Monday, March 30, 2015

IITs are a waste of public money if not reformed

Discourse on IITs in India is absolutely fascinating. They are a set of public technical universities set up after independence by a visionary Prime Minister to herald industrial revolution in India. The same Prime Minister also absolutely ignored public primary education causing us much grief ever since. But IITs have come to mean so much more to the middle class Indian family. Get into one and suddenly you are the Shehenshahon ka Shehenshah (King of Kings) in the family; a Pole Star who will be the beacon for the future generations. In India, your wisdom will be trusted by everyone. Even if you graduate from an IIT in Assam in Chemical Engineering, your opinion on everything from politics to health to terrorism to education (especially education) is sought after and valued. Any little mishap is reported widely in the media. Placement seasons need to be covered on front page of national news. This doesn't happen to other elite universities like IIMs, Law universities, JNU and others.

IITs are funded more lavishly than any other public institution. They take a substantial amount of our higher education budget. This has also led to a strong debate about spending public resources on those who go on to earn many times than average Indians and sometimes not even in India. The most recent being this article on Scroll titled - "Dear Smriti Irani, stop giving my money to IITians." As expected, it provoked an article in response titled - "No, Smriti Irani is not wasting your money on the IITians." The response article is one of the poorest responses I have read.

I have studied in an IIT (not sure if that gives me more authority or just makes me guilt-ridden). My facebook feed was filled with outraged friends who think they have contributed significantly to nation building. They are the 'cream' of the population, have made it completely on their own and owe nothing to the society or the country.

The unfortunate part is that criticism against IITs is true to a large extent. There is a need for a major structural reform. Sadly, a lot of the debate is around money - cost to the exchequer, salaries of IITians etc. No self-respecting, elite university in the world is self-sustaining from the fees of its students. It depends on the grants from various bodies. It's important to frame the debate in a wider perspective and see a university as a knowledge hub which is central to the needs of the area in which it is situated. And that is where our IITs, and possibly other elite universities, have failed.

Prof. Milind Sohoni has written about it extensively using data and mathematical models in some cases. To avoid technical details, I just want to present the important points from two (1 and 2). He has also suggested reforms. Do check out his page for papers, videos and presentations on the same.

Role of the university
Historically, the university, i e, an institution of higher education and research, has been a key site for knowledge formation within society. Europe proudly (and rightly) claims the modern university as its primary contribution to civilization.

Disconnected Research
The Indian university now functions as two disjoint sets of institutions, the elite and the regional institutions. The elite universities, which admit 2%-3% of the total student population, aim to be counted as members of the global knowledge elite. This overriding criterion defines their academic and research programs. These regional institutions who teach the bottom 97%, follow curricula and a research agenda that is largely influenced by elite institutions.
As a result, there is neither an indigenous tradition nor an empirical basis, such as a needs analysis, for the curricula followed by either the elite or the regional university. Moreover, there is little systematic research or practical training in important developmental areas such as groundwater, cooking energy or sanitation, or socio-economic areas such as district-level planning, panchayati raj, or the cooperative sector.

Poor selection criteria based on 'fair' exam
The 'fair' IIT-JEE used by elite universities rejects 99% of exam-takers. Sadly, it is this, rather than their training, which connects students to high-paid global service sector jobs and in turn, determines the elite university.
Unfortunately, the competitive exam also serves to define and measure the outcome of school or college education. Thus, a student’s learning of a subtle, cultural, plural, and practical skill such as science is tested by a time-bound, objective, multiple-choice exam in which most students must fall in their own esteem.
These ingredients of “elitisation” leading to poor relevance, the absence of the regional or the vernacular, and the aspirational dysfunction caused by competitive exams, constitute the current crisis in higher education.

Placements do not benefit India

University-Society Connect
Is the population from the University serving the society?
Through data, most graduates of IITB do not choose jobs, which directly benefit the Indian economy, nor are they in the field of engineering and technology (ET). Many choose to work for global companies and/or for global markets and largely in the service sector. These global service companies pay substantially higher than core ET companies and are largely oblivious to the training that these students have received.

  • Only about a quarter of the UGs and about half of the PGs take-up engineering jobs. This accounts for about 33% of the total number placed. 
  • Global companies serving global markets (GGs) employ more than 60% of all graduates and pay more than 75% of the total salary awarded to graduates. 10% placed abroad.
  • Indian companies serving global markets (IGs) pay the least and are not a major employer of IITB graduates.
  • Global companies working for Indian markets, employs about 8.3% of the total number of students placed and about the same fraction of ET jobs. Thus, companies which possibly transfer technology to the Indian economy, employ a relatively small fraction of graduates.
  • Indian companies serving Indian markets (IIs) employ about 18% of IITB graduates and yet pay only about 10% of the total annual salary received. These jobs pay the least across all profiles, barring the IGs.

Irrelevance of University Education

For all programs, and across all (major) sectors, ET is not only the least paying but also the salaries decrease with an increase in the number of years of training, i.e., from B.Tech., DD to M.Tech.
So salaries are determined by the initial pecking order as opposed to University studies, which indicate a failure of the same.

Indian engineering companies hire irrespective of CPI indicating curriculum's relevance to Indian needs and engineering practices.

So there is limited relevance of institute's education when highest paying sectors are finance, consulting and IT which require generic skills. So student's preferences are at odds with the institute's mandates and research interests of its faculty. 

Most importantly,  For most UG students, the training received in their programs, as measured by their CPIs (GPA), is either irrelevant to their sector of employment, or if relevant, it is largely
inconsequential. Selectivity at the time of entering the institute has a substantial influence on sectors and on salaries. That means that your performance in 12th grade (17-18 years of age) plays a larger role in deciding your salary than 4-5 years of university education. That is a dangerous sign for a university!

And a lot of this is connected with our excessive focus on 'merit' as defined by JEE. In fact, in a stylized globalized world, an identification of excess merit within the less developed society poses certain allocation risks. This in turn, may lead to higher initial wages, but eventually to lower wages, higher inequality and a loss of entrepreneurial skills within the less developed society. (the current tech boom is a small, negligible fraction of India's problems - I would say the most meaningless also.) 

To sum up, IITs and other universities need some major reform which needs to start with a change in our vision. Only then will they be really worth the taxpayers money. Producing graduates who pay more taxes or identifying creme-de-la-creme of the vast Indian population is not a valid argument for a public institution meant to build knowledge for India's needs and challenges.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Murder in Mumbai: My first Indian murder mystery

A month back, I started reading my first ever Indian murder mystery. That's right. After 26 years of growing up in India, I read the FIRST mystery novel which is Indian in its setting, characters and tone.

Murder in Mumbai by K.D. Calamur is about a police inspector and a journalist investigating the murder of a foreigner in Mumbai. It is not the best murder mystery I have read by far and not really a page-turner. However, it was engaging enough to capture my attention for a couple of days because the context was something I could relate to. After years of reading American mysteries and thrillers, it was wonderful to read a story with 'Inspector' and 'police' rather than 'Sheriff' and 'cops'. Just the Indian setting made the novel so much easier to relate to and I did not have to make the effort to understand and visualize American novels. 
Why did it take 26 years for me to read an Indian murder novel? Some of it is my fault. I haven't explored enough or taken effort to discover good Indian mystery novels. However, the fact that I have to 'make an effort' to discover good Indian books in India is exactly the problem with the system. Throughout my childhood, reading crime fiction meant Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews and Agatha Christie. As I grew up, the abundance of Sidney Sheldon, Harlan Coben, James Patterson was unavoidable. Not only crime fiction, in children's books as well, it is tough to find Indian books outside of mythology and Panchatantra genre moral tales. Young adult is full of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Divergent series etc. 

Where are the Indian authors? Where are the books in Indian languages in Indian settings? Books which show that in India, going out in the sun is not joyful. Books which talk about Holi, Onam and Id instead of Thanksgiving and Easter (I still don't know what these two are all about). The problems are many - lack of quality authors, lack of distribution capacity outside big cities, lack of book reviews and lack of a book reading culture in general. 

Do you feel this is changing?