Tuesday, 22 December 2015

higher ed woes

Higher ed. woes in other countries.
Here, this attitude is common amongst students who enroll in BCom classes. Most of them are sons (this is more common in boys) of businessmen and some are very rich. Their pocket money often exceeds the salary their teachers get. So they feel "what can I learn from a loser like  you?" They join college in order to become a "graduate" thus enhancing their value at the marriage mart. However, I must add, some of them, just some, are already handling their family businesses and are often too busy to attend classes. Some work evenings at their businesses and look upon college as a break from the hard work during their evenings. But these are usually in the minority. Most of those who study for a BCom degree, just have a good time and expect to be handed a degree at the end of three years, no matter what they do, since they have paid for it. 

Higher Ed Rant AGAIN !

This post was written a few years ago but I did not post it since I am beginning to feel like one of those old fogies who keep saying the same thing every time you meet them. However, even at the risk of sounding boring, I shall keep saying it till someone realises undergrads are not all in IIXs and that the science in university affiliated colleges is purposeless.

A friend has sent me a questionaire regarding an article on higher education in science.
There are many discussions on higher education in sciences in India.

In none of these is a serious discussion of what a student does with a science degree other than do an MSc and PhD. Is producing more Chemistry profs the purpose of the life of a Chemistry Professor?  Are we in the cloning business?

After the study of chemistry / physics / whatever,  a few of the students must be ready (and encouraged)  to take on an MSc and PhD.* 
But what of the others? What should they do with their BSc in Chemistry or Physics or Microbiology?
 If we believe that a person must get a PhD in Chemistry  in order to teach a few hundred people Chemistry so that they in turn teach a few hundreds each, I shudder at the thought.
So why is there never a mention of how a post school science degree enables a person to get a good job in a science-related field? In fact does it enable? In what way is the BSc curriculum doing this? Or is it?  Do they know what jobs are available to them? Are they trained for any such job? 
They are trained to pass the university examination.
The university has no real incentive to change the syllabus or exam pattern, except to show the NAAC that it has. 
The university has a Board of Studies which calls for a meeting of a representative section of the college teachers once in 3 or 5 years. At the meeting, some thinking BoS chairman proposes an innovative syllabus. The teachers specially from the mofussil areas are outraged. They insist their students cannot learn these new things....perhaps they cannot teach these topics..... and veto the additions. So syllabus revision is simply a rearranging of syllabus.... put topic x in paper III instead of paper II and so on. The minutes of the meeting are filed and the NAAC inspection shows there has been a syllabus revision once in 3 years. The file looks good, NAAC gives an A grade, everyone is happy. 
Except the recruiters. Industry HRDs are finding it very difficult to employ these science students since even those with  MSc or PhD are not competent. 
My case is for a two track BSc .. one for those who are interested in science but not passionate enough for the long haul of academic research and another for those few who show desire and aptitude for research. Those who teach the general track do not need a PhD-- they just need to be competent in teaching, while the other set of teachers must be involved seriously in research...not just get a distance mode PhD for Rs 100,000.  
This prerequisite of a PhD for teaching even in an undergrad college is making an industry out of churning PhDs "as one researcher who has studied doctoral-education trends puts it, is that you can “grow PhDs like mushrooms”."  

The govt target is 30,000 PhDs by 2020.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

An example

For anyone who does not believe me when I say undergrads need basic education not research, I recount an experience.
I frequently go as an examiner for Chem practical examinations to different colleges as do most of my colleagues. A few years back, the university decided that the 3rd year undergrad student must do a "project" for his paper IV chemistry practical exam. The "project" involved looking up the internet and downloading IR, UV, NMR and mass spec of 6 simple compounds, assigning the bands/peaks/signals and submitting. In the college I went to as an examiner, the students had all photocopied a set of spectra, probably provided by the teaching staff and submitted them. Everyone had the same set. What is worse, the fifth page was so blurry that it was blank with a few spots of black. Nothing was visible. Only 2 people had even noticed that the photocopier was not copying properly and had tried to improve the quality of the copy. THAT is the level at which students are.  They are not capable of even finding published spectral data for a common compound like acetone or nitrobenzene, and what is more do not even care enough to check if the copier is copying the project report properly. I could not fail the whole class though I was tempted to.
So when people argue that undergrads must be exposed to cutting edge research, I feel so frustrated at their ignorance of reality. I will be very happy if a student graduates BSc  with the ability to read and understand a class XII text book.

Higher education in Indian state universities and their affiliated colleges.

The ORF has come up with a report on the status of science education in Indian colleges.
For once, someone has seen the things that stare at one in the face.
Usually the narrative on science education has the students at IISER and IISc and IITs as reference and it is furthered by people to whom "student" means person studying in one of these. So everyone says undergrads must be exposed to research. To me this is the academic equivalent of Marie Antoinette's alleged "let them eat cakes" statement.
There are about 3 million  undergrads in science streams of which the IISERs, IITs, IISc, central universities, and a very few good colleges have, let us say, 100000 students as a rough estimate. The rest go to state university affiliated colleges or the private deemed universities. So let us talk not about the  less than 1 or 2% and talk instead of the 99% of undergrads in BSc classes across India.
These 99% need to learn the basic concepts of the subjects they study before one can even think of introducing them to research.
So I appeal to those who have some control over undergrad education in India, please design curricula and pedagogy keeping this in mind. Do not force college teachers to undertake spurious research projects published in spurious journals which is just chemicals down the drain (literally, since no one does safe disposal).        

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The last time I attended a course in order to learn was in 1977. I went for a short introductory course recently. It was a social science course and the pedagogy was excellent. The co-learners were a mixed lot from a 21 year old undergrad to me, a 60 year old. there were professionals with varying experience, and laypeople like me who had never studied social science. Perhaps the experienced people were disappointed in the course, but I found it really interesting with not a dull moment.

Monday, 23 November 2015

New environmental law

The new amendments to the environmental law will be done with the help of E&Y and AMSS one a consulting firm doing environment impact assessment for industries and another a law firm that worked for Adani and Vedanta.
Put the cat in charge of the milk

Friday, 6 November 2015


Yesterday, I started working for my annual science exhibition at the school I go to.
One boy, a regular enthusiast, came to me and said he wanted to make a drone.
I responded by saying, while it is an excellent idea, maybe he could make a presentation about drones, but making one would be difficult.
I am now bothered by doubts that maybe I should have said why not. But actually I do know we cannot make a drone with old plastic bottles and tin cans- which is what we do usually. Our budget cannot be used to buy a kit, and I  am opposed to buying kits on principle- for this exhibition- where innovation with existing stuff is what I want to promote.
However, should one disappoint a kid or should one give false hope and then let down? This dilemma has bothered me even with my kids. When they were small, I would not give false promises or out of place "sabaashi". In fact, even for ordinary stuff, I would give promises with a rider "if possible". But in my defense, I have never broken a promise if I make it and in my mind the "if possible" meant I have to do it. My husband on the other hand would promise the moon and it did not bother him if he failed to keep  it. His philosophy is - don't disappoint the child when he comes to you.
I am never sure which approach is good for kids.   

Friday, 30 October 2015

From when I was old enough to think about this, I believed the essence of being a Hindu was about looking inward....आध्यात्मिक. You could be an atheist (agnostic would be better word perhaps) and be Hindu as in the Samkhya, you could question beliefs and come to conclusions- like the Naasadiya suktam. 
It was not supposed to be a congregational religion, nor a dogmatic one. You were supposed to look for Brahmam in all beings. Any path to god  was a good path. All you had to remember was your actions followed you and the reaction to your actions were inevitable.
There must be many learned people who believe this version of Hinduism -- where are they?
Though my knowledge is very, very limited, I am deeply impressed by what little I do understand.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

indus script

A lot of archeology is interpretation of evidence by the archeologist. Many of the interpretations are extrapolations. I don't know enough to say so definitively, but very often, the conclusions do not seem warranted. I try to reserve judgement since I am biased. In physics/chemistry, one takes multiple readings and checks for reproducibilty whenever possible. Obviously this is not possible in archeology and sometimes in biology and even in chemistry if the sample is tiny, as in forensics. So they have to make conclusions based on limited evidence. Since I don't understand the process, I don't know what is far fetched and what is not. To my literal mind, everything is far-fetched, but obviously I am wrong.......many archeological discoveries are acceptable.
If some object, say foodgrain is found at 100 ft in the dig, along with some other objects, by carbon dating of the carbonaceous matter, we figure out the date of that level. But consider this..... the archeologist's funding is cut, he leaves the dig and goes away. People come and go, throw their trash and go away. Soon the site is covered up either by workers or naturally. After 1000 years, another archeologist  digs it up again and concludes what? Also, now I have in my living room artefacts that I bought at great expense since they are antique. My house crumbles, and after 500 years, what do they conclude if they dig my house up?
Once human habitation has started, how do we believe levels are not mixed up by digging for building, mining or for no reason at all?
I find this more puzzling when it comes to language. The stretch of deciding which sounds in one language are similar to what in another, the use of rebus.........the extrapolations seem too large.
But nevertheless, the work done to decipher the Indus scripts is fascinating- the amount of work and the detail is amazing. I wish I could understand it better.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

NAAC criterion number 3


I think NAAC criterion #3 is the source of this evil.
Before this, undergrad colleges had good teachers who did not have to pretend to be great researchers.
Teach the concepts of your subject well so that those of your students who wish to study further, have a good grounding and those who do not, have a good understanding of what the subject is about. 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Private higher education institutions in the US-- the for-profit colleges

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

One question - what footwear do the people in power wear? Do you think they all wear plastic chappals? Do they use synthetic leather belts and wallets?
When I was young, someone told me that while cheap leather was made from dead animals, fine leather was made by skinning them alive. It horrified me as it would many people. I decided to stop wearing leather, but in the pre-synthetic leather era it was difficult. I consoled myself that the cheap leather shoes I wore to school were from dead animals. Now with choice of good quality synthetic leather, I have no problems.


When you show a small baby an object and then hide it behind you, the baby forgets its existence. However, within a few months, its cognitive abilities increase enough for it to understand permanence of objects and it will go behind you in search of the object.
In adulthood, we lose this simple cognitive ability.
We generate waste and give it away to the municipal worker and we feel it's gone. Or we burn it in our backyards and think it is gone. We flush our toilets and think it is gone.
Let's go back to our babyhood and realise it is NOT gone. It is only transported elsewhere.
Recently someone told me with a great sense of superiority that he drives an electric car. I asked "is it solar powered?" he said "no". I kept quiet not wishing to deflate his obvious pride.
Now Hyderabad is powered mainly by Ramagundam, Simhadri etc themal power stations, and a few hydel power plants, which are of course seasonal. Thermal stations burning coal, the low efficiency of power production in India, the transmission losses in our SEBs all put together, the emission of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen oxides etc per Km for the electric car may well be higher than that of a well-maintained petrol car.
People do not think of this. Even if you use solar power, battery disposal after its life is over,  is an environment nightmare.
The concept of life cycle costing or a holistic view seems to be entirely missing from even the well educated citizens.

waste management

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

ranking and grading

The new NIRF has 5 parameters for ranking institutions. The NAAC already had a similar framework of 7 criteria and I suppose the NBA had the same.  Is it now going to replace NAAC or do colleges have to go through inspections for NAAC, as well as for NIRF? One for ranking and one for grading?
As it is, some colleges have courses like BSc, BCom, BA, MSc MA and MBA. They have to be inspected and accredited by NAAC for BSc, BA, MSc, MA and by NBA for the MBA. Apart from this, the affiliating University inspects the college regularly to regularize the new courses, to conduct academic audit and so on. So practically, the college will be inspected a large number of times every year since the accrediting agencies grade a college for 3 years or at best 5 years.
One criterion put forth by NAAC is the last one entitled "Governance", which is missing in the NIRF. This is rather important for private institutions which are run by a single person. Of course on paper there may be boards and bodies, but only one man has any say and runs it like he would any other business-- maximize profit at any cost. One way to control these is to insist on an effective governing body with eminent academicians.  Of course, they may find ways to circumvent that too; money can do wonders.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

My daughter, an economist says "Everyone thinks they understand economics." Be that as it may, my two bits is that for certain kinds of people, lowering the cost of borrowing is a green signal to borrow for unneccessary stuff..... borrow money and buy this bigger car, borrow and buy this bigger TV...there is no end.  This behaviour may be good for the country's economy, but leads to tragedy for many people.....burdened by debt they cannot repay and no savings for their old age... of course talking of saving for old age, with an interest rate of 6 or 7% or even lower, our savings are not going to fetch much.
Nobody teaches you to spend judiciously. The habit probably comes from upbringing ....conservative parents may produce conservative offspring or the offspring may be tired of the economies they were forced to practice and splurge.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015


We should have more such organisations

Ever since the hype started about building toilets in every household in India, I have been wondering about where the sewage will be taken. Nowhere have I seen any mention of treatment plants in every village - forget village - every town. Does it mean there is no plan or that I am ignorant?
If  I am ignorant, of course I apologise, but if there is no plan, then what are they thinking about?
Individual defecation at random points in fields will be taken care of by soil microbes, but if they let out a village's sewage into their neighbouring water body, or just out, God help us!
I am by no means advocating open defecation, just that drainage systems and STPs must be in place BEFORE building toilets, or each toilet must have individual mechanism for treatment.
I keep thinking that of course people in the govt must have thought of this - it is so obvious- and there must be some mechanism in place, but I have never heard any mention of building STP in every village, only of building toilets.
A recent article in The Wire proves my fears are justified. I am truly apalled. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

windows 10

Is it only me or has someone else noticed? ..................... I upgraded to Windows 10 and now, Chrome and Mozilla, open only after about 40 sec to a minute, sometimes longer and sometimes not at all, but the new Microsoft edge (which came automatically with Windows 10) opens as soon as you click it.

Thursday, 24 September 2015


An Olympic-hopeful sportsperson could not get timely sanction to go for training, because some babu slept over it; a state water board runs a series of water testing labs manned by "chemists" who do not understand the tests that they need to perform regularly; the municipality dumps soil into an already stressed lake for the Ganesh immersion because some babu does not understand (that's the charitable view, it could also be that he understands very well and is filling up for a builder lobby); the author of one of the blogs I follow  says the state ground water officials do not take notice of research done on aquifers; forest officials organise vanamahotsav and plant single species of foreign trees to "rejuvenate" forests...........
Perhaps if we had no government, we would be better off. Today's paper says by 2030, 90% of the news may be written by bots, leaving only the extraordinary news for journalists to deal with. Why not have 90% of government run by bots?

Monday, 14 September 2015

Chemistry in the early 80's

A post in one of the blogs set me thinking............While big changes take place, one does not really realise it. It is only many years later, one looks back and sees the big picture.
When I was working for my PhD, we used second gen IR spectrophotometers, but towards the end, there were some labs where you could get an FTIR done. It was remarkably better resolved, but still, I did not really appreciate the big leap in technology--just happy to be able to identify bands unambiguously. I left soon after that.
Similarly, I used to punch cards on noisy punching machines and submit a deck for running on the computer. We would get a printout next day. As I was finishing my thesis, the whole system got changed and we were allotted terminals to directly interface with the mainframe computer. We thought it was cool, but again, I left before I had a chance to really get to work on this.
Since I left the field of scientific work totally, I did not really understand the significant changes that took place in the early 80's in India.
It is now in retrospect, I see that those were significant times for chemists, when instrumentation improved in large spurts.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


When I was about 4 or 5 years old, I thought this story was very clever.
The story goes like this... a man went into a restaurant and ordered some gulab jamun.
When the waiter brought it, he said "Take it back! I will have laddoos instead".
The waiter brought laddoos. The man ate and got up to go.
The manager said "What about the money?"
Man said "What money?"
"Money for the laddos".
"But I gave you gulab jamoon instead".

When the future generations ask "Why have you old people ruined our forests, air, land and water?"
We will say that "We gave you "development" instead".

Monday, 31 August 2015

Getting it right

Last month there was this news item that GVK Biosciences has been accused of faking some clinical trials. It is alleged that the exit ECG reports of some people undergoing the trials were not genuine.
Hyderabad is a Pharma hub with many companies undertaking contract research in clinical trials, drug development etc.
The people working in these would be those who have a BSc, MSc or BPharm, MPharm.
The problem is that all these degrees are awarded based on exams which give the highest marks to the one with exactly the "right" answer. They are all trained to get the right answer, not to do the experiment right. Such people cannot record a result that is not as per expectation. They would be compelled to alter it to fit the expected answer. That is the  culture of experimentation all around.

In fact, in the school I volunteer at, when I conducted the science fair, there was this girl, very keen on doing some experiment, but not really up to it. So I gave a simple task.I asked her to keep 2 slices of bread, one in a dry place and another in a damp corner inside the house. I asked her to observe changes for a week and report. On the day of the science fair, she came empty handed, saying her bread was eaten by rats. One of the teachers got a fresh slice of bread, moistened it and dotted it with green felt pen ink and asked her to exhibit that.
I was very annoyed to see the "exhibit" and made her put it away, and told her to just explain the procedure and describe what she saw till whenever the disaster occurred.

In my IIX days, I had this friend whose Prof told her class that her physical chem record was the best. We pulled her leg and asked her to show us this magnificent record. Her reaction kinetics experiment had burette readings taken at intervals of 0.5 sec! She said her result had not been what it should have been and she had altered the values on the x axis to obtain the straight line. The x axis was time and it turned out  that the best fit occurred if the readings were 0.5 sec apart and she did not stop to think how she could have filled a burette and titrated in 0.5 sec.
The point of these stories is, experimental manipulations are a matter of course. No one thinks it is not to be done. If you did not get the result you expected, of course you make it up. That is what is done.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Why is there is no such thing as the Indian Institute of Humanities? Why is there no university department on Indian studies?


Monday, 3 August 2015

a hoarding

This hoarding advertised a school in Hyderabad some years ago and I had written down the words at that time. I came across it just now-

This is a verbatim reproduction of a hoarding advertising Oakridge School. I saw this huge hoarding beside a flyover, a few days back, but waited till I could get the exact words. Today I passed by this place again and noted the exact words, believe me.

"16 Nobel Laureates now faculty to Oakridgers at Stanford."

Can you believe it?

Monday, 20 July 2015

Top 10

Now we have competition for MITocw, Coursera and even our very own NPTEL.
We have AASTHA channel to educate people and supplement the lectures in our IITs.
NOW we can become world class. You will all see that in the next 5 years, our institutions will be in the top 10 of the world's STEM universities.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

college coaches

There is often a tussle in colleges and universities between sports coaches and the teaching staff.
Students who play some sport/game for the college, try to miss lab sessions and lectures saying they have to practice their game. Which is fine within limits, but when they do not do even a quarter of the lab sessions, have 35% attendance in class and they still insist they must be allowed to write their practical exam, it gets to be too much. The coach adds his two bits worth saying they are his star goalkeeper or bowler or whatever. We get a lot of pressure from the coach about this.
Now I say, that I have this boy who is a chemistry wiz, aces his tests and does his lab sessions with thoroughness and exactitude. This boy likes football, would like to play for the college, but cannot kick the ball to save his life. So I say that  the coach must make him the quarterback in the college football team because he is good at Chemistry.....would the coach agree?
There was this udent in my class many years back who was a National level Kho-Kho player and a fencing champ, again at national level. She used to make it a point to attend all classes except when at training camps and would try and catch up with whatever she missed.....and she did this seemingly effortlessly.......now that is a person I really admired! 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Quiet time

Between the ages of 12-17, I lived in a quiet hill town. The school was on top of a huge hill maybe 1500 ft above the town and my house halfway up the opposite hill.  Every morning I would rush down one hill and up another... It would take me about 40 minutes of vigorous walking. I enjoyed my school life. Back home in the evening, I would stand in my garden watching the sun set and the twilight give way to the stars...just idling. I enjoyed the evenings even more...no friends, just me and the sky and the hills. I think that's when I grew up and became me. Nowadays, children don't get any time to find themselves. No time for themselves, no time to just go and play with friends, not time to just be. Someone else says it better.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Beautiful campus

I visited BITS Pilani - Hyd yesterday. They have a beautiful campus. The architect has made use of that beautiful feature of this region-- the rocks-- while landscaping. The rocks here are like works of art, sculpted and polished and some apparently teetering on their toes.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

I dislike dirty jokes. There is a stage in most boys-- when they are 10 years or so, when jokes like Maruti with a leak being Maruti Soosooki are extremely funny...they roll with laughter. I find dirty jokes just like that- only the people are not 10 years old and hence I find them more obnoxious. The AIB knockout was obnoxious-- I found the jokes not funny at all, only cringe-worthy.
So I discovered this thing.... a cross on the top right corner-I clicked it and Lo! behold the video went off and I was no more subjected to the horrible jokes.
I would like to share this discovery with all those who want it banned...People, just click on the cross on the top right....you will be offended no more. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Every year, around this time of the year, a sunbird (I think) tries to build its nest on my clothes line. I try to discourage it hoping it will find a more suitable place, but I am often unsuccessful. many times, it has built its nest hanging on one wire. The nest is a marvel with a basket woven from twigs and leaves hung from the wire with a strong anchor. However, since it is hung by one woven loop, it swings whenever the wire moves and usually the amplitude of the swing is large and the eggs fall out. It saddens me when that happens which is why I discourage it from building its nest.
This year,  the sunbird has shown amazing intelligence. It has realised the problem and found a solution!
This year it has built its nest with two anchors on two parallel clothes lines! The nest does not swing if I am careful and so far so good...there seems to be an egg or maybe a hatchling inside. I don't dare to look too close in case it abandons the nest.