Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fareed Zakaria gets the Taibbi treatment

...Any writer who doesn’t admire what this guy does is probably not being honest with himself, because being the public face of conventional wisdom is an extremely difficult job — and as a man of letters Zakaria routinely succeeds, or pseudo-succeeds, at the most seemingly impossible literary tasks, making the sensational seem dull and the outrageous commonplace, rendering horrifying absolutes ambigious and full of gray areas. Wheras most writers grow up dreaming of using their talents to stir up the passions, to inflame and amuse and inspire, Zakaria shoots for the opposite effect, taking controversial and explosive topics and trying to help rattled readers somehow navigate their way through them to yawns, lower heart rates and states of benign unconcern. He’s back at it again with a new piece about the financial crisis called “The Capitalist Manifesto,” which is one of the first serious attempts at restoring the battered image of global capitalism in the mainstream press.

There's a lot more here [BTW, here's Zakaria's piece, The Capitalist Manifesto].

I became a fan of Matt Taibbi when I read his tear down review The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. [Update: Speaking of Friedman, I have to link to two pieces; the first is this McSweeney's classic by Michael Ward: Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Column; the second is about Friedman's metaphors]. I wish I could get more of Taibbi's stuff, but almost all of his writing is about US politics (and there's only so much of it you can follow).

Taibbi's latest article about Goldman Sachs appeared in Rolling Stone; a scan is available here. Here's how the article begins:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. ...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mahesh Sharma fact-checks IIPM - Episode 2

In this episode, Mahesh Sharma of Careers 360 demolishes a new claim by IIPM that its students will receive their BBA and/or MBA degrees from the University of Buckingham, UK.

[While the story has a somewhat muted headline -- "IIPM makes another claim" -- read the URL. It's blunt and to-the-point: "IIPM -- Yet Another Lie"!]

The new claim about the University of Buckingham was made in a recent ad -- an ad that was released after Sharma exposed the bogussitude of IIPM's earlier claims that the BBA / MBA degrees were from IMI, Belgium.

All power to Mahesh Sharma and Careers 360. They are doing a job that is too ducking fifficult for our regulators -- AICTE, in particular -- and some of our stupid magazines that keep including IIPM in their annual rankings of B-schools (Outlook, which dumped it in 2005, is an honorable exception).

* * *

I linked to the first episode of Mahesh Sharma's fact-checking coup . The youth magazine JAM did a fact-check on IIPM in March 2006. You do remember all the great things it led to, don't you?

Rankings of Indian colleges by Outlook, India Today and Mint

In the past couple of weeks, three major news outlets issued their rankings: Outlook, India Today and Mint.

Before I proceed further, I urge you to read the 'methodology' section in each of these publications; you'll find quite a lot in there that should tell you to not take these rankings seriously. If you are in the mood for some serious fisking, go read Arunn's and Madhukar Shukla's posts from three years ago!

The rankings are typically for colleges offering programs in engineering, medical, and law; some of them include rankings of programs in hotel management and mass communications -- and Mint even does fashion!

India Today is quite unique in ranking programs in science, arts and commerce.

College rankings are not at all a useful way of thinking about institutions. But the ratings they receive from these magazines have some -- but only some -- value. This is because small differences in ratings may mean big differences in rankings, especially when one gets past the top 10 or the top 20 -- take, for example, the Outlook's list of engineering colleges; a difference of just 10 or 11 percent (767 and 689) separates the college at No. 20 from that at No. 40!

Even the ratings have their own flaws; many of them are based on the so-called 'perceptual' scores -- a fancy term for surveys of faculty, students and / or recruiters; they are susceptible to systematic biases -- selection bias being the major one. And then there is the possibility of "gaming the system" [with Clemson's and University of Florida's efforts being just the most recent examples from the US].

In the absence of a mandatory, unimpeachable accreditation system -- and the one in India fails on both counts! -- all we have are these highly flawed methods employed by news outlets, which outsource this operation to survey organizations whose expertise is not necessarily in higher education.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Going optional on Class X exams?

"Optional," I believe, is the keyword.

Students who wish to apply for Class XI in a school different from where they complete Class X can take the board examination. But those who are to stay on in the same school need not take the examination, under the plan Sibal articulated.

There may be other deeper issues that I'm unaware of, but here is my first reaction.

Right now, all bets are off as far as admissions to Class XI are concerned -- at any school. Unless the government makes it mandatory for schools to announce which of their students will be guaranteed admission to Class XI (and group of subjects allotted to them) well ahead of time, I can't see how this initiative will ever become viable.

Class X performs two useful functions:

  1. For a vast majority of our kids, formal education stops at Class X or before; for them, the Class X exam -- a "public exam" taken by hundreds of thousands of fellow-students -- provides a certain sense of satisfaction and closure. And a Certificate issued by a State or Central authority! I don't have to emphasize how valuable all these are.
  2. It forms a fork in one's educational journey: continue on for Classes XI and XII (and the subject group that one chooses to study), go into a craft (through Industrial Training Institutes, for example), or just stop.

Thus, Sibal's plan, even if it becomes a reality, is likely to benefit only a small number of students who get guaranteed seats in Class XI in their current schools. The alleged benefit of removal of exam-related stress is thus available, ironically, only to those who really thrive in the current system of 'stressful exams'.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ranking of Indian universities based on their research performance

Gangan Prathap (National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources, New Delhi) is the author of this preliminary study (pdf) ranking Indian universities based on papers listed in the Web of Science database. In order to do a fair comparison so that universities are compared only with similar institutions, he has wisely left out the institutions of national importance [Grrr, I hate this description --it implies universities are not of any "national importance"].

Here's the list of the top 20 research universities in India (based on their publications in the year 2008):

1. Delhi
2. Banaras Hindu
3. Jadavpur
4. Anna
5. Panjab
6. Annamalai
7. Madras
8. Aligarh Muslim
9. Calcutta
10. CMC, Vellore
11. Hyderabad
12. Jawaharlal Nehru
13. Poona
15. Allahabad
16. Rajasthan
17. Sri Venkateswara
18. Guru Nanak Dev
19. Mysore
20. Mangalore

One of the things he notes is the year-to-year variability in the rank order. For example, Mangalore University, with an overall University ranking of 20 in 2008, has an All India Rank of 23 in 2007 and 86 in 2004! This is clearly because the ranking is based on just one factor which, for any university, has a pretty large year-to-year variability.

Another observation from Pratap's data: the number of papers from the top 20 universities has registered a near 100 percent increase -- from 4034 to 8005 -- during the five year period of 2004-08.

The presence of CMC (Vellore) so high in that list (as opposed to better known, and better funded medical institutions such as AIIMS or PGI, Chandigarh) is also noteworthy. I think. [Update: As pointed out by Pratik in his comment, both AIIMS and PGI come under institutions of national importance, and therefore are left out by Pratap in this exercise.]

As Pratap points out, this is only the first such exercise, and it uses quantity -- the number of papers -- as its yardstick. He indicates that this effort may be expanded to include quality indicators such as citation counts.

[Speaking of which, I should link to this Current Science editorial by Prof. P. Balaram saying some nasty things about scientometrics.]

Anyways, if you want to know how the Indian Institutes of Technology (and IISc as well) have done in terms of publications during these last five years, check out Giridhar's post! [Update: Giridhar informs us In the comments section, Giridhar informs us that he has compiled a list (pdf) of top 40 Indian universities based not just on their publications, but also on citations and the h-index. See this post for the context.]

Higher Ed Links

  1. Ila Patnaik in The Indian Express: Set the Campus Free:

    The paper finds that the first element that pulls down the rank of a university is the process of budgetary approval from the government. The average European university that sets its own budget has a rank of 200 while the average European university that needs approval from the government has a rank of 316. In other words, giving a university autonomy to set its own budget on average yields an improvement of 116 ranks. The message for India: in order to obtain high-quality universities, we need to give universities autonomy.

  2. The paper that Patnaik refers to is entitled The Governance and Performance of Research Universities: Evidence from Europe and the U.S., and it's by Philippe Aghion, Mathias Dewatripont, Caroline M. Hoxby, Andreu Mas-Colell, André Sapir. (The paper is summarized in this NBER Digest article by Linda Gorman). Here's the abstract:

    We investigate how university governance affects research output, measured by patenting and international university research rankings. For both European and U.S. universities, we generate several measures of autonomy, governance, and competition for research funding. We show that university autonomy and competition are positively correlated with university output, both among European countries and among U.S. public universities. We then identity a (political) source of exogenous shocks to funding of U.S. universities. We demonstrate that, when a state's universities receive a positive funding shock, they produce more patents if they are more autonomous and face more competition from private research universities. Finally, we show that during periods when merit-based competitions for federal research funding have been most prominent, universities produce more patents when they receive an exogenous funding shock, suggesting that routine participation in such competitions hones research skill.

  3. Charu Sudan Kasturi in The (Kolkata) Telegraph: India’s higher education regulators have accused the Yash Pal panel on reforms of exceeding its terms of reference in recommending their termination as independent entities.

  4. Hemali Chhapia in The Times of India: Every second student in India enrols in private college.

  5. Deepa Kurup in The Hindu: Aiming for New-Look Universities.

  6. Aarti Dhar in The Hindu: Kapil Sibal says Yash Pal Committee report will be implemented in 100 days.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Links ...

  1. At Coding Horror Jeff Atwood revisits the Monty Hall problem; he also has some links to several other pieces on this very interesting puzzle that even mathematicians are known to have fumbled on.

    One of the links is to the original article by Marilyn vos Savant, published in 1991 [Update: Check out Rahul's comment, below, about a version of this problem discussed by Martin Gardner in 1959 !] . If you click through [to von Savant's site], don't forget to browse through the adverse comments on her (correct) solution that came from so many academics!

  2. A Mystery link (cartoon).

  3. Interdisciplinary wars: the economics vs. sociology edition: Bryan Caplan, Fabio Rojas, Henry Farrell.

  4. Michael Nielsen: How to read mathematics and physics.

  5. Just when you thought Elsevier can't stoop any lower, you get this: Elsevier offered to pay reviewers for posting good reviews -- 5 stars -- on Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.

  6. An interesting research finding on open access publications: Is freely available literature better disseminated?

    Empirically, we find that articles that received good evaluations on F1000 biology (a website where experts post evaluations of recently published papers in biology) were more likely to be in open access.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Links ...

Totally pointless-but-fun links:

  1. The Onion: Roger Federer Shows Up On Court With Wii Controller.

  2. The Onion: Search for Self Called off After 38 Years:

    "Well, I looked deep into the innermost recesses of my soul, I plumbed the depths of my subconscious, and you know what I found? An empty, windowless room the size of an aircraft hangar. From now on, if anybody needs me, I'll be sprawled out on this couch drinking black-cherry soda and watching Law & Order like everybody else."

    "Fuck it," he added.

  3. The (Kolkata) Telegraph: Google Finds Boy.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Higher Ed links

These links come to us via the University World News.

  1. Pervez Hoodbhoy on recent developments in Pakistan: How Greed Ruins Academia:

    Each professor gets paid a few hundred thousand rupees (a few thousand dollars) per PhD produced, with a current maximum of 10 students per supervisor at the university.

  2. Simon Schwartzman: Student Quotas in Brazil: The Policy Debate

  3. In Turkey, 1.3 million students take the national entrance exam.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Richard Felder on teaching and research

...The usual justification for trying to make all professors researchers is the argument that teaching and research are inextricably linked, to an extent that the first cannot be done well in the absence of the second. This argument is a strange one. Its proponents - usually academicians, trained in scientific method and the rules of logical inference - offer it with unbounded conviction, passion, and a total absence of evidence. They argue that only researchers are aware of recent developments in their field, so that courses taught by nonresearchers must be irrelevant or obsolete. They add that nonresearchers whom students rate as good teachers must be merely "entertainers," providing style without substance. When challenged to produce some evidence for the linkage between research and teaching, they name professors they know who have both admirable research records and teaching awards, which is like claiming that you can only be a world-class organist if you practice medicine in Africa and pointing to Albert Schweitzer to prove it.

In this essay I want to take a closer look at the purported linkage between teaching and academic research, to see how it stands up to the tests of common sense and educational research. I will argue that it stands up to neither. ...

That's from The Myth of the Superhuman Professor, an essay by Richard Felder.

* * *

Hat tip: Guru, whose post has another interesting quote from Partha Dasgupta about "why university teachers are expected to be researchers." [Dasgupta's book is not available online, though].

Teaching and research

Both research and teaching are at the core of what a university is about. From a faculty member's point of view, however, a clear distinction emerges: research gets you recognition from your peers from across the globe, while teaching gets you recognition from your students. Let's face it: whatever we do, we want peer recognition more than anything else (which explains why Oscars are more coveted than Film Critics' Awards).

The reward systems reinforce this bias towards research. Think of academic status markers -- promotions, awards, fellowships at elite academies, conference invitations, &c, &c -- they all use research output as the primary -- if not the only -- yardstick.

These not-particularly-original thoughts were triggered by Satya's post: Are students drawn to universities because of their teaching or their research programs. It also spurred me to collect a bunch of links that came my way through Google Reader and put them up here:

  1. Scott Jaschik's article in IHE -- The Mystery of Faculty Priorities -- summarizes a recent paper by Dahlia K. Remler and Elda Pema: Why Do Institutions of Higher Education Reward Research While Selling Education?

  2. A response to Jaschik's piece from Libby Gruner at Mama PhD: Why I do Research

  3. Roals Hoffmann (Chemistry Nobel winner, 1981): Research Strategy: Teach (pdf) [Link via Ross H. McKenzie's Condensed Concepts]

  4. Tomorrow's Professor Blog: Ten simple rules to combine research and teaching

  5. Dr. Redfield's Research Lab: Researchers as teachers.

  6. Incoherent Ponderer: On teaching.

  7. Paul Gray and David Drew in Tomorrow's Professor Blog: What they didn't teach you at graduate school.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bold plans announced by India's new HRD Minister

Kapil Sibal, the HRD Minister in UPA 2.0, has been going around saying a lot of things about his plans for India's higher ed system. These plans include allowing foreign universities to operate in India and replacing UGC and AICTE with a unified higher ed regulator.

Here's a report by Pallavi Singh about the regulator. This sentence, however, betrays the level of thinking that has gone into the flurry of policy pronouncements:

The ministry, headed by Kapil Sibal, will instead create an independent National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), which will take over the academic, accreditation and financial functions of the regulators.

My first reaction was to go "WTF?" How would the system become different if "academic, accreditation and financial functions" of the present regulators are bundled together into the exact same functions of the new mega-regulator?

Unless one is clear about which of the existing policies are dysfunctional, fancy talk about replacing one set of agencies with another is not going to help, because the new mega-regulator will likely have the same set of people running it.

Talking about one of the dysfunctional policies, and the kind of people who implement them, here's an example of what I'm talking about:

The committee has also suggested that for standardisation of fee, the state government set up a fee fixation panel which will consider all aspects of cost and the quality of education and suggest an ideal fee structure.

There is also another suggestion that the government may set up a national fee fixation committee which will suggest admission and tuition fee for the institutions.

However, the fee structure of each of the 125 deemed universities will vary from each other depending on their facilities.

"There cannot be a uniform fee structure. Depending on the quality and facilities, the fee will vary," Thorat said.

If the 'deemed' universities are private institutions that took no government help (like land, start-up grants, teacher salaries), and are expected to be self-financing, what good does a fee cap do?

Deemed universities

This report in the Indian Express by Anubhuti Vishnoi offers a primer on India's "deemed" universities:

The UGC panel on higher education headed by eminent academician Prof Yashpal explains in its draft report submitted to the HRD Ministry that despite the lofty guidelines, an indiscriminate recognition of newly established educational institutes as deemed universities has become a trend. Many of these institutes come with poor infrastructure, substandard education, poor teacher-student ratio and steep fees. The ‘deemed to be university’ status only serves to mislead students and grants undue credibility to these institutes. While funds are available to these institutes through the UGC, their fees and other academic issues remain outside the purview of state legislatures. Also, though deemed universities do not have affiliating powers, “many of them have a number of campuses spread throughout the country,” says the report.

Over the last decade, many private medical, dental and engineering institutions have used financial and political clout to be notified as deemed universities. High-profile political leaders, in fact, are associated with a large number of these deemed university status holders. Over 20 applications for this status are still pending with the UGC, but have been put on hold by Sibal.

The scoop on IIPM

Mahesh Sharma of Careers 360 does the right thing by fact-checking the claims made by IIPM .

[Following an alert from a colleague, I found the link to this story from the website of Outlook; I have no idea about the link between Outlook and Careers 360.]

Here's a quick summary from Sharma about what he did; it is followed by all the gory details, starting with IIPM"s claim that its students receive BBA/MBA "degrees" from an institution called IMI in Belgium:

... We sent mails to all those, that IIPM draws upon to validate its claims in its advertisements, namely - journalists, editors, foreign universities, employers. We spoke to current and former students and their parents. What our investigation unravelled left us cold. Here is an institution that enjoys all the privileges of an academic institution (according to IT authorities, it claimed exemptions citing Section 10(23C) (VI) of the Income Tax act, 1961) with zero responsibility and accountability. Here is an institution that brazenly uses its power and reach to make unsubstantiated claims that play with the lives of students and parents alike. We know we are opening a Pandora's Box, but are prepared for the repercussions, knowing fully well that you, our readers are with us. We were shocked by our findings, and what you are reading is just a part of it. We await your verdict.

The irony of a fake university claiming income tax concessions meant for academic institutions is just awesome!

In case you have forgotten IIPM's brush with the desi blogosphere, you might want to start from this post.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What's wrong with online courses?

I have always had my doubts about the effectiveness of online video lectures (except perhaps for a small number of highly motivated and dedicated students). But, how about online courses? I have never taught (nor taken) any; nor have I done any video courses. But I have been interested in learning more about what works and what doesn't (in both live, online courses and video lectures); if you know of any online resources, do let me know.

In the meantime, here's a teacher's perspective on online courses. While the negative experiences she recounts arise from other sources (money, for example), here's one about the online experience:

2. The lack of immediacy in communication is maddening. I met my British husband 38 years ago when we both worked in Washington. When his job ended and he returned to London during a tenuous time in our relationship, it took us at least seven days to have a conversation, let alone an argument. (Those were not only pre-computer days; overseas phone calls were still considered a luxury.) I revisited that experience every time I read and responded to students' posts, waiting to see what they would say the next time I heard from them, all the while worrying that my feedback might be misinterpreted and thus hurtful or confusing. I can think of no more important place for immediate communication to occur than in a classroom where difficult subjects are being discovered and debated. It is essential, in my view, that a teacher be able to probe, clarify, comment in the moment. That moment is lost in a virtual community.

* * *

Hat tip to University World News.

Pakistan's best universities

From this Daily Times report:

HEC [the Higher Education Commissioin] has compiled a report by taking into account publications by Pakistani universities, which appeared in peer-reviewed journals indexed by Thomson-Reuter, ISI Web of Knowledge during the years 2007 and 2008.

The databases used for this analysis were Science Citation Index, Social Science Citation Index, and Art and Humanities Citation Index.

According to the report, the Quaid-e-Azam University tops the list with 544 publications in 2008 and 409 publications in 2007. University of Karachi comes in second position with 419 publications in 2008 and 276 publications in 2007. Aga Khan University is the only private university that comes in the top five universities on the basis of research publications. The university is third in the list with 311 publications in 2008 and 186 publications in 2007. The University of the Punjab is the only university from Lahore that comes in the top five universities. The university is fifth with 278 publications in 2008 and 162 publications in 2007.

An earlier report from 2006 is here. Another report talks about classification of universities based on their capabilities and facilities.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

More links ...

  1. SciDev.net: Study criticizes laptops for children scheme [Summarizes a recent study of the OLPC program in Ethiopia].

  2. Jon Dron: What exams have taught me (Example: "the most important things in life generally take around three hours to complete"). And a (limited) defence of the timed exams by John Cook. [Link to Dron's post comes via Sri].

  3. Sri himself has been thinking about the damage done by exams -- particularly the entrance exams.]

Of low stakes and academic politics

In the bitter fight over "Oxford University's professorial seat in poetry", for which elections were held recently, do you want to know how low the stakes were? The Economist has the answer [via Aurelie Thiele]:

This year, out of more than 4,000 academic staff and 150,000 graduates, only 477 people bothered to vote.

Links ...

  1. Rahul Siddharthan: What if I can't look angry any more?

  2. Samanth Subramanian: The First Family of Tandoors.

  3. Ampersand at Alas, a blog: If libertarians were housepets [See also If Libertarians Went to Heaven]. A follow-up.

  4. Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski in Complexity and Social Networks Blog: Twitter - New Research: Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets.

  5. Remember the efforts -- that straddle the line between "illegal, unethical and really interesting" -- by Clemson University to get into the top 20 in the US News rankings? There are two follow-ups: the first, predictably enough, is this official response from Clemson; but the second reports this very interesting finding:

    But [Clemson University's] president, James F. Barker, took a very different approach in his peer assessments [that he filled out for US News]. Barker, too, rated his institution as "strong" [worth 4 on a 5-point scale] -- but he gave no other university in the country that high a mark, handing out 18 "good"s (3's), 94 "adequate"s (2's), 126 "marginal"s, and 21 "don't know"s in the 2009 ranking. Because U.S. News's "national universities" category includes not only well-regarded public institutions such as the Universities of California at Berkeley, Michigan, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but also private universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, Barker has rated his institution more highly than all of those.

  6. In an opinion piece about the Clemson affair, Burton A. Weisbrod and Evelyn D. Asch present another example of efforts to game the US News rankings:

    Any performance measure is ripe to be gamed. The percentage of alumni giving is a measure worth 5 percent of a ranking in U.S. News. A few years ago, Albion College made its own stir in the higher education rankings world when it increased its percentage of alumni making donations with the stroke of a pen. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the college recorded a $30 donation from a graduating senior as a $6 alumnus gift for the next five years. Clemson, in its systematic approach to raising its rank — “no indicator, no method, no process off limits to create improvement,” as Watt stated — solicited alumni donations in such a way as to increase their giving rate: Alumni were encouraged to give as little as $5 annually.

    And, here's one more method universities use to game the ranking system: overstate your positives.

Friday, June 12, 2009

India's scientific output: An assessment

SciDev.net's T. V. Padma reports on an analysis by Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam:

India has been 'limping behind' in science publishing rankings over the past decade ... The warning follows an analysis of the total number of science and social science papers published by countries during the period 1 January 1999–31 October 2008 in journals indexed in Web of Science.

While China — ranked fifth in the index — has jumped from 1.5 per cent of the world share in 1988–1993 to 6.2 per cent between 1999 and 2008, "India has limped" from just 2.5 to 2.6 per cent during the same time frame, observes Subbiah Arunachalam, a scientist with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and former editor of one of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's journals.

Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan have also recorded a much higher growth rate than India, he notes.

"India has a long way to go. Mere ambition to become a knowledge power is not enough," Arunachalam, who tracks India's annual scientific publication performance, told SciDev.Net.

"When we recruit new faculty we do not give them sufficient funds and other infrastructure such as lab space," Arunachalam says. "Where will they get bright students unless the schools are strengthened? Processes take time and you cannot compress them into here and now. Long term planning is necessary."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

State of mathematics in India: an assessment

M.S. Raghunathan's assessment in The Hindu is fairly positive. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

In sum, it is fair to say India has indeed become a player of reasonable standing in the international mathematical arena — not quite a big power yet but with reasonable prospects of attaining that status. An indication is that India has won the bid to hold the International Congress of Mathematicians in August 2010. The event, by far the most important international mathematical meeting, takes place once in four years. This is the first time in over a hundred years (the first congress was held in 1897 in Zurich) that India will be hosting one. The venue for the 8-day congress is Hyderabad. The other Asian countries that have hosted an ICM are Japan (1990) and China (2002). An invitation to give a talk at the congress is considered highly prestigious. It is again a measure of our standing that since 1970, there has been at least one invited talk by an Indian working in India, a record not matched even by some West European countries or China.

The attendance in recent congresses has been around 3,500 and that is the kind of number expected at Hyderabad too. Some 700-800 Indian mathematicians are expected to participate. There will be plenty of possibilities for (postgraduate) students to participate, giving them an opportunity to interact with the finest mathematical minds and enlarge their horizon. There will also be programmes in the run-up to and during the congress reaching out to the general public, attempting to give them an idea of what mathematics is all about.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Blogging: A reality check

Douglas Quenqua in NYTimes:

Richard Jalichandra, chief executive of Technorati, said that at any given time there are 7 million to 10 million active blogs on the Internet, but “it’s probably between 50,000 and 100,000 blogs that are generating most of the page views.” He added, “There’s a joke within the blogging community that most blogs have an audience of one.”

That’s a serious letdown from the hype that greeted blogs when they first became popular. No longer would writers toil in anonymity or suffer the indignities of the publishing industry, we were told. Finally the world of ideas would be democratized! This was the catnip that intoxicated Mrs. Nichols. “That was when people were starting to talk about blogs and how anyone could, if not get famous, get their opinions out there and get them read,” she recalled. “I just wanted to post something interesting and get people talking, but mostly it was just my sister commenting.”

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Links ...

  1. Jeanna Bryner in Live Science: Girls Get Math: It's Culture That's Skewed

  2. Cornelia Dean: Women are seen bridging gap in science opportunities.

  3. UW-M press release: Culture, not biology, key factor to math gender gap, UW researchers say

  4. Sharon Begley in Newsweek: The Math Gender Gap Explained

  5. The Econonmist: Fraud in Science - Liar! Liar!

  6. Deepa Narayan: Poverty's Two-Way Street.

  7. Roger Lowenstein's review of The Myth of the Rational Market by Justin Fox.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Should India open its doors to foreign universities?

Philip Altbach, in The Hindu:

If Mr. Sibal believes that he will easily get well-functioning, top quality foreign universities to set up shop in India quickly, he is mistaken. It is likely that some of the for-profit providers, such as Laureate and Apollo, will be most interested. These institutions, which have operated successfully in many countries, are not seen as prestigious institutions. University transplants frequently have experienced significant logistical problems. A challenge involves convincing professors and staff from the home campus to teach abroad. Indeed, this ordeal often acts as the Achilles’ heel of foreign providers, for in almost every case, they end up hiring local staff to teach. It may be sufficient for Indians to study in an ostensibly foreign institution in India taught by local professors; the students may end up with a foreign degree but not with much of an international experience. Just as important, if the foreign institution cannot earn a quick profit, it might well pull up stakes and leave or, alternatively, reduce costs by lowering the quality.

First, a few observations: (a) foreign universities are unlikely to be inexpensive; so they will likely be a niche player catering to a small population that's reasonably well off. Therefore, their direct impact on higher ed scene in India is likely minuscule. (b) they are more likely to be teaching shops -- even if they are branch campuses of NYU or Stanford -- rather than 'real universities.' (c) they will have to depend quite heavily on local teaching talent.

As far as I'm concerned, (a) and (b) are neutral, while (c) is a positive. But there's also a big indirect positive that I see with the entry of foreign universities: India's higher ed regulators will be under pressure to be strict in enforcing their rules and quality norms; in order to appear impartial, they will have to do the same with Indian institutions as well. This is good for all students.

I'm all for letting them in as long as they don't ask for concessions (such as land grants).

* * *

On a related note, a couple of links:

  • It's reform time in universities:

    In a March 30 letter, UGC Chairman Sukhadeo Thorat asked the vice-chancellors to draw up a road map of reforms with a solid action plan. Prof. Thorat’s directive has come in the wake of the suggestions made by the UGC’s Committee on Academic and Administrative Reforms, headed by A. Gnanam.

    Based on the Gnanam committee report, the commission has suggested an action plan to be implemented in a phased manner. When the Central universities have been asked to implement the reforms in two years, all State universities have been given three years.

    The UGC has identified five core reform areas: semester system, choice-based credit system, curriculum development, admission procedures and examination reforms.

  • Tougher PhD norms to kick in:

    The UGC is banning MPhil and PhD programmes offered through correspondence or distance learning under a notification to enforce stricter screening of research programmes at higher education institutions.

    Specifying minimum standards and procedures to award MPhil and PhD degrees for the first time, the UGC today unveiled plans that could make substandard research tougher.

"The fine line between illegal, unethical and really interesting"

“We have been criticized for not fulfilling the mission of a public land-grant institution. [... But] we have gotten really good press. We have walked the fine line between illegal, unethical, and really interesting.”

That quote is from Catherine Watt, the former institutional researcher and now a professor at Clemson University; she's talking about the extraordinary efforts made by Clemson to reach the top 20 in US News rankings.

Read this article to get a sense of the pernicious effects of half-baked rankings such as that by US News.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A second home for Materialia Indica

Materialia Indica, an India-centric website/blog by and for materials scientists and engineers, gets a second home, where it can benefit from an open, full-featured networking platform on Ning (which also gave me the nifty little badge on the sidebar).

If you know someone who's interested in materials engineering education and research in India, ask him/her to join us. Membership is free and open.

I have written a bit more here on the reasons for this move, in case you're interested.