Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stepping (just a little) away from GATE and other entrance exams

Cross-posted from Materialia Indica with minor changes.

If you are a student with an interest in joining IISc's doctoral program in engineering, you may have missed seeing this stuff which appears in some nondescript location in the admission brochure:

NOTE: Candidates with BE/ B Tech/ M Sc or equivalent degree who may not have qualified in any of the above mentioned National Entrance Tests will also be considered for the Ph D program in Engineering. Short listing for interview of such candidates is based on their academic performance in the qualifying degree (upto 3rd year in BE / B Tech, or 1st year in M Sc), and their performance in 10th and 12th /PUC examinations.

Let me repeat it here with an emphasis on the right things: "Candidates with BE/ B Tech/ M Sc or equivalent degree who may not have qualified in any of the above mentioned National Entrance Tests will also be considered for the Ph D program in Engineering."

For a long time, many Indian institutions -- especially in engineering -- have failed to address two key sociological / institutional facts:

  1. Many engineering students simply do not take GATE or any of the other graduate-level entrance exams.
  2. Unlike their US counterparts for which GRE is a requirement, Indian institutions can no longer insist on GATE and still expect a flood of applications from bright students. Those days are gone; the balance of power has been trending in favour of the students (except, perhaps, a blip this year '-).
  3. The consequence has been pretty bad for both parties: many bright students, who could have got into a doctoral program in our institutions, didn't, and our institutions, which could have gained by admitting them, didn't.

It may have taken IISc a very long time to face these facts; but this hugely desirable move helps the institution in diversifying the pool of potential applicants.

I am just glad that IISc has taken the first step. Note, however, that this step has been taken only for PhD admissions. the ME admissions at IISc continue to be based solely GATE scores.

* * *

Sometime ago, Arunn Narasimhan wrote an excellent post describing some of the problems with GATE and how they may prevent good students from getting into graduate programs in Inda. If you agree with Arunn -- I certainly do -- then the conclusion is obvious: our institutions must take a step back from using entrance exams as the sole first-level filter, and try to incorporate other metrics in the selection process: performance in their university exams, consistency in academic performance, recommendation letters, etc.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Indeed a welcome change! Thanks for sharing this information. Will pass it around.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Thank you Professor ,that was informative .

  3. Anonymous said...

    Welcome change at the IISc.

    The suggestion went through several round table talks at the place I earn my living from and got morphed into a tentative approval for "considering Advance GRE test as an alternate eligibility criterion for research admission without the HTRA (stipend)" as a special clause.

    Bhagavadh Gita tells me everything that happens is for the Good.

  4. Anonymous said...

    "Unlike their US counterparts for which GRE is a requirement, Indian institutions can no longer insist on GATE and still expect a flood of applications from bright students." --- This basically translates to: "Bright Indian students do not want to go to graduate school, at least, not in India". It does not, in itself, say GATE is flawed.

    IITs and IISc should have some well-thought-out absolute standard of quality for admission. But that standard should come from what qualities are required of students during their grad school tenure, not from "market conditions" and "balance of power". If IITs and IISc set up some admission standard that no applicant meets, let's keep the graduate programs empty, or shut down the programs! We either do world-class, or we cease to exist (as organizations), should be the policy. If the nation is saying loudly they want degree mills, what's our obligation to try to be world-class while using leftovers?

    However... "except, perhaps, a blip this year" --- nope. Just wait another two years.

  5. Abi said...

    This basically translates to: "Bright Indian students do not want to go to graduate school, at least, not in India".

    I'm not sure how you give this particular spin to what I said in my post.

    In any case, here's my answer: no, it does not translate to what you say. It only means this: whether we like it or not, bright students have a lot of opportunities (including going to universities abroad), and our institutions have lost their ability to make (some of) these students jump through hoops before admitting them.

    Your rhetoric about 'excellence or bust' is rousing, alright '-).

    And let's hope the blip will be a short one.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Why is GATE a "hoop" if GRE is not a "hoop"? From any intrinsic yardstick that does not depend on extraneous issues like the perceived prosperity of the countries offering them, GATE is a very reasonable exam compared to GRE. Sure, GATE can be improved (just like GRE), but IIT and IISc professors should not back away from the minimal quality statement made by a GATE score just because they are faculty members in the wrong country. After all, GATE is gateway to research, and in research, if there is prior art from anywhere in the world challenging your idea, you lose. So IIT and IISc professors are perfectly entitled to insisting on GATE scores, if they are expected to run a research program with students that is supposed to produce world-class publications. From all possible perspectives, it is much much cleaner to say "I have only one world-class student, therefore I write only three papers a year" rather than say "I have 10 students of who 1 might be somewhat close to world class, therefore I am writing three instead of 30 papers per year that you expect of me". Another benefit is that the Indian middle class is goaded to be more precise in their commitment to research: if they don't have what it takes, they don't waste other people's time.

  7. L said...

    Our university examinations leave a lot to be desired. Very often, really good students fare poorly in their exams. Secondly, marks scoring skills--whether in entrance exams or in university exams -- are not quite the same as those required for research. We do need some filter but we cannot expect any of them to be very efficient.

  8. Anonymous said...

    @ Abi:
    "our institutions have lost their ability to make (some of) these students jump through hoops before admitting them"

    I am wondering how writing GATE and getting admission into indian institutions is more tedious than its counter part GRE.
    From my experience in undergraduate, bright students, in many cases, are not opting for Indian institutions not because they consider GATE as a 'hoop' but they look into basically quality of education and, more importantly, monetary benefits in the future by going abroad.

    Secondly, We can't also neglect the fact that GRE heavily bite your pocket than GATE! which is not trivial for middle and low class family!

    From my experience with writing GRE and GATE, I firmly feel that GATE subject indeed tests students' thinking ability and concepts and that would act as a GATEWAY for graduate admission. Still it can be further modified to include the quantitative too..

  9. Anonymous said...


    "Many engg. students do not take GATE.." I personally think it has nothing to do with GATE being a hoop or deterrence. It's just that many bright students don't see any value in taking GATE and going for PhD in engg. in Inda. Reasons are all too known:

    (1) by and large, bright and acad. inclined students prefer West (mainly US) as the first choice for a PhD. No matter how much is this displeasing to the faculty in our premier institutes, there can be no denying this fact. Why not anyway? Excellent acad. ambience, facilities, renowned supervisors, $500-600 savings/month, + tag of a tier univ. .. our institues can never match this combo.

    (2) In the olden days, this was mainly restricted to IITs/RECs. nowadays, even people from ordinary engg. colleges in cities write GRE in large nos., while most of them give it a pass to GATE. What does this tell?

    (3) Most others prefer to take the standard IT/MBA route - might be only particular to India. Given the societal conditions, don't think anything can reverse the trend, at least in the near term.

    By removing GATE, IISc may be flooded with applications.. but to think that the campus will be soon full with bright youngsters who otherwise would have gone elsewhere.. seems unrealistic.

    Now, Just a personal question: Prof. Abi, Did you take GATE after your undergrad from IT-BHU?


  10. Anonymous said...

    It is sad to know that IISc has removed GATE as admission criteria. I agree with Prof. Giridhar that a better move could have been inviting students with lower GATE score for interviews. It seems to me that present decision of IISc is one coming out of negative mindset. They are assuming that not many people will apply for PhD anyway. What if too many people apply? How is IISc going to filter out candidates? How is IISc going to compare BE marks from two different universities, when standard of education vary widely inside India? Suppose a rejected candidate goes to media and court saying that he was discriminated because of factor X (be it caste/religion/gender), how IISc will defend its decision? I was once told by a Prof. from USA that a major job of GRE is to filter out candidate and have a legal defense against lawsuits. I believe GATE was serving similar purpose so far. By removing all objective criteria IISc is inviting too many legal complications in future. One bigger danger of this move will be too much importance to undergrad marks. This would have been a good thing if marking was above the board in Indian undergrad education. Unfortunately this is not the case in most of engineering institutions outside IIT trademark. For example, I got admission in IISc, IITB, IITK because of my high GATE score (+high marks in interview in IITB) but my undergrad rank was 36/40. In our undergrad days, we were clearly warned by our Profs that if we do certain things (which has no link to education), they will make sure that we will get bad grades.

    Another related issue is how we are going to judge the quality of examination process in different universities? For example, some of the universities might be giving too easy or too difficult question paper at the undergrad level. This can make a fare comparison impossible. Suppose a student from a university with a good standard has obtained only 75% marks, while another one from a bad place has 95% marks. It is obvious that during the interview, any Prof. will prefer student with 75% marks. Now suppose the student with 95% marks goes to media/court claiming bias because of some X factor, how is IISc going to respond?

    Finally, with such a move IISc might be setting precedence for lower rank universities to ignore objective criteria in admission process. I am not sure what kind of chaos will happen after a substantial number of universities in India will declare that they know how to chose PhD student without a minimum cutoff.

  11. Anonymous said...

    Students who don't write GATE, in general, don't have intention of pursuing higher studies in India. If any fresh B.Tech guy wants to study further in India - he/she can write the GATE and enter IITs/IISc. It's that simple. Now we all know that in most cases where the preferences of a bright(or even otherwise) student lie - the foreign universities are preferred, esp the US and for admission into US universities one has to write the GRE, so they do write it.Isn't it that simple? :D

    The point is - one decides to write an exam depending on one's choice of the place from where one wants to do masters/PhD; not because of some fear of failure in GATE - at atleast as far as "bright" students are concerned. If u have already chosen between some US univ and IITs/IISc for masters/PhD, which exam would u write?

    I agree that GATE has it's issues but replacing it by GRE would be ridiculous. The 2 yr validity of GATE score should get an extension- this can help those who want to return to academics after spending some yrs in elsewhere.

  12. Anonymous said...

    "let's keep the graduate programs empty, or shut down the programs! We either do world-class, or we cease to exist"

    aren't MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley etc. world-class? they just need the GRE (which is English + basic Math)! in fact TOEFL is enough for MIT. They look at the overall application package - if you fool around throughout your school life and join n number of FIITJEEs and Brilliants in 10th and slog like a madman, you might get into IITs but that won't help if you want to get into the top 20 universities in the world. They look at who you are (or who you have been all through) rather than which stupid entrance exam you crack.

  13. Yogesh Tyagi said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  14. Yogesh Tyagi said...

    Hi this is Yogesh Tyagi,
    I have done 10th in 1998 with 59% marks from UP board.
    I have done 12th in 2001 with 58% marks from UP board.
    I have done B.Sc(maths) in 2004 with 53% marks from CCS University.
    I have done MCA in 2009 with 67% marks from UPTU.

    so please tell me can i do Phd via gate score from iit's or from nit's.

  15. Unknown said...

    Sir This year M going to appear for Gate.. but sir could you please tell me "Is Doing ph.D is better than doing ME" from iisc .. or should i try for ME by taking a drop of this year and preparing for the same..???