Thursday, 11 September 2014

Multitude of M.Tech. programmes: a question of relevance!

The recent turf war between UGC and IIT has grabbed quite a few eyeballs and commentaries. While the power game is being played out at the upper echelons of the administrative set up governing higher education in India, it is worthwhile to have an inward view for a little introspection. Much has been said about the functional autonomy for IITs as being one of the prime reasons for the success of the IIT experiment --- one of the few success stories in independent India. The unstated assumption in this process is that the administrative setup within an IIT will have an objective assessment of the prevailing conditions and evolve suitably to address the needs. Of course, this freedom (or, autonomy) for self regulation comes with the rider that we act responsibly and do not abuse the trust reposed in the collective wisdom of the Senate.

I have so far attended only a few meetings of the Senate and I am aghast, to put it mildly, at how casually the business is actually conducted there. There is hardly any meaningful discussion on the agenda and the resolutions are adopted almost as proposed --- more or less in the same way as the bills are being passed in Lok Sabha these days without any discussions (the passage of bill for creation of Telngana state was the high point of this trend). Often we shy away from honest discussions and airing a divergent view on an issue for the fear of offending the sensibilities of our colleague(s) who had moved the proposal. The obvious problem is the inability to differentiate a professional matter from a personal one. This is a very alarming trend and without proper discussions the indifferent Senate risks the grave danger giving a shortchange to the objective assessment of an issue. Why is this trend worrisome? Sooner or later, if we don't put our house in order, our incapability (or, unwillingness) to do so will become apparent and then the day will not be far when an external regulator will be imposed as we had shown a lack of capacity (or, will) to regulate ourselves.

Since the recent ongoing tussle between UGC and IIT is related to the starting of various academic programmes in IIT, I wish to highlight the issue of proliferation of M.Tech. programmes in recent times. Several new M.Tech. programmes have been started in last couple of years which take in engineering graduates (or science post-graduates) from almost any discipline in the name of an inter-disciplinary programme. Subsequently, the courses are taught by faculty members drawn from four or five (or, even more!) different disciplines --- again in the name of inter-disciplinary programme. Sometimes a single course in a semester is taught by four or five different people from different specializations --- again in the name of inter-disciplinary programme. In order to put the issue in proper perspective, we have graduates in Electronics Engineering registering for a course on Repair and Retrofitting of Structures! Needless to say that the student will be unable to make any head and tail of the proceedings in the classroom, and yet, the student miraculously passes the course and earns the requisite credits for core course. The quality and technical competence of these poor students after completing the inter-disciplinary programme is anybody's guess. Obviously, in such a scenario it is rather difficult to have a common thread weaving through the courses of study to develop a broad vision of the field of study to see and critically analyse the big picture. We all know how effective is the teaching in short-term refresher certificate courses conducted in Continuing Education Center where a reasonably good amount of information is disseminated by a number of persons often without any obvious link between different lectures. So effectively, we have reduced our post-graduate M.Tech. education to the level of extended short-term certificate programmes! I wonder what the Senators were doing when they approved such programmes in the first place. Obviously, nobody thought it through the entire process and the decisions were taken just on the basis of some absurd way to justify an absurd diktat from the MHRD mandarins about the faculty-student ratio! Some M.Tech. programmes exist only to keep the faculty-student ratio within the prescribed norms. This is yet another number game and much has been debated about the pitfalls of number games. The administrators love to have an easily quantifiable number (index) to assess the quality. Little do they realize that such an index has to be an unbiased one if it is to be used as a decision variable. And then we run into the biggest paradoxes of all times -- it is impossible to measure anything! One can't measure anything without observing it first with the help of a suitable probe. The moment a probe is deployed, the system is not the same as the one we were interested in measuring! A performance indicator ceases to be a valid measure of performance as soon as it is defined because everyone begins to target it and in the process the measure becomes a biased one and hence unsuitable for use as a performance indicator!

It is high time that we took a rational view of the utility of so many M.Tech. programmes in the institute and not dilute the premium attached to the training received at an IIT.