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Thursday, April 5, 2018

NIRF 2018

Two days ago, I learnt that JNU is a better educational institution than IIT Kanpur, and I am terribly confused since then. What does this statement mean. Does it mean they produce better economists than the quality of electrical engineers we produce. How do you really compare two fine institutions as different from each other as JNU and IITK are, with the only common agenda being excellence.

In fact, even within the same category and very similar institutions with same governance, ownership, kind of programs, shared admission process and all that, what does it mean to say one is better than the other. IIT Madras is obviously a great institution, but so is IIT Bombay. For three years in a row, some people sitting near Delhi have declared (based on some data of course) that IIT Madras is a better engineering college than IIT Bombay.

What is the implication of this. Who will use this information. If we consider the set of students who could possibly get admission to any under-graduate program in any IIT, and this set is very small (perhaps, statistically insignificant, and that is why they don't count), only about 50 students, how many of them have taken admission in IIT Madras in the last three years. Very close to zero. Is this ranking not relevant to 12th class students and their parents. Or is it that they aren't aware of the ranking. After all, releasing the ranking just days before JEE would mean that they didn't get to read about them in the newspapers.

If this information is not supposed to be used by 12th class students, who is it for. Is it for students looking for admission to MTech/PhD programs. I am not sure if many of them would seek admission based on this ranking. Is it for PhDs and post-docs seeking academic positions. Is it for companies to figure out where to recruit, or where to do collaborative projects.

Who actually makes use of this information? The answer appears to be, None. It may very subtly over a long period of time change some preferences of some people, but has no real impact on any decision making. Even NIRF website is silent about the purpose and potential use of these rankings. They justify everything they do by saying that MHRD approved it and a core committee took all the decisions, but what was the rationale of MHRD or the core committee isn't known to us.

Why should then academic institutions take these rankings seriously. Well, because, the government wants them to take it seriously. Anything that the government starts, it wants to ensure that it succeeds irrespective of any intrinsic merit of the idea. So, they have declared that rankings will be used for a variety of goodies (even though we don't understand why is JNU better than IITK). They are already using it for graded autonomy. If you are ranked higher, you will get more freedom from UGC. You become eligible to apply for Institute of Eminence status. They are also threatening to link budget to these rankings. And the last part is a huge problem.

I have already written in the previous two years about the problems with NIRF ranking. Some of the issues have been taken care of, but many of them have not been. Let me point a few issues here.

In the period 2006-2008, IIT Kanpur had the misfortune of seeing about 8 suicides. Many experts in local media told us that one of the factors for stress in the student body (even though most suicides had very little to do with academics) was that there was huge peer pressure to graduate in time (in 4 years for BTech), and those who fail even a couple of courses then get stressed merely by assuming that they may have to stay back for an extra semester. We have worked very hard to introduce a lot of flexibility in our curriculum which encourages students to stay for an extra semester or two for either an extra degree or to do double major, or just take a break and try entrepreneurship or even a job in the middle of their programs. As a result, only about 60% of the students have been choosing to graduate in 4 years, and those who are forced to spend an extra semester because of failures don't feel as if a disaster has struck them. Any academician would agree that what we have achieved in the last decade is remarkable. But unfortunately, NIRF disagrees. Since only 60% of our UG students graduate in time, we lose several points in the ranking. If we start taking admissions in different programs, including some 5-year programs and force people to remain in those programs (as we used to do earlier, and as most IITs still do), our ranking would improve.

Also, if you can fill up your seats by hook or by crook, your rankings improve. Since the graduation rates are counted not from the number of students who join a college, but the number of students who could have joined the college. So, if a college declares that they have 600 seats, and take 400 admissions. If 360 students graduate in time, the graduation rate will not be 90% (360/400) but only 60% (360/600). Now, there are two ways to fill your capacity. If you have a capacity of 400, you can based on historically joining rates, artificially declare your capacity as 600 (so you make 600 offers) and somewhere around 400 would join. And you don't admit students after the semester starts. On the other hand, if you believe that your teachers are bad, and missing classes wouldn't really impact learning, you would announce 400 seats, and will keep having waiting list and several rounds of admissions till late into the semester. The first method is far superior in that it allows people to get admission quickly, less stress, no missing of classes, and so on. But NIRF would force you to adopt the second method.

Now, if these rankings are to be used for funding decisions in near future, institutions will be forced to do things which improve their ranking. And it makes sense. If Government (and NIRF) believes that certain things are indicative of higher quality, they must allow all institutions to follow those things. So Government says that 50% women students is ideal and will give you more marks. Can IITK decide to have a 50% reservation for women. Would government handle the political pressure it will result in. Can we reserve 50% seats for out of state. (Karnataka government would hate this, as they would want a 50% reservation for locals.) So on one hand, you are arguing that certain things improve quality, and on the other hand, you don't allow me to follow them. This is so unfair.

But the good thing about people in India is that they understand that universities are complex organizations and work in multiple dimensions, and reducing all those dimensions to a linear score/rank is quite stupid, and therefore, they don't care. Each one of them have their own reasons which they think are at least more logical than NIRF ranking. As I mentioned above, almost all students will continue to favor IITB over IITM despite NIRF.

Links to other articles, addeed on 6th April, 2018:

NIRF Ranking: An Open Letter to Shri Javadekar
JNU Professor tells us why he loathes the practice of ranking universities
NIRF-2018: Urgency of a Reform in Higher Education and also NIRF
Miles to go for IISc
My blog on NIRF last year: NIRF 2017

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Graded Autonomy

The government has approved a system of graded autonomy of our universities. Under the system, the best performing universities will get autonomy to do things, for which apparently they needed to seek permissions earlier. The first set of universities (and colleges) under this graded autonomy scheme was announced recently. See the complete list here.

Autonomy granted is primarily in terms of starting new programs/departments/research centers without the approval of UGC, as long as one does not seek additional funds from UGC for these programs/initiatives. There are other elements like hiring foreign faculty, deciding additional remuneration (if you have funds), etc.

I call it a baby step because this level of autonomy is available to many universities anyway. All those universities which do not get any funds from UGC (including IITs, for example, and private universities) already can start any academic program at any time. They can all recruit foreign faculty, and they can pay them extra, if desired.

But even this baby step has led to criticism from many faculty members in the universities who have received this autonomy. The criticism is primarily on two counts.

One is the fear of commercialization of education. The claim is that now, if these universities start  a new program, they won't get any additional funding, and hence either this new program has to have very high fees, or fees has to be increased across the board in all programs to pay for this new program. And thus access to higher education will become restricted to upper strata of society.

My first reaction is that the claim is incorrect. That the university has autonomy to start new programs without additional funds is in no way stopping the university from seeking approval of new programs with additional funds for these programs. So a university might think of starting some new programs with approval from UGC and yet start another new program where there is a donor/sponsor, and for this latter program, they don't need UGC's approval. In fact, they can start the program and seek approval in parallel, and if they get approval, the program shifts to the list of UGC funded programs, otherwise, it lasts as long as there are donors/sponsors, and it closes afterwards. And all these teachers would have a say in their respective universities as to whether to start a particular new program or not.

However, that may be an ideal situation but the situation on the ground is different. The higher education budget has not been increasing proportionate to the number of students and inflation over the last few years. There is a lot of uncertainty now as to how HEFA funding will play out for the universities and how much they will have to repay. And considering the confusion in education policies in recent times, it is indeed a reasonable concern whether government will pay for new programs eventually or not. The policy of graded autonomy would have been much more acceptable if UGC had agreed to at least partially fund any new program. So, if you are funding Rs. 50,000 per student per year for existing programs in a university, you could have said that any new program started by the university will get Rs. 25,000 per student per year without any questions asked, and after a review of the program, if it is of similar quality as others, the funding will be of similar level as other programs. After all, autonomy is insufficient if you don't open the purse strings a little bit.

The other point of opposition is that autonomy only makes the vice chancellor more powerful, even dictatorial. Without a proper system of checks and balances, and without this autonomy percolating to schools, departments, and individual faculty members, it won't be that much effective. A good leader can enable internal autonomy and take the university forward, while a bad leader can misuse the autonomy and take the university backward.

While I sympathize with the view, I think a bad leader can take the university backward whether there is autonomy or not, and indeed the bane of our system is that far too many incompetent persons become leaders. But I think poor methods of selecting leaders is a problem that needs to be solved independent of autonomy issue. Greater autonomy will strengthen the hands of good leaders and their actions will force choice of good leaders for every university.

Of course, I always have wondered why we continue to follow the colonial model of university administration 70 years after independence. The University of Calcutta Act, 1857, was designed to have a powerful VC with very little checks and balances so that a single Britisher (as VC) could control the university. Today, when we have another very successful system of university administration (IITs) where we have proper checks and balances and the Director (VC) is not all too powerful, why don't we adopt a similar structure for more universities. An IIT like administrative structure makes it difficult to misuse autonomy.

My complaint with the graded autonomy policy is that it is giving too little autonomy to too few universities. The kind of autonomy that is being given should ideally be given to any accredited university. Also, UGC should prepare a list of all its regulations that is strangulating the academic freedom, and thus quality, and agree that good universities can ignore most of them. Also, there must be mechanism for additional financial inputs for new initiatives. And finally, one should look into the administrative structure of these universities, particularly how the VC and other leaders are selected.

Added the following links later:
An Act of Unlearning by Shiv Visvanathan in The Hindu, April 05, 2018

Monday, February 26, 2018

Changes in IIIT Hyderabad Admission Process

I was at IIIT Hyderabad last week, and was chatting with their Director and Dean, and found out many changes that they have brought about in their admission process this year for their under-graduate (including dual-degree) programs. I checked since someone on twitter had alerted me to it. After my visit to Hyderabad, I met a couple of parents of 12th class students, and they were not aware of these changes. Given that I have been very impressed with IIIT-Hyderabad and have been strongly recommending them ever since I started writing blogs a decade ago, I thought I will point out those changes here in the hope that I will reach at least a few students and parents who will benefit from this information, particularly because the application deadline is fast approaching (15th March).

If you are not in the admissions market this year, you can avoid reading this. Also, everything I say here is already on their admissions website. If you are confused, read their admissions page and/or contact them directly. That is more authentic. I do not take responsibility for any confusion or any change in their page after this blog is published.

There is one major change (for dual-degree programs) and one new admission process (for BTech programs) that you should be aware of:

  1. There is a separate admission process for dual-degree programs, and the last date for application is March 15th.
  2. There is a new admission process for a limited number of seats in the BTech program for those who qualified for the UDAAN scheme of CBSE and students who are in the 6-year integrated 12th plus BTech program (after 10th class) and have completed the equivalent of 12th class. Again the application deadline is 15th March.
Of course, they continue to have a separate admission process to their dual-degree programs for those students who have been selected for training camps of various international Olympiads - Informatics, Mathematics, Science, and Linguistics. The Link.

Of course, most of the admissions to BTech programs will continue to be through JEE Mains as usual, and there is enough time to apply as the admission portal will open only on 1st April for these admissions. The link.

While I am at it, let me also mention that IIIT Hyderabad has a very interesting lateral entry program for two of its dual degree programs. Under this program, one can shift to IIIT Hyderabad after spending two years in another engineering college, and you can get both BTech and MS by Research degrees in another 4 years. If you were to complete your BTech in current college and then apply for MS degere, you will spend the same amount of time. And hence this is a great program if you are interested in doing Masters any way. You get better quality education even during BTech. The deadline for applications this year is 15th March.

The logic for a separate process for dual-degree admissions is that more often than not, it was taken up by those who had a couple of marks less in JEE and they took this because they valued IIITH degree and not because they had any interest in research. Also, this created a hierarchy of sorts within the student community. BTechs are higher than dual-degree in perception because they had higher JEE marks even though the dual-degree students are contributing significantly to the brand value of IIIT-Hyderabad by publishing in top places. Having two separate channels of admission will break this constant comparison between BTech and dual-degree students.

In my discussions with them, I also asked them about any steps that they are taking to have more women students. Given that IITs have declared a 14% reservation for girl students, all good institutes will have fewer women students this year, unless they do something special. The gender ratio in top institutes is already poor and will only become worse. The new admission process targeted at UDAAN qualifiers is one attempt at attracting more women students. Further, they will consider need-based financial assistance this year which helps more women students since many families are reluctant to invest in women education.