadu has a little over 5% population of India, but it does not send 5% students to IITs. Muslims have about 15% population in India, but the fraction of Muslim students in IITs is much smaller. Wouldn't there be demands for increasing their representation.

Of course, there will be. But note one thing. The system proposed is saying that if 50% population does not have even 20% representation then there is something wrong somewhere, and we need to do something about it. So, the goal is not to ensure representation aligned to population fraction. Also, this is the population which seems to be doing much better in pretty much every exam in the country, except JEE advanced. If there are other groups which meet these criteria, that too can be studied.


It is a difficult decision. But one that I think could lead to attracting better talent by IITs. I am hoping that the "quota" part will remain very small and will eventually go away, and that IITs will implement other ways to attract talent, including changes to JEE.

Added on April 22, 2017:

Prof. Timothy Gonsalves, the Chairman of the committee on improving gender imbalance in IITs has made a posting on his FaceBook wall giving a summary of what went behind the report. I strongly encourage everyone to read that.
 An excerpt from the same:
Would admitting girls with slightly lower ranks compromise on quality at IIT?
 A study in IIT-Delhi looked at the final CGPA of male vs. female students. Over a period of 13 years (2003-2015), females outperformed males consistently by an average of 1 grade point, despite having lower JEE ranks! This amazing finding gels with our experience as teachers in other IITs also. It is an indication that this cohort of young women is extraordinarily talented and highly trained despite the disadvantages of growing up as girls in India.
I am told that the difference in grade between girls and boys of similar JEE ranks at IIT Delhi is a whopping 1.5. It proves beyond a shadow of doubt that giving some push to women whether through quota or bonus marks, or whatever, will actually admit better students to IITs.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

International Student Exchange Programs

In the last 2 years that I have been in Delhi, I have attended many a meetings with folks from different countries trying to figure out how the institutions in India can engage with institutions in their respective countries. There are two models which seem to working well.

One is that of twinning wherein a student in India joins an Indian institution, does some course work for two years, and then seek admission in a partner university abroad, which recognizes the credits completed here. The student spends two more years at the foreign institute, and get a degree from there. This is a win-win situation for everyone involved (commercially, at least). The student wants a degree from abroad, and gets it at a cheaper price than spending all 4 years abroad. The parents are happy that they didn't have to send their ward abroad when s/he was too young. The foreign university is happy that they are getting at least two years' tuition from a foreign student. The local university is happy because they can actually charge a bit more for the two years than what they may charge for their 4-year program.

The other is that of research collaboration. Two researchers meet somewhere, may be in a conference, and they decide to collaborate. Much of the interaction can happen over Internet, and a few visits can be supported by their respective projects. On top of that, there are government to government schemes under which they can apply for projects jointly, and while getting big moneys in international projects is difficult, collaborations can certainly happen.

But what about things beyond this. In terms of teaching programs, can we have student and faculty exchange programs where our students can spend a semester or two in the foreign location, and their students can spend a semester or two on our campuses. The same could be done with faculty. Can our PhD students work in their labs and their PhD students work in our labs. This is where one does not find any solution. For our students to go to North America or Europe is very expensive - travel, lodging and boarding, as well as tuition. For their students to come to India, well they don't think of it as an option. If they were coming to our campus, it would be easy to argue for tuition waivers. They don't pay tuition here, and our students don't pay tuition there. But we don't see a 2-way exchange.

So in every such meetings, there will be complaints about lack of two-way exchanges.

In a recent meeting, I asked the representatives of various universities whether they have an MoU with a university from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka or Mayanmar. The answer was on expected lines, none of them had an MoU with any university in these countries. The reason was supposedly obvious. Their universities were not great (though I can tell you that most universities represented in that room would not be better than good universities in these countries). Now, your student does not want to go to a university which is roughly similar to that of your quality, and you are wondering why an American or a European student does not want to spend a semester at your campus.

I recall that long time ago, when we were discussing relationships with top universities in Senate of IIT Kanpur, one professor had said that only after IIT Kanpur has had a good working relationship with HBTI, MNNIT, and other decent colleges of UP, would it realize how to have a relationship with MITs of the world.

A gentleman from US asked a question, "What is the goal for student exchange?" A pin drop silence. Frankly, the goal is only to brag about it, or enable our students to go to US/Europe with fee waivers. If the goal was what normally universities say, greater cultural diversification in the class, then we could achieve that by having more students from Africa, Central Asia, South East Asia, etc. Our focus on these regions is fairly limited right now.

I believe that the right thing to do by our universities is to attract exchange students from comparable or less developed countries than us. This will help us in multiple ways. It is more likely to succeed than to try wooing students from US/Europe. Thus the first goal of cultural diversity in the class (and a side goal of doing better in ranking) will be achieved. This will make us learn what are the challenges that foreign students face, including but not limited to getting a visa, police registeration, finding accommodation in nearby localities, and so on. It would be easier for our students to spend a semester in these places and gain an exposure of different cultural setting. Once we have all this knowledge and experience, we will be able to come up with better ideas to expand the scope of exchanges to richer countries. Right now, there are many attractions that we can market to students of richer countries, but we really don't know how to leverage them, how to prepare a program suited for different classes of students.

And just like we are offering a twinning program to our students, we could get into agreements with universities in less developed regions that they will send us their students after two years of training and we will train them for 2 more years and give our degrees. Why should we always be importer of education service. We should try to become an exporter of education service.

At a national level, bringing students from such countries also projects our soft power, create goodwill, create ambassadors for life.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

NIRF 2017

So, the second round of rankings are out. And every single problem that I could have imagined with a ranking system, I find it in these rankings. I had written two blog articles when the NIRF framework was announced in September 2015. They are here and here.

Let me summarize my most important objection to NIRF. While a lot of stake holders use ranking for taking important decisions, and therefore, it is important for the universities and colleges to participate in ranking games, there are several inherent problems with ranking games. The biggest problem is that a single linear rank gives a hugely distorted view of the academic landscape. And even to get that, the data is simple not available in reliable fashion. So a lot of fudging takes place.

Having lots of rankings in private sector is still ok, since most stakeholders will take each of them with a pinch of salt, and hopefully do a bit more homework about the universities they are interested in. While stakeholders may not understand the exact nature of problems with rankings, they are skeptical of any private ranking whose aim typically is to make money out of this information. Also, having multiple rankings mean that to some extent stakeholders realize that either rankings are inconsistent or there are indeed multiple ways to look at universities. But when government creates a ranking, stake holders may use it as the primary information and that would be disastrous.

The second major problem with a government ranking is that it leads to inconsistency in public policy. On one hand, having more out of state students is considered positive for educational outcomes, and on the other hand, we could have 50% reservation for in-state students in the institutes managed by the same government. Opposite for women participation. It is said that having a 50-50 population is good for educational outcomes, but nothing will be done to attract greater number of women students to IITs.

And, third major problem with government ranking is that the government is further reducing its already low credibility. There is no way one can verify this huge amount of data. So there will be huge errors in data leading to some strange ranking. Who should be held responsible if a potential student trusts these rankings, get admission, and then find the truth. What if this happens at a government institute. Will some heads roll, or will we just say, "you are stupid to trust government, and don't deserve anything better."

Last year, when NIRF ranking came out, there were lots of questions, and the answers were rarely provided, and really, the only answer was, "We did not have enough time. So some things may have been overlooked. We will do a better job next year." I personally was very upset at the lack of transparency. We were told that the data consistency would be maintained by way of complete transparency. We will all know what all has been submitted by various institutions and that would keep a check on each institution from lying. When I approached some of the folks in NIRF, I was told that due to very short period within which they had to come up with the ranking, they had taken some ad hoc decisions which may be difficult to explain to public, and hence only that year, the transparency is not there, and the 2017 ranking would be completely transparent.

Well, I don't see the submissions of various institutions on NIRF website this year too. I am told that this year, it was compulsory for all participating institutes to keep a copy of their NIRF submissions on their own websites, and if any institute does not keep that information, they will be removed from the ranking. I just checked several universities, and there is at least one in the top 10 who does not have NIRF data on their website (at least I search on the main page, used their search and used google search with "NIRF " as the quey. One other university has only partial information on its website and some crucial pieces of information missing. Others too may remove it in due course. To be transparent, the easiest thing would have been to put up all the submissions on NIRF website (may be they could have asked the institute to submit sensitive data such as placement details separately, and the rest could have been published by them). I don't know why they couldn't do this.

Also, transparency is not just about making submitted data public. It is also how NIRF has interpreted it. How that information has been converted to marks. Yes, they do give score in the five categories. This is appreciated, but they should give out information in each of the part of major factors. And also tell us various parameters that they have used in ranking.

In the small bit of research that I did, reading several submitted reports, this is what I find:

One of the top 5 business school is claiming that in the past 3 years, 100% of their graduates have got a job through campus placement. Frankly, it is unbelievable. Not a single student opting out of placement to start a company, for example. I see this happening in all IITs, NITs, etc., but not at the top business school of the country. Not even one graduate deciding that may be PhD is a good idea. Not even one graduate going back to the company where s/he came from 2 years ago, and not participating in the campus placement. (I thought even Government of India sponsors a few candidates for MBA at such places, and they are expected to join back, and not seek campus placement.) Also, every faculty member, except one has an experience of 5 years or more. Have not not hired any faculty member in the last 5 years, or everyone hired in the last 5 years has left them, or they only hire faculty with 5 years of experience. All this could be true. But a bit unbelievable. And at least as far as the student placement is concerned, if the data is correct, then it is quite sad.

In one university, the submitted data for consultancy amount is X, and the summary sheet for that university put out by NIRF shows more than 10X. I can understand 10X. Someone typing the information could have made a mistake in placing decimal. But having an arbit number which is unbelievably large is rather strange.

In one university, I saw the number of faculty members in NIRF data sheet to be unexpectedly large. I went to the university website. The NIRF submitted data for this is not on their website. Then I went to the website of each department and counted the faculty members shown there. The number is less than half.

The information on papers has been outsourced by them. I am told that in one university, the numbers shown in the datasheet is very less compared to what this university is claiming. The university folks tell me that NIRF sent them an email several months ago telling them the number of papers that they have found. The university wrote back giving its numbers, which was much higher. Now, if both of them are looking at the same database, the only reason for this difference could be that the search queries are different. In particular, faculty members use different names of the university (like IIT Kanpur, I.I.T.K., Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and so on), and it is possible that they have searched for some names and not other names. It would have been absolutely trivial for them to share their search query, or ask for our search query. But no communication from them, and at the end when the rankings are out, they have simply used their own data. To me, this is height of callousness and incompetence. And we are going to use such data to take important decisions on funding and autonomy.

I see in the data sheets for engineering colleges that they asked for median salary and from management schools, average salary. Why this difference? I thought median salary captured the performance of placement much better, and must be for everyone. But anyway, I checked the numbers. While many institutes have given numbers which are believable as median salaries, there are many where the numbers are simply not believable. My guess is that they have given average salaries rather than median salaries. (Averages are invariably very high compared to median for most colleges.) In fact, about two institutes, I am sure this has happened. I guess in some places this may have happened inadvertently, but in some places it may be a deliberate error.

Then there is this data about capital expenses (not counting building construction). Will this number vary from year to year very drastically. What if it is shown as a small fraction of last year's expense. Shouldn't it raise a suspicion that perhaps last year, they had some construction going on and this year, there is none. Shouldn't they seek some verification of data at least in cases of suspicion.

And note that I am only talking about universities ranked in the top few in some category or the other. I understand that it is not easy to verify data for all colleges and universities, but they can always have a 2-stage or 3-stage process. That is, get data from all colleges which is not verified. The only "stick" is that all this data will be posted on the NIRF website, and if any questions are raised, they will be investigated and if a serious error is found, the information will be given out to press and they will be barred from ranking for some time. With this, you finalize top 120 or so univs in each category, and for these univs, some level of checking can be done. May be some proofs can be asked for. May be someone can check for information on the univ website, and so on. If any glaring errors are found, they are out of ranking. This way, there will be better trust in top 100. And finally, those whom you are going to declare in top 20-25, there should be yet another level of data verification. May be an agency can be hired to actually visit the university and verify everything. So the top 20 or so ranks would be based on very high quality data.

(Of course, the problem of a linear ranking not reflective of all diverse strengths of universities will always remain.)

Notice that I have not discussed the parameters per se, only the poor quality of data that they have against those parameters.

The parameters are also a problem. They are strongly in favor of bigger institutes. I wonder why. I can see that a bigger class to some extent leads to peer-to-peer learning. But beyond a point it does not help. And then what helps is having a variety of disciplines, a variety of courses available on the campus. But just having larger number of students does not guarantee that variety. There are many other serious problems with the parameters, but may be that is for another blog. But I wonder if they did some research to establish correlation between those factors and better teaching/learning or better research. I also wonder if they did any sensitivity analysis with their parameters. (What if I change the parameters slightly, does it result in major changes in the top order.)

I did not write last year after NIRF ranking were published since I wanted to look at what they will do after they have had enough time to do things right. But unfortunately, they have not utilized the time effectively.

Of course, the good thing is that most students/parents who have approached me for admission related queries, do not seem to bother about NIRF ranking. I hope it stays that way.

Added on 9th April:

More interesting stuff.

Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research which has no teaching program and is considered a tiny research center is ranked the third best teaching place in the country, overall. Such is the stupidity of this ranking that a place without a teaching program has been ranked 3rd best place in India in teaching.

Homi Bhabha National Institute shows its annual budget as 473 crores, and has 973 faculty members. Basically, the entire budget of DAE institutions. Are they really educational institutions. That they have been declared as a deemed university to encourage their scientists to get PhD in-house now means that they can declare the entire budget as university budget, and all scientists as faculty. And NIRF 2017 admits that. Further, with 973 faculty members, they have 252 publications listed in Web of Science, easily the worst ratio of all research places in India. But guess what. They are in the overall list because of a very strange rule. The number of faculty members will be deemed to be 10% of the number of students, irrespective of the actual number of faculty. So in case of HBNI, it will be assumed that these 252 papers have been written not by 973 faculty members, but 310 faculty members. Absolutely crazy stuff.

This article in wired points out that there are drastic changes in 2016 ranks and 2017 ranks. Can quality of universities change this drastically from year to year. It specifically mentions a university having jumped the rank from #83 to #12. It means that either the ranking last year was arbitrary or ranking this year is arbitrary. How do we know that it is not arbitrary this year.

If you look at the overall ranking in teaching learning, you would find that most of our Agriculture universities or Veterinary colleges have a far superior teaching programs than IITs. May be we should handover IITs to Ministry of Agriculture. They seem to be running far better academic institutions.

A very sensible advice from prof. Ashish Nanda, Director, IIM Ahmedabad, "Rate, don’t rank, academic institutions" in Hindu Business Line.

How do you explain a huge difference in the rating by NAAC and ranking by NIRF.

Added on 11th April, 2017:

A blog by Dhruv Baldawa, "Why we should not be ranking our educational institutions"

Added on 23rd April, 2017:

IIT BHU raises objections on NIRF ranking 2017, says list based on ‘incomplete data. Here is the news report.