Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chennai's Education system - Why has it gone down the drain?

Had ranted about how the education system in Chennai had become very poor over the past decade and a half. Had made a promise to myself to outline why this has indeed become the case. So, here goes.

The usual suspects are all there - Lesser pressure from parents, more distractions, mobile phone, gadget-fetish, etc etc. But two things stand out.

First is the fact that the City's engineering colleges have completely mastered the art of ensuring 90% of their students get placed in the IT Companies. And the lines have blurred between "good" job and "bad" job. Most jobs pay in the same range. If we can treat the odd offer from Amazon or Google as an outlier, everyone is pretty much in the same boat. Great breakthrough for engineering colleges, good for the real estate market; but extremely bad for the incentive system for parents and students. There appears to be no credible answer to the question - Why should I b*st my ass preparing for JEE?

The best response I can think for this is a wonderful quote from Mr Warren Buffett - You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.

Cometh the tough times, we will realize that most of our engineering graduates know pish tosh about anything. Now would be a good time to give a silent thanks to the Infies and Wipros of the world for bailing the city out at just the right time.

The second and more distressing factor driving this is the Tamilnadu stateboard education system. Most of our college students know very little because we have taught them only that much. Simply put, the stateboard education system teaches close to nothing to students.

Tamilnadu students are classic examples of the frog in the well syndrome. There are apparently 600 guys in the state who get 200 each in Maths, Physics and Chemistry in their standard XII exam. The amount of cocaine needed to believe that this is a good statistic runs in kilograms. But somehow, this is touted as a good showing every year. I really want some of what the government officials are having.

Importantly, this idea has been sold to the people so magnificently that there is a sense of pride in choosing our own path, a feeling that justice has been done, etc. "Entrance exams rig the game in favour of city people and rich people, this marks-only scheme is a more level playing field" - this is what most people in the city are made to believe.

Tamilnadu has been drunk on watered-down material, inflated grades, and great jobs for close to 15 years now. When the state will pay the price, I do not know. That there is a price to be paid, I am sure of.

Some early signs are there. Large number of small companies based out of Chennai go to Bangalore to recruit (some go to Madurai, Truchy as well. In order to get good attitude. Chennai cannot offer that either).

Last year, IIM Kozhikode, in a fantastic gesture told Tamilnadu students that they could take their stateboard marksheets and shove it somewhere. In an overall scoring system where class X and XII marks play a role in securing admissions. Marks obtained in Tamilnadu stateboard exams have been given 50% weightage. In other words, if you scored 90% in CBSE board exams, you would 18 out of 20 for that section. If you scored 100% in Tamilnadu stateboard exams you would get 10 out of 20 in that section. Awesome. This is the clearest indicator of what the rest of the country thinks of our beloved board. I dont think any state government officials would even know about this. If they did, we would have heard of court case against it. It has a late 80s soviet Union spiel about it. (We live in our cocoon, we are the best. Repeat after me)

The qualification one holds is a signal. In a recruitment market with asymmetric information, the degree you hold tells the potential recruiter whether you are good, bad or rotten. The reputation of the college and the difficulty level of the course you have done determine what you are signaling to your recruiter.

The signals sent could be very simple

1. A person with a high score is likely to be good (whatever way good is defined us. let us keep this simple).
2. A person with a low score is unlikely to be good

The signal Tamilnadu education board has created is awesome. After years of effort they have developed this one-way signal, probably unique in the world

If a student scores high marks in Tamilnadu board, this means nothing.
If a student scores low marks in Tamilnadu board, this means he must be phenomenally dumb or should be so lazy that he just does not care. Or both.

So, with the TN board signal, you can either conclude that you know nothing about the candidate or that he is an idiot.

Now, we are heading towards Samcheer kalvi. God save the state.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The class and caste system in the IITs

The IITs have their own class and caste system. The class system is one of grades, the point that has been well-illustrated by the book "Five-point someone". Everyone in campus is a something-pointer, and this classification gets established right at the end of semester II and chases one all the way to semester VIII (and beyond, sadly).

There are juntas who slide down from a 9-pointer to an 8-something, there are those who that crash and burn all the way to the dreaded 6-somethings. Less frequently, we would hear about the upwardly mobile as well; the rare "fighters" who travel in the opposite direction. This group undergoes the same acceptance problems as any aspiring class but gains recognition once 2 semesters go by.

In every branch there are 9-pointers to 6-pointers and beyond. In many ways, local social standing and preconceptions are built pretty much around this number. One of the main planks of Alpha-male-dom in campus is the number attached after (or before) your name. The Chetan Bagat novel actually captures this very well.

The caste system in IITs is one based on branch or department. Depending on the craze and frenzy of the times, the departments are placed in some order. Computer Science is usually on top, followed by electrical, mech, chem and then the rest(see how patronizing that was. Caste usually operates like that).

People earn(!) branch changes at the end of semester II if they are in the top x% of the overall batch or some such norm; but barring this naturalization, there is no way of changing your caste (branch). People can choose to move to "lower" branches without any CGPA cut-off at the end of semester II, although political correctness usually demands that this not be called a "branch slide".

Even the most broad-minded and politically correct juntas usually accept the caste/class norms and this is what keeps these norms from disappearing. For any class/caste system to really gain acceptance, the so-called "lower" class/caste should subconsciously accept the hierarchy. The group dynamics in IITs ensure that this happens smoothly.

So, how does one compare an elec 7-pointer with a 9-pointer from a "lower" branch? Thats a tricky one. Both will argue that they are superior to the other. But in many cases, if you are sufficiently lower in caste, the class ceases to count. To give an example, a mech 9-pointer can have a better standing than an elec 7-pointer, but there is a good chance that the meta 9-pointer cannot compete.

I had this memorable conversation with my classmate who was (is) an electrical engineer. And who (like yours truly) was designated low class by semester III (we were both 7 pointers). There was this 4th year student from our hostel who was in the top few in his branch and felt he had done enough academically to impart gyaan to students two years his junior. The only problem was that he was a topper in metallurgical engineering. And meta is a low-caste branch, if you know what I mean.

My friend patiently listened to said pompous git for about 3 minutes, waited for the guy to leave and then said "Meta-****** have started speaking to me about academics. ****** . ***^&%^*.. I would effing be an elec 5-pointer than be the branch record holder in that ***'s branch. Somebody should tell that ***** that he can shove his advice up his ********. If he can clear the electronics paper in my effing branch without getting his *** whipped, I will listen to the **** for more than effing 3 minutes. *****.

Caste overrides class here.

We have parallels of the caste/class demarcation in many different fields. Academic background/Job is one such. Essentially, one aspect that cannot be easily changed along with one that can be improved upon together combining to count for social standing is a caste/class system

Grade/branch in IITs
Academic background/ Job performance
Beauty quotient of wife/ wealth
Inherited wealth/ income generated

This is probably the reason why the caste system is more odious than the class one. Because you can still alter your class - through smarts, luck or perseverance. But if you are a meta dude, there is no way in hell you can give gyaan to Computer Science graduates and hope to be listened to. And that somehow grates more.

P.S: On a side note, that meta dude was a muppet. Pompous non-achiever if ever there was one. :)