May 26, 2012

Exclusive Entrance Examinations - Why is Presidency imitating the IITs ?

Presidency college has plans for  a tough, new, two-tier entrance examination to select high quality students for its UG and PG courses. This is funny, considering the fact that IITs -- that had pioneered the concept of an exclusive entrance examination through the JEE -- are hoping to dilute them strongly in the near future.

A quick review of the rise and fall of the JEE is very instructive in this context.
image from

Despite their many failings, the five original IITs have played a stellar role in redefining the educational landscape of the country. While IIT engineers may have played some role in building the nation, their main contribution was to build a mystique around “Indian Brilliance” particularly in the United States, a country that recognised their worth far more than their own nation ever did ! In fact, before the IT industry pushed India into the international limelight, it was “Brand IIT” that was -- and to an extent, still is -- the most powerful international brand that the country has produced.

But “Brand IIT” is based on certain misconceptions. Having been a student, I know that nothing new or different is taught at IITs and a majority of teachers are nothing extraordinary. True, there was never any shortage of money so physical facilities were quite nice though that is not so anymore. Later on, when I went abroad for my masters and PhD, I realised that -- for a variety of reasons that can be explored elsewhere -- frontline research was almost non-existent in the IITs.

Actually “Brand IIT” is actually a smoke screen for “Brand JEE” and the fame of the five original IITs - and we need to distinguish them from the post IIT-Gauhati generation -- rest almost entirely on the the quality of students who were screened into IIT. Not on what they were taught there ! Since the students were good, they would succeed anyway wherever they go and a happy byproduct was the fame of excellence that the IITs accrued in a very short time with hardly any effort on the part of the faculty or the management ! A perception was created that equated the excellence of the students with the excellence of the Institutes.

Presidency College is now trying to play the same game with its allegedly ultra-tough entrance examination with which it hopes to get the best students who will then spread its fame all over the world.

But unfortunately the sanctity of the entrance examination has been sadly compromised. While the JEE may still be conducted honestly, evidence on the ground shows that its discriminatory power has been conclusively demolished because of the rise of coaching classes that have replaced native intelligence with cramming and other “exam-cracking skills” as the key tools with which to get high ranks.

Faculty of the IITs are of course living in denial. Many claim that the JEE is still important but deep down everyone knows that it is not so but to abandon the JEE would be the  death knell of the “Brand IIT”. Without the JEE, the IITs are no different from the NITs and other government funded colleges in the country. This, and the money earned by individuals to conduct the JEE, is the real reason why the IITs still want to hang on to the dead body of the JEE as long as they can.

The Ministry of HRD and the IIT Council has correctly understood the limitations of a single and exclusive JEE for IITs and has come out with a broadbased plan that simplifies the admission process while reducing the number of special entrance examinations that hapless students have to face.

The exclusive IIT JEE was important and relevant at a particular point of time. It has now outlived its utility and is in the process of evolving into something else. Presidency College has every right to create a brand that is as illustrious as “Brand IIT” but it must understand that the path that the IITs took is not available any more.

Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and all other top rated schools in the world use the standard SAT / GRE score to screen and accept students. Why does Presidency or the IITs need the crutch of an exclusive entrance examination to build their reputation ? Exclusive entrance examinations are neither necessary nor sufficient for that elusive excellence in education. It is more important to focus on measures that address structural issues that have been identified and discussed in previous posts.
originally published in FirstPost

May 13, 2012

Neepabithi's Chau at Baitanik's Akhra

Baitanik -- a cultural organisation that believes that culture can be a source of livelihood in India's rural heartland -- has a bi-weekly event every other Sunday, where Neepabithi Ghosh and her team of Chau Dancers put up an excellent performance today. Here are some pictures of the event.

While Neepabithi Ghosh is an established and renowned singer in her own right, what stole the show was the way she blended a different genres of Bangla music -- from Tagore through folk and right up to contemporary tunes -- with the traditional Chau dance of Balarampur and Baghmundi, from the Purulia district. In fact the anthem of the football World Cup, Waka Waka by Shakira, was also blended in very beautifully with this traditional art form of Bengal.

Thanks to Baitanik for a wonderful evening and all the best to Neepabithi and her Chau project

May 01, 2012

The Carrot and The Stick

People working in the private corporate sector are familiar with the process of annual appraisal and know that annual increments and bonuses are directly linked to this exercise. There may be some disappointment with the way that these appraisals are conducted but (a) no corporate has found an alternative to the process and (b) despite all its faults, companies have not collapsed and died because of appraisals -- in general they have done well. Net-net this means that the strategy of deciding on annual increments and bonuses on the basis of an appraisal process has stood the test of time and reliability in India.

Strangely enough, this concept is totally absent in state and central government departments and institutions. The salary structure for all government employees is determined by the Pay Commission and both pay and annual increments are cast in stone. So there is no direct and transparent way to recognise good performance and reward the same. Neither is there any way to identify incompetent and lethargic behaviour and hand out any punishment -- unless we consider extreme cases of criminal or illegitimate behaviour and invoke disciplinary measures. This means that unless a government employee commits a culpable crime there is no way that he or she may face any action. This also means that one can get away with doing nothing in office much to the consternation and dismay of those who try to put in an honest days work and achieve results.

Is there a way to break out of this terrible situation ?

Obviously a total solution to the entire problem involving lakhs and lakhs of government employees may be too big to solve -- so let us break it down to a more manageable limit. Let us allow individual departments and institutions to address the problem at the local level. Consider a college or institute whose faculty salary has been decided and cast in stone by the 6th Pay Commission. Obviously the base pay is too sacrosanct to tamper with as it will have parity implications across a whole range of equivalent organisations. Can we do something locally ?

Continuing with the example of a college, we can segregate the faculty into the three strata -- professor, associate professor and assistant professor -- where persons within each stratum will have roughly similar pay. For each stratum we can deduct 15% of the gross pay from each faculty member and create an incentive pool for the stratum. Next we put in place a appraisal mechanism -- which could be a composite index of teaching, research and administrative tasks -- and create a relative ranking for each faculty within the stratum. At the end of the financial year, after appraisals are done, we can refund the money withheld from the middle 50 percentile -- who are the average. The bottom 25% lose their deduction and this money is used to reward and incentivise the top 25%. Obviously this should be done for each stratum of employees and every year -- so that everyone has a fair chance of getting a performance bonus. The quantum of deduction (15%) and the percentage of top raters (25%) can be tuned further to improve the effectiveness of this mechanism.

What this means is that without adding to the burden of the taxpayer, or tinkering with the overall parity structures created at the central government level, or even creating any long term distortion in an individual’s salary structure, we are allowing the local leadership to reward the top performers and sending a strong message on non-performance to the entire population.

Moreover, by decentralising the implementation of this scheme, each organisation can create its own appraisal model that would be in agreement with the nature of jobs that are being evaluated. Employees attached to each department should have a role to play in determining the parameters on which appraisal will be done and there must be a clear way to review each appraisal and ensure that the results by and large follow the normal distribution. Not everyone can be top rated.

Finally, experimenting with this approach is fairly safe because in case the scheme has to be abandoned after a couple of years then the organisation can simply pick up from where ever it was and carry on as usual without any disturbance to anybody’s careers.

Obviously, Government employees for whom performance appraisals is an alien concept  and organisations that thrive on mediocrity would find this concept difficult to accept, let alone implement  but even if one or two departments and organisations can get going with this idea it may bring in a whole new and beneficial change in the work ethics in the Government.

The only real challenge to this scheme would be to make to appropriate amendments to Government service rules so that orders to this effect are not overturned by tribunals and courts. However departmental and institutional leaders who can motivate their personnel to migrate to this appraisal model may find themselves to be regarded -- or appraised -- superior when it comes to their own career movements.