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.

 

Australian Universities – Some Observations and Lessons for India

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Note: These are some observations based on a visit to about half dozen universities in a few different cities. Some of them were the G-8 universities (top universities identified by the Australian Government), and rest just below them. The observations in this note are based on discussions largely in CS/IT schools and the broad numbers that were indicated mentioned these discussions – hence only broad statements are being made. This is not a detailed study of any university or the University system in Australia.

Size

Main Australian universities are quite large – most with more than 50,000 students and over 1,500 full time, regular faculty. They are generally organized as Faculties, and within them are Schools (which are like Departments in US or India), which may have disciplines within them. Universities also have focused research centers, which have funding of their own, but faculty mostly come from Schools. CS/IT is often a school of its own and generally one of the largest (and is heavily in demand). Most large universities are catering to it by expanding their offerings in it.

The overall administrative staff is appx of the same size as the size of faculty, though in each department the number is smaller than the faculty.

In CS/IT, in many of these large universities the faculty strength for regular, tenure-track/tenured faculty is about 30 to 40.

In size, main Australian universities are similar to the US public universities (there are only a couple of private universities in Australia – the rest are all public universities, supported by the Government.)

UG Education

Many have multiple programs at the UG level – in CS, IT, Sw Engg, etc.  A program may have an average intake of a few hundred students every year, and overall UG population can be a few thousands. Foreign students ratio may be about 10-20%.

Most UG degrees are 3 year programs. However, many of them add one year to give an honors degree. Those CS/IT degrees that are in engg, are normally of 4 years. Altogether, the school of CS/IT may have about 1000+ UG students.

UG students do mostly 4 courses (units) per semester. First year is usually a common set of courses. There is a strong focus on professional skills development in courses.

Masters Program

The Masters is commonly by course work only, and is normally of 2 years duration. The intake may be as large as 300 or 400 every year. Masters has a large number of overseas students – often more than half, sometimes even two-thirds. Most of the overseas students are from Asia – China and India being the largest. Smaller number is from Africa.

Masters is a completely a paid program. There is no scholarship/fellowship. And the fee is normally higher than the UG fee.

PhD Program

PhD program may be around 200 students in CS/IT – generally between 3 to 4 students per regular faculty. All PhD students are given scholarship/fellowship (tax free, of around $28K). PhD students may get paid a top-up from research grants (of about $10K). They are often paid extra for TA work or for being tutors. Tuition fee is waived for about 3.5 to 4 years, and the scholarship is also often limited to this duration.

Often for each PhD student, the university will give some budget (of about $5K), which can be used for laptop, conference travel (by the student or the adviser), etc.

Teaching/Instruction

A regular course may have 2 hours of lecture, and 2 hours of lab, and/or an hour of tutorial. The instructor gives the lectures, and also takes some sessions of tutorials (to get the pulse of the students). Tutors are generally not allowed to take lectures.

Courses for UGs and PGs are mostly separated – however, many times courses are dual numbered and the same lecture may be used for both the courses, with some special assignments or work for the PG students.

Course syllabus is often standardized, including the nature and number of assignments or labs or projects.

Lectures classes are often large – most with around 200 students. For first year courses, the size of a lecture may be around 500. For a large class, there may be two sections (say of 200 each, or 500 each for the 1st year course), and there may be two instructors for it – who will collaborate.

While the lectures sessions are large, there are tutorials and labs for courses. These are usually in small groups of around 30 each. Problem solving as well as lab help is provided in these sessions.

In a course there is often a feedback from students early on during the semester – to help the instructor make  any changes in how the course is being taught. There is a feedback at the end of the course. Moderation of grades is often done (i.e. some committee looks at grading patterns in the courses.)

There are facilities to tape the lectures, which are uploaded almost immediately after the class is over. Students can watch it later.  Most universities are exploring ways to leverage technology to reduce faculty requirement. E.g. in one students can enrol in web-delivery mode also (though very few students opt for it).

Student Faculty Ratio and Teaching-Research Balance

If entire UG students in the programs and the Masters students are taken, in most universities, in CS/IT the ratio may be of the order of 40:1. Some CS/IT schools have about 35:1, but some even have a ratio as large as 70:1. (Overall student to faculty ratio in a university also seems to be around 35:1.)

However, the faculty are well supported by Tutors and TAs, which are largely PhD students or casual faculty hired for this purpose. In some universities, senior UG students are also hired to help in TA work, particularly in labs (mostly honors students may be taken for this.) Part-time faculty from industry are also used for teaching. There may also be a small number of teaching-focused faculty to reduce the load of regular faculty.

There is a good balance between teaching and research. Many universities mentioned the 40-40-20 formula – a faculty member is expected to spend about 40% effort in teaching, about 40% in research, and 20% in service/administration.

Teaching load of a faculty varies from 2.5 to 4 courses per year. Adjustment based on research and administrative load is permitted and there are rules for this.

In teaching approach and student-faculty ratio, Australian universities differs from their US counterparts. The course load for students is a little lower, more support is provided through labs and tutorials, and the student-faculty ratio is considerably higher (in US many of the prominent state universities like UC system or GaTech have a student-faculty ratio of about 20:1.)

Research and Research Grants

Australian Research Council (ARC) is the main body. It usually gives larger grants. Many faculty may not get grants. Small grants may be provided by the University also.

Grants cover PostDocs, other research staff and top-up to students, and also travel and other such expenses. They don’t need to cover for PhD students.

There is a culture of postdoc developing and people with grants will have them. Generally, research is done by faculty, post docs, and PhD students.

There is an emphasis on applied research – sometimes coming from industry, and sometimes derived from some direct application.

Fees, and Economics

For domestic students, the UG fee is around $15K per year. The intake of students is not controlled, and a university is free to admit as many as it wants. However, the fee for domestic students is controlled – i.e. the Govt has fixed it.

Of the fee for domestic students, the student has to cover about one-fourth to half, for which he can take a loan, which is to be paid later as additional tax, but only after the student’s earning crosses some threshold. The rest of the fee is the subsidy by the Govt. The university gets the full fee from the Government directly, and the Government recovers the money from the student. (There is also some option to pre-pay the fee at some discount…)

MS fee is usually higher. Govt does not provide subsidy for this. (Not fully sure)

Overall, the university gets a funding from the Federal Govt based on the number of students, i.e. fees times the number of students in the university. Due to this, there is an intense competition to get good students and there is an inherent motivation to grow – that is why most Australian universities are large in student enrollments. Note that even state created universities will get this grant from the Federal Govt.

Government also gives some grant for research which is also based on a formula which takes as input the impact, the research funds raised by the university from corporations and other sources, etc.

Except ANU and one or two others, there is no other grant from the government for teaching. Government may also give some special grants for infrastructure or special purposes every now and then – for which universities have to make proposals.

For foreign students, the fee as well as the numbers a university can take, is not regulated. The Government provides no subsidy for foreign students. The fee for foreign students is about $30+ K per year. So, the fee from foreign students cover part of the cost of education for domestic students, and also supports research expenditure of the university (as research projects do not cover the full cost of research.) Due to this, there is a strong incentive to recruit foreign students.  Australia has actively promoted itself as an education destination – high quality education in English, with the possibility of migration as well. (After 2 years of study, an overseas student is eligible to work in Australia.) By some accounts, education is the second (or third) largest forex earner for Australia.

A university may have a budget of about $1Billion (AUD). Broadly, the main income sources for a university are:

  • Tuition fee from domestic students given by federal Govt – about 70%
  • Research grant from the Federal Government – about 5%
  • Tuition fee from overseas students – about 15% (higher in some)
  • Research grants – about 10% (higher in more research places, lower in others)

There may be special grants, which arise from time to time – for construction, for some initiative of the Govt, etc.

So, funding approach for Australian universities seems to be formula based, and seems different from their US counterparts.

Autonomy

Universities are fully autonomous and are governed very well with a strong administrative set up and often visionary leaders. The Government has minimal role in university administration. There are some reps in the Board, and there are reporting requirements by the Government (e.g. to make sure that finances are in good shape), but govt does not play a role in appointing anyone, including the President. It seems that any interference in selection of President/Chancellor may be taken in very bad light even by public.

And most funding is formula-based. This allows a university to plan its own growth and finances, and there is predictability of funding from the Government. In other words, relationships with the government do not play any role in funding levels.

Some Lessons for Indian Research Universities

There are clearly some lessons for institutions like IITs, some IIITs, etc., which have a strong focus on research and have a vibrant undergraduate program, as well as for other research-led higher education institutions which give strong emphasis to research and education both.

  • Explore ways to enhance student faculty ratio – there is clear scope to do this so the benefit of the high quality faculty in these institutions can be made available to larger number of students. This will require, improving the PhD program, enhancing TA training programs, leveraging technology, use more internet delivered courses, have a program like Teaching Fellow, in which the teaching fellow is recruited and trained to handle tutorials and labs, and in the process get trained to become instructors in colleges. Extra revenue obtained by increasing the students at UG level, can be used to fund the PhD students.
  • Improve TA training and work culture – this is essential as the a higher number of students per faculty can only be supported if the TA help improves so TAs can handle most of the labs, tutorials, grading, etc. Besides training, this will need good guidelines for TAs for grading, handling students, etc, improved feedback and assessment of TA work, establishing awards and recognition for TA work, etc
  • Use senior UG students as TAs – they have been found to be very good TAs for undergraduate courses – this is partly due to the fact that the senior UG student has done the course in the same university, thereby has a better understanding of the course approach and teaching style etc. This may require giving them training, more respect and honor, stipend..
  • Expand the PhD program –  have about 3 to 4 PhD students per faculty. Make the PhD program more attractive – develop schemes for top-up (e.g. from projects for RAs, and extra support for TAs after they have done the mandatory 2 semesters of TA work), provide more facilities, support for conference travel,…
  • For expanding the PhD program, ACITE can consider stopping scholarships for MTech – these provide little value and world over scholarships for Masters are getting eliminated – and use the funds to instead provide PhD scholarships.
  • Enhance supervised labs in core courses so students can build strong practical skills – this is important for building professional skills. Must provide more support in the lab so students can be guided.
  • Enhance tutorials for developing problem solving skills – will require good training for tutors so they don’t make it a lecture, but applying concepts from lectures to problem solving.
  • Expanding the MTech program overseas – there is good possibility here and being a 2 year program where mature students come, least risky. If the courses are mostly exclusively graduate, then it is relatively easier to do this. The fee can be kept a little lower than fee levels in places like Australia, as it still be very cost effective due to lower cost of living. Initial focus can be on Asia and Africa.
  • Improve the use of technology – in infrastructure as well as in education (e.g. taping of lectures and putting them online asap, use of technology for tutorials, etc.)

Interdisciplinary Programs with Computer Science/IT

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Computer Science/IT is a young discipline. However, with easy and cheap availability computing power, its use has become ubiquitous – there is hardly any discipline or any sphere of life which is not directly affected by IT. That is why computing (I will use computing, IT, and CS interchangeably in this note) is sometimes considered as the “new physics” – it is useful in all disciplines and its basic knowledge is essential. Today, in every discipline, knowledge of computing is an asset, and there is a demand for professionals in various disciplines who also have decent knowledge of computing.

CS is in some ways a simpler discipline. It is fundamentally about software and systems (many of which are themselves software). Hence, education programs in CS focus on these. For software, there are courses like programming, data structures, algorithms, theory behind these, software engineering, etc. And for systems, there are courses like architecture, operating systems, compilers, networks, etc. Generally a subset of these topics form the core (or compulsory) part of a BTech program. In the rest of the program, a student often does advances in these areas, as well as developments special systems like databases, run time systems, etc, or application areas like computer vision, gaming, image processing, etc. This allows for a relatively small CS core in an education program.

Contrast this with an older discipline like Electrical Engineering. Even covering the foundations will require multiple courses in basic sub-areas like circuits, signal processing, communications, controls, power system, etc. And to become an engineer who can apply concepts of these, one will have to do many more advanced courses, and labs and projects.

This ability to have a small core to teach decent amount of computing to a student which he/she can apply, renders CS easily for interdisciplinary programs which combine CS basics with knowledge of other disciplines. And given the need for the knowledge of computing in many disciplines, having an interdisciplinary program with computing makes a lot of sense, particularly since further progress in many disciplines is highly dependent on good application of computing. A good example is biology – earlier it was considered an experimental discipline. But now, without the use of computing, many aspects can simply not be done (e.g. anything to do with genomics requires huge amounts of computing.)

In fact many senior computing academics have argued that while computing as a discipline must evolve, computing must get more tightly integrated with some disciplines to have more impact of computing for society and other sciences. This is another reason for having interdisciplinary programs with CS/IT.

At IIIT-Delhi, we are taking this thinking as a key approach for growth. While we will continue focusing on Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) as a discipline, and also Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE), instead of adding more regular programs in traditional disciplines, we will add interdisciplinary programs with CS/IT in carefully selected areas which have a natural affinity to CS/IT and where combining them together brings advantages.

Last year IIIT-Delhi launched a program in CS and Applied maths. The basic motivation behind this program was that for solving problems for complex systems as well as for big data, both mathematics and computing tools and techniques need to be applied. Hence, an engineer with training in both will be better prepared to handle such problems. In addition, at research and foundational level also there are many connections between CS and Maths (in fact, many computer scientists consider themselves as mathematicians also), making mathematics a natural discipline for an interdisciplinary program with CS.

This year we are adding two new interdisciplinary programs. First is the BTech in Computer Science and Design program, which aims to develop graduates that are not only well versed with computing approaches, tools, and technologies, but are also experienced with Design approaches and new Media technologies and uses. The program will prepare students to work in the IT industry as well as digital media industry like gaming, animation, virtual/augmented reality, etc. The program will also allow students, who want to pursue higher studies, to take up higher studies in CS/IT or in Design. The program aims to develop capabilities in CS as well as Design and Digital Media. Along with this, we are also starting a center for Design and New Media, which will conduct research in these areas.

The second program is in BTech in IT and Social Sciences. Going forward we are likely to see more convergence of IT with social systems (e.g. social media) and the role social sciences will play in technology solutions and the role IT will play in addressing society’s and people’s problems, will increase. This will lead to an increase in demand for IT engineers who are also well versed with social sciences. This unique program aims to develop IT engineers with strong understanding of relevant social science disciplines as well as their methodologies. It may be an ideal program for those students who are not sure if they want to pursue engineering careers and would like to explore the possibility of going for social sciences later, but want to be ready to take an IT career if desired. Along with the program we are also establishing a research Center on IT and Society, which will research the interplay between IT and society and impact one has on the other – an area which is highly under researched in India.

Typically, in any such interdisciplinary program, a student will do a few foundation courses in first semester. Then in the next few semesters, he/she will do about 6 to 8 core (compulsory) courses in each of the two disciplines, which will provide him/her grounding in the two disciplines. In the last two years, the student will chose 4 to 6 electives from each of the disciplines, as well as do other courses that can help his/her career.  (There are usually some other requirements, like HSS, and possibilities like Open Electives in the last years.) Broadly, such an interdisciplinary program satisfies requirements of a BTech in CS/IT, as well as requirements of a BA/BSc program in the second discipline. This is feasible to achieve in a 4 year program, particularly since BA/BSc are 3 year programs, and if disciplines are chosen strategically, there can be many courses which are common and hence can be counted for both disciplines. Such programs allow a student to pursue an exciting career in the intersection of the two disciplines, but also prepares the student to pursue high studies and career in one of the two disciplines, as decent knowledge of both disciplines is provided in these programs. As it is a 4 year program, it also allows students to pursue higher study programs that require 4 year college education.

Many thinkers believe that interdisciplinary approaches for problem solving is where the future lies, as silo approaches of individual disciplines are limiting and often unable to take a broader view of the problem and its context. Such interdisciplinary programs should help develop manpower which has the capabilities of at least two disciplines for problem solving.

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.

Summer Camp for School Children at IIIT-Delhi

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In summer 2016, IIIT-Delhi organised a 5 week summer camp for school students. I attended the valedictory session, and asked the students “what have you learned in this summer camp that you will take back to your lives after the summer camp”.  Here are some replies (almost verbatim):

  • We used to be afraid of going on stage, but now we are confident to go on stage and perform
  • We learned the right ways to work in groups –  we should first listen and understand everyone’s approach , know the thoughts of fellow group members and then we should think how to work with them, we should not impose our thought on them right away
  • Discipline and punctuality: we should always respect time and be disciplined
  • A student should not hurry in learning something, we should be focused towards getting something but should not be in hurry to get that
  • We should have patience and work hard towards our goals – sometimes we make mistakes only because we are in hurry
  • We should not be afraid to participate in competitions
  • We should not be afraid to make mistakes, we should learn from our mistakes
  • We shouldn’t hesitate in asking questions in the class room
  • We should be focused towards our goals; people will try to distract us, but we should remain selfish towards our goal.
  • We should not be disheartened by our failures or mistake, we should take pride in that and get motivated by them
  • We should not demotivate others.

You may be forgiven to think that the participants of the summer camp are very senior students or scholars and were taught by erudite faculty – these are indeed words of wisdom that are expected from people with experience. But these are statements from 12-14 years old students of class 8-9 from a few of the neighboring government schools! And the summer camp was taught by IIIT-Delhi’s student volunteers – most of them in first year of their BTech program.

When I asked the question, I thought it was a hard question for kids of this age. And I asked them to think for a few minutes before answering – half expecting that they will answer by mentioning some knowledge or skill they had acquired in the summer camp. But I was completely floored, and touched, by what these students, mostly from disadvantaged families, had to say – these are lessons that we, in privileged institutions, can learn from these students.

In particular, the lesson on discipline and punctuality, which they not only articulated but also followed in their behaviour – most students would come to the class before time – a fact our volunteers pointed out in amazement and surprise. This is clearly something students of priveleaged institutions (mostly from well off families) can learn – while these students came eager to learn as they had got access to something nice, in colleges and universities, even in the top institutions, we face the problem of students not attending or coming late in class, and not following the basic discpline of putting effort for their learning. I guess many of the college going students, as they perhapes got most things in life easily – provided by their families, feel that even knowledge and skills will come easily without discipline and effort. Alas, knowledge and skills (and things like health) are capabilities which even the richest person in the world can get only by his/her own effort – resources/money can at best smoothen or facilitate the process.

Now some background. This summer camp was the outcome of a program that we had launched in IIIT-Delhi for helping students in government schools in our neighborhood using student volunteers from our Institute. The program itself was inspired by the efforts of the Delhi Government for improving education in government schools – many academicians and thinkers believe that for improving education and student development in the country, improving the quality of education in government schools is essential. And we felt that an Institute like IIIT-Delhi can try to contribute in small ways to this.

In the program, teams of students visited a few schools on Saturdays for a few hours during which they engaged with students of different ages. The interaction was around problem solving, general knowledge, maths, communication, fun activities, etc. – by design it was not regular subject teaching.

Based on experience of our student volunteers, and their enthusiasm, we decided to organize this summer camp. Students from about 10 schools were invited for this 5 week program (about 4 hours every day). A set of student volunteers from IIIT-Delhi was identified to work with the students. It was agreed that the summer school should be fun and around building their confidence and some skills. We finally decided that the summer school will discuss concepts from maths and science, personality development and communication skills, computer skills, and general knowledge in the program, besides playing games. A training program was organized for the student volunteers of the program. It is completely to the credit of our student volunteers and the student leaders of the program that they ensured that the programs are interactive and fun.

Many of our student volunteers (appx 20 from first year) also used it to complete their Community Work (CW) requirement of graduation. CW requires each student to spend about 75 hours doing community work – it is a requirement for graduation. Mostly students work with various NGOs during summer for CW – many of them teach in some programs run by various organizations. This summer, our summer camp became another option for CW – and many students took it with gusto, led by some senior students who were driven by pure passion.

Seeing what I saw – a set of happy and excited kids who are not afraid to stand up and talk or give a small speech in the lecture hall of IIIT-Delhi – I am convinced that this is a remarkable program we have initiated. While it started as a program for “giving back” to society, it is clear that our students and us also gained a lot from this – I personally feel very satisfied with this contribution of our Institute and its students. And if some of these students, using the confidence they have gained and aspirations that got kindled, finally end up in institutes like IITs or IIIT-Delhi – it will be the clinching proof of how students of Institution like ours can contribute, without compromising their own goals while also deriving a deep sense of satisfaction in seeing what their efforts can do.

Let me end by acknowledging with respect the dedication of the students from IIIT-Delhi  who coordinated and ran this program with commitment, and ownership.  I am sure that with this success, and happiness that accrues, we will have no difficulty in getting support from our students for continuing this program in coming years. I also hope that this program becomes a model which students in other Institutions/Colleges across the country can use to organize summer camp in many more institutions and colleges of higher education across the state/country.

Some photos from the summer camp can be found in this post. An article on this in the newspaper Hindustan can be found here. A story on this is on our site.

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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