Thursday, June 7, 2012

ISEET or Is It? and Other Mumblings

This one has been cooking for too long, better to get it out half-broken than not.

1) India has a steadily growing middle-class which means a growing aspirational status for many people than can be accommodated by the limited educational resources currently available. Thus, there has been a continuing big problem where the marginally advantaged have been steadily pushing aside the marginally/heavily disadvantaged from the mainstream in terms of education. This is particularly true in the case of urban vs. rural divide, first-tier vs. second-tier cities, South and West vs. North and East, among different caste groupings, across religions, and even between different strata of the middle-class.
2) While in some sense, this is just a mirror of what happened in the historical past where one segment took to certain forms of "education" better than other segments and thus derived socio-economic clout that soon spread to the bandaged political scene disproportionate to their numerical preponderance, and thereby leading to a circle of social conflicts marked by violence from one extreme of verbal/rhetorical to the other of real/symbolic acts, in a time and age of identity politics, social assertion, number-game, etc., this is just asking for too-much trouble from all the parties involved as well as certain extraneous ones.
3) On the part of the MHRD and GoI and the Education Ministries in the various states, while there has been a realization of the enormity of the problem, there has been an incommensurate effort at adding resources. While the MHRD tries to infuse the Foreign Universities Bill, the Opposition has stalemated any further progress in this arena and as is usual, the GoI/MHRD has decided that inaction/back-door action is better than an open combat/debate in the Parliament. On the other hand, adding resources requires infrastructural investment -- an ill that plagues not only education but also every other sphere. Without Quality Control/Assurance in investment, adding resources comes at a grave cost of quality -- an argument that is often anathema to the ears of the disadvantaged who care only about the current and the now than for the overall state of the system. Shri E. Sreedharan puts the conundrum in much better language than I can (Linky):

We have enough engineering colleges, producing about two million engineers per annum. But the best out of the IITs and RECs make a beeline for universities abroad. The next best go for management and prefer to sell soaps and oil rather than doing engineering. The next lot goes to the IT sector, which is very lucrative. There are still large numbers left who, unfortunately, are not of the required quality. That means the level of education, particularly in private colleges, is not up to the required standard. There are a few good private colleges. The remaining are all ‘business’ colleges, which take capitation money and high fees, take students through three to four years and give them a degree. Unfortunately, many of them are deemed universities. This is most unfortunate, and a shame to the nation. We have been so liberal in giving them university status without controlling quality.

4) TN is a good case in point for the quality vs. quantity conundrum (See Linky). While TN produces a huge number of engineering graduates (both from in-state and from out-of-state), < 10% of its graduates are "employable" in the IT Services sector (Fig. 9), < 1% in the IT Product sector (Fig. 11), and a comparable fraction is employable in KPO/BPO/Hardware Networking sectors. In fact, Madras ranks the lowest among the studied Tier-1 metros in terms of employable engineering graduates in the IT arena (Fig. 14). This is not an affirmation of Delhi's (ranked 1) educational capabilities, but just a reflection of the sad fact that there are fewer engineering seats available in the North, which in turn forces people to migrate down South where the engineering seats are aplenty. What else should one expect when only 3.39% of the college teachers in TN can clear the NET/SET? (Linky). Even granted that the Aspiring Minds report concerns the IT sector and not core engineering, and segment-by-segment statistics are unavailable which makes extrapolation of known facts a risky proposition, and the NET/SET are just another bunch of examinations, one broad trend is that quantity degrades quality in the long-run.
5) Even within the highly selective IITs, degradation in student quality are obvious to the faculty and alumni (which has to be suitably weighted for perception bias). If a core benchmark for student quality is the percentage of retaineeship of students in core engineering areas, the number has been steadily going down over the last two decades. While this in itself is just a reflection of the growth of opportunities in non-core engineering disciplines in India and for Indian students abroad, the health of an institution cannot be sustained by watching such a huge percentage eject itself out of core engineering jobs so quickly.
6) There have been many attempts at figuring out the "root-causes" for such a woe. The easily identified one is the system of coaching classes that aid in preparation for JEE which themselves are in business only because the JEE has become so advanced that studying from a First Year B.Sc text is essential to get the extra "edge" over other candidates. While blaming the coaching classes is a cop-out on many levels, the one thing that can be attributed to them is that they induce, incubate and inculcate a stupor of "follow-the-herd" peer culture (much earlier than was possible with the old system of non-coaching classes). While this again has to be called out as a sociological problem of the current generation and the enormous parental pressures that lead to a make-or-break attitude, rather than as a problem of the coaching class system, the very fact that the JEE cannot be dumbed down beyond a certain level means that the vestige of the coaching classes have to be broken. The stupor of coaching classes (conveniently called "coasting") leads to a lethargy of the student population in the campuses that lead to poor learning skills and backlogs that have a cyclic effect when the student reaches the B.Tech Project stage, where poor knowledge and background coupled with a poor work habit spell doom for many a "bright" student who was on the "top of the world", not so-long back.
7) The statistically brilliant faculty analyzing the "root-causes" of this woe have identified a strong correlation between performance in the Board Examinations (High School Leaving Certificate Exams of the various tripes) and performance in the first year or so in IITs. Thus, there has been a clamor call for introducing a metric that identifies the performance in the Board Examinations and at the same time breaking the backbone of the coaching class system.

8) This is where the ISEET (which the IITs call the JEE Main/JEE Advanced) proposal fits in. The ISEET was proposed by the T. Ramasami Committee and was seen as a replacement for the original JEE and has since then been pushed back a bit by the "autonomy"-minded IITs (Linky). In short, the ISEET is a single-point break system so poorly engineered that no real system constructed with such a design could be provably fail-safe and guaranteed to inch along year by year only till an utterly massive disaster calls for a sweeping disbanding of everything ISEET-related.
9) Specifically, the JEE Main (which is nothing but a glorification of the Board Examinations normalized on a percentile score to make them all appear equal) and the JEE Advanced (which is the current JEE) will share 50% equal weightage in ranking students for seats in the IIT. Any sensible watcher of education matters will realize that "equalizing" across different Boards in India is a thoughtless exercise because different Boards have very different standards/syllabi/assessment/statistics and even sociological agenda (as is the case in TN). Further, the middle-ranks of the JEE are all separated by very slim margins and tie-breaks are broken using the hardest exam (usually Physics/Math) in that order. When the JEE Main corrupts this tie-break, it is the branch of engineering that one could possibly enrol in that is at stake. While it can be reasonably argued that what is the big difference between slim pickings, it is indeed an important factor in a collegial system such as IITs where tiering of students becomes immensely easy. Needless to say, such divisions are not needed for the health of the system. To top it all, to try to make it an all-India standard for entry into not only the NITs, but also IISER and other institutions calls for another one of those comments on one-point failure mode relevant.
10) One can safely conclude that given the grave problems facing engineering output in India today, the solutions engineered are even more brain-dead than the current crop of graduates that the envisioned solutions intend to fix. Neither are we going to see less brain-dead graduates nor are we going to see less brain-dead solutions. We will see more rhetorical flourishes and grand-standing that obviates, obfuscates and ignores the presence of gargantuan problems such as the convenient divorcing of rural India from the educational mainstream, quality vs. quantity, democracy vs. elitism, inter-connecting the STEM library facilities in the top-notch educational institutions, incubating quality in newly laid-out institutions, etc.




At June 29, 2012 at 2:04 AM , Anonymous iseet previous year question paper said...

I am in support of this common entrance examination but not in favor of the using 12th examination board exams percentage to calculate the final rank and marks.


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