Tuesday, 30 July 2013

On Education Systems

I've been wondering about education systems, and which ones are best. Different countries have different systems at the university level, in terms of how long the courses are. Is this length an indicator of quality?

In India, they have 3 year Bachelor degrees. The quality of these aren't top notch. The academic content is poorer by 50% compared to foreign universities because they concentrate on theory formation and not application. One reason for this is the lack of funding. And there are cultural differences. Universities abroad don't treat you like they're doing you a favour by letting you enrol. You're paying them to be there. You're a client. They need to treat you like one. Indian educational institutes don't get this. Indian colleges work on the assumption that they can push you around, that your fees enable them to act as your personal moral guardian. In short, Indian colleges treat you like a child, foreign ones treat you like an adult. But they're cheap (which is why I attended an Indian University; my kids won't). In the US, Bachelor or undergrad degrees are 4 years long. The same with Canada. 

A sucky thing about universities is that if you study a science subject like biology, they force you to study other science subjects like physics and chemistry during your first year, even though you aren't interested in these. Duh! You wouldn't have chosen biology at the university level if you wanted to study physics. I can understand an educational system pulling a stunt like this in high school, where they bombard you with as many different subjects as possible to give you a taste of everything so you can decide what you like and hate. Whether they do this to very good effect is another matter, but the philosophy behind the idea is sound (even if some schools screw it up by focussing only on the theoretical aspects of a subject or science and don't expose you to what daily work in that field is going to be like in terms of competencies you will need to develop over time, or the amount of time you will need to spend on different tasks and responsibilities).

To side track a little more, I think the first year of most foreign universities concentrates on the same thing Indian high schools do in their final year - cramming info about as many different subjects into a person's brain. My guess is that this sometimes leads to the false belief that Indian schools and universities are tougher than foreign ones. Which is not entirely true. You need to see this in terms of timelines. Indian high schools have 'streams' at the senior level (the last two years). If you pick the science stream, you go through two years of mental bootcamp. So yeah, the last two years of high school might be tougher than foreign ones (Canadian, American, British, Australian, New Zealand) in terms of amount of information assimilated, assuming you choose the science stream (the commerce and arts streams are relatively easier) but more information doesn't mean better education. I'd rather be taught critical reasoning skills than a bunch of assumptions disguised as facts which I can't recognise are assumptions because I haven't been taught any critical reasoning skills. I think that's where foreign high schools have an edge over Indian ones. 

Now let's move to the University level. True, Indian kids might have a slight advantage from the curriculum point of view given that they've covered more subject matter in high school. But I think that that difference is cancelled out in the first year of university. Because that's all the time that foreign kids need to catch up. And then they spend the next three years doing way more advanced stuff. Which gives them an edge over Indian kids. Indian kids who move to the US or UK for college will have an advantage over the locals kids for the first year at most. After that, it's a level playing field.

Moving back to comparing different university systems, the UK has a three year Bachelor's degree with an option to do a fourth 'honours' year, which is basically fewer modules and a large research project. So comparing all these systems, I'd say the US Bachelors system is the best, apart from the costs. And especially given the profile of a lot of their universities. The UK comes close, but the only British universities that can compare to the top 20 American ones in terms of quality are Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews. The US simply has more money going into more institutions and more scientists doing a greater amount of good research, which students have a greater opportunity to experience.

Now looking at how Masters programmes are run, most countries have a two-year option. India does. But again, the quality of education in India isn't the best. The US has a two year option. But not all American universities run masters programmes. Most of them just run 5 year Phd programmes. Which is not always the same as a Masters followed by a PhD. Still, this might be the best system given the alternatives. 

It's different in the UK, where Masters degrees are one year long and PhDs are 3 years long. Also, PhDs in the UK are usually self funded, which makes people enrol in them part time (6 years). The only funded PhD programmes in the UK are ones where you're employed to work on someone else's already well defined project. Unless this matches your own research interests, plan on funding your own PhD. A lot of students don't mind working on someone else's project. A lot of them are not sure what they want to do anyway, and don't mind doing research on a subject that's somewhat related to what they're interested in as long as it's fully funded. The large number of universities in the UK mean that there are lots of opportunities for EU residents to choose between. The rest either have deep pockets, or do it part-time. 

But coming back to the UK Masters programme, one year can be pretty intense. And there's a lot of variation between universities. Getting a Masters at Edinburgh University is not the same as getting a Masters at Edinburgh Napier University. In Sweden, Masters programmes contain about the same number of modules, but these are spread over a period of two years, giving students a longer time to rationalise and think about what they've learned, which I think is important. 

Masters education in the UK in contrast seems more like a business. You have so many classes and so little time to think about them. You start in September or October. You have 2.5 months of classes, then exams, including a one-week mid semester break. You have a 1-2 month winter break, then about 2.5 months of classes from February to April, including another one-week mid-semester break. The rest (May to July/August) is spent on a research project. This is quite intense. A better option would be to extend everything. Extend the research project to 4-6 months. Double the number of classes. Include two internships. This would require extending the course to 1.5-2 years. Which I think would be better, personally. 

As it stands, I think a UK Masters equips people to tackle a UK PhD specific to their Masters research interests, but it isn't flexible enough to allow you to attempt somewhat different PhD programmes. Which makes the UK Masters a great well marketed package aimed at getting people where they know they want to go in a short time i.e. equipping them with a short amount of essential skills that the uni thinks they need, over teaching students everything they could over a longer period of time. It's a tradeoff - skills vs. time. 

For those with the time and money, go to the US. As for PhDs, again I'd say the US is best. The UK is great if you've got a specific project in mind, and funding. And it's quick (three years). But if you want more flexibility, more funding, and better opportunities, go to the US.


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Business Ethics

A recent discussion with an Indian businessman on a study break here in the UK left me thinking about business ethics, judgement, moral reasoning, and lastly, the quality of educational discourse on these subjects.

This mature student used to help out with the family business based out of a town in India, and plans to return home and continue doing so once his course ends. I don't remember how we ended up talking about ethics. I think we started off discussing what excited him, his business and how it worked. I guess the question of corruption came up soon after, and he mentioned having to pay a bunch of people in various sectors to get stuff done. He said he didn't like it, but the alternative, bankrupting his company, was unthinkable. He mentioned that he didn't like doing this, but it was necessary. He also mentioned spying on his competitors using unethical means, and again said that it was not something he wanted to do, but something he had to do, or watch his business fail. 

We then spoke about the ethics component of his course. I was curious how someone who reluctantly compromised on his personal ethics, would find a course on business ethics. He said that he had had a number of arguements with his professor about ethics (big surprise!). Apparently, his professor sees ethics as an absolute, with no space for compromise. The businessman student obviously disagrees. 

Here's my take. I'm actually not too surprised by the businessman student's behaviour. I'm sure I would do the same were I in his place. If you're handed the reins of your family business by your dad while your dad, brother and entire family watch, you don't want to be the one to ruin it. You have big plans for the company. You expand. You need things from the government. More electricity. They tell you it's going to take three months unless you pay 'extra to get it in two weeks. You need it in two weeks. Three months would bankrupt your company. You have no choice. You don't want to hand over your hard earned money to some government thief, but the alternative is unthinkable. So you do it. You know it's wrong, but you do it. It's the same with your competitors. They're going to find out how much you charge your clients one way or another, probably the same way you do. Unethically. But the alternative would be too harsh.

The thing is, I get this. I get that you can't be judgemental about about these things beacuse this isn't a straightforward black and white case. That's not how ethics works. Ethics is complex. You can be a good person and still commit unethical acts. I should know. I'm a Psychology student. If anyone should know about ethics, we should. We study and research ethics, and design our experiments according to ethical guidelines. Now, I have to say that business ethics and moral reasoning isn't a subject I know much about. But from the psychological perspective, there's Lawrence kohlberg's stages of moral development which offers us one way to view moral development. 

(I need to say at this point that I view categorisation as a double edged sword, in general. Because I think of everything as falling on a scale. To me, all phenomena are scaled variables. Grouping these into distinct categories has its uses in terms of helping us understand how the world works, but we need to be aware that creating and using these categories to build models to explain how the world works only provides us with one way to look at the world, an imperfect approximation of the 'truth'. A step forward maybe, compared to no model, but we should be careful not to confuse models, including psychological ones, as absolute truths, and end up creating self-fulfiling prophecies and indulging in circular reasoning.)

That being said, I am a huge fan of Kolberg's Heinz dilemma, which incorporates post-conventional moral reasoning in a realistic example. Imagine you wife is dying from a disease, and that there's only one person, a druggist, who has a cure. The problem is, this druggist is charging more money than you have, for the cure. So you break into the man's store to steal the cure. Were you wrong to do so? There are many ways to tackle this question, my favourites being the more complex ones. But that's not what I'm really interested in right now. You see, I get that life is complex, that life sucks, that morality is hazy, and that you need to make compromises. After all, context determines behaviour.

What troubles me is how this is being communicated in a module on business ethics. We aren't children. We don't pay 15 lakh rupees or 17K pounds on a year on foriegn education only to be told the difference between right and wrong, something we learned in school anyway. As Kohlberg illustrated with the Heinz dilemna, morality is complex, and requires a complex discourse. It's not a black vs white scenario. It's a world with an infinite number of possible scenariois, all requiring responses dependent on a number of different variables, which we call context. All discussion on morality should inculde discussions on context. Anything less is a disservice to students.