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Sunday, August 21, 2016

IITs as accreditators?

We have problems in the country, lots of them. But we also have solutions in the country. And thanks to successive governments' indulgence, lots of them too, 23 of them at the last count. And there is a promise that if these 23 can not solve all problems of India, we will create more of them.

One of the problems is the poor quality of higher education. It was hoped not too long ago that India will reap the immense benefits of a young population, the demographic dividend, as they said. But without a good quality education, that dividend seems to be becoming a liability. One of the ways of improving quality is to insist on accreditation by a bunch of supposedly quality conscious individuals following some guidelines and checking things in each college. NAAC was born out of this requirement. But NAAC has not been able to grow fast enough. It is said that at the current rate of accreditation, they will take 38 years to accredit only the existing institutions, and in these 38 years there will be many new ones. So in the foreseeable future there is no hope of making accreditation compulsory for all.

The new HRD Minister is quick to figure out that we need multiple accreditation bodies. This is, not a new revelation, of course. A lot of people have been saying that we need accreditation agencies in the private sector. But when it comes to education, private sector is bad, not to be touched with a 10 feet pole, never mind that most of our students are studying in private institutions and that many of these are superior to most government institutions. So the minister has been advised that perhaps IITs could be the accreditation agencies.

Here are the links to some of the news reports regarding this:

Centre plans 10-20 more accreditation agencies besides NAAC, says HRD Minister

Prakash Javadekar for giving IITs and IIMs accreditation body status

Do IITs have the bandwidth. Will this not be a distraction. Remember, compulsory accreditation once in 5 years for 38,000 institutions means 7600 accreditations per year, and if 20 organizations are involved in accreditation, then each of these organizations on an average will have to accredit 380 institutions in a year. That is a huge workload in addition to teaching and research.
I am sure some IITs will see a huge business opportunity in this. We can hire an agency to do this job under some bit of supervision from our side. Charge heavily so that a decent profit is made which can improve the quality of education at IITs further. Basically, a transfer of wealth from poor institutes to richer institutes.

But there is a more fundamental question. Should someone who has scant regard for the accreditation process be doing it. Today, accreditation is no longer based on inputs. You don't just look at the infrastructure, number of faculty, etc. You look at what are the vision, mission statements of the institute. What are the goals of each academic program. What is the outcome of each course in that program, and how it contributes towards the overall goal of that program. Having looked at all of it, one then asks questions regarding, how do we know that these outcomes are being attained. We also look at the whether there is a process for continuous improvement, looking at those outcomes and goals and discussing whether they remain relevant, etc.

I can't say about all IITs, but I can confidently say that IIT Kanpur does not do anything of this sort. We do not have a vision statement even 56 years after we were set up. We don't have goals for our programs, we don't have outcomes for our courses, etc. We are perhaps a unique institution which says that while there will be a feedback of all courses every semester, that feedback can not be used for any administrative decision. If you look at the way proposals are drafted, they invariably would not talk about options and what are the pluses and minuses of those options. The way minutes of the meetings are written, one could be forgiven to think that our language of instruction is not English. Overall, they have complete contempt for this process, which they believe is too bureaucratic, and is designed to generate employment. And that is fine. They still have done wonderfully well in academics. They still teach well, and they still do good research. They may fail the accreditation test, but if they don't want to go through accreditation (as long as it is optional), that is their call. And the market has already decided whether they need accreditation or not.

But while, it is alright if IIT Kanpur does not follow what Washington Accord suggests as best practices, or what NAAC will come and check, but it is not alright for such an institution to inspect other institutions and demand that they follow the same best practices which we have contempt for. And I suspect that it is not just about IIT Kanpur, but a lot of IITs are in the same boat.

So while I appreciate that the Minister has identified a very serious shortcoming of our educational system, but asking IITs and IIMs to solve that problem is not correct. Particularly when it is obvious that IITs can not afford to do this with their own faculty, and can at best provide a very slight supervisory role with an outsourced agency. The better thing to do will be to seek private participation in this.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Why do Seats remain vacant?

Every year, a few weeks after the end of the admission season, there will be a report on vacant seats in IITs, NITs, etc. A fairly large number will be mentioned in the report. And we will be told that this happens because certain disciplines are not at all popular, and should perhaps be closed down, and may be those many seats should be increased in the more popular disciplines.

Indeed, there is no doubt that some disciplines are fancied by the herd of sheeps, assumed to bring in the riches. But is that the only reason. Are there really no students interested in studying those disciplines. In particular, given that a significant number of graduates don't go for core jobs, but instead go for MBA, finance jobs, IT jobs, and other such careers, how come such students are not taking admission in these "branded" colleges.

The reason for vacant seats, unfortunately, is not the lack of demand, but the stupidity of the admission process.

It is a common belief among the public as well as academic administrators that if we do a large number of rounds for admission, all or most seats will be filled. So we have seen our admission process go from 1 round to 2 to 3 and this year to 6 rounds for the admission to NITs and IITs. It is also believed that if we do joint counseling of larger and larger number of institutions, the number of vacant seats will go down substantially. Of course, both joint counseling and larger number of rounds would help a bit, but they can not solve the problem on their own.

If we look at the statistics of the 6 rounds, we notice the following: After the first round, there were 6490 vacancies. That means that so many people did not accept the admission offers. This is pretty reasonable given that there were almost 35,000 seats and many among those 35,000 would prefer places like BITS, IIIT-Delhi, and so on. The next round filled up these 6490 seats (well, barring a few that remained vacant. I am ignoring them since they are too small and don't change the main argument of this post). However, at the end of the second round, there were 2716 vacancies. Again, pretty reasonable given that they must have been offered unpopular programs and many would have preferred colleges outside JOSAA and not accepted admission. At the end of the 3rd round, the number of vacant seats come down to 1837, which is consistent with the argument made above, and is telling us that if we just keep doing a few more rounds, we would be able to find students for most vacant seats.

However, the story changes after this. At the end of the 4th round, the number of vacancies actually increase to 2021. Why did this happen. Well, some (or many) of those 1837 did not accept the admissions offered to them. But now, even those who had accepted admissions earlier, have started withdrawing. And this withdrawal becomes a serious business during the 5th round. At the end of 5th round, the number of vacancies is 4094.

A large number of students have withdrawn during the 5th round. Why did they not withdraw earlier if they were unhappy with their admission offer. Well, there was no incentive for them to withdraw, so might as well hope against hope and see what they can get in the 5th round (and what they can get in other colleges outside JOSAA). They withdrew during the 5th round since they were told that if they did not withdraw, their entire payment may be forfeited. (Some dd not withdraw even then, since they know that in the future MHRD will come to their aid and ask the institutes to return the money).

The government insists that there can be no financial penalty for withdrawal till the beginning of the semester. So we need to have all but the last round before the deadline of withdrawal, and only one round after the last date for withdrawal.

Unless people, who are not going to join, withdraw, we don't admit more students.
There is no incentive for people to take early decisions and withdraw as soon as they have multiple options.
But most importantly, and this is something that is often ignored by our academic administrators, even when someone withdraws, and there is a vacancy, we are filling that vacancy by someone who showed willingness to accept that admission more than a month ago, and who, in the last one month, has probably got many other admission offers. But since the counseling group does not know who is still interested one month later, they end up making offers to next in the queue who are not interested.

So, if consider the JOSAA admission process, the 6th round has filled up about 4000 vacancies, but if we take the survey of all institutes who have got admission through JOSAA, some time in August, I would not be surprised if there are still 5000 vacancies, which will not be filled.

Is there any way that we could have offered admission to more students. Of course, yes. But not by more rounds. We will have to solve problem by looking at the genesis of the problem.

So the problems and potential solutions are:

1. We admit students only after some people withdraw. Why can't we admit more students then the so-called number of seats. We have data for many years and we know roughly how many people will not accept offers. Based on historical data, we can always admit more students. We can be a bit conservative not to get into a situation where we have more students than what we can handle. But let us face it. If in a particular year, we do get a few extra students, heavens are not going to fall.

2. There is no incentive for people to withdraw early. This is a huge problem and a lesson. When you try to be populist and do things which common people will consider as friendly to them, you will actually end up doing things which hurt common people. Allowing students withdrawal till the last minute without any penalty will result in unfilled seats. And thousands of students not getting admission hurts more than a few thousand rupees loss to a few people. The right thing to do will be to declare that free withdrawal can only be done till X days before the semester and after that deadline, every day, there will be an additional deduction of the money if a student withdraws. This will ensure that people withdraw early and we are able to conduct not just one round but multiple rounds after people have started withdrawing.

3. We don't know who all are still interested in the programs one month after they filled in the choices. This is really the biggest problem. Currently, the way we fill up seats is by way of a "Spot" round (which is not happening in JOSAA this year). In this round, people have to apply afresh. So those who are no longer interested are out of the system. And invariably they have to be at a location physically and give a significant amount of money within minutes of getting admission offer and since it is being done through physical attendance, if someone does not want admission, the next person is offered the same.

Spot round has its own problems, of course. Traveling on short notice is not easy and airlines make a lot of money in this season. (Here you go, the money that you saved through full refund in one college, you paid to the airline. So you really did not save much.) Everyone has spot round in the last week of July or 1st few days of August. So there isn't much option regarding traveling. Invariably, spot round happens after the semester has started. So the students are joining late, have missed out on the orientation program, have missed out on the first assignments, first lab, introductory lectures, etc.

Another way to solve this problem will be to have an incentive for students to withdraw from the counseling process. Again, you don't have any other handle on the students except a bit of financial handle. So if JOSAA (and other similar counseling processes) could ask for more money after the first couple of rounds, which will be refunded progressive less as the days pass by. Also, the student should be able to delete options that s/he has filled in. So you could ask them to deposit Rs. 10,000 after the second round, and then say that if the student is not offered admission in any of his/her choices, the entire Rs. 10,000 will be refunded. On the other hand, if the student is indeed offered admission, and s/he decides not to accept it, then the refund will be based on how delayed the withdrawal has been. This will ensure that as soon as I get an offer from another good college, I go to JOSAA website, and remove some of my lower preferences which I would not want to accept in comparison with the offer that I have received. This makes the counseling process much more efficient and reduces the stress levels in the system tremendously. Coupled with a few extra admissions, this can really revolutionize the admission process and make it absolutely smooth. But it will require a small financial penalty for late decision making by students and parents.

To conclude, the seats remain vacant not because there is no one to accept those seats, but because we have a brain dead (but populist) admission process which can not identify the students who may be interested in those seats.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Improvement in Counseling Process

This is the admission season and counseling is the most common word that I hear in this season. Conceptually, the process is simple. A bunch of universities come together for joint admission process. Each one of them decides how they will rank the applicants. Each applicant submits a list of programs/institute pairs in the order of preference. The counseling software goes through all this data and matches applicants with a program/institute pair while ensuring that no one who is ranked higher as per that institute's ranking of candidates is given a lower preference than this combination.

Historically, the choice list is sacrosanct. You can't change anything in this once the allotment process starts. So you must fill up your order of preference very very carefully.

If we go back many years, the student had very limited options once the process of admission begins. If you are offered admission, you have only two choices - either pay the fee and you will then be considered in all subsequent rounds, and you finally join the program which was allotted to you in the last round. The other option was to opt out, and in that case you will be out from all future rounds as well. If weren't offered admission till a particular round, then of course your only option was to be considered in the next round.

The first improvement in this process happened when people started realizing that if someone has got admission in an IIT, and has blocked a seat in an NIT, inability to withdraw in the middle is ensuring that that seat goes waste. So a withdrawal anytime till a last date was introduced early on, which essentially meant that you are out of the system and you will not be considered for any future admission round either.

Often, the last round of admission would happen after the classes had already started. A large number of institutes and universities in India believe that their teachers are anyway useless and hence if admissions happen even one month after the semester has started, no one loses anything. However, the students had other issues. If I have joined NIT X, and after a week of classes, you tell me to move to NIT Y within a day or two, it will be a huge problem for me to pack up, find train reservation, or travel in unreserved class to reach the other corner of the country, settle their without the benefit of an orientation program, quickly make new friends, copy notes of the classes that I have missed and so on, only to be told to get out and join NIT Z after a few days. So there was a demand that once I have joined a particular institute, I do not wish to change my location even if I am getting my higher preference in a subsequent admission round. And this introduced the concept of "sliding." That I am only willing to be considered for my higher preference in the same campus but nothing else. Of course, this option was made available not only for later rounds, but even earlier rounds, so that one can plan one's travel and get reservations done. Notice that the order of preferences remained sacrosanct. Sliding only allowed that some of my options could be removed from the list, but those that remain were strictly in the same order that I filled up in the beginning.

People extended this further and said that once I have got admission in a particular program, I don't want to go through a phase of anxiety regarding what I might get in the subsequent rounds, and I just want to freeze my admission. This resulted in creation of "freeze" option for the students. This option is often used not to avoid anxiety, but when someone wants to rethink the order of preference, and feels that the current admission offer is better than what one might get in the subsequent rounds. Which ever way you look at it, essentially what has happened is that we have allowed the student to delete a large number of options, without giving an option to change the order of preference of the remaining list.

What next?

The biggest problem in today's counseling process is the following. When I was filling up the choice list, I did not have any admission offers. I was interested in 50 different programs, and I listed all of them in the order of my preference. However, a week later, I received an admission offer from another college which I would rank higher than the last 10 options out of 50 that I have filled. If out of these 50, I receive an admission offer in my choice number 41st, I really don't want to accept it, since I have a "better" offer outside this system, but if I don't accept it, I would not be considered for my higher preferences in later rounds. So I accept it knowing fully well that if I don't get higher preferences I won't join this program. This causes inefficiency in the system and hurts everyone - this student, other students, and the institute. We must solve this problem. And the interesting thing is that it is absolutely trivial to solve this problem. Most counseling softwares would probably need a few lines of code to change to allow this. So when a student is offered a particular choice, the student should be able to say that I don't want to accept this, but I still want to be considered for my higher preferences. To ensure seriousness of this choice, one may take a bit of money also from the student. And programming wise, this essentially means that the current offer and any lower options are deleted for this student. Notice that this is exactly what the software was doing in "sliding" - delete certain options without changing the order of preference for the remaining options.

Actually, allowing students to delete certain options at any time without changing the order of remaining options will solve other problems as well, and this does not create any problem for the counseling process. For example, we went through the historical need for "sliding" where we said that it was introduced because it was difficult to move from one institute to another at very short notice. Consider this. I have been allotted a program in NIT Allahabad. I certainly don't want to travel 700 KM to go to NIT Jaipur in the next round. However, I have no problems in moving to IIIT Allahabad, the college next door, in the next round. The "sliding" option does not help me there.

And hence what is needed is an option to delete some program/institute pairs from my original list at any time. And as long as the order of remaining options remain the same as in the original list, it won't create any problems for the allotment process. Having this option allows a more efficient allocation, which benefits all stakeholders.

Why is original order of preference sacrosanct?

There are many students who want to change their order of preference after the allotment process has started. This happens because they normally do not have adequate time to do a proper evaluation of all options and do fill up some of the options that they later regret. While we may not be sympathetic to such students, if allowing change would cause problems for our process and create confusion, but if nothing like that would happen, could we not allow some change of order of preferences?

Changing the original order of preference could lead to small problems. Let me give an example. Suppose JEE Rank 1 has given CSE at IIT Kanpur as the first option initially and received that admission offer. Now, she wants to change it to CSE at IIT Bombay after knowing that everyone prefers that IIT. If we allow this, in the next round, this girl will get CSE at IIT Bombay, and someone who had been offered CSE at IITB in the first round would be told, sorry, we are withdrawing our offer. A naive implementation would do this. So we need to be careful in implementation. No one should get a lower preference in any subsequent round. Once an offer of admission has been made, in future, the student must either remain with that admission offer or get an offer which was a higher preference. Under no circumstances can one be given a lower preference in a later round.

But does it mean that there can be no change in original order at all, and all changes will cause such problems. Certainly not. First of all, the logic of allotment can be changed to ensure that the student in our example above gets CSE at IITB only if a seat gets vacated under normal circumstances, and not otherwise. The logic will be a bit complicated but not something that can not be coded.

However, somethings can still be allowed without getting into such problems. If we consider a student who has received an admission offer to a program which was 10th in the preference list. At this time, any re-ordering of preferences within the top 9 preferences would not cause any difficulty or confusion in the subsequent rounds. The problem of what we describe above in the example of JEE 1 student happens when we want to shift any of the lower preferences to higher preferences. So if we are shifting what was earlier at #11 in this example to #9, we could potentially get into the problem.

As I state above, we could rewrite the logic of allotment to handle this as well, but if those managing counseling feel uncomfortable with that, at the very least we can do two thing that I have stated above:

1. Allow deletion of any option at any time, including when it is being offered.
2. Allow reordering of options among those which are higher than the currently allotted option.

The first one would enhance the efficiency of the process tremendously which is beneficial to all stakeholders. The second one would allow rethink on part of students.

Of course, this has security implications. If we allow such changes, what stops a hacker to change someone's options to benefit some other student. Notice that in the current system, for sliding or freezing, the student is required to be physically present in some location. We could do the same thing for any change in the list. You have to be physically present. Of course, that would mean increased costs. A person has to receive a form, verify identity, and then allow. To ensure that such changes are not done routinely and very frequently, one may keep some price for such a change. (And of course, the security implications are exaggerated. When we can allow banking transactions based on OTP and other second factor authentication, we could implement something similar for these changes as well.)