Hold your peace forever?

24 10 2015

Some thoughts on the recent student suicides at IIT Madras, and the debate on mental health that followed.


IIT Madras had witnessed two suicides during the last couple of months. Apparently, these unfortunate incidents have no common denominators except the decision to end one’s own life. The shocks from the incidents did incite some serious discussions on mental health within the campus and among the larger stake holders, especially the alumni. As often as they turn out to be, this time too the exchanges in social media and newspaper were filled with bitterness.  I hate to say this on the eve of every major incident from the campus, but the reactions from both sides to me, appear too far fetched, although definitely not in equal terms. I fully concur with the requirement of sensitisation and debate on this matter. As pointed out in the article in ‘The Hindu’ certain gargantuan moralist fossils that have long stayed and become a rigid part of the system should be placed in the museums, from where they could be marvelled by glorious past enthusiasts at a safe distance. But having agreed on these, I do find some of the generalisations in the absence of adequate data problematic. On the other hand, I find  Khap panchayats in favour of preserving the institute honour, who have time and again used this policing tactic to extinguish the scope of the debates  or attempted to put the blame squarely on people who dared to speak out, much more deplorable and offensive.

Do we have a problem?

I have read that during the period of Raj, the designated purpose of an English grammar school was to remove every bit of tenderness from young boys, so as to  prepare them to become foot soldiers for the imperial enterprise. Every other aspect of the imperial education was tied to this aim. Unsurprisingly, even sports. As the eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha had pointed out in his LSE lecture:

Cricket, wrote Christopher Douglas, the biographer of the controversial English cricketer Douglas Jardine, is a game that teaches its pupils to be “honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised”. In the introductory words of Professor Michael Cox- it’s a game that turned “lads into chaps, chaps into men, and men into gentlemen”. These are sensibilities supremely English, and cricket, surely, the supreme English sport.

 The colonial enterprise has long withdrawn from India, but again unsurprisingly, our education system still embeds the ghost from that era. In my opinion the stout refusal to acknowledge the problem of mental health in professional education, and create workable, self evolving systems in place comes from the very idea of “ideal engineer” or “professional” who has no place for “weaknesses”. The question is not whether students of professional courses should be prepared to handle stress – both academic and personal, which all reasonable people would agree that they should be, but the kind of coping mechanisms to be promoted and systems to be put in place.  Unfortunately, the professional institutes in our country, even the elite clubs like IIT’s, have not moved far from the 70’s thinking in the western world. In short, we are at least 40 years behind the world universities in dealing with mental health issues. 

Much worse is the false sense of pride inculcated in the alumni of this exclusive club, who more often than not, are completely privilege blind so much so as to attribute their superhuman qualities to their success, as against a realistic assessment. The problem with the IIT system, in my opinion, is that very often otherwise competent people, who are probably less strong mentally or have different requirements, get crushed under the weight of the system. And since we do not have to talk about them most of the time, all is well and hallelujah! This survivorship bias, unfortunately, has become the hallmark of the dominant discourse, and this is very much a part of the problem.

The Academic part

In my opinion, the root of the problem is not the competitive nature of the programme. Of course, I do believe that relative grading is not a very good idea under most circumstances. Even software companies have started to move away from relative assessment in appraisals. Academic stress for some part is inevitable in any system, although the option for self-paced programmes and giving more electives from the third year onwards can handle some aspects of this. The extraordinary attendance requirement, though not religiously followed by every faculty, in my opinion is a total nonsense. This only helps to protect incompetent faculty members, and never students. This is also a burden shifting, wherein the important duty of an undergraduate teacher to make the subject interesting and engage the students is transferred to the students, who in the process are penalised for having bad teachers.

It is unrealistic to expect every student to perform well in any given course or project. The principle should be to positively reward the ones who do well and put effort.  The disinterested should be allowed to scrape through with an average grade, given that a certain required minimum level of conceptual understanding and/or effort is demonstrated. Very often, this required minimum is not made clear at the outset, and this lack of proper information results in frustration and unnecessary stress. The delays and extensions in the final year project have very often been the reasons for suicides during the past. IIT Madras has taken note of the issue and now has a provision to substitute B.Tech project with courses, which is a good start. In any case, I have felt that there is a certain lack of transparency in some project evaluations. This is not to make any insinuations of personal vendetta or arbitrariness as such from my part, although there have been hearsays of such nature, but only to suggest that it is certainly possible to tell students at the outset as to what is required.

The Human part

Living inside a huge campus, especially during the most vibrant as well as impressionable years of one’s life brings in the question of dealing with human relations. It is an inescapable fact that campus dwellers exist in a web of relationships from platonic friendships to romantic love of hetero or/and homo varieties. This is exactly where the system in place is so fragile and conservative. Even when there are many aware and compassionate faculty members and supportive peers, the culture of frowning and refusal to acknowledge continues. The prevailing  conservatism is  often suffocating to someone who might not have any relationship issues at all, as I have felt many a times while listening to some younger friends. Of course, IITM is still three notches above the private colleges in South, by and large, in this regard. But the more relevant question is whether one would like a national institute to be compared with pathetic moral policing ones from the state, in the same breath. I have heard from friends that the counselling and guidance unit, for all the good work they do, lack a non-judgemental approach towards relationship issues. This simple fact, if true, alienates many a people who need real help.  The alleged use of students as some sort of information gatherers or even spies, can only make things worse. In my opinion, such moves are reprehensible and displays a kind of colonial hangover.

On top of the relationship questions, there is the issue of perceptions. This is the way-too-dangerous-zone which is almost unmanageable. Particularly vulnerable are the perceptions about caste and gender. The general perception about most Dalit students by the upper caste ones is pathetically prejudiced, not to mention completely wrong. The language in which it comes out is often very covert, but the under tones are easily distinguishable. I have had personal encounters with these prejudices as a teaching assistant in a basic engineering course. The same goes about gender relations. Young men generally believe that women have it easy, quite unreasonably,  and are so cocksure about their superiority. The question of LGBT is frowned up on, and some, both from students and faculty, are openly hostile.

Personally, I know the dynamics that goes on only too well. Having graduated from an NIT (or Regional Engineering College, as it were when we had joined) a decade ago, which too had a similar mix of population and a highly skewed sex ratio, I understand the popular perceptions in such a high testosterone campus. Trust me, they are far from reality by any yard stick of reasonability! It took me a few years to realise the mistake in perceptions about gender relations and even the elephant inside the room- caste. This is as much applicable to faculty as students. I believe that given the situation, sensitisation is the only way forward. But a systematic mechanism should be in place to make sure that this is done along with the academic orientation during the first weeks of the class. In fact, it is high time that we think about coming up with a systematic regime for sensitising on  gender, sexuality and caste prejudices.

Way forward..?

To be frank, we do not, as yet, know the extend of the problem. It is beyond me to speculate about any all weather solution too. But if anything, the discussions should begin. The naysayers and honour brigade might go on with their usual businesses of personal attacks and questioning intend, but it is also important to bring them to the table. It is absolutely unfortunate that some otherwise well meaning people have interpreted the debate, to put it mildly, as a mere perception difference between Humanities students and Engineering students. Not only is this kind of tagging ludicrous, but it does show a certain inability to engage with ideas and confuse them for people. As far as I have seen, this is a peculiar IIT Madras problem, where many engineering or science students (even faculty) have an unwarranted sense of intellectual supremacy. In fact, most these supremacists do not have any clue about the questions they address any more than a commonsensical grasp, which too is often wrong.

In any case, if you ask me, the first step in the right direction is to come with a speak out campaign. As a student and while inside the institution, nobody, for no reason, should be made to hold his/her peace forever. The institutions which are supposed to handle such issues should be asked to adhere to a completely non-judgemental approach. And we certainly do not need more moral policing, even if disguised in the security and safety jargon. Every student should realise that there is no worth in suffering in silence.





IITs and higher education- It is not all about money, honey!

7 06 2013

The mood at IIT Madras is by and large pensive. Some of the students are agitated and everybody is concerned about their future. The hostel seat rent, gymkhana fee and the medical insurance fee have all gone up. The effective fee hike (tuition + living expenses)for PG students and research scholars comes to 40% and the new B.Tech’s will have to pay Rs. 90K as annual tuition fee in place of Rs. 50K. The increase is applicable to all courses in more or less the same proportions. But there are more reasons for apprehension than a one time fee hike. The officials have categorically told that the hostel seat rent will be further increased in the coming semesters. The Kakodkar committee report titled ‘Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance’, has proposed to raise the UG fee to the level of Rs. 2.5 lakhs per annum, while there is a lot of ambiguity with respect to the post-graduate fee and support. Further more, the case of economically backward students, which by the way are people who cannot afford to raise approx. 12 lakhs over the four years for an education (that would be more than 95% of Indians), is addressed with wishful thinking, assurances and in my opinion, a dangerous idea of involving banks, loans and debt.

Image

Scenes from the protest march conducted by IITM students against fee-hike and privatization of higher education.

A panel discussion on the broader issue of privatization of higher education was held on 6th June, 2013 with Dr. Rahul Sidharthan from IMSc, Chennai, Dr. Venkitesh Artreya, former HoD Economics, Bharatidasan university (also an IIT alumnus from the 64′-69′ batch) and Mr. Jimraj Milton, lawyer and social activist. I was fortunate enough to be the moderator, whose role was limited to explaining the context of the discussion, introducing the speakers and laying down the guidelines for the discussion. Rahul Sidharthan has given a more or less fair summary of the discussion along with his views in his blog. I thank him for initiating such a discussion in the cyber space. Barring a few emotional responses, rhetoric and out of context statements (which were to be expected given that students were very much concerned), it was an open exchange of views. In deed, we need more of such exchanges touching up on various aspects of education (both basic and higher), health, science and technology policy etc. It is especially relevant given that we live at a time when Parliamentary discussions are considered nuisance by the executive and all important policy discussions are imposed without a proper debate. It is a hope against hope to be able to challenge this manufactured consensus. But one has to try.

The level of sympathy for IIT students in issues like fee-hikes among the public is quite low. It is understandable given the picture painted about these holy cows, and even justifiable to the extend that many, if not all, get a free ride for their life because of the IIT tag and many among them apparently do not contribute to the society that gave them these riches. This is not a new question either. The term brain drain has been there in vocabulary since a long time. Given the nature of people at large, moving to greener pastures are to be expected in any given system for idealists will always be a small percentage. But one should not confuse between issues here; making IITs self-financed and more dependent on the forces of capital is neither the solution to the problem of so-called brain drain nor going to bring excellence. It is this aspect that I would like to highlight through this post, which hopefully will be one of the many posts to be published about this issue.

As often said, houses are more than bricks and mortar, institutions are more than the money invested. If it were, as Dr. Rahul Sidharthan himself pointed out in his blog, private universities must have out smarted any centrally funded Indian universities all of which are pygmies by any international yard stick, by now. The reputation of institutions are built by its faculty, alumni and intellectual contributions. If IITs retain a reputation, however meagre or far from desirable, it is because they are by and large the only technological institutes in the country which have made headway in delivering quality education. If the aim of the Kakodkar committee report was to increase quality, increased fee from students does not make any sense since it will definitely discourage most people from the lower middle class and everyone from the working class. The mushrooming of expensive IIT coaching institutes is definitely an issue that need to be tackled and it is long due by now. This is a major issue both from the point of equity – i.e. only those who are able to afford an expensive coaching is likely to get into IIT – as well as quality – coached students have a better chance to make into IITs, over several naturally intelligent people with good aptitude. But how do we do it- by asking people to pay more?

Let us just look at the scenario logically. After such drastic fee-hikes, the people with more than, say, Rs. 10 lakh per annum will still send their wards to those expensive coaching centers. Their business might be affected, but only marginally. The dreamy middle classers will work harder and mostly perish. The ones who go for coaching will face a double jeopardy. Unless the pattern of exams changes drastically so that coaching will hardly help, the people who end up in IITs would  have spend as much money on coaching, but the parental income range of the incoming students will have a sharp upward shift. So we will have an exclusive club of elite Indians with very few lower middle class and virtually no one from the working class. It is argued that IIT UG’s come mostly from elite and upper middle class families and now, they will be much more exclusive.

Undergraduate education at IIT has a huge market for sure. But I doubt whether the committee or the people who support such astronomical fee-structures in a country where the per-capita income is Rs. 53K (which even by purchasing power parity calculation is less than 1/13 th of USA) have thought about the access to education question. Let us take a comparison between the proposed IIT fee structure and in-state fees charged by much superior state universities in US – University of California, Berkeley & Purdue university.

IITs

UCB

Purdue

Tuition fee

$13,213*

$12,946

$11,792

State PCI

$3608

$22,711

$28,783

* The value arrived at a conversion rate of Rs. 56 per dollar and considering the fact that PCI of $1219 translates to $3608 in purchasing power parity terms.

Note that we have not taken into account the superior quality of education that UCB and Purdue provides. If I just move to the European continent, the picture itself changes drastically. We have countries like Germany where higher education is virtually free. One might argue that many US universities give cross subsidy by charging more up on out-of-state and international students. Even then, the fee as fraction of income level is much lower than the IIT scenario. Thus, even by the capitalist economy standards this is an abnormally excessive fee. Much more than that, the writing on the wall is clear- the elite institution should be exclusively for the elite Indians!

Does increasing fee and being “self-sufficient” in operational expenditures help improve quality? Remember, inside the institution we still have the same people doing same things. Attitudes and abilities does not change with source of funding and there is no incentive for the “fee paying” students to demand more since they have already reached what is believed to be the pinnacle of excellence in Indian system. If the argument is that foreign universities will come up with campuses in India and that will create competition, it should be worth while to see how well the satellite campuses of international universities have performed. Most of them thrive only based on the reputation of their main campus- i.e. the value of the brand name and nothing else. There is no incentive to do advanced university research in India primarily because of the lack of a strong industrial R&D, which is not going to emerge any time soon. In every country, fundamental research is mostly funded by the government and unless that funding goes up, we are nowhere in picture.

Most importantly, this is not a mere question of money, it is a question of principle. How do we value education? Is it a private good or a public good? While we can and should find ways to avoid free riders, increasing the fee is not the way forward. It is unfortunate that people suggest ‘soft loans’ or ‘super loans’ as solutions. As Prof. Milind Brahme opined during the panel discussion , you are coercing people into a system that most people morally detest. This is not just entrapping future generations of students, but clipping their imagination and creativity for ever. More over, going by the Indian experience, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If government is ready to divorce IITs, the situation in none of the state or centrally funded universities is going to be different in times to come.

To be continued …..