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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Double Major in UG Programs

Recently, Dr. Pushkar (BITS, Goa) forwarded me this article in Washington Post.
"Meet the parents who wouldn't let their children study literature." An interesting observation in the article is that the number of students majoring in two subjects in US universities has increased tremendously in recent years. About 40 percent of students go for double major in their under-graduate programs in US. And the reason for this is not that the world is becoming more complex, requires multiple skills to solve problems, need more inter-disciplinary approach, etc. The reason is that parents (like in India) are impressing upon their wards to study STEM fields in larger numbers, and the students are not as interested. Their love and passion is in something else. So as a compromise between the wishes of their parents and their own interests, the students study double major - one major of parental choice, another of their own choice.

So, in this blog article, I am just thinking aloud of the possibilities in India.

In India, the parental pressure is huge. (Refer to an earlier blog article on this topic: Parents and JEE Counseling.) In most cases, they decide everything that their son or daughter should do - which exams to give, which college to join, which discipline to major in, etc. And there does not seem to be any hope of that changing in near or even distant future. Will double major option work in India. Will students prefer to study another subject.

There are several differences between the US system and the Indian system, of course. I believe that in the Indian system, the parental pressure starts much too early, and a fair number of students have been brain washed completely to believe that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are the only useful disciplines to study. So I am not sure there would be many interested in second major (except those who got admission in an unpopular discipline and can only study a popular discipline through the option of second major). Though some of the new universities like Ashoka are doing a remarkable job in making liberal education popular, and this resistance to anything other than STEM might change over the next few years.

The other major difference between the two systems is that in US, when a student joins a STEM major, a non-STEM major of high quality is available on the same campus, and one can take a few courses out of interest, and then decide to do even more courses to complete the second major, all on the same campus. In India, we have all but banished non-STEM disciplines from institutes offering degrees in STEM fields. There may be one or two non-STEM disciplines which may have sufficient offering to complete the second major.

Another big difference is that our graduation requirements for a degree are much higher than any US university. Our universities and institutes tend to believe that if you throw a large number of poor quality courses at the student, s/he will remember at least something out of them. With that kind of graduation requirement, the double major would invariably mean a 5-year program. Also with rigid structures like what course to do in which semester, planning a non-standard path becomes very difficult.

But, despite all these reasons, I believe that if we can start expanding our offerings, there will be demand for any high quality program. There will be enough 18-year olds even in India who may not be able to say no to their parents, but would be excited about studying what they like to study. And while the 18-year old may study two majors because of compulsion and interest, what one is likely to find at the end of those four years is that there is a significant demand for that combination in the job market. There is serious shortage of every expertise in India, and more so of people who know something about two or more disciplines.

At IIIT-Delhi, we are seriously considering having such programs available to our future students. As a small institute, focused on IT, we may not be able to offer several options, but we certainly want to offer a program which will allow students to get IT background as well as background in something else. The something else would have to be defined carefully. We are considering "Social Sciences" as that something else. We are also thinking of "Design" as that something else. We might in future consider "Finance/Economics" as yet another option. All such programs will be designed in a way that one can complete them in four years, and there is enough CS/IT content which is typically core discipline content in a good quality BTech program, and there is enough content from the second discipline which is typically core discipline content in a good quality BA/BSc program. We rolled out one such program this year (but both disciplines are STEM disciplines - CS and Applied Maths).

Friday, September 9, 2016

Flexi Fare on Indian Railways

I love dynamic fares and I wrote about their need on Indian Railways long time ago (2011) in this blog article. I had talked about several ways in which fares could be made flexible.

I was excited when the Railways introduced dynamic fares in a Rajdhani like train between Delhi and Mumbai, and I wrote this blog article in December, 2013.

When they introduced dynamic fares on a system-wide scale in the name of "Premium Tatkal" I wrote another blog article praising the move, even though I said that this was a poor implementation of dynamic fares.

My hope was that Railways will learn about market, about demand and supply, and will learn to price their product better through this experiment.

They have taken the next step and introduced something called "Flexi Fares" on Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, and Durontos, the premium trains of the Indian Railways. The fares will increase with bookings, 10% after 10% seats are filled, upto a maximum of 50%.

And this time, I am beginning to believe that Railways is not really thinking about the market, about demand and supply. They are only thinking of higher revenues. Thinking of higher revenues is a legitimate business strategy. However, when you think of higher revenues without thinking of what the market can bear, it may not lead to desired goals.

I understand that Dynamic fares or Flexi fares are the only politically correct way to raise fares, and with a background of no fare hike for almost a decade, several large fare hikes in quick succession are needed to bring railways back to some kind of financial health and Mr. Prabhu is doing that. What has happened is that the fares on these trains have just gone up by 50% with a few tickets being sold at less than that.

My problem with the hike is just that. That it is not introduction of dynamic fare. The fares are completely fixed and do not depend on demand. Yes, there are a few price points. Ideally, Railways should do what airlines do - keep following their own bookings for every flight, keep looking at the competition, and decide fares based on their estimate of the demand and supply around that particular flight. If the 10% seats get filled up the day reservations open 120 days in advance, that is a very different demand than if the 10% seats get filled up over the next 60 days. Second, they also need to look at their competition - status of other trains close to Rajdhanis/Shatabdis/Durontos - are people booking them instead, or are they too not having heavy bookings, as well as status of flights and at least good quality bus services.

A truly dynamic fare will be more acceptable to public than what IR has done. It would really hurt to see a half empty coach when I have paid the "surge" pricing. Dynamic fares would have meant that in the lean season, the increase is smaller but in the holiday season coming up, the fare would go up higher.

In terms of fare increase, I think this was needed, and this was overdue. These are premium trains, and no poor person travels by these trains. There is no reason for subsidizing higher classes in premium trains.

A lot of comments on social media say that these trains would become unviable. They wouldn't be able to find enough AC-2T passengers on Delhi-Mumbai or Delhi-Bangalore Rajdhanis. Yes, there won't be many end-to-end passengers on most Rajdhanis on most days. Already, at least in the current lean season, air fares are cheaper than AC-2T fares on Rajdhanis. But this is where the planning by Railways become crucial. My favorite example for these discussions is Lucknow-New Delhi Shatabdi. The Lucknow-Delhi air fare is cheaper than Executive class fare, and the fare on Chair Car after 50% hike would be right there too. So in the lean season, I would expect the passengers to take flights. But come busy season, people will be back to Shatabdis since the air fares will be much higher. However, if Railways can earmark more quota from the intermediate stations, like Kanpur, from where there are no flights, they can really double the fare and still find passengers. But will Railways give more seats to Kanpur and other intermediate stations. Similarly, I would expect much fewer passengers on Delhi-Howrah Rajdhani traveling end-to-end. But I would expect more passengers to board from Kanpur, Allahabad, etc. if the quota from these places go up.

At least till the regional air connectivity scheme takes off, giving more seats to inter-mediate stations would give a lot of dividend to the Railways.

My fear is that increasing the upper class fares substantially without linking them to demand and supply and without a plan to fill those seats through quotas of intermediate stations, would cause the AC coaches to remain vacant, and then someone is going to say, there is not enough patronage of such trains, and let us stop this train, or remove upper class of service. So we could have reduced capacity not because there was reduced demand, but because that demand was not managed properly.

By the way, if the Railways finances were more transparent, and someone could show that the cost of transporting an individual in AC-2T over long distance like Delhi-Bangalore is inherently more than a flight seat over the same distance, I would have no problems if long distance upper class seats are reduced substantially. If economics of transport options is such that for a certain route trains can't compete with flights, we shouldn't mourn the death of passenger trains in those sectors. May be we can have more freight trains instead on those sectors. However, my fear is that in the absence of any transparent way of apportioning costs, such decisions could be arbitrary.

One of the criticisms that I consider valid is that Mr. Prabhu is trying to avoid taking tough decisions. Is he willing to increase fares or pass costs in Mumbai suburban. Why not increase fares of 2S and unreserved tickets, which are heavily subsidized. The fare hike in Rajdhani/Shatabdi/Duronto is just testing the waters. If there is enough noise, after a certain period, we will see partial roll back. If there is not enough noise, the experiment would be extended to other express trains as well. However, from all what I am hearing, even if this experiment is extended, it will be only for AC classes in mail/express/superfast trains, or at best SL class in a few trains. Without tackling the biggest sources of subsidy, you aren't going to take Railways out of that proverbial ICU.

We don't need flexi fares or premium tatkal fares. We need market linked fares. And we need market linked fares not just for AC classes, but also for SL class. And, of course, we need to recover a greater part of the cost of suburban and passenger trains as well.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Giving on Teachers Day

I have been incredibly fortunate. In all the educational institutes that I have attended as a student, schools, UG and PG universities, I have had the privilege of interacting with some of the most wonderful persons this world has seen. And let me begin this blog article by thanking them for all they have done to/for me.

I have also been incredibly fortunate to be interacting with wonderful students after I decided to become a teacher myself. I love my teaching responsibilities precisely because I get to interact with such students. Alas, most universities wouldn't think for a moment what is the reason behind this joy of teaching. The reason is simple. There are those large number of fantastic teachers spread all across the country in different schools (and yes, coaching classes too), who have made those students what they are. So we at the university level enjoy teaching since some other folks have done the hard work. I take this opportunity to thank all of them for bringing joy to my classroom.

Teaching remains one of the few professions where the "client" continues to have a lifelong connection with the service provider with a lot of affection and respect. While teachers are well paid in India, if you can add smiles to your compensation package, it immediately becomes the best profession in the country.

I was curious to find out how Teachers Day is celebrated across India. So I googled for suggestions at the college level. And I got all the standard ones - give a card to your teacher, make him/her feel nice, say thank you, have a small celebration, some cultural activity, some awards, or some titles for the teachers, etc. There were also suggestions for taking your teacher out for dinner, or to theater or whatever.

But what caught my attention was a few sites asking people to donate on this particular day. One of them from said that if you are feeling grateful to teachers, give others a chance to get the same feeling. The asked the patrons to donate and ensure teachers are met with bright, happy faces every day (since they will be fed meals with this money). One of the simplest suggestion was not to throw away the books after you have moved on to the next class, but donate them for the next batch of students.

The bottom line is that the cost of good education is rising rapidly, while the state funding for education has not kept pace. As a result, poor can either not access quality institutions, or if they can, they still can't learn enough because they are worried about survival issues all the time.

So, if you are confused about how to celebrate Teachers Day, give a gift to an educational institution and let your teachers know that you did this. I too will be doing the same thing. The amount is immaterial. It is the feeling that matters, since that feeling will lead to a commitment, and you will then find other ways to support in due course.

(At IIIT-Delhi, we are keen to expand our programs to provide greater support to more students from economically disadvantaged background. If you wish to know more about our programs, please contact me.)