Symbols and such like

Today I received in the post my IEEE Senior Member plaque. 

I had known that I had been elected to Senior member status a few weeks ago when I got an email from the IEEE. So the plaque wasnt unexpected (knew it was coming)- its fairly timely arrival was. And more so that i was quite pleased to see this wood and brass object.

Usually I feel such symbols are vulgar so I hadnt really wanted this display object (you cant opt out it seems!). And now I am in two minds: is it really a bit loud to display this plaque and shout (visually) at all visitors about achievements? Or is this a physical symbol, something to look at and think “yes its real, did achieve this…” on dark days?

I have similar confused feelings about professional affiliations etc that often appear on business cards, email signatures and the like:

On one hand these affilitations, memebrships, degrees etc. are a shorthand CV, a quick way to establish credentials. On the other it seems pompous. I am aware that women often also suffer from the so called imposter syndrome (feeling that you arent really that good, feeling like a fraud who doesnt belong at this level) so it may well be a contributing factor towards this discomfort with displaying titles/achievements without a specfic context.

What do you think? How do you feel?



The Browne review of higher education

The Browne report on Higher Education (HE) was published about 3 years ago. Some of its recommendations have been implemented and we are now beginning to feel the changes. So it may seem odd that here I choose not to examine how the recommended changes are faring. Instead I want to look at the basic premise of the review.


I expect in the future we may see more reviews and more changes. It is vital to get the basis on which we base our decisions right. Also, the recommended £9000 tuition fees cap is now being deemed as too low to be sustainable by some in higher education.
The remit of the review was restricted to examine the teaching provision across institutions of higher education in England and Wales. Research was excluded.

This leads to the first fundamental issue with the review.

An inappropriate business/economic model: In the present era almost all universities carry out research, teaching, policy, outreach, consultancy work, disseminating knowledge that filters into society and sets the context for discourse in a modern society etc., in other words there are multiple tasks and outputs connected to Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). The economic model/logic implicit in the review only considers one output: teaching. All other outputs and business including research are ignored.

However economic studies on principal-agent modelling have shown that where there are several tasks performed by an agent (some of which are less measurable than others) it is inefficient to base performance-based rewards and incentives only on the measurable output. It leads to agents prioritising this output and neglecting the others that may be equally or even more important. It can also lead to agents skewing metrics to show attainment. This view is supported by another paper(1) on teaching performance and see footnote*. Such happenstance can harm the very output that the review aims to improve: teaching provision.

The Browne review hoped to use market forces (students choose the best value for money HEI) as a way to stimulate across the sector improvement in teaching, better access to students, and lowering the outlay from the public purse towards HE. However, since teaching is not the only output of the HEIs and the other outputs are not so easily measurable (by way of student preference for a course at an institution), it is flawed at its very heart in being able to achieve its stated objectives. Indeed, it may well lead to other less beneficial changes in the long run as well: risking the quality of research output of HEIs, all universities raising their tuition fees to the capped value, courses that have lower market appeal (as perceived by students) disappearing and an overcrowding in some courses.

The second flaw in the review is ignoring the nature of the HE market and using the wrong indicator to measure teaching performance. Several factors determine the reputation and desirability of an HEI as a place to undertake taught study. Paradoxically research is chief amongst these. Students often use the reputation of an institution as a key metric in choosing where to study (Russell group universities are often the aspiration for students because in the job market the university brand name carries weight), though this reputation can be more directly linked to research than teaching. If we consider student satisfaction as a metric and look at the results of National Student Survey, we find that for identical courses offered by several universities, in many cases Russell group universities score lower than smaller and less research intensive counterparts. Yet, consistently year on year the places are filled at the Russell group universities faster.

The underlying assumption in the report that students choose to study at an HEI for its teaching alone or primarily is not correct. Therefore student choice for some HEIs cannot be used as a reliable indicator of the teaching excellence of the HEIs; it is in fact not the right indicator or metric for the economic model the review employs. A more deep understanding of the nature of relationships at play in the HE market is needed to hew the necessary measurement instruments.

The third basic issue lies in the approach when commissioning the report. Universities and HEIs are similar to businesses in some aspects, but are not by their nature a business in the same way as a shareholder owned enterprise. The stakeholder distribution for the two is not identical and therefore using the lens of free market economics to look at HE is not right.

Businesses exist to provide a profit to the shareholder/owners through providing service to customers. Profit is the chief concern and may at occasions even be at odds with customer concerns. On the other hand, HEIs have several stakeholders: students, research councils, companies, charities and other funding bodies, the larger society. The primary concern for HEIs is rarely monetary profit. Most HEIs are also charitable institutions. Therefore, it makes little sense to apply a treatment (that works for commercial businesses) to HEIs when the two are completely distinct species of institutions. Some may say this is the foremost argument against the way this review was conducted.

Any future reviews would I hope address the totality of the causes and effects that play a part in shaping higher education.

Footnotes and references
*As a concrete illustration of the distortions that testing can cause, in 1989 a ninth-grade teacher in Greenville, South Carolina was caught having passed answers to questions on the statewide tests of basic skills to students in her geography classes in order to improve her performance rating (Wall Street Journal, November 2, 1989
1. Hannaway, Jane. 1991. “Higher Order Thinking, Job Design and Incentives: An Analysis and Proposal,” American Education Research Journal (forthcoming).

To space or not to space

India is launching is its first Mars mission (the Mars Orbiter mission) tomorrow, the 5th of November 2013. What got me writing this blog post (apart from my love of space-related stuff, national pride and the hope of something as ground breaking as the discovery of water on the moon that came about in India’s first mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 1) was the presence of the usual ‘but they don’t have enough toilets/schools/roads/electricity/hospitals….so why do they need a space programme’ sort of comments.

This isn’t new so why am I bothering with a blogpost about this?

I do not pretend to have the credentials to judge the merits of this Mars mission. The mission may be brilliant or may be ill conceived. Instead what I want to address here is the perpetual “if you can’t solve all the problems of your country how can you think of a space mission” brand of criticism.

All those who raise these questions are not all wrong and many are extremely well meaning. We need more open debate and discussion and I present my views here.

My response to the critics is this:

Space and related technologies lead to direct massive socio-economic benefits. Take as examples:

– the weather monitoring satellites launched in the 90s and first decade of this millennium that are used to monitor and predict weather patterns- monsoon, hurricanes, cyclones and the like. Without these we would suffer more crop damage, poverty, loss of life in natural disasters such as the cyclone Phaillin where fewer than 100 people died (compare this to 10,000 deaths in the 1991 cyclone that hit Eastern India).

– Consider how the telecommunication satellites have connected huge swathes of India including rural populations. This contrasts with the India where getting a landline telephone connection could take months and was the preserve of middle class and rich people. Today even a rickshaw puller can own a mobile phone. The ability to communicate has implications for social equality as well as economic prosperity.

– A few decades ago there were critics who saw no point in developing expensive programs to indigenously develop satellites and launch them. Yet today India can make satellites that it needs and launch them, all at a fraction of the cost that is average for the global satellite market. This has given India a commercial competitive edge in the global satellite market making the space program a net earner in the budget. It was possible only through hard scientific graft and this kind of know-how is not given free by more advanced nations. You have to earn it!

Poor countries with large populations (usually with illiteracy being a further problem) have economies that depend millions working jobs at the low value end of the economic chain. The share of global trade value is low and the net addition to product value is low. Therefore scientific projects are needed that instigate technological development, cause industries (albeit slowly and starting small) to grow which are at the high value end, slowly moving the country and its economy towards development. Otherwise these countries risk remaining stagnant as pools of cheap manual labour in the global economy.

One can’t just send a probe to Mars one day on a whim. It takes a huge concerted effort and development of many other ancillary technologies to achieve such a dream. Each bit of scientific advancement has a ripple effect in improving a vast array of products and services for the people. Many of these would either not happen as quickly or as effectively without such ambitious missions. These missions also need trained and capable technical personnel spurring technical education.

Inspiring a people and allowing them to dream. I dreamt of being an astronaut as a young girl in India, but knew I would have to go to the USA or a European country to make that dream come true. Eventually that dream died. The pain has never left me. However, with each such project, the generation of young people in India can dream and hope to even fulfill these dreams in India. This has incredible power- inspiring bright and talented young people to study Science, Engineering and Technology. They may not all eventually sit in a rocket, but they may well be setting up the next Infosys, invent the next Bose speakers, help find life in space, solve the energy crisis,find a cure for cancer…the possibilities are endless.

Progress has to be holistic. For genuine progress, social upliftment and eradication of poverty and inequality there has to be development in all spheres. Ignoring advanced science and technology till there is 0 poverty, 0 illiteracy, 0 child malnutrition, etc. we may never get to any target. A broader vision is needed when making such policy decisions than the immediate need.

It’s not the prerogative of rich countries alone! The United States sent a man to the moon in the 1960s, yet there were both social and economic inequity present in that country then. People have aspirations, and these translate to nations having aspirations as well. While an individual’s aspirations may be small, collectively a country (even a relatively poor one), can have big aspirations. Achieving such aspirations can spur people on to bigger and better things, give them a sense of selfbelief. The Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger” applies to more than sport!

A strong reality check! Are India or China devoting 30% of their national budget to these so called vanity projects? Or is it in fact a much smaller fraction? For India, the entire space programme merits 0.34% of the government expenditure. Also, are these (space faring) the only scientific missions espoused by such countries? The answer is no! India has had several extremely ambitious scientific missions that have underpinned its growth yet these are not mentioned in the same article by critics, since these projects (green revolution) seem directly linked to alleviation of a very visible problem. My argument is that the indirect linkage to other programmes is no less important to the nation’s development.

Space race! Some people are worried that India and China are now locked into a wasteful space race, each trying to outdo the other with ambitious space missions when instead they should look to their poor and needy. Indeed every country should look to its poor and needy. And at the same time, make real progress that is sustainable in a future where other countries may have developed more advanced technology. Every nation has to try and meet its future needs and cannot risk being left behind. The rivalry aspect (when not out of check) can result in positive competition, when the two nations can bring out the best in each other. I think if either India or China (or any emerging country) makes some astounding discoveries in space, it’s a contribution that can help all of mankind move forward, and be the “one small step for man and a giant leap for mankind!