Saturday, October 31, 2009

Robert Zimmer: What is Academic Freedom for?

Robert Zimmer is President, The University of Chicago. Here are some excerpts from his talk at a recent conference on What is Academic Freedom for?

I will summarize the principles of the Kalven report, adding a few embellishments for emphasis.

First, the focus on rigorous, intense, and open inquiry carried out by the faculty and students of the University must be accompanied by the greatest possible intellectual freedom, in an environment that supports openness and avoids steps that lead to chilling the environment.

Second, it follows that the University, as an institution, should take no political positions and should remain neutral on such matters (except of necessity those in which it is a direct party), in order to ensure that we have a maximally open environment. Violations of neutrality are a mark against the maintenance of a non-chilling environment.

Third, this University neutrality provides a safe environment for faculty and students to express their own views and take whatever stance they like as individuals. Their views, in turn, never represent the University, which remains neutral.

Fourth, the University needs to protect the academic freedom of faculty and students both by its own neutrality and the protection from internal and external forces that would seek to dampen it.

Fifth, there is recognition of a possible exception. Kalven was a constitutional lawyer, and as such deeply appreciated that a competing interest could trump under unusual circumstances. The exceptions were not spelled out, but rather the emphasis was put on the strong presumption that the above principles would govern. Much of the focus on the Kalven report in recent times is on understanding exactly where the exception clause applies. The report asserts a “heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political or social values of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values however compelling and appealing they may be.”

Kapil Sibal talks to the US universities

Two reports with news about what HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has been doing in the last couple of days in the US.

The first one is from BU Today, Boston University's newspaper:

“We are looking at institutions of excellence,” says Sibal. “We would like the best in the world to come to India, and it is in that sense that we would welcome Boston University.”

He says that India’s population — vast, young, and eager to learn — presents a great opportunity for U.S. institutions of higher learning.

“India has about 560 million people who are less than 25 years of age,” Sibal says. “The number of children going to school is 220 million, and a substantial percentage of those children will have to graduate. So we need educational institutions, and not all of those institutions can be provided by the government.”

The second is from The Economic Times with some stuff about what he said at a press meet:

Government has promised a level playing field to top US institutions in a bid to encourage foreign investment in the education sector as New Delhi seeks partnerships with global institutions to provide quality education at home.

"With the expansion of the higher education sector and the needs of Indian students, we need not just to allow education providers in India to grow, but we also need to provide for foreign investment in the education sector," India's Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal said at a press conference here Friday.

Sibal, who was here to seek partnership with leading American universities for an Indian initiative to set up 14 innovation universities to push research and development, said he was encouraged by the response, which made the trip "exceptionally satisfying".

Big questions in the science of the brain

An hour-long tour of some of the big questions in brain science discussed by five leading scientists of the day. Watch it on Charlie Rose's show

[If that link opens with some other show, go to the archives and choose 29 October 2009. ]

This is the first of a 12-part series -- the later episodes will go into the details of what we know about each of these questions.

What I found even more fascinating than the questions themselves is the scientists' ability to communicate the big ideas -- and also the excitement of working with and shaping those ideas -- in a language that's accessible to most of us outside the field. Yes, there's some occasional jargon such as "animal models" and "neural correlates of consciousness", but (a) they are not too many, and (b) there's sufficient context around these phrases that gives us some idea about what they mean.

Like I said, the excitement of doing high science shines right through this episode.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Links ...

  1. Featured link: Pankaj Jalote (Director, IIIT-Delhi) in the Economic Times: Who's afraid of foreign universities?

  2. An old article (from 2006) in Business Week by Nandini Lakshman: Will foreign universities come to India?

  3. Sticking to the theme of foreign universities, here's one about Australia's experience with them.

  4. This court battle between a South Korean university and Yale is interesting -- at least for the way Yale is fighting it in public. Consider what its spokesman said: "We think the jury will certainly consider the fact that the chairman of Dongguk’s board was convicted of soliciting and receiving an illegal government subsidy from Ms. Shin’s lover, who was an adviser to the Korean president."

  5. You probably don't need more evidence of how tough things have been for American public universities lately. If you do, here is one for you.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gaming a Tough Entrance Exam

Let me start with Priscilla Jebaraj's story in The Hindu:

At large coaching centres such as those in Kota, students effectively drop out of the school system in order to prepare for JEE. They can then scrape through their board examinations to meet the 60 per cent minimum criteria, without having actually attended school for two years.

This can result in a skewed education, which shows up once the student gets to IIT. IIT-M director M.S. Ananth tells the story of a student who arrived at IIT without having mastered the concept of integration despite it being part of the higher secondary mathematics curriculum. He had failed to study it since he felt only three marks were allotted to the topic under JEE.

I couldn't believe it when I read that stuff about a student entering an IIT without knowing anything about integral calculus. Within a day, I got this view confirmed by another friend from an IIT who went on to complain about large holes in many students' background -- which were probably due to their strategy of selective preparation.

[BTW, this is not peculiar to JEE; recently, a colleague told us about a couple of students who didn't know any mathematics and still managed good ranks in GATE. And they are in a math-heavy engineering field! ]

Frankly, I hadn't thought about this angle before; after thinking about it a bit, it actually makes sense. By any objective yardstick, JEE is a brutally tough exam -- so tough, in fact, that you could get 30 to 40 percent and still find yourself among the rank-holders (especially if you really do well in one of the subjects).

For some students, then, it is certainly rational to cut down on preparing for stuff that's difficult -- and focus more on things for which they have a flair. It's also possible that coaching schools encourage them to put this strategy into practice.

A Board exam -- conducted, for example, by CBSE -- this would be an absolutely disastrous strategy if you want to be among the among the top-rankers. This is because top-rankers in these exams typically have over 90 percent -- and you can't get 90+ percent by ignoring even 20 or 30 percent of the syllabus.

Put this down as yet another 'unintended consequence' of the design choice by the IITs to go with a 'tough' version of JEE. It's this very 'tough-ness' that allows this particular method of gaming the exam to work.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


  1. Raymond Tallis: Does Evolution Explain Our Behaviour?: "Does evolution explain our behaviour? The short answer is: No. And you may well concur with that answer but ‘out there’ there is an increasing constituency of thinkers claiming quite otherwise. [...]

  2. Tom Chivers in The London Telegraph: Internet rules and laws: the top 10, from Godwin to Poe.

  3. Anne Eisenberg in NYTimes: Plugging Into the Eye, With a New Design.

  4. Doug Lederman in IHE: The Ever-Expanding U. of Phoenix.

  5. Finally, this gem from Arnold (as a friend calls it): Pretty Amazing Stuff.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

When men become a minority in a high-prestige field ...

... it is viewed as A Seriously Bad Thing -- something that should be corrected. For example, by changing admissions requirement to include performance in tests in which men have an advantage. Here's something from Ireland that should sound very, very familiar:

In medical courses, women were three times more likely to earn a spot over male applicants, at least until this year when an aptitude test was introduced for the first time. The test scores were combined with results from the schools' Leaving Certificate examination to select students for entry into one of the country's five undergraduate medical schools.

The use of the aptitude test has proven to be somewhat controversial. The HPAT-Ireland test measures a candidate's logical reasoning and problem-solving skills as well as non-verbal reasoning and the ability to understand the thoughts, behaviour and-or intentions of people. It does not test academic knowledge and candidates do not require special understanding of any academic discipline.

Males did better than females in the test with the result that a higher percentage of males got into medicine this year than in previous years - still not as many as females but an improvement, nevertheless.

The change led to accusations in some quarters that the real purpose of the test was to increase the percentage of males in medicine to miligate against the high numbers of female doctors who will take time off to look after children.

This was denied by the Education Ministry which pushed for the change to end the situation whereby medicine was the sole preserve of students who obtained nearly perfect results in their Leaving Certificate.

Those results are converted into 'points' for college entry and the maximum a student can get is 600 points. Latest figures show that 61% of those who score 450 points or higher in the Leaving Certificate are female. [Bold emphasis added]

Women's dominance in higher ed?

It dawned in the West two or three decades ago -- women outnumber men in universities and colleges there, by as much as (or higher than) 2 to 1.

In some countries, women are a minority only in sciences (especially physical sciences) and engineering -- but the trends appear to favor a female majority soon.

These are the inescapable conclusions from the following set of stories in the latest (online) issue of University World News:

  1. Global: Women No Longer the Second Sex.

  2. South Africa: Gender Divide Breached.

  3. Canada: School the Cause of Male Minority?

  4. Ireland: Engineering -- the Last Male Bastion.

  5. Australia: Male Decline Continues.

  6. USA (from an earlier issue): New Growth in Domestic Graduate Student Enrollment: "Overall, nearly 60% of all graduate students in autumn 2008 were women, and they comprised a larger share of total enrolees at the masters and graduate certification level (61%) as well as at doctoral level (51%)."

Pakistan's reform experiments in higher ed

Sidebar: I'm not sure how many of these links to will work for you without subscription; the last two will definitely work from this story at ScieDev.Net -- go to the bottom of that story for the links.

* * *

The Nature opinion piece (by Athar Osama, Adil Najam, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Syed Zulfiqar Gilani & Christopher King) is an eye-opener! It describes (and to some extent, evaluates) the massive efforts by Pakistan since 2002: enormous increase in funding, lots of students sent abroad for doctoral degrees, increase in the number of PhDs from Pakistan's universities, etc.

These efforts have been spearheaded by the Higher Education Commission (which replaced that country's UGC). The current head of HEC, Atta ur Rahman, has a response highlighting what he thinks are the major achievements:

... Because there were not enough suitable PhD supervisors in the universities, we sent some 3,800 students abroad, mainly to the United States and Europe, to study for a PhD, at a total cost of about US$1 billion. [...]

There followed a huge increase in international scientific research publications, from 600 or so in 2001 to more than 4,200 in 2008. About 50 new universities and degree-awarding institutes were established during this period, and enrolment in higher education almost tripled to about 400,000 by the end of 2008, having been just 135,000 in 2003.

A digital library was established to provide free access to 25,000 international journals and 45,000 textbooks for all public-sector university students. In the 2008 Times Higher Education rankings, four Pakistani universities are among the top 600 in the world — an unattainable position before 2003.

In another response to that opinion piece, Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, is blunt in calling HEC's efforts 'a failed experiment':

the former government wasted enormous sums of money on prestige mega-projects. Nine new universities were abandoned after partial construction because of a lack of trained faculty, and expensive imported scientific equipment remains under-utilized many years later. The claimed 400% increase in publications was a result of salary bonuses awarded to professors who published in international journals, largely irrespective of substance and quality. These payments fostered a plagiarism culture that still goes unpunished.

The authors draw attention to a large increase in "relative impact" in some disciplines, based on citation of papers published in 2003–07. But were self-citations (a common ploy) eliminated from this count? I used an option available from Thomson Scientific and found the opposite result after eliminating self-citations.

The authors also praise the Higher Education Commission for increasing university professors' salaries. But this has created social disparities — a full professor now earns 20–30 times more than a school teacher. Professors, bent on removing barriers to their promotions and incomes, take on very large numbers of PhD students. To ensure that these students get their degrees, many professors seek the elimination of international testing, hitherto used as a metric for gauging student performance.

Pakistan's failed experiment provides a counter-example to the conventional wisdom that money is the most crucial element in the reform process. ...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Extreme Coaching and Entrance Exams

Today's DNA has two stories where lots of different people offer their views on coaching schools. While I have heard lots of complaints from faculty (in private conversations and through anonymous comments), it is good to hear them echoed by an IITian:

Says Karthik Shashidhar who graduated from IIT, Madras in 2004 and now works as an investment banker in Bangalore, "At IIT, we refer to the coaching centres as factories. I went to the biggest factory - BASE. But it was low intensity compared to most others. We have seen that more intense the preparation, worse they do at IIT. I have seen fairly sad cases of people dropping out, taking 6 years to complete the course and so on. Those who overstretch themselves to clear the JEE, tend to take it easy once they get into IIT. They just give up in life later. It could also be that people who don't have the aptitude somehow manage to scrape through with intense coaching, and then can't cope at IIT."

* * *

Many people have pointed out that the culture of coaching schools cannot be eliminated, given the huge demand for IIT seats. Some people have even argued that coaching may actually be good, because it teaches kids vital skills that their regular schools fail to impart. All this is true; but these arguments misinterpret the concern about coaching schools.

The main complaint is primarily against Extreme Coaching exemplified by the Kota-style residential centres, which encourage students to develop and internalize a disdain for 'regular' studies -- a disdain that many students take to the IITs!

I think it's fair to say that it's worth pursuing ways of minimizing -- if not eliminating -- the pernicious influence of Extreme Coaching.

* * *

One of them is to use multiple rounds of contests, like the math and physics Olympiads do.

* * *

A simpler version -- involving a two-step process -- could also work. In fact, IITs did use (for a brief period that ended in 2005) a screening test that selected a small subset of JEE applicants for the final exam.

However, this didn't do anything to reduce the need for Extreme Coaching primarily because the screening test itself was as brutal as ever.

I think the trick is to make the screening test really simple. Something that a bright, diligent student should be able to ace without needing serious coaching. Ideally, the screening test should also be done about a year in advance, so that a huge majority of students can get on with their lives and make other plans.

With this scheme, Extreme Coaching loses its sting: where the numbers are huge (the screening test) coaching is not needed, and where coaching might be needed, the numbers are small.

* * *

An even better option is to give some weight to broader measures of students' achievement, including performance in X and XII board exams (BTW, this is not as outlandish as it sounds -- IIM-B uses them). Use of X and XII results would also reward consistent performance -- something that was found in a study to correlate well with the performance of IIT-M students.

Given their stature and prestige, IITs will not have any trouble at all in getting the boards to declare percentile scores along with marks in Class X and Class XII. The percentile scores can also be used as an input into the ranking exercise in AIEEE, Pre-Medical Test, and other such tests.

Adventures in 'open' publishing

Mark Pilgrim's book, Dive Into Python, is available as a real book as well as a downloadable (free!) e-book. Interestingly, "the book is published under the GNU Free Documentation License, which explicitly gives anyone and everyone the right to publish it themselves." And sure enough, someone did, and started selling it it on!

If you still don't see the point behind the whole thing -- the GNU Free Documentation License -- you really have to read this post:

So I am grateful for this anonymous soul who woke up one day and said to herself, “You know what I should do today? I should try to sell copies of that Free book that Pilgrim wrote.” Grateful, because it afforded me the opportunity to remind myself why I chose a Free license in the first place. My Zen teacher once told me that, when people try to do you harm, you should thank them for giving you the opportunity to forgive them. In this case it’s even simpler, because there’s nothing to forgive, just explain. She’s redistributing the work that I explicitly made redistributable. She’s kind of the point.

Now go read Cory Doctorow's post on his latest experiment in making his books available for free download.

30 years of the London Review of Books (and 11 years of 'personals')

Miller and Wilmers [the then editors of the London Review of Books] have also been prone to a touch of mischief. When in 1982 the poet and critic Al Alvarez wrote a book on divorce, they commissioned the author’s first wife to review it. A terrific fuss ensued (Frank Kermode, the paper’s longest serving contributor and a friend of the Alvarezes, took particular exception).

From John Sutherland's look back at thirty years of LRB.

Since my acquaintance with LRB has been only through its website, I wasn't aware of its section on classifieds which

became known for the expression of eccentric but articulate longings, some of them extremely odd (eg “Tell me your kidney-stone experiences: I’ll set them to music”); others worryingly direct (“Woman, 32, needful of the finer things in life seeks stinking rich bloke, 80 to 100.”).

Sutherland goes on to excerpt some of the ads in which "I had become part of an erotic lexicon." It's all pretty hilarious stuff -- check it out; it appears at the end of his article.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Links: Foreign Universities Edition

Some links:

  1. This page has what appears to be a comprehensive list of foreign campuses of US universities (until 2008).

  2. This story is a good warning. Top universities will want 'incentives' to come to India.

    When John Sexton, the president of New York University, first met Omar Saif Ghobash, an investor trying to entice him to open a branch campus in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Sexton was not sure what to make of the proposal — so he asked for a $50 million gift.

    It’s like earnest money: if you’re a $50 million donor, I’ll take you seriously,” Mr. Sexton said. “It’s a way to test their bona fides.” In the end, the money materialized from the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates.

  3. Inside Higher Ed: International Campuses on the Rise:

    The number of international branch campuses has grown to 162, up 43 percent in just three years, according to a study released Wednesday by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a British research institute that has been among the leaders in documenting the spread of this form of higher education.

    Branch campuses are defined as institutions that have the name of and are run by a foreign institution, and that award full degrees from that institution -- so these figures do not include centers that are run for study abroad experiences for those from the home campus.

    The international branch campus, the report says, is a relatively recent phenomenon: Only 35 of the campuses in the study existed prior to 1999. Branch campuses vary widely and involve leading universities. But they also have been controversial, with faculty groups warning that branch campuses may not always reflect the academic standards or missions of home universities. (And there are plenty of fans of branch campuses who agree that some are shoddy, and plenty of skeptics who agree that some are outstanding.)

  4. The story of George Mason's UAE campus in Ras Al Khaimah is sobering.

    After three years developing a full degree-granting campus in the United Arab Emirates, the university is pulling out without producing a single graduate. Plagued by slow enrollment growth, funding problems and disagreements with the Emirates government organization that bankrolled the project, the model is no longer viable, Stearns said Thursday.

    This VoA story suggests "disagreements over operating budget and academic control" as the reasons for GMU's exit.

    Also, something similar happened to the Singapore campus of the University of New South Wales.

  5. Russel C. Jones: Exporting American Higher Education. This article provides a nice summary of the kinds of issues that one needs to think about.

    Any development of American-style education in a foreign country runs the risk of educating students in a way or at a level that creates an elite class that is not well connected to the local culture and needs. And if too much adaptation to local conditions is made, does the education retain the fundamental elements which make it an American education?

    As noted above, staffing foreign programs with faculty members from the home US campus is often a problem, particularly after startup. One solution to this problem is to have new faculty members who are hired to work in foreign programs spend a significant period of time on the home campus, involved in the courses that they will later teach abroad and working with home campus faculty members on research.

    Home campuses in the US can be positively affected as faculty members have the opportunity to gain international experience. In the current economic climate, assignment or transfer of faculty members to foreign campuses can relieve home campus budgets, and perhaps avoid layoffs.

    Developing necessary enrollments to justify the offering of foreign programs, and provide sufficient income to maintain them, is a major issue. In many developing countries, the majority of secondary school leavers are poorly prepared to handle American-style university level programs. Lack of adequate preparation in math and science is typical, and the ability to study advanced material in English is often lacking.

  6. Here's a refreshingly blunt article ("universities are in it for the money. These campuses take in foreign students to help fund their operations back home") that also articulates philosophical / political reasons for opposing American campuses abroad (Jones, too, touches on this issue):

    It is the belief of many that it should not be the role of the American military to police the world. Nor should it be the role of American universities to educate the world. Education and curricula are highly political and culturally loaded. This foreign intrusion suggests that American education is somehow superior to what is, or could be, offered in other countries. This arrangement also allows governments off the hook for maintaining or creating a domestic and public post-secondary education system. What’s more, it opens the door to cultural domination from a foreign power. Hardly a noble exercise in geopolitical welfare.

Why would a foreign university want an Indian campus?

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Foreign universities may be interested in educating Indian citizens, but they'll come here primarily because they see a market here. [Here's an Indian analogy: If IIMs want to set up shop in the Middle East, is it because they feel that it's their mission to educate the citizens of those countries?]

  2. They can use their Indian campus for the 'study abroad' programs for their own UG students. [In the case of IIMs, they can use their foreign campuses as an 'incentive' for their faculty -- by allowing them to spend some time in Dubai and Singapore.]

  3. They may want to be known for their 'Global Campus,' however meaningless that label may be.

  4. Instead of short term 'study abroad' program, the Indian campus may well turn into a destination for 'education tourism.'

If #1 -- the Indian market -- is the reason, I expect the for-profit universities (the University of Phoenix) to be interested, rather than the Harvards and the Stanfords. Even if the latter do come to India, it'll be to offer easy and cheap programs (that nevertheless are in high demand): business, economics, accounting and the like. Humanities are also easy and cheap to set up and run, and they help make the programs appear well-rounded. But, don't expect a program in the sciences or engineering -- except perhaps mathematics and computer science.

Can #2 -- Study Abroad progams -- be a good reason for an Indian campus? Frankly, I don't know. My guess is that American UG students are far more interested in Europe, Japan, Australia. India may be attractive to a few because it's exotic or 'emerging', but let's be realistic. Also, universities don't need their own campus for study abroad programs -- they can do it with a local partner.

#3 -- Global Campus -- should be recognized for what it really is: an empty slogan with perhaps some marketing value. It could, for example, help in getting a better place in THE-QS rank list. But here is the thing: Harvard and Stanford don't need this label; the University of Southeastern Idaho might.

#4 -- education tourism -- could be attractive for cost-conscious students from the US as well as elsewhere, if they can get an MIT degree at a lower cost made possible by the Indian operations. But would MIT want to be in this market?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Entrance Exams Elsewhere -- 5

In the last post on this topic (for today!), we look at Japan -- where the terror extreme stress associated with these exams even has a name -- "Examination Hell". A recent report in Japan Times seems to suggest that the Examination Hell is not all that hot in these days of declining population (there's even an academic study that looked at the phenomenon of ronin -- spending an extra year to prepare for the exam -- to check if it made economic sense).

Japan's tough college entrance exam competition was once known as "examination hell." Is it still?

Competition remains fairly stiff for those aiming for top universities, but many schools have become much easier to enter these days, observers say.

The competition intensified between the 1960s and 1980s due to Japan's high economic growth. During this period, companies, with their lifetime employment system, hired graduates from good schools, which meant one's future was decided at age 18, according to Koichi Nakai, author of "The History of University Entrance Exams in the Post-World War II Era."

Because more people wanted to receive higher education, deregulation in the 1990s triggered a rise in new universities.

However, the population of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992 and has been declining since.

At the same time, more than half of 18-year-olds are attending a university or junior college today.

This recent report, on the other hand, suggests that Examination Hell has percolated down to kindergartens and primary schools!

Entrance Exams Elsewhere - 4


These public and private schools provide a very specialised course of study and have a highly selective admissions procedure. Some require an excellent school record and a baccalaureat (secondary school diploma) with distinction.

Numerous others however, also require success at an entrance examination that is prepared over one or two years in the special classe preparatoire aux grandes ecoles.

Given the selective nature of the admissions procedure, there are therefore only a limited number of pupils who enrol at CPGE and they represent about five per cent of the total number of those who enrol in higher education - 20 times fewer than those who enrol for places at university.

Although very prestigious, many accuse this system of being elitist, especially since the state spends more on these students per head than on university students.

The workload and the stress at prepa is notorious. Those studying the scientific courses are known as taupins - moles - because they are so taken up with their studies that they see very little light of day!

Wikipedia entry on the Grandes Ecoles (literally, the Great Schools) has a section on the preparatory classes (interestingly, there's also a separate entry on them!):

Classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) or Prépas literally Preparatory classes for the grandes écoles, sometimes nicknamed the "royal way," because it's the only way to get into the most prestigious schools.

The preparatory classes, either in literature, sciences or management (generally two or three years) is the traditional way to enter the most prestigious grandes écoles. Most of them are in state high schools; there are a few private preparatory classes but they are expensive. Admission in preparatory classes are based on an academic report. Many students register in more than one class to maximize their chance of admission. Some of these classes are very selective and successful at placing students into the top schools.

The workload is generally very high and in-class competition between students is encouraged in some schools. Some classes may be psychologically stressful (depending on the students and the teachers' behaviour), and some students give up before the completion of their studies. The goal of preparatory classes is to prepare the student to match the academic level expected to pass the competitive recruitment examination of the main grandes écoles. If the student is not admitted to a Grande École, they are given the option of repeating the last year of preparatory classes and attempting the exam the following year.

Entrance Exams Elsewhere - 3

South Korea (It's not quite about the exam takers, however. It's about a company that offers coaching -- online):

... In this country, where people’s status and income at 60 are largely determined by which college they entered at 18, South Korean parents’ all-consuming task is to ensure that their children enter an elite university. And that requires a high score on the college entrance exam.

By tapping into those anxieties, which deepen during recessions, Megastudy has become South Korea’s fastest-growing technology company, with sales expected to grow 22.5 percent this year, to 245 billion won ($195 million), even as the country’s economy is projected to contract.

About 2.8 million students, including approximately half of all college-bound high school seniors, are members of Megastudy, which allows them access to some of the country’s most celebrated exam tutors. For a fraction of what they would pay at traditional private “cram schools,” students can watch video-on-demand tutorials on home computers or download them into hand-held devices for viewing in the subway or parks. They can skip or fast-forward through some parts of a lecture and bookmark or repeat the rest.

Entrance Exams Elsewhere -- 2


The Student Selection Exam (ÖSS), required for acceptance into universities throughout Turkey, was held yesterday for the final time in its current format. A total of 1,349,423 students left home early in the morning on Sunday to take the ÖSS, which began at 9:30 a.m. throughout the country as well as in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC).

The exam lasted for 195 minutes, with the candidates trying to answer a total of 180 questions. This year's exam was made up of eight tests, each with 30 questions. For students applying to programs with no graduate level, the first four tests were sufficient. Students applying to programs that do have graduate levels, on the other hand, had to take the first four tests and an additional two tests in the fields they were applying to.

Parents began a tense wait after the students were taken into the exam rooms. Some parents could be seen reading the Quran and praying, perhaps that their children successfully pass the exam and have a chance to study at their preferred universities.

Hatice Güllüce, one of the mothers whose daughter took the exam in the eastern province of Erzurum, said her daughter studied for the exam for a whole year and now it was time to support her daughter through her prayers. She said she also prayed for all the other students to perform well in the exam.

Entrance exams elsewhere


For the past year, Liu Qichao has focused on one thing, and only one thing: the gao kao, or the high test.

Fourteen to 16 hours a day, he studied for the college entrance examination, which this year will determine the fate of more than 10 million Chinese students. He took one day off every three weeks.

He was still carrying his textbook from room to room last Sunday morning before leaving for the exam site, still reviewing materials during the lunch break, still hard at work Sunday night, preparing for Part 2 of the exam that Monday.

“I want to study until the last minute,” he said. “I really hope to be successful.”

GRE physics

Over at Cosmic Variance, John Convey gives us a rare glimpse into the way the GRE exams are put together.

Firstly, there’s the format. The exam is 100 questions long, and you have 170 minutes to do it. This is, therefore, different from just about every other physics exam you have had in college, where you have, say, four to six problems in an hour-long exam. The GRE Physics problems (or “items” in assessment world jargon) are short, to-the-point questions, and just about all of them are short calculations, if any, and take little time once you see what to do. Writing such questions is a difficult thing to do, let me tell you. We are continually amazed how, after about six levels of review, we can find issues of clarity, reasoning, and even sometimes basic physics correctness in the items submitted to the pool. All the committee members spend a lot of time each year reviewing hundreds of problems, looking for flaws, but more often than you would think the face-to-face meeting in Princeton with the ETS folks reveals something previously overlooked. It’s a really interesting process.

For each new exam form we eventually arrive at 100 items that test mastery of a clear physics concept or idea, and there is, yes, a certain amount of memorization required in terms of the basic equations learned in undergraduate physics. But there are many problems that can be done using just concepts, and many that can be done with simple dimensional analysis. When there are numerical solutions (and many if not most are in that category) the numbers are chosen so as to allow easy arithmetic – no calculators are allowed.

He also offers quite a few tips for how to prepare for the GRE subject test in physics.

My first piece of advice to students studying for this exam is to focus on reviewing the textbook from your freshman introductory physics course. In my years on the GRE committee, when I have needed to consult a text, it is that text at least 80% of the time. If you master every example in there and review the basic equations, you will do really well on the GRE. I have found that only a small fraction of the items on the GRE are actually from upper-level topics like stat mech, quantum, and special topics (solid state, nuclear, particle, cosmology, etc.) And presumably you have been studying the advanced topics more recently anyway. I think the single biggest mistake students make in studying for the GRE is to focus on too-advanced subjects.

There's a lot in Conway's post. Go read all of it.

Initiatives from the IIT Council meeting -- Some clarifications ...

In this post (which was based on news reports on HRD Minister Kapil Sibal's version of the deliberations of the IIT Council meeting) , I had asked folks from IITs to tell us if they "had any inkling at all about" the kinds of initiatives announced that day. While the HRD Minister himself has clarified that JEE reforms were entirely up to the IITs, we have some clarifications on some of the other issues -- thanks to Prof. Gautam Barua (who left a comment) and to a friend (who e-mailed me).


Here is Barua's comment (with just a bit of formatting added by me):

Please note the following:

  1. As per the Act and the Statutes, the Senate of an IIT handles academic matters. The same Act states that the Council will "advise on matters relating to the duration of courses, the degrees and other academic distinctions to be conferred by the Institutes, admission standards, and other academic matters".

  2. So, if the Council forms a committee to look at the PG programmes (and not UG, and not curriculum as wrongly reported), what is wrong?

  3. A Committe formed by the IITs is considering the JEE reforms issue. There was no decision in the Council meeting yesterday. What the Minister stated is the general principle, and ONE possible way of handling things. See what ignorant reporters have done with it.

  4. A Committee headed by Dr. Kakodkar will also look into autonomy issues that are in front of the IITs. These were discussed in the meeting and the committee will examine all issues. There is hope that changes will be brought about in the way IITs and the Govt. interact.

In another comment, he recommends this IE report as "the most accurate on what transpired in the IIT Council meeting."

An IIT friend responded by e-mail:

The reform in JEE they talked about was in the pipeline for few years now. [...] Its just the media savvy minister who used the opportunity to grad some attention.

Also regarding the research orientation in line with the country's needs, it was also in pipe line. [It was brought up in a convocation address by a high level technology manager in the country].

So in conclusion, we knew it was all coming and is in line with we were expecting.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is JEE rank a prize?

It's fair to say that JEE has strayed too far from what most of us would agree should be its real mandate: standardization across the large number of Class XII boards. If it is not a standardizing exam, then what is it?

I want to consider the possibility that the JEE is actually a contest. That would make JEE rank (or, a seat at an IIT) a prize -- it's prestigious, it's highly coveted, it's scarce.

JEE, in other words, is a process very much like that used for selecting people to to represent India in the math, physics, or chemistry Olympiads. Only the numbers are different -- Indian Olympiads probably select a few tens, while the JEE selects a few thousands.

[JEE certainly has features that resemble the Olympiads: tough questions that require you to think creatively, questions that go beyond Class XII (even though the syllabus is nominally the same), questions that test your agility, time pressure, the need for intense preparation, etc.]

If this premise is accepted, then it is better to organize JEE like the national sports championships are organized, or like the Olympiads are organized. Lots of local events, which escalate to higher levels -- district, state and national level championships (and rankings).

This has the desirable property of selecting those who are 'good', 'motivated', 'hard working', 'persistent'.

It has the even more desirable property of eliminating a large number of people along the way, and fairly early in the process. We are talking about more than 90 or 95 percent of the students, who really have no business taking the JEE, who end up taking it because they think -- or their parents think -- the Prize is worth their blood, sweat and adolescent years.

People will say that there will still be coaching. Yes, there will be; but it will not be the dysfunctional, monomaniacal, it's-okay-to-neglect-school kind.

It will be small, sharp and focused. And it will help the right sort of people (willing victims, if you will!) : those who really have a flair for science, and enjoy doing intellectually challenging work.

If IITs want JEE to be a Prize exam, they are better off treating it as such, and take the necessary steps -- organize it like the Olympiads. Have multiple elimination rounds.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kota opposes the proposal to increase Class XII marks

What a surprise!

Let's look at some of the arguments and counterproposals:

Argument 1:

They claimed that raising the cutoff from the current 60 per cent would not reduce the craze for coaching — as the government hopes — and that the institutes would start preparing students for both their IIT and board exams.

Argument 2:

However, they argued, rural students would be hit hard because they are disadvantaged in the board exams — often lacking good laboratories or teachers at their schools — but face a level-playing field in the IIT entrance tests.

IITs are sitting on mountains of data that can clear this up. But we live in an absurd society in which coaching schools make a shameless claim that they are the ones that help level the field for rural students -- even though coaching schools are all located in cities and towns.

I wonder what'll come next: that coaching schools are the poor people's best friends?

Argument 3:

Some coaching centres also argued that a higher board cutoff would raise tricky problems since different boards marked students differently — for instance, the CBSE awarded marks more generously than the Bengal board.

This is not a serious problem. IITs can use a percentile cut-off as a minimum requirement -- and this cut-off can be uniform across boards. A possible objection is to suggest / claim that people in Sate A are inherently inferior to people in State B. This would be an extraordinary (and potentially explosive) claim, and so would also require an extraordinary 'proof'.

This is not quite an argument for anything, but something for the IITs to ponder about:

He said the IITs had been changing the pattern of their entrance exam every year to try and reduce the influence of coaching, but the institutes had survived through research and innovation, evolving strategies that benefited their students.

And, finally, this counter-proposal gives a whole new meaning to chutzpah:

Pramod Bansal of Bansal Classes agreed: “They should retain the Class X exam where a student is free to concentrate only on his school subjects, and not burden them with high scoring in their Class XII boards when their focus is on entrance exams and their future career.”

This too should worry the IITs. The JEE is being framed here -- and I would say, with some justification -- as something that has little to do with school subjects. As something uncorrelated with Class XII performance. As something that takes primacy over board exams.

This is a pretty amazing transformation of an exam whose primary role should have been one of standardization across boards -- just as the role of board exams is to standardize across schools of different kinds (rural, urban, public, private, corporate, franchisee ...)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Well, that was fast!

Pallavi Singh in Mint: No Govt. Interference in IIT eligibility criteria, says Sibal.

Well, that was that! That 80 percent score in Class XII exams was just a trial balloon from HRD Minister Kapil Sibal. Now that it has backfired badly, he has also backtracked by saying this is the IITs' call.

What is really interesting is the alacrity with which some politicians reacted to Sibal's trial balloon.

  1. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar; in response to his letter, Sibal said "the alleged proposal" is "non-existent."

  2. Lok Jan Shakti leader Ram Vilas Paswan

  3. UP CM Mayawati

  4. JMM General Secretary Ramesh Hansda

  5. BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad

* * *

The best comment I have read so far is from one Aakash Chaudhry, who runs a coaching school. He seems to think that the following line of reasoning supports coaching schools:

"Coaching cannot be eliminated. As long as the IIT-JEE exam exists, there will be need for coaching. Learning in schools alone is insufficient to crack the IIT-JEE. They focus on all-round development and extra-curricular activities, and not just academics. We focus only on academics." [Bold emphasis added].

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sibal exercises his autonomy to announce new initiatives -- for the IITs

I'll let our IIT friends tell us if they had any inkling at all about any of the following issues (especially the first and the last) that the IIT Council appears to have discussed in today's meeting.

  1. Opening a new front, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal on Monday wanted more weightage to be given to Class 12 Board exam for IIT entrance and proposed raising the required minimum of 60 per cent marks to at least 80 per cent. [Hindustan Times]

  2. To bring research to the forefront in the IITs and increase its role in national development projects, the government today set up a committee which will suggest a broad roadmap for the institutes for next ten years. [PTI]

  3. "The present criteria is that students need to secure 60 per cent at class XII for appearing in IIT-JEE. This is not acceptable. The minimum marks required for IIT-JEE could be raised up to 80 to 85 per cent," Sibal told reporters after a meeting of the IIT Council, the apex decision making body for the elite institutes, in New Delhi. [Indian Express]

  4. Sibal said a three-member committee has been set up to look into the curriculum and submit its report within three months, suggesting required changes.

    The committee comprises Science and Technology Secretary T Ramasami, Secretary Department of Biotechnology M K Bhan and CSIR Director General Samir Brahmachari.

    The committee will deliberate on new age courses to be started by the IITs. Sibal has been insisting that the IITs could explore starting courses in Humanities and Medicine also. The committee will give its report by January. [Indian Express]

IIT-Patna seems to be at the leading edge of autonomy

From the faculty recruitment ad (Update: the ad has been corrected sometime after this post went up this afternoon -- see below) for IIT-Patna [link via Kaushal's comment]:

Pay Scales:

Assistant Professor (on contract): To be appointed in PB-3 (Rs.15,600-39,100) with AGP of Rs. 6,000/- p.m. with seven non-compounded advance increments. After 1 year, the AGP will be Rs. 7,000/-

Assistant Professor: To be appointed in PB-4 (Rs.37,400-67,000) with AGP of Rs. 9,000/- p.m.

Associate Professor: To be appointed in PB-4 (Rs.37,400-67,000) with AGP of Rs. 9,500/- p.m.

Professor: To be appointed in PB-4 (Rs.37,400-67,000) with AGP of Rs. 10,500/- p.m.

According to our understanding, APs start at Rs. 38,000 (PB-3 pay of Rs. 30,000 and AGP of Rs. 8,000) and move to Rs. 46,400 (PB-4 pay of Rs. 37,400 + AGP of Rs. 9,000) only after three years of PB-3 penance.

[Update: Okay, the ad has now been corrected. Our understanding remains intact. The latest version reads:

Assistant Professor: To be appointed in PB-3 (Rs.15,600-39,100) with AGP of Rs. 8,000/- p.m. For direct recruits, minimum pay in the Pay Band to be fixed at Rs. 30,000/-

Assistant Professors in IITs, IISc Bangalore, IIMs, NITIE Mumbai and IISERs, on completion of three years of service shall move to Pay Band 4 (Rs.37,400-67,000) with AGP of Rs. 9,000/- and will, however, continue to be designated as Assistant Professor.

End of Update.]

But the IIT-P ad appears to suggest that APs will be placed directly at PB-4 with Rs. 9000 of AGP.

Either the recruitment ad has wrong information about the AP salary, or IIT-P is getting far ahead of the pack in exercising its autonomy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


From the way the chapter in Superfreakonomics dealing with global warming is being fisked, Steven Levitt's reputation as an academic appears headed for a steep fall. Levitt has promised a detailed defence, so we'll wait to see how this one plays itself out. In the meantime, here are some links:

[Update: Extended excerpts from that chapter may be found here, while a low-quality pdf of that entire chapter is here. This post has lots more links.]

  1. Paul Krugman: Superfreakonomics on Climate: Part 1, Weitzman in Context. From the second post:

    Levitt now says that the chapter wasn’t meant to lend credibility to global warming denial — but when you open your chapter by giving major play to the false claim that scientists used to predict global cooling, you have in effect taken the denier side. The only way I can reconcile what Levitt says now with that reality is that he and Dubner didn’t do their homework — not only that they didn’t check out the global cooling stuff, the stuff about solar panels, and all the other errors people have been pointing out, but that they didn’t even look into the debate sufficiently to realize what company they were placing themselves in.

    And that’s not acceptable. This is a serious issue. We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.

  2. Climate Progress: Error-riddled Superfreaknomics -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

  3. William Connolley stops after finding the first 10 errors in the chapter.

  4. Tim Lambert: Why everything in Superfreakonomics about global warming is wrong.

  5. Matt Yglesias: Journalistic malpractice from Levitt and Dubner, Dubner digs the hole deeper.

  6. Ezra Klein: The shoddy statistics of Superfreakonomics.

See also Felix Salmon who uses an example from the first book to suggest that "the Freakonomists have a history of misrepresenting environmental science."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

IIMs get more autonomy?

HRD Minister Kapil Sibal met IIM directors yesterday, and has announced a bunch of initiatives he claims will give more autonomy to these premier B-schools. A new, Pan-IIM 'collegium,' which will choose IIMs' Board members as well as their directors, is being projected by both the minister and the IIM directors as an important part of the package.

Most of what has been reported is from what the participants have said; but the devil is in the details, and they are usually found in some document. So, let's wait for a document to emerge; the wait may not be long, since the IIMs have been given three months to prepare a 5-year plan.

In the meantime, here are the news reports:

  1. Charu Sudan Kasturi, in The Telegraph, cuts to the chase right in his opening paragraph:

    The Centre will stop directly appointing members of IIM governing boards, creating a selection mechanism that may grant the institutes greater autonomy from the government but could curb their independence from each other. [Bold emphasis added].

  2. Pallavi Singh, in Mint, gets Bhargava to say that the proposed 'collegium' doesn't look all that different from the pan-IIM board recommended by a committee headed by him:

    “A collegium sounds very similar (to a pan-IIM board) to me. The purpose of the board was also to help in running the IIMs and the constitution of the collegium is also the same as proposed by our panel. It’s a good decision in the sense that at least there will be a collegium now,’’ Bhargava said.

In a news report before the meeting, director of IIM-B, Prof. Pankaj Chandra was quoted as saying this:

"The more important issue is the government's inability to make the IITs and IIMs truly world-class institutions and to let go of control," said Pankaj Chandra, Director, IIM Bangalore.

"Look at the way governments in other countries support and enable their government institutions. The government of Singapore has made NUS (National University of Singapore) fantastic, and the Chinese government has enabled Beijing University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Should Indian government not do the same for its institutions?" asked Chandra, a PhD from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who taught for 10 years at IIM Ahmedabad (IIM-A) before moving to IIM-B.

"Once the budget for the IIMs is decided, all decisions should be left to the Board of Governors. The selection of the director was done by the respective Boards before M.M. Joshi (former HRD Minister) brought it under the preview of the ministry," said Chandra.

Devesh Kapur on a goals-driven strategy for India's higher ed

On this Deepavali day, here's something to light up the debate on India's higher education priorities.

In his ToI column, Starting Point of Higher Education, Devesh Kapur focuses on "the lack of clarity in thinking about the fundamental underlying question: What are the goals of Indian higher education?". He then goes on to pose a bunch of questions in order to clarify where India's higher ed priorities should be.

The most discernible instrumental outcome of higher education is its links with and impact on labour markets. Let us say one of its key goals is to provide skills to a very large number of new entrants to the labour force. But then, should one invest in IITs or ITIs? Suppose we want to leverage the human capital resulting from investments in higher education to improve Indian health care. A supply chain of health care would require doctors, nurses and paramedics, pharmacists and lab technicians, hospital administrators and even accountants. If the goal then is better societal health outcomes, where should resources be directed? In India, investment in the human capital of nurses and paramedics might matter much more than specialist physicians, and in civil and environmental engineers who can ensure clean water and sanitation much more than the high-tech engineering behind MRIs. But what do we do? When we think of skills we are obsessed with IITs; when we think of health care we can scarcely think beyond doctors.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The first Polymath project-- A thriller!

The working record of the Polymath Project is a remarkable resource for students of mathematics and for historians and philosophers of science. For the first time one can see on full display a complete account of how a serious mathematical result was discovered. It shows vividly how ideas grow, change, improve and are discarded, and how advances in understanding may come not in a single giant leap, but through the aggregation and refinement of many smaller insights. It shows the persistence required to solve a difficult problem, often in the face of considerable uncertainty, and how even the best mathematicians can make basic mistakes and pursue many failed ideas. There are ups, downs and real tension as the participants close in on a solution. Who would have guessed that the working record of a mathematical project would read like a thriller? [Bold emphasis added]

That's from Tim Gowers and Michael Nielsen, writing in Nature about the first Polymath project that Gowers started on his blog.

Blogging: "Any idiot can do it, and many do."

John Baez on what mathematicians need to know about blogging:

[...] I could describe how to set up a blog, but that would make it seem harder than it is. Any idiot can do it, and many do. Websites like Wordpress and Blogger will lead you through the process step by step— and they’re free.

And he comes back to this remark a little later:

Should you blog about mathematics? ... Some mathematicians are too worried about making a fool of themselves in public to enjoy blogging. Others are too afraid of offending people. And if my joke about ‘idiots’ upset you, blogging may be too hard-knuckled for you.

One more reason to welcome foreign universities

Our universities may get "good vice chancellors":

Saharia addressed the press on the new selection procedure for the post of V-C, the result of an amendment in the Maharashtra Universities Act earlier this year. "Earlier, anybody could apply for the V-C's post. They would simply have to send in their applications to the government or the university. Now, for the first time, we have brought in a set of guidelines for selecting a vice-chancellor, in a bid to make the process more transparent and improve the quality of vice-chancellors,'' said Saharia, adding that previous V-Cs were of a "sub-optimal level''.

Many feel the amendment to the Act is a bid to de-politicise the post of vice-chancellor.

"We want eminent academicians to join our universities as vice-chancellors. With the possibility of foreign universities entering the country, we need good vice-chancellors for our universities in order to be able to compete with them,'' said Saharia. [Bold emphasis added].

Krugman on the kind of econ grads who went to Wall Street

... The year I got my PhD (1977), there was a very clear ranking of desirable career paths. The best economics grad students went into academic jobs; the middle went to the Fed or the IMF; the bottom went, poor souls, to Wall Street.

Even then this meant an inverse relationship between academic ranking and income, since new assistant professors were paid only around $15,000, equivalent to a bit more than 50K today. But the prestige differences more than offset the pay differentials, at least as we saw it then. And one thing that’s hard to convey is how boring business seemed in the 1960s and 1970s. (”I’ve got just one word for you: plastics.”)

But that was in the 1970. He continues:

... [B]usiness stopped being so boring, and was even getting to be fun for some people. The old conviction that the academic life was the ideal definitely began to fray at the edges.

Did the influx of smart people bring on disaster? That’s a longer story. But the change in who went where is utterly real.

His post was commenting on this piece by Calvin Trillin on Wall Street Smarts:

“So what happened?”

“I told you what happened. Smart guys started going to Wall Street.”


“I thought you’d never ask,” he said, making a practiced gesture with his eyebrows that caused the bartender to get started mixing another martini.

“Two things happened. One is that the amount of money that could be made on Wall Street with hedge fund and private equity operations became just mind-blowing. At the same time, college was getting so expensive that people from reasonably prosperous families were graduating with huge debts. So even the smart guys went to Wall Street, maybe telling themselves that in a few years they’d have so much money they could then become professors or legal-services lawyers or whatever they’d wanted to be in the first place. That’s when you started reading stories about the percentage of the graduating class of Harvard College who planned to go into the financial industry or go to business school so they could then go into the financial industry. That’s when you started reading about these geniuses from M.I.T. and Caltech who instead of going to graduate school in physics went to Wall Street to calculate arbitrage odds.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some fun links

  1. Hans-Ulrich Stoldt and Klaus Wiegrefe in Spiegel Online: East German Jokes Collected by West German Spies. Hilarious stuff! Here's one:

    What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage.

    But telling these jokes carried some risk; there's a joke about this risk, too!

    "There were cases of people who were jailed, it was particularly bad in the 1950s and 1960s," says Kleemann.

    Here's one example about how that risk was lampooned: "There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes."

  2. Acronyms Sometimes Suck. A website that collects unfortunate acronyms. Like Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Income through Consulting at IIM-A

Kumar Anand of ET shines the spotlight on the income earned by the faculty at the IIMs (and specifically, IIM-A) through management consulting:

IIM-A has a 90-strong faculty, of which 70% actively participate in activities that fetch them an average Rs 20 lakh annually (net consultation income plus net salary). The amount for many active faculty goes up to Rs 30-35 lakh depending on the number of consulting projects and in-house training programmes undertaken.

The institute earned about Rs 20.60 crore as consulting income in 2008-09, with the percentage growth over the last three years being about 16% per year, institute officials said. [...]

The institutes allow the faculty to take up advisory services for the industry as per their expertise in the field to help them gain insight into the functioning of the company and also generate revenue for the institute. As per provisions made by the institute, a faculty can do a maximum 53 days of consulting, charging Rs 1 lakh for a day’s consulting. On an average, a faculty member contributes 20-25 days in a year to consulting, which fetch him Rs 16 lakh after sharing the 45% of his revenue with the institute. At a few other Indian B-Schools, the faculty-institute ratio is 70:30.

I recall reading somewhere that IIM-A allows the faculty members to claim all the consulting fees up to the first Rs. 600,000, and starts taking a share -- is it as high as 45 percent? I don't know -- only on the revenue exceeding Rs. 600,000.

* * *

There's this bit at the end about faculty salaries in some private B-schools:

... The IIM salaries are taken as a benchmark by top B-Schools like Symbiosis, Pune and IMT, Ghaziabad while fixing their own pay structure.

“We pay our faculty members a little above the UGC pay structure, but we also encourage our faculty members to involve themselves with MDPs, consulting and other activities to earn extra money,’’ said Nirma Institute of Management director C Gopalkrishnan.

It's interesting that private institutions -- some of the more wholesome ones -- use the government salaries as their benchmark, even though they have absolute freedom to pay their faculty whatever they want / whatever the market would bear.

Could this assertion from an IIM-A faculty member be true?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The need for a research regulator

Over the years, the Society for Scientific Values (whose membership includes quite a few heavy-weights in Indian science establishment) and its supporters (such as Dr. S.R. Valluri, former director, National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore) have been asking for a quasi-judicial regulator to deal with allegations of scientific misconduct.

Their demand has also received some support from quite a few people holding important positions in the government / scientific establishment. Here's a partial list, starting with the most recent utterance and working backwards:

  1. Goverdhan Mehta, Member, Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister:

    The SSV has long been urging the government to create a mechanism to investigate science misconduct. “I think this is a legitimate demand,” said Goverdhan Mehta ...

  2. T. Ramasamy, Secretary DST, and Goverdhan Mehta, Member, Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister (April 2009):

    Goverdhan Mehta, member of the Prime Minister's science advisory council, agrees that a body similar to the Office of Research Integrity in the US is needed. 'This issue has been discussed by members of the science advisory council and we have entrusted the responsibility of setting up a watchdog agency to the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and it should be created soon.'

    'The agency will be called the Office of professional ethics and will be run by distinguished Indians, not just scientists,' DST secretary Thirumalachari Ramasamy told Chemistry World.

  3. C.N.R. Rao, Chairman, Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council (March 2008):

    India is to consider creating a national body to investigate plagiarism and misconduct in science after a string of high-profile frauds.

    C. N. R. Rao, who heads the national science advisory committee, told Nature that he will discuss the proposal at his next meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

  4. The Indian Academy of Sciences, in a report entitled Scientific Values: Ethical Guidelines and Procedures (December 2005).

    It is recognized that some incidents involving unethical behaviour are best handled locally. However, many types of misconduct like plagiarism are of special importance as they have an adverse effect on the credibility of the entire scientific community. Ideally, there should be a centralized scientific body to handle all issues pertaining to scientific ethics. In the absence of such a national body, the Academy has generated a regulatory mechanism, applicable to the conduct of its Fellows, and hopes that other institutions will follow similar procedures until a centralized body becomes functional.

I'm sure there have been many, many others. Isn't it time for them to Just Do It?

Hoping for OPE, the research watchdog with statutory teeth

Here's the full text of my piece, which appeared in TNIE after some serious pruning that brought it down to about 800 words. One of the things that got pruned was an analogy with the corporate fraud which I thought would make things somewhat clearer to folks who don't see scholarly misconduct with the same seriousness as academics do.

Bottomline: Writing an 800 word piece is hard, especially if you want to pack it with nuances, examples, details and qualifications.

My respect for people who do this consistently well on a weekly basis has gone up tremendously after this experience.

* * *

Hoping for OPE, the research watchdog with statutory teeth

T.A. Abinandanan

On 21 September 2009, TNIE ran a front page report on the plagiarism in an academic paper which led to its being retracted by its publisher. The reason for the high-decibel coverage is not difficult to discern: one of the authors of the plagiarized paper, Prof. Sandeep Sancheti, is also the Director of the National Institute of Technology (NIT-K), Surathkal.

This latest example of ignominy forces us to confront yet again the murky world of scientists gone wild, and the even murkier reality of lack of a fair, impartial and consistent mechanisms for dealing with allegations of scientific misconduct and fraud.

First, a quick chronology of events: A research paper by S. Joshi, S. Sancheti and A. Goyal was published in 2007 in the journal IET Microwaves, Antennas and Propagation. The paper has two sections with significant chunks of text plagiarized from a 1996 paper by a different group of researchers. This finding led to its retraction by the journal's publisher, Stuart Govan, who pointed to "the impression created in the readers’ minds ... that the equations derived in [Joshi et al's paper] are based on their own work."

There is no doubt about the plagiarism in the Joshi-Sancheti-Goyal paper. By its very nature, plagiarism is not only easy to commit, but also easy to detect -- one just has to compare the original and plagiarized versions!

And there is no doubt that the journal did the right thing by pulling the plug on the Joshi-Sancheti-Goyal paper.

Now, in a sane world, the retraction of a plagiarized article would not be front page news in a leading newspaper.

In a sane world, it would not be the subject of an opinion piece such as the one you are reading right now.

In a sane world, in other words, there would have been far saner ways in which l'affaire Sancheti would have been handled, resulting in, at best, a Page 12 coverage.

Clearly, India's S&T researchers do not live in a sane world.

L'affaire Sancheti underlines, once again, the need for this sane environment for India's researchers. The need, in other words, for clear and uniform rules for dealing with cases of scientific misconduct.

An analogy may be useful here.

Imagine a firm that has just issued its annual report with details of its audited accounts for the previous financial year. If a fatal flaw is found in the firm accounts, the company would retract the report, and reissue a corrected one.

Should the story end there? If it did, the entire nation would be up in arms!

If anything, the retraction of the annual report represents not the end, but the beginning of follow-up actions to be triggered automatically, once its disclosure reaches the regulatory and other statutory bodies -- SEBI and the stock exchanges, to name just two. In fact, the firm will invite criminal prosecution if it fails to disclose the problems in the retracted annual report.

Researchers who submit an article for publication are essentially like the firm publishing its annual report. When their article comes under an ethical cloud, its retraction is not the end of story; it should be the start of a follow up story with investigating agencies playing a central role.

At a minimum, researchers must be required to disclose problems in their published papers to their institution(s) and the funding agencies. It must then be the responsibility of these institutions to trigger an investigative mechanism that will determine whether the researchers violated the code of scholarly conduct and ethics.

India lacks a mechanism that comes to life when an ethical problem arises, and enforces regulations which are binding on all institutions. In this regulatory vacuum, each institution invents its own way of dealing with problem cases, all the while hoping that its method will stand up to public scrutiny.

The results of such decentralized policy-making are, to put it mildly, ugly. For the same offence of plagiarism, a Reader at one university is sacked, while a professor at another gets away with little more than a slap on his wrist. Equality before the law loses all meaning because there is no law to handle scientific misconduct.

Worse, the lack of a statutory mechanism allows inquiry committee reports to be ignored by institutions. A researcher in a pharmaceutical research lab found out that his contract was not renewed, sometime after he blew the whistle on a permanent member of the lab. He is fighting to regain that job even after an inquiry committee found his allegations to be correct.

In an extreme case, the lack of a statutory investigative authority led to a recent case being subjected to inquiry by no less than eight committees. Along the way, panel members who came to opposite conclusions about the case even fought it out in the pages of Current Science, India's premier science journal! The accused were reported to have been exonerated by a high-level committee; unfortunately for them, the non-availability of that final report in the public domain continues to feed the rumour mill.

At the time of Independence, the Indian scientific community in each field was so small that everyone knew everyone else, and peer pressure could be counted on to keep everyone from straying from the ethical path. We do not live in that era any more.

What we have now is a large, professionalized enterprise that employs lakhs of scientists. A tremendous growth in annual outlay for science and technology (over Rs. 30,000 crores in 2008) and publications (nearly 30,000 papers in 2008) has also been accompanied, unsurprisingly, by a steady growth in the number of allegations of scientific misconduct.

What this vast enterprise needs is a professional, independent regulator with statutory powers to carry out investigations that are credible, swift and fair to the accused (as well as the whistle blower, if any).

The need for such a regulator has been articulated by many concerned scientists over the last couple of decades, during which its urgency has only grown more intense. Leaders of our scientific establishment are also aware of it; as recently as six months ago, Dr. T. Ramasamy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, promised to create an Office of Professional Ethics (OPE) whose scope and functions will (presumably) mirror those of the ORI in the US.

As a problem in scholarly ethics, the Sancheti case should have been handled with ease. The fact that we are still discussing it in this opinion piece -- some sixteen months after the plagiarism forced his paper's retraction and robbed him of the moral authority he needs for policing ethical transgressions in his organization -- is a serious indictment of our ad hoc, inconsistent and porous way of dealing with questions of scientific misconduct.

This must change. It's high time the Indian scientific community demanded, in one loud voice, the establishment of a research regulator with statutory teeth.

"Confronting murky world of scientists gone wild"

That's the title given by The New Indian Express to my opinion piece (but only in the Bangalore print edition; the online edition has a more sober title).

I have used the Sancheti plagiarism case as the latest example of the kinds of things that are allowed to happen only because India lacks a research regulator on the lines of the Office of Research Integrity in the US.

I'll post the longer original this evening. In the meantime, here are a couple of key paragraphs:

In a sane world, the retraction of a plagiarised article would not be front page news in a leading newspaper. There would have been far saner ways in which l’affaire Sancheti would have been handled. Clearly, India’s researchers do not live in a sane world. The affair underlines, again, the need for this sane environment, for clear and uniform rules for dealing with cases of scientific misconduct. [... A looong snip ...]

As a problem in scholarly ethics, the Sancheti case should have been handled with ease. The fact that we are still discussing it some 16 months later is a serious indictment of our ways of dealing with questions of scientific misconduct. It is high time Indian scientists demanded the establishment of a research regulator with statutory teeth.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

M. Anandakrishnan on the state of higher education in India

M. Anandakrishnan is the chairman of IIT-K Board of Governors and was a member of the Yash Pal Committee. He seems to have gone completely ballistic in a meeting organized by CII to discuss the state of higher education in India.

Some excerpts from The New Indian Express report:

The exam systems are so archaic. You cannot prepare students for an obsolete market. Public universities are extraordinarily handicapped by political interference. At least in central universities like IIT, no minister says promote my son-in-law,” he pointed out.

The private institutions were not spared either. “In India, private institutions are family-controlled organisations that need to be restructured. In Tamil Nadu, there are two political parties that are running only with capitation money collected from colleges. Eighty per cent of the colleges collect money and don’t issue receipts. PhDs are sold to professors for Rs 30 lakh. Deemed universities are a rotten concept altogether,” he said. [Bold emphasis added]

OCAP salary at IIT-Guwahati: Gautam Barua responds

Prof. Gautam Barua, Director, IIT-G, has left a comment on my previous post on OCAP salary at his institution. I am reproducing below his comment in full:

I am surprised at all these comments. First of all, please dont blame me for what a reporter has written. Of course I meant the basic pay when I said Rs 22,000-23,000. To this you have to add grade pay of 7000/- and to the total you have to add a)DA of 27%, b) SDA of 12.5% (this is only for IITG, being in the NE region), and c) 400/- of SCA. This adds up to Rs. 40,275.00 (gross, without house rent allowance). I never told the reporter that this is a bad pay. I had told her that the fact that we cannot offer a rgular job up front is a bummer. But we (IITG) are getting around this by making a regular offer which will be three years later (if you have just submitted your PhD), with the intervening three years on contract. This is like three years of probation. Compared to a tenure track appointment for 5-7 years, in the USA, this is much better.

As far as comments about IITG being regional, etc., what can I say, except to strongly refute such comments from one ex-faculty (presumably)who is trying to rationalise to himself why he left IITG. Our selection process is one of the most liberal (being a relatively new IIT, this should be obvious) in terms of number of years, but there is no compromise on standards, and we have fiar and transparent selections, I am proud to say. Talking about regionalism when only about 20% of the faculty are from the NE region is in poor taste (check what the figures are in IITKGP, IITM etc.)

In his e-mail, he says we should add a transport allowance of Rs. 2,032/-, which would bring the total starting salary for an OCAP at IIT-G to 42,307/- -- without house rent allowance.

* * *

Some observations and clarifications, in light of what Barua has written:

First of all, I thank Prof. Barua for his response.

  1. The second paragraph of his response is related to what some others (mostly anonymous commenters) had written. I won't address that part here.

  2. I'll address only the first paragraph, which is a direct response to my post.

    He says:

    Of course I meant the basic pay when I said Rs 22,000-23,000.

    I did consider this possibility -- that he was referring to the band pay in his statement -- so it's good to have it confirmed. Potential IIT-G faculty applicants now have a clearer picture of what they are likely to get as OCAPs.

  3. He also says:

    I never told the reporter that this is a bad pay. I had told her that the fact that we cannot offer a [regular] job up front is a bummer.

    It certainly is; we can all see it, without it being explicitly stated. It follows directly from the salary figures.

  4. He then adds:

    But we (IITG) are getting around this by making a regular offer which will be three years later (if you have just submitted your PhD), with the intervening three years on contract. This is like three years of probation. Compared to a tenure track appointment for 5-7 years, in the USA, this is much better.

    I read this stuff several times, and I'm still wondering what "getting around this" means here. [Update: Prof. Barua clarifies this point in his comment below.]

  5. One final point: He asks me not to blame him "for what a reporter has written."

    While I do appreciate this suggestion / advice / admonition, I just want to mention here that I did confirm with Pallavi that the statement attributed to him in her report was a direct quote -- just as I did confirm with him about whether that comment was indeed written by him.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Scientific fields in which India's contributions are strong

A recent report entitled India: Research and Collaboration in the New Geography of Science has some info on India's relative strength in different fields of science.

Overall, India has a 3 % share in scientific publications -- its researchers published 30,000 papers in 2008.

The top five areas in which India's share is high (during the period 2004-08) are:

Chemistry: 5.71%
Agricultural Sciences: 5.65%
Materials Science: 4.81%
Pharmacology and Toxicology: 4.25%
Plant & Animal Science 3.77%

Interestingly, India's share is over 8 % in four subfields: Agricultural Engineering, Tropical Medicine, Organic Chemistry, Dairy and Animal Science.

Life imitates Onion: Area people unable to recall their interactions with Venki

With his extended family migrating from Chidambaram, Venki has no relatives left in thetown. Radhika Ravikumar, associate professor in the bio-chemistry department of Raja Muthiah Medical College, Annamalai University, who apparently was Ramakrishnan's classmate in PUC Class I said, "This is such great news. However, I can't place his face. ... In fact, I have contacted some of my batch mates and they too don't have any memory of Ramakrishnan. His achievement, however, is inspirational for students in India. We distinctly remember the classroom where our PUC classes in B group (physics, chemistry and biology) used to be held."

There's more such hilarity in this story; it's an Onion-worthy story, but it appeared in DNA.

Update (14 October): Here's what Venki said to PTI:

He expressed anguish over "all sorts of lies" published about him in a section of the media that he went to school and pre-Science in Chidambaram, the Tamil Nadu temple town where he was born in 1952.

"People I don't know, for example a Mr Govindrajan, claim that they were my teachers at Annamalai University which I never attended, since I left Chidambaram at the age of three," Ramakrishnan clarified.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why is IIT-Guwahati offering a low salary to its OCAPs?

Update (10 October 2009): Prof. Gautam Barua responds in a comment; please see this post for further discussion.

* * *

In Pallavi Singh's Mint story on IIT faculty members' pay hike related protests, she gets IIT-Guwahati Director Gautam Barua to talk about the plight of on-contract assistant professors:

“This means six years to reach PB (pay band) IV. Now, we won’t be able to offer anyone joining us on contract the job of an assistant professor on PB III and more than Rs22,000-23,000 as starting salary,” Barua explained.

The salary figures quoted by Barua are all wrong -- he's way out of truthful territory here.

An OCAP will start at a little over 37,000 in metros, and certainly over 35,000 in Guwahati, a non-metro [see this comment by iitmsriram over at Giridhar's blog].

[Aside: The OCAP salary is bad, alright; but it's bad only in comparison with that of real assistant professors in IITs. In comparison with the salaries of other academic jobs open to a fresh PhD (in our universities, for example), the OCAP salary is actually better. In other words, OCAP is bad, but it's still the best (academic) option for a fresh PhD!]

A couple of questions:

  1. What kind of leadership is this? I mean, isn't it Barua's duty to project his institution in the best possible light? Why, then, is he going out of the way to make OCAP sound worse than it actually is?

  2. Barua may claim that he was only talking about the band pay (I'm being charitable here; the band pay for a fresh PhD is 20,140. Barua's figure is again straying from the truth, but on the 'right' side ;-), and not about the AGP, DA, transport allowance. But why? What purpose does this sort of low-balling serve, other than spook potential applicants?

IIT-Guwahati already has a couple of handicaps -- its location, and its status as a relative newcomer among the IITs.

Now it has a third: Gautam Barua.