Academic Autonomy

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It is widely accepted globally that autonomy of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is necessary for them to excel and achieve their mission. The European Commission has identified four dimensions of autonomy to better understand the level of autonomy. In the previous note, I focused on fundamental issue for autonomy in two dimensions – organizational and finance.

This post will discuss autonomy in the academic dimension. Here again we will focus only on independent HEIs governed by Act/Statutes, or which are deemed to be university and are governed by their byelaws. (Affiliated colleges, by definition, have very little academic autonomy.)

What does autonomy really mean in academics. Broadly, we can say that if an HEI feels that something needs to be done in academic sphere for the benefit of the students and academics in general, it should have the freedom to do so. For this, let us first understand what does an autonomous academic institution do in the sphere of academics. The main actions in academics of an HEI can be grouped in these:

  • Start a new academic program (at undergraduate, postgraduate, or certificate level)
  • Decide the structure of a program
  • Start new courses which may be part of programs, and contents of these courses
  • How to teach the courses, and how to assess performance in them

And along with these which are directly related to delivering of academics, HEIs also admit students into these programs. Admission to programs is a much debated issue as it affects a large number of students. For this note, we will consider admissions as a separate issue (there are some posts on  this issue in this blog – e.g. Widen the entrance criteria.)

Most Act/Statute created universities have complete freedom for the last two – they decide what to teach in a course, how to teach, and how to assess. Starting of new courses is also a freedom all these institutions have – any challenges in this are largely internal to the HEI.

The structure of the program is also largely in the control of HEIs – they can decide which courses are to be taught in a program, how many courses/credits a student must take to complete a program, which are essential courses and which are electives, what streams/groups are permitted, etc.

The only area where the HEI does not have complete freedom is the first one – starting of a new program. In this, there are restrictions from the regulators – UGC and AICTE (and others). One key restriction is the duration of the various programs – e.g. a BA/BSc must be 3 years, while a BTech/BE must be 4 years. Some such restrictions exist in many countries. However, the modern thought is to go towards credit based requirements and specify the credit ranges for various degrees. For example, in most western countries and Singapore, for a Bachelor degree in Engineering, while the program is designed to be completed in 4 years, instead of duration, credits needed for the program are specified. A student can finish them and earn his/her degree in less than 4 years (say 3.5, though it is quite uncommon) or more than 4 – in fact the average time for completion in US is closer to 5 years. Some Institutions in India have moved towards a credit-based system, but also stipulate the minimum duration due to prevailing rules. The issue of having a BA/BSc of 4 years remains a contentious point and where the freedom of HEIs is indeed curtailed.

The second area where freedom is limited is in which areas a degree program can be started. For example, a list of areas is stipulated by AICTE, and it is expected that a degree like BTech/BE can be only granted in these disciplines/areas. This indeed is strong curtailing of the autonomy of the HEIs, and is not desirable, since in the dynamic world of rapidly changing scenario and needs, degree programs are often needed in new and emerging areas, as are needed for interdisciplinary areas. And a HEI should have the freedom to start such programs. E.g. Data Science is a new field and many certificate programs have started – clearly a well thought out degree started in this area is to be applauded, even if this is not an approved name for a degree. Thankfully, this is also an area in which the regulation implementation is of “light touch” and institutions, particularly the ones that are empowered by an Act (e.g. IITs), are not constrained by this and feel free to start programs in areas that may not be listed / approved by the regulator.

Another area where HEIs are constrained is Distance Education. Degree programs through Distance Learning are tightly controlled. Given the rapid expansion of internet based delivery of education and courses, too much control in this is undesirable and it is best to allow reputed institutions to leverage these technologies to expand access. Thankfully, AICTE has now permitted use of some amount of online courses for the otherwise face-to-face program. And Act created institutions may be able to start them, particularly if their Act allows for Distance Education (e.g. as an IIT is planning to do).

Overall, one can say that the degree of academic autonomy is actually quite high, though they have to operate within some key constraints. Then why have we not seen new set of programs coming from HEIs, who continue along the well-trodden path and programs. One does not see responsiveness from the HEIs to the changing demands and needs. For this, one has to also look at the academic decision making within the HEI.

In most HEIs the decision regarding programs and academics rests with either an Academic Senate or Council. This body deliberates and decides about new programs, changes to programs, courses, etc. And it is here the real impediment to launching of new programs lie. Many of these Senates / Councils are too large and whose members are often very senior people – precisely the ones who are likely to  be out of touch with the changing scenarios and who are more committed to their view points. These bodies are often not responsive to the needs of the country/economy and often look at issues through a very narrow academic prism, which attaches little value to things like preparing students for jobs and careers (in fact, some will argue that this is not the goal of education, which should be critical thinking and becoming a better citizen – as if these two were in conflict.)
While often there is complaint about the lack of autonomy for HEIs, which is true in some dimensions, a fair degree of academic autonomy exists. It is more the internal mechanism and their lack of initiative and responsiveness which come in the way. Unless the internal decision making structures are suitably changed, we are not likely to see much change in this area. For changing the internal decision making structures and making them more responsive, it may even require change of Act of some HEIs. E.g. for IITs, the Academic Senate structure is given in the Act, and it has all the Professors. This makes it a body of over 200 senior people – such a large body can never be conducive to taking responsive decisions. It is necessary that in all such Institutions, the Senate/Council should be specified in the Act along with a broad structure, but the details of the structure should be defined by each institution separately (e.g. as statutes) and should emerge. E.g for IITs, it is hugely desirable to have a Senate which has many more alumni in it, as well as a good representation from industry and junior faculty.

To summarize, while there are some key constraints on HEIs in the academic dimension, the level of autonomy available to HEIs is significant. It is their internal academic decision making structures that are responsible for what is happening or not happening in the academic sphere in the HEI. And unless the internal structures are made more representative and compact, we cannot expect HEIs to be responsive to the needs of the country, society, and industry.

(There is one more source of curtailing of academic autonomy which is coming due to the way accreditation is implemented – sometimes the committees tend to be more prescriptive rather than evaluating the systems for delivering the desired outcomes. This is a separate aspect which I did not discuss at all in this note – perhaps topic of a future post.)

Autonomy in our Autonomous Higher Education Institutions

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Autonomy of higher educational institutions/universities (HEIs) is now widely acknowledged as a necessity for excellence and improvement, particularly for those HEIs that engage in research as well as education.  In India we hear about the need for more autonomy in newspapers and debates. Most discussions and articles talk about autonomy as a broad concept and its desirability or how it can help improve the level of education and research.  What specifically needs to be done to improve autonomy is rarely discussed. This note discusses a few issues, which I believe are most important for autonomy of our HEIs, and without which  autonomy, and therefore aspiration for excellence, will not come about.

Recognizing the importance of autonomy in HEIs, the EU had started an autonomy scorecard for its member countries. The framework for autonomy had these four key dimensions:

  • Academic
  • Organizational
  • Financial
  • Staffing

Academic autonomy has been sometimes in the news, largely due to the requirements imposed by key regulators (UGC and AICTE) on the HEIs. While it is important, I believe, that many Act created HEIs (e.g. IITs, IIMs, IIITs, many Universities etc.) can exercise due control in this sphere. In any case, it is a topic for discussion on its own. (Perhaps a future note will discuss this.) in this note I will focus on two fundamental issues in Organizational and Financial dimensions.

First issue relates to the organizational dimension. Organizational autonomy starts with how autonomous are the HEIs in appointing their Chief Executive – i.e. the Director or the Vice Chancellor. This is the most important aspect of Organizational autonomy, as it impacts all other organizational issues. In most western countries, this selection is generally done by the bodies of the university – the Board, Senate, a Board of Trustees appointed search committee, etc. (though the selection may sometimes be subject to approval, which is usually a formality).

In our country, the Chief Executive is selected by the Government or the Ministry, though there is generally a selection committee to recommend a set of names from which the final choice is made. If the final decision of the Head of the Institution is left to the Government, the same person(s) will be doing the selection for all the HEIs of the state/center. Hence, it may be perceived by potential candidates that being in the “good books” of the person(s) is important. This creates distortions – from some good candidates not applying to some lobbying for posts. This has created a general perception that factors other than merit influence these decisions.

Suppose each HEI was to select its own Chief Executive through a documented and transparent process that involves the stakeholders from the HEI, as is done in many countries. With selections/appointments distributed, there is no single authority that needs to be convinced, thereby giving candidates multiple opportunities of assessment by committees of different HEIS. Furthermore, in selection by a single authority, the selected person is more indebted to that authority rather than the HEI for selection. If the HEI was to select the Chief Executive using its stakeholders, then the answerability of the Chief Executive is naturally to the HEI and its stakeholders.

This single change of having each HEI select its own Head through an approved and open process can bring about a great deal of autonomy in our HEIs. Thankfully, the authorities seem to appreciate this and there are signs that this is beginning to happen – one hears that in the IIM Bill, this autonomy has been granted. Hopefully, as a next step, this change will be made for institutions like IITs, and reputed Central Universities.

The second main area in need for autonomy is financial. As long as there is financial dependence of HEIs on the government, autonomy will always be compromised. Yet, public HEIs need support from the government, to provide affordable education to citizens. So, how can one achieve autonomy while still seeking public funds. A simple method, which now many countries use, is to have the funding be based on some parameters by applying some formula. E.g. funding may depend on the total number of students, faculty, R&D projects, consultancy, etc, and the support level is decided through a defined formula. Given that different HEIs have evolved in different manner and may have different needs, the formula need not be same for all types of HEIs. For example, a business school may be given little or no support for education, while an Engineering Institution may be provided limited support per student for education, and a humanities oriented institution may be provided a higher level of support per student.

A formula based funding makes the HEI “independent” of its equations with the Government of the day. The formula provides predictability of funding, and the HEI can count on it and focus its energies on its academics and more efficient use of this public funding. This enhances the autonomy of HEI autonomous, while still retaining the public character.

While these can improve the autonomy of HEIs substantially, there is a need to also ensure that HEIs, particularly those who are taking public funds, are discharging their responsibilities to the society properly.

How does one ensure accountability? This is important as without this, autonomy can lead to inward looking HEIs which are not responsive to societal needs. The responsibility of an HEI is mostly around expanding its educational opportunities, and to align its research towards national goals or needs. (Responsibility in terms of access is already built-in through reservation laws.) Both of these can be easily achieved through financial models. E.g. if funding is tied to the number of students studying (as is the case in Australia), then there is an incentive for the HEI to increase its student strength. Similarly, research direction is often influenced by providing research projects and grants in specific areas/types of work – an approach taken by most countries, including India.

With organizational autonomy, there is also a need for internal systems of the HEI to have proper checks and balances. For this, it is imperative that the system being followed is where the approving authority is different than the recommending authority. This is most important in faculty appointments –  if these appointments are not done properly and with rigorous processes, it can lead to substandard faculty, which takes an HEI down a path from which it takes decades to recover, as faculty stay in the system for even three decades. For this, the system followed in institutions like IITs is very sound – the recommendation for faculty selection is made by a selection committee which is chaired by the Director. But the recommendations are accepted by the Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Board of Governors. However, an alternate method, which is seriously flawed, is also followed in many universities in India, in which the Vice Chancellor chairs the selection committee, as well as the Board of the University, thereby making the recommending and approving authority as the same. This must be corrected to ensure that the autonomy does not get misused.

There are many factors that impact autonomy, many of them not covered in this note. This note focused on two most important issues for autonomy: (1) the selection of the Chief Executive should be done by the HEI itself through transparent and well defined process that takes inputs from the stakeholders of HEI, and  (ii) funding of each HEI should be formula-based dependent on some important parameters like R&D output, number of students, etc. so the HEI is clear about what level of support to expect. If these two can be done, we can possibly see an unleashing of trapped energy in some of the HEIs which can take them to path of excellence and global ranking/standing.

 

Normalizing Class XII Marks

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Recently it was reported in newspapers that CBSE moderates its marks by effectively increasing them – largely to “compete” with other Boards. It was also reported recently that some of the top colleges in Delhi have a majority of students from one Board in south, and a large number from one school.

Both of these anomalies are due to one reason – admission being based on Board percentage without normalizing the marks of different Boards. Due to this, Boards realize that their students will benefit if they have a higher percentage – so there is a race to give more marks. Besides distorting the admission process, this race is unhealthy for education and learning and gives a false sense of achievement to students.

Of course the natural course of action is to normalize marks from different Boards. Normalization across Boards can be easily done – all it requires is a little extra information from each Board. For some strange reason, it has not become regular practice and Boards do not provide sufficient information for normalization.

Let us first understand the normalization problem. Each Board gives marks between 0-100%. Normalization requires that marks between 0-100 given by different Boards be converted to a “normalized score”, also between 0 and 100, which provides a common reference where X marks mean the same, regardless of whether the Board was “tough” or “easy” in its marking.

One approach to normalize, which CBSE also used for JEE, is to base it on the percentile of a student in the Board. The percentile score of a student reflects what percentage of students in the Board have marks below that of the student. I.e. a student with 90 percentile means that 90% of the students have received marks that are below this student’s marks. To convert marks to percentile score, students are ordered in the order of marks they received, and then divided in 100 equal groups – the top 1% students fall in 99-percentile, the next 1% fall in 98-percentile, etc. (This can, of course, be done at 0.1 or 0.01 percentile granularity for finer resolution.) Once percentile is given, then there are ways to normalize, with the assumption that top N% of the students in a Board are essentially similar to top N% students in another Board, i.e., a 99 percentile student in one Board can be considered similar to a 99 percentile student of another Board. (If this assumption cannot be made, then it will require calibrating different Boards – an exercise that is unlikely to be undertaken, and if initiated, unlikely to culminate in an acceptable calibration.)

With a percentile score, one way to normalize across Boards is simply to use the percentile score. In this case, a student with 99.5 percentile (from any Board) will be ranked higher than a student in 99.3 percentile (from any Board). The percentile score can have finer granularity, if desired, and within each percentile, there can be tie-breaking rule.

The ranking with percentile is sufficient if the decision of admission is based only on class XII score, i.e. one needs to rank or order students only on class XII score. However, if admission is based on sum of multiple scores, in which one of them is the class XII marks (as was the case in JEE, where 60 marks came from JEE exam and 40 from class XII), then the situation is more complex and percentile will have to converted to a normalized score to be added to the other scores.

There are techniques to convert the percentile score to a normalized score. For this conversion, a desired target distribution is needed, which gives what fraction of students should be at each mark in the normalized marks between 0-100. The target distribution for normalized marks is a choice to be made, and any reasonable distribution can be chosen – the preferred distribution for exams is Normal Distribution, in which the largest fraction of students is at the mean and then the fraction at each mark reduces as we move on the two sides of the mean. If the target distribution is taken to be Normal Distribution with mean of 50 and the standard deviation (a statistical attribute indicating the variability in scores) of 15, then 99 percentile will translate to 85 normalized marks, 98 percentile to 81 marks, 95 percentile to 75 marks, 90 percentile to 69 marks. There are standard tables available for this conversion. (This conversion will be different if a different mean and/or standard deviation are selected.)

It should be clear that with percentile based normalization, inflating marks in a board does not help students – the top 1 % students of all boards will be mapped to the same normalized marks. So, in a Board which has inflated marks such that a large fraction of its students get above 90% marks, only the top 1% students will get the same normalized score (99 percentile, or 85 marks in the above example), which will be same as the top 1% students from a Board which has a much smaller fraction of students above 90%.

Overall, normalization can be done easily and transparently if information about percentile of a student is provided by the Boards.  If Boards provide the percentile, normalization is straightforward.

Normalization is not possible if Boards only give the percentage marks to students, as they do now. Though determining percentile is trivial and Boards can easily do it, for some reason, it is not being done. Perhaps because just with marks a Board can have as many students above 90% as it wants and let the students and their parents feel good. With percentile only 10% of the students can be in the 90 percentile – which will give a clear picture to the student about his/her relative standing in the Board. Given this situation, probably MHRD will have to mandate that percentile information must also be provided to the students. And to support this move, all universities that use class XII marks for admission can declare that they will normalize marks of different Boards and will therefore not admit students from a Board unless the percentile scores are also made available – if this is done all Boards will have to provide this information.

If normalization is done, besides fairness in admissions, it will also lead to curtailing of the unhealthy exercise of marks inflation that the boards seem to have gotten into. If normalization is not done, given the publicity received about DU’s admission this year, we will see an unhealthy race between Boards to give easy marks, resulting in a complete failure of merit based admissions, with less deserving students from some Boards getting admission into the best colleges in the country at the cost of more deserving students from some other Boards being denied admission.

Widen the Entrance Criteria in Higher Education Institutions

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It is well established that good quality higher education is the best way to open doors to a variety of opportunities – that is why world over students vie to get into the best universities and colleges. Due to this, while school education is meant to lay the foundation for a broad development of the individual, the single most important goal of school education becomes getting admission in a high quality higher education institutions (HEI).

Admission to our HEIs is based almost exclusively on performance in exams – class XII or entrance test. Most engineering institutes admit students through entrance test, though now class XII marks are also given weight, and most universities like Delhi University give admission based on class XII marks (though have some seats for sports etc). So, regardless of what educationists may like to see, students, parents, and teachers all eventually align to a single goal as outcome of school education – doing well in class XII exams and competitive entrance tests. As nothing else matters for achieving the important goal of getting into a high quality HEI, other aspects of development that the school education is supposed to provide, are mostly ignored.

As a result of  this exclusive focus on exams, a student who does innovative projects in schools demonstrating innate talent and interest for engineering is precisely the one who may not make it to the best engineering institutions as he/she “wasted” time doing these projects – time which could have been more optimally used in coaching classes. Similarly, a student who does internship in some company and writes a report on the economics of a sector – perhaps the ideal candidate for an economics program – may not be able to get into a good economics program as others who spent all the time preparing for exams get higher marks. Similarly, students who engage in school debates, participate in social work, sports, or other activities that can broaden their development and horizons, are often at a disadvantage for getting admitted to HEIs as compared to those who spend their time preparing for tests. This uni-focus on attaining high test scores also inevitably leads to shallow learning styles which maximize performance in tests but prevent deep understanding of subjects.

This focus on exams cannot be changed just by exhortation or changing the pattern of the exam or bemoaning the state of affairs. We have to squarely accept the fact that the most important goal for a student is indeed getting admission into best colleges, and if we want students to have wider development in schools, we have to widen the criteria for admission to include achievements and efforts outside tests.

One direct approach can be to assign some marks (say 20 out of 100) for achievement in other spheres while the remaining 80 can remain based on results of class XII and entrance test. With this, the problem reduces to developing sound procedures for assigning marks out of 20 for achievement in other spheres. This will be a challenge but not one that is unsurmountable – PG/MBA programs or public service exams routinely do this, by having an interview and assigning some weight to it.

IIIT-Delhi has been following another approach for the last few years for this. In IIIT-Delhi, for admission in BTech program, up to 10 bonus marks (on a base of 100) are given for achievements in various spheres, through a published criteria. For example, bonus marks are given to students who reach final stages of various Olympiads, participate in national school games, have Chess FIDE rating, get an award in the INSPIRE or IGNITE program, win prize in programming contests, have ministry of culture’s scholarship for talent, etc. The program was slow to start, but in the previous two batches, over 10% of the students admitted are ones who have received bonus marks.

We have also done some analysis of how these students perform in our Institute. As we had anticipated, the first year performance in the Institute of the students who had received bonus marks was significantly better than the performance of students without bonus marks (the average CGPA was higher by more than 1.) This clearly demonstrated that students with broader base are likely to be better prepared for higher education.

Most US universities, while giving a considerable weight to SAT scores and performance in high school, consider a host of other factors and achievements for admission. In fact, in top universities it is now known that just good grades and SAT scores are not sufficient, and students must show other achievements. This hugely motivates families to develop other aspects of a students’ personality – sports, culture, social work, volunteering, etc. If we start incorporating achievements and contributions in other spheres in admission to most of our top HEIs, we may also see an increase in motivation and drive to undertake such activities in school – this can only be good for our students and their development.

First Year of College may be Critical for Success

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Many faculty have observed that often performance of students in later years of a 4-year program is similar to the performance achieved in the first year. At IIIT-Delhi we did some analysis of student performance in the Institute in various years and relationship between them. IIIT-Delhi has a rigorous and demanding education program, as good as the best in the country, and taught by faculty with qualifications similar to those of faculty in established IITs. Its program, though somewhat different and more innovative than in older institutions, is similar to the programs in IITs and top universities across the world – it has a common first year program, core courses for the discipline done in a few semesters after the first year, and mostly electives in final few semesters. Therefore, I suspect the trends in our analysis may hold for other similar autonomous institutions which have high quality education.  Some interesting findings are:

  • Correlation between performance in first semester and second semester is over 0.8. In other words, for most students, performance in second semester is similar to the performance in the first semester.
  • The performance in an academic year is very strongly correlated with performance in the previous academic year – again correlation of more than 0.8. In other words, performance in 2nd year has a strong correlation with performance in 1st ,  3rd year performance is highly correlated with 2nd, and 4th year performance is highly correlated with the 3rd.

Before discussing what these correlations may mean, it should be emphasised that these are statistics – they apply in a general sense and not to an individual. An individual student’s record may not follow the above pattern at all – someone may have had a bad 1st semester/year (due to illness, lack of seriousness,…) who can do much better later. And someone who takes first year seriously and then slacks off, will find performance falling.

What do these mean for students in a general sense.   The data seems to suggest that the first semester and year can often be the most defining year of a students’ college education, and the performance in first year often reflects the level at which the student is likely to perform academically in the rest of his/her program. First year of the program is when the students are settling in their new life at a university/college with the freedom and responsibility that comes with it – a life very different from that in school which is far more structured and defined by the teachers, school discipline, uniform, parental oversight, etc. It seems that the students define their approach to college life and academics in the first year and often develop habits, discipline, and balance (or lack of it) which is likely to stay with them for the rest of the program.

As mentioned, while the data suggests this for most student, it need not apply to all students. If a student misses building the discipline and balance in the first year, but realises the folly of his/her ways later (say after a semester or a year), this data should be treated as a statistic that can be overcome – by putting the due effort for making up for the lack of effort in the first sem/year, or by repeating the first year, if the university allows. (In IIIT-Delhi students who do not pass some number of courses in the first year have to repeat the first year. In the past we have seen that there are some cases of students who have changed their behavior after repeating the year and have successfully completed the program with good CGPA.)

What does the data mean for academic institutions and administrators? One clear insight is that first semester (and the first year) can be extremely critical to a student’s success in the program. Therefore, to help students succeed in the program, it is important to provide good support to them in their first semester (year) – not just for academics but also for developing good habits and discipline. This implies that the systems we have for later year students, may not be well suited for students in their first year, who require closer monitoring and more support and counselling.

To conclude, data suggests that incoming students should be extra cautious and alert when starting their higher education program – while a student must explore new ideas, build new bonds, try new activities, pursue non-academic interests, engage in deep discussions in the canteen, etc, he/she must not lose sight of academics, as that is the primary purpose of entering a university. Students must develop sound habits and a good discipline and balance in their first year – the habits and discipline developed in first year is likely to persist through the rest of their program; laxity in the first year may make it harder to make up in later years.

And for Institutions the data clearly suggests that special measures must be taken to handle students in their first year – they are just transitioning from school to college and support must be provided so they can develop a proper balance and discipline to handle college life. (At IIIT-Delhi, a few years ago we started a one-week induction program for the new students where issues like this are discussed with them by counselors, senior students, and other professionals. And we have started a program of monitoring first year students more carefully in the key courses and provide extra support where needed.)

Selecting a College for Admission

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This is admission time again for higher education, and most students have multiple choices of higher educational institutions (HEIs – colleges, universities, institutes)  for admission. Finally, of course, the student has to get admitted in one HEI and study there. For most students and their parents, this is a hard choice – which HEI to chose from the colleges, universities, institutions where the student can get admitted. This note points out some parameters that can be used for assessing an HEI (or a department).

First, let us understand that there are two main end goals of college education. (i) Education: gaining knowledge and skills for productive careers,  and (ii) Self growth: developing interests, friendships, associations, hobbies, etc which help in leading a happier and richer life. A high quality HEI should provide good support for both.

For assessing  the capability of the HEIs, or one of its departments, to deliver high quality education, there are some well understood parameters. I am giving some of the key ones here. These are the parameters which I advise parents and students to look at for making a decision, and I myself used them when my daughters were seeking admission. Importance of most of these is self evident, and many of these are also given in the World Bank framework for World Class Universities.

  • Faculty Quality and Qualifications.  This is undoubtedly the single most important parameter that decides the  quality  of education in an HEI. World over, the best Universities indeed have the most qualified faculty. In India also, you will see the same pattern – places like IITs, IISc, some IIITs, some ISERs, etc, which are known to be the best places for education, have the most qualified faculty. By qualifications of faculty I mean  – highest degree obtained (PhD, Masters, or lesser), and from where the degree was earned. While higher qualifications are clearly desired in faculty, the second factor is also very important – an Engineering institute that has faculty with  PhDs from reputed universities of the world, or from places like IITs/IISc, clearly has superior faculty than a college that may have PhDs from other institutions. This can be checked easily – see where the faculty of established IITs have obtained their PhDs from – you will see that they are from  top Institutes in the country, or from good institutions overseas.
  • Faculty Student Ratio. This is clearly the next important parameter  – an HEI which has lower F/S ratio is likely to be better for learning and education, as it allows more faculty time per student and only with manageable ratio can faculty spend time with students for projects etc. In many US universities, about 20:1 is a standard ratio that they try to maintain – some lower ranked universities may have ratios as high as 35:1 or more, and some of the Ivy League and other top univs may have lower ratios. In older IITs, the ratio is about 15:1.
  • Infrastructure. The quality of infrastructure is another important parameter – clearly for education delivery, quality of classes, libraries, labs, etc. is important. But even other infrastructure – facilities for faculty, quality of student hostels and facilities, quality of sports and other facilities for extra curricular activities, etc. matter as they have indirect impact on education.
  • Quality of the academic program. All good HEIs spend a lot of time designing their programs. First important factor here is the structure and layout of the program – the courses the program and the nature and variety, and the degree of flexibility it provides to students to chose their courses. The second aspect is very important and can be assessed by the  number of electives a student can take in the program and the number of choices offered for electives. Weaker HEIs will have fewer electives, and fewer choices for them, as electives require a larger range of courses to be taught.
  • Delivery of academics. Getting a good program on paper is not too  hard – programs of the best of HEIs are available on the internet. It is, of course, the delivery of the program that matters the most. Quality of delivery is decided, first and foremost, by the quality of faculty. However, there are some other indicators – e.g. the level and nature of work a student has to do  in the courses. If the student has to spend minimal effort and that is mostly around taking tests/exams, you can be  sure that the delivery of  courses is weak. Good delivery of  courses requires students to put  in effort outside the  class in assignments, projects, labs, term papers, presentations, etc. Learning happens largely when students are asked to apply the concepts covered in lectures in the assignments/labs/projects… Learning without due effort is a myth – effort and practice is essential for learning and developing skills.
  • Administration, leadership, culture. Administration and leadership  impact the overall functioning hugely – good administration and leadership will ensure that the HEI continues to improve and keep addressing issues that may come up. Seriousness with which academics is taken, how students are supported, are students’ feedback on programs and courses taken, etc. are all important cultural aspects that have impact on the quality of education.

For assessing the quality of an HEI for supporting self development, one should look at the breadth and flexibility in the curriculum – does the curriculum include courses other than main subject courses, and does it provide flexibility and choice to take a variety of courses including those that may help more in self development. For example, one can look at if there are course on humanities, social sciences, music, art, etc, and if it is possible for students to do independent study, independent projects, etc to pursue their interests. For students who may be interested in research, one should look at if there are provisions for UG students to undertake research.

Other important factors that affect the self growth dimension are the level of extra curricular activities (which may get reflected in the variety of student clubs), infrastructure (the quality of infrastructure to support the extra curricular activities) and support (e.g. is there sufficient budget) for such activities.

While these are main factors that affect the quality of education,  another way to assess the quality of education and overall development of students is to examine what the graduates of the  HEI do after graduation, and how well the alumni of the HEI are doing. Opportunities after graduation include – placements after graduation (quality of placements, median offer, etc), higher education opportunities (how many students get these opportunities and where), and entrepreneurship.

This note focuses only on assessing the quality of an HEI. Choosing a program to study is a different issue – it depends on the students aptitude and capability. In an earlier note, I had discussed this issue. Of course the complication comes when the two factors – choosing the HEI and the program of study – are combined. The most common question is “I am getting X in A but am getting Y in B – which option should I choose”.  In general, if one is sure that one wants to study X and is fairly sure that  he/she has the aptitude for it also, then I would say that find the best HEI you can get X in, and go study X in that HEI. The problem gets more complex when the student does not know what he/she is interested in or has aptitude for – I have discussed this briefly in my earlier note, though have no good advise to offer.

Finally, I would end by saying that choosing the  HEI for your college education is a serious decision,  and a lot of people try to  influence it – mostly to try to convince others about their own view/decision. I have had students write later “I was misguided and I took admission in A as many of my friends were taking…. but I find no academic atmosphere here …. can you please consider me for admission now….”. You don’t want to  be in this situation. So, I suggest that you take inputs from all – your parents, friends, teachers, experts – but be aware of the biases that are often there in such suggestions, and make up your own decision by doing your analysis of the information/data available.

For information on IIIT-Delhi:  On BTech programs visit the BTech programs page; for information on faculty, visit the faculty page; for information on research, visit the research page; for information about student life, visit this page – more information on student clubs is available here.

Other notes you may want to look at on this: Article comparing various institutes, and blog of Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi.

Current Approaches to Teaching Cannot Deliver High Quality Education

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Let me start this note with a simple assertion: education is about learning by students, where learning includes not only knowledge and understanding of a variety of concepts and phenomenon, but also development of higher order skills and capabilities for applying knowledge for problem solving. (For those who want to go deeper, learning can be classified using Bloom’s taxonomy, revised version of which has these levels: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create; In my statement, I have combined the lower two levels in “knowledge and understanding” and higher order four levels – apply, analyze, evaluate, and create into “skills and capabilities”).

Let me also upfront state my opinion, which I am sure will not go down well with many: our approach to education, even in many of the top places, is mostly geared towards developing knowledge and understanding with little emphasis on developing skills and capabilities. Hence the title of this article.

Our current approach to education in almost all institutions take a teaching oriented view – for a course the “syllabus” is defined as a list of topics to be covered, and during the semester, instructors give lectures to cover the topics, in which the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. Good institutions will ensure that the topics are covered, the not so good ones may not even ensure this. In the better Institutes, there may be labs and assignments, though often the final grades depend largely on exams. This teaching oriented approach to education can at most deliver mediocre education – high quality education is not possible. There are a few reasons why it is so.

First, when a list –of-topics is the course design, then entire thought processes is about “covering the material”, and in the class, at best, the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. It is now well established that students mind is not like a vessel in which information or concepts can be poured through lecturing – learning is a constructive activity and a student learns only by what a student herself does and thinks. In an education style where lecturing is the primary method of teaching, followed by some exams to test the understanding, the focus will mostly be on knowledge and understanding. This approach does not render itself to development of skills and capabilities, for which far more practice (assignments, labs, projects,…) by students under careful supervision and feedback is needed. As exams, by their very nature, can test mostly concepts and understanding (at worst they may just test for factual knowledge), this cycle of lecturing and exams can lead to learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s hierarchy, but does not help develop the higher levels skills and capabilities that are the hallmark of high quality education.

To move towards higher quality education which develops not only deep understanding of acquired knowledge but also development of skills/capabilities of applying the knowledge, it is necessary to move towards learner centric education, as is being done in most developed countries, and as is mandated by the Washington Accord.
The learner centric approach has three key aspects. First, for a course learning outcomes have to be defined, not in terms of list of topics, but in terms of knowledge and skills that the student should have at the completion of the course. Second, the course syllabus and design has to such that it can deliver the learning objective – the lectures on topics have to be supported by suitable exercises and projects with proper and critical feedback to allow practice which can help develop skills, as they cannot be developed in a lecture theatre. Finally, the grade given to a student must be based on an assessment of how well the student has fulfilled the learning outcomes. So, if a learning outcome says that at the end of the course the student will have “the ability to solve problems using x,y, z”, then this must be assessed directly.

Of course, designing the course in this manner in itself does not lead to better learning. This course design has to be delivered by competent faculty – a challenge for many universities and colleges who simply don’t have competent faculty. Those institutions who have good faculty, however, can transform their education from teaching oriented approach to learner centric approach, which can lead to huge improvement in quality of education. It may be added, that this type of approach is what accreditation looks for.

At IIIT-Delhi, we follow a learner centric approach – for each course there are “post conditions” which state what the students knows and can do at the end of the course. The course design includes the assignments/projects that are to be given to deliver the post conditions particularly about skill development, and in final grades, weight is assigned to performance in assignments and projects.

In the end, let me add that this “list of topics” approach has worked reasonably well in the past in some of the top institutions. This was so as these top institutes were very small with low student to faculty ratio and had a very good faculty – this allowed faculty to develop some skills and capabilities through personal mentoring and oversight. This approach cannot work now as the skills and capabilities needed are far more complex and often change, and the scale of education is significantly larger now. These require a systematic approach as the earlier mentorship based approach cannot scale up.

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