Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Should New Programs at IIT Kanpur be Available to Existing Students

In the last few months, IIT Kanpur has made its academic programs more flexible. For example, it has discontinued admission to five year BTech MTech dual-degree programs. Now, the students take admission to the BTech program, and in the 3rd year decide whether they want to spend an extra year to get an MTech degree as well. Similarly, it has started dual-major programs, whereby the student in the 3rd year can decide to get a second BTech degree in one extra year. Yet another change is re-introduction of minor programs, whereby a student can do 3-4 courses in a specified area and the transcript will mention that s/he has completed a minor program in that area. The flexibility is same for science programs also. The student gets admitted to 4-year BS program, but will have an option to do BS-MS dual-degree, or BS-BS or BS-BTech dual major, or a minor in another discipline. IIT Kanpur has also introduced an Engineering Science degree for which there is no admission through JEE, but students can chose to get into this program as a branch change option.

All these changes are applicable to students who are getting admitted to IIT Kanpur in 2011.

In my opinion, the Institute should attempt to make all options (or as many as possible) available to existing students as well. What that means is that the existing BTech-MTech dual-degree students should have an option to change to BTech degree only (this should be easy to implement for Y10, Y09, and Y08 batches, if not Y07 batch). It should be possible for an existing student to spend extra time and get another undergraduate degree. Again, this should be easy to implement for Y10 and Y09 batches, while Y08 batches may have to spend not just 2 semesters extra, but 3 semesters extra. It should be possible for existing students to opt for a minor. Again, trivial to implement for Y10 batch, and certainly something can be worked out for most Y09 batch students.

Why should such a flexibility be extended to existing students is the question many faculty members have asked me.

My argument is simple. Whenever we decide on a change, it is because we think that in today's context, the new rule/system is better than the old rule/system. Otherwise, we would not have decided on that change. If the new system is better, then the benefit of that "better" system should be available to as many people as possible.

So any change that we approve for Y11 batch, we should also look into the possibility of making it available to existing students. Of course, we may come to the conclusion that there is no easy way to incorporate the new system into the old, and therefore, we can't extend the benefit to the old students. But, in general, the benefit of any good idea should be extended to as many stake holders as possible.

Now, of course, those stake holders may have a different point of view, and they may consider the old system to be beneficial to them in some way. Therefore, most good universities, when they decide on something new, give an option to the existing students that they can follow either the old system or the new system (except, as I said above, in cases where adapting new system for old students is very difficult).

Faculty members argue that if we extend any benefit to existing students, then we will be unfair to those students who did not take admission to IIT Kanpur, because they were told about the existing rules then. Hmmm. So we want to be more fair to those who did not take admission to IIT Kanpur, and less fair to those who did take admission to IIT Kanpur.

By this logic, we cannot provide any significant benefit to existing students that we did not announce at the admission time. We cannot, for example, change branch change rules for existing students. An extreme example of this logic would be the following: We should not allow existing students to use the latest sporting facilities, since they were not told about it at the time of admission. If we had told about the upcoming facilities then, perhaps others would have been attracted to IITK, and the current students would not have been able to get admission. So by allowing such an access, we are being unfair to all those who did not take admission to IITK then.



  1. There is also another "unfair" possibility. Student A prefers B.Tech. to DD and student B with lower JEE rank prefers branch x to branch y. If A's choices were BTech x, BTech y, DD x and DD y while B's choices were BTech x, DD x, BTech y and DD y and if A got BTech y and B got DD x, the rule change would shift B to BTech x, a branch that was denied to higher ranking A. It is quite likely that cases like this exist in CS and EE. Isn't this unfair to A? In fact, I can see a very strong court case for A.

  2. Sriram, I am not sure if you are serious or is this comment in jest. When you talk about a court case, what would be the prayer of "A". I guess, "A" can only say that s/he should be allowed a branch change to "x". The court will ask, is Senate authorized to offer a branch change from dual-degree to BTech as per IIT Act and Statutes. The answer will be, Yes. Now, "A" will say, but if I had known of this flexibility, I would have given my options differently. This is not a good enough reason for the court. The court will ask whether this information was known at that time and deliberately hidden with malafide intention, or is this change being done only for a small group, again with intent to help some specific set of persons. That is impossible to prove. Hence, "A" has no court case.

    So, the issue is not a court case, but basic fairness. And, there, if we accept the argument that no change can happen after admission, it is not clear where to draw a line. The extreme example I gave about use of new sporting facilities becomes relevant in such a case.

    Consider another hypothetical situation. Suppose, some alumni decide that they want to support research and hence dual-degree program. They set up a scholarship which is outrageously high, say Rs. 10 lakhs a year. Can "A" demand that the Institute either starts that scholarship with only the next batch, or s/he should be given branch change.

    Suppose, department "x" is suddenly able to recruit three noble laureates (or equivalents in their discipline). Can "A" demand that these new faculty members be not allowed to teach existing students, or he be allowed to change branch to "x".

    In my opinion, as long as there is no malafide intentions in doing things better at department "x", students of department "y" cannot claim unfairness on the basis that this might have affected their choice one or two years ago. As an academic institute, we will keep improving our offerings, and the improvement will be more in some offerings than the other, and we cannot always predict what improvements may happen in various offerings.

    And to keep "A" happy, if we have to deny the benefit of those improvements to "B", that would be improper and unfair.

  3. As A's lawyer, I would point out that A wanted BTech x, was not given but given BTech y instead while a lower ranking B was initially given DD x but allowed to convert to BTech x without any other consideration (of CGPA at IIT etc). By virtue of higher JEE rank, therefore, A should be entitled to BTech x else A is not treated equal to B. I am sure you think of this while allowing branch change - you must have some fair criterion to decide who is allowed change of branch and who is not. It is not a question of improving facilities - it is of A asking and being denied something while a "less deserving" B is given the same thing without any other consideration. If CGPA at IIT or something else is used as a criterion while allowing this change, then it is not an issue. But if no crieteria are used and one group allowed a change while another is not, there would be a problem with equality. I am not a lawyer, so my arguments may not hold, but, ...

  4. Sriram, One, if IITK is not extending the benefit of new rules to existing students, it is not because of possible court cases. It is because it hasn't been thought. After all, you will agree that offering minor or dual-major to existing students will not cause any legal problem. I have myself suggested that if some benefit is difficult to extend after a careful consideration, it is ok. Two, on a related note, if IITK wants to liberalize its branch change and a legal issue is raised by some faculty member, then IITK can take a legal opinion. I, too, am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the student "A" will not be able to win the case based on the arguments that you are forwarding. By the way, our rules already say that in case of weak students, we can shift them to BTech without worrying about the sanctioned strength of BTech program. And, many IITs already have a rule that an equal number of BTech and dual-degree students can be given a program exchange. That is, if 5 BTechs are interested in dual-degree, then 5 dual-degree students can be allowed in BTech. If we do such a change at IITK also (so not allow 100% of the students, but effectively allow a fairly large number of students), then the possibility of court case goes down further.