Thursday, December 23, 2010

Entrance exams: Are they asking the right questions?

The last decade has been a decade of changes and reforms. You can also include the entrance or competitive examinations to that fold. In this post I’ll discuss some changes as well as existing gaps in various competitive examinations.

There was an era when three posts were considered to be the most prestigious in the Indian set up. They were the PM (prime minister), the CM (chief minister) and the DM (district magistrate). When it comes to competitive examinations, three of them stand out for their rigor. They are IIT-JEE (for entry into the IITs), CAT (for entry into the IIMs) and civil services exams conducted by the UPSC. Let’s consider the changes in the formats of respective examinations one by one and consider the likely fallouts.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Akshaya Patra - "Feed the children" initiative

This post is a bit different from my past ones as it’s my humble attempt to espouse a noble cause. At the end of the blog, even you would come across an opportunity to make a difference. So let’s begin. By the way your mere click has ensured that 50 underprivileged children would be fed today.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

IIT & IIM: Do we really need to expand?

As India looks to outpace other countries in terms of economic growth - higher education, because of its criticality, is in the limelight (better late than never). With the focus being on higher education, two of the best known Indian Institutes, IIT & IIM find a mention in our day-to-day discussions. As efforts are being made to increase the number of IITs & IIMs , questions are being raised whether that's leveraging the brand or diluting it?
We do know that India needs more quality educational institutes. With the claim to fame of many IITs & IIMs being “one of the toughest institutes to get into”, it’s more a commentary on the paucity of seats rather than intellectual rigor. So doing nothing is not an option.
Before I start putting down my views, I would bring to your attention a group that opposes expansion of IITs & IIMs even if brown-field i.e. increasing capacity of existing institutes. They argue that it might commoditize the brand (make no mistake quality is not their concern). Such arguments make no sense as IITs & IIMs are not Guccis & Armanis. IITs/IIMs stand for quality not exclusivity. 
Let us now look at some pressing concerns that justify the “need to expand”.
“During 1955 to 1975, the growth rate was high (10.5%) as the IITs were being set up and establishing the UG programme. In the next twenty years, there was a slight increase in the output (less than 1% per year). Since 1995 the growth rate increased to 4.2% per year mainly due to the addition of IIT Guwahati and IIT Roorkee.”

The above data clearly shows that we need Greenfield investments i.e. open new IITs & IIMs as they mainly power the growth in intake. In fact IITs that accounted for 5-8 % of total output of engineers in 1980s now account for less than 1%. 
Many feel that expansion might lead to quality of education being compromised with. It’s a valid concern and needs attention (I will try to come up with remedial steps in the later part of the blog) but do you feel that the quality of new colleges will be worse that the existing private set up where students are forced to join if they can’t make it to the sought after colleges. I don’t think so as the “quality gap” is so enormous that we would certainly find the new ones, in terms of quality, somewhere in-between.
Even though IITs & IIMs might be under funded by global standards but they are still much better off than their Indian counterparts. So the question is whether we would be better off opening new colleges under new names rather than using the umbrella of IITs & IIMs? My answer would be that the name provides them greater attention and care which a new institute desperately needs. NITs have been greatly benefitted by the tag.
We all have great faith in the brand name of IITs & IIMs. Are these brands that weak that expansion would dilute them to the extent that it threatens their existence? That’s not the way, great brands operate. In fact, if properly carried out, expansion would only strengthen them. Greater student & alumni base would mean greater reach, influence and impact. Mind you, it would come in handy when we face the onslaught of foreign universities. By the way these are the outputs of some well known international engineering institutions: Urbana-Champaign 1950 degrees, Purdue 1840 degrees, Georgia Tech 2300 degrees, Tokyo University 3000 degrees, Tsinghua university about 4000. (Source: ENGINEERING EDUCATION IN INDIA, 2007)
Let’s now look at some of the methods that can expedite quality enhancements at the new colleges:
  • With increased intake, we must aim at increasing the bandwidth of well known professors i.e. number of students that s/he can address at a given time. This can be facilitated by ICT based live or recorded lectures. Technological intervention would also help in facilitating better educational aids or resources. The Masters as well as Fellowship programmes need to be strengthened as well.
  • We have buddy system in place where an old IIT/IIM mentors the new IIT/IIM but that doesn’t include student set-up. Peer learning and mentoring by seniors can help students at new IIT/IIM catch up faster. We should provide online platform to facilitate such exchange of information. Student exchange programmes can also be incorporated to facilitate co-operation. 
  • At least for the first few years, mentor IIT/IIM should help out their new members with their placements. It might seem unthinkable given the sort of competition but modalities can be worked out as new IITs/IIMs have relatively fewer intake.
  • Private sector, both India and abroad, have been the biggest beneficiary of the outputs of IITs/IIMs. PPP model for faculty development where industry provides visiting faculties or funding can be looked into. The academic exposure would benefit the employees as it could be a welcome break or “going back to basics” for them. It would be a win-win situation for both as private sector stands to gain through quality output and colleges through quality faculty.
Some reach out only for the riches whereas some reach out to help each other out. So if alumni and students of established IITs/IIMs reach out to their newer counterparts, they can certainly consider themselves better IITians if not prouder. Else a caste system in the intellectual and educational set up is in the making as there is a very thin line between being elite and being elitist. Please avoid it.