#FromOurArchives: Foreign Training Endangered (April 2008)

More than 50 years ago, Melvin Dresher formulated a popular concept called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), which Albert Tucker articulated into a strong foundation for today’s Game Theory. Its influence on behavioral economics and social interactions is indubitable: every decision we logically take can be mathematically represented using a payoff matrix where we’re attempting to maximize our immediate return, as opposed to optimizing an iterative solution best for all. We love to default in the cross-fingered hope that the others will naively cooperate, thereby adding our shrewd triumph points. Obviously, each smarter than the other, we’re a nation-full of defaulters. The Nash Equilibrium and Pareto Optimum can stay within carefully dog-eared textbooks for intellectuals to discuss over brainstorming chai sessions. If the consequential abysmal state of affairs in India’s environmental and political scenario hasn’t surprised you, given the rational fools and baton-passers that we are, the redistribution of similar garbage at the IITs shouldn’t either. We’re supposedly the most rational of them all, we’d rather burn the box that let the Schrödinger’s Cat enter the matrix.

Every year foreign universities are spammed with bulk mails from the IITs pleading for an internship and associated spare change they can garner to fund it. Quite evidently, a lot are script-generated, use ridiculously self-demeaning language and apply to substandard locations. A lot sound like frantic kids with dollar dreams, craving paid vacations and exotic photo albums and lots contain blatant fallacies in their claims of interest. Consequentially, it’s the IIT professors who receive curt emailed replies which they billboard up and more recently, have held meetings to decide definitive curtailment actions. Rule enforcement implies breaking them – red lights and railway crossings are meant to be jumped and with newer unfair rules, we’ll soon have on our hands a functioning anarchy. We can quote Galbraith at home now. Prof. A.K. Sinha (HOD, Electrical Engineering) said, quite exasperated, “If sincere students mailed 4-5 project investigators abroad after reading into their research, they have much more a chance to secure one. Why does everyone have to send thousands?”. We smiled. With the CGPA, Counterstrike and InterHall battles, we have a new Axelrod Armageddon – race to thousand. We love to default – the faster and the greater, the more the brownies, and this time they convert to cash. Never mind the overflowing trash.

My home page is very clear about how I treat these letters, so I know the student never read it. Your department produces some truly excellent engineers and I have been honored to know and advise some of them, but I am offended by the misrepresentation: when someone says they are very interested in my work, but have no idea what my work is, the only other word would be “liar”, and I hate to use that word.

ft

IITians have an induced tendency to equate themselves to the Divine as far as their brand demand is concerned, so let’s scribble out some bare facts for future reference. Interns from here are hired mostly for cheap donkey labor, or to scrutinize a potential PhD candidate. “There are of course some exceptions,” says Prof. Baidurya Bhattacharya (Civil Engg., ex-Stanford and Delaware faculty), “but you have to realize that research dollars are scarce and foreign faculty are aiming at a solid investment when they spend $5000 on you for the summer.” But then, we’re ‘one-time’ smart and we have ample insight into economic optimization to know that each country is the stepping stone to the next! Either way, academically, it’s better to strive toward publications with a reputed group instead of ‘any FT’, for the world is our future backyard anyway. Prof. Suman Chakraborty (Mech. Engg.) listed more complaints – last minute cancellations leading to companies withdrawing in subsequent years, menial outsourcing jobs taken on, lackadaisical performance abroad and grave lack of student counseling in foreign research affairs. However, a student is completely entitled to what can be a cool holiday or an opportunity for path-breaking research. Denying them that free will isn’t an option either, as our Institute is not capacitated enough to place their exponentially increasing progeny strength to worthy locales.

My colleagues and I get daily twenty emails like yours and it makes us increasingly irritated. A university is a teaching institution, not a business company. We do not pay students to work with us as internees. Students pay us, to learn from us.

The sourness abroad, albeit polite, carries home lessons for faculty too. We quote Prof. D. Sen (OENA), “A visiting professor from Georgia Tech who visited the campus last year publicly declared that Indian teachers tend to exaggerate their recommendations so we are losing trust in their words.”. The Prof. A. Dhar (OENA), suggested a year long correspondence and collaborative theoretical spade-work before the student eventually went abroad as an intern. We repeat, honesty is the operative word, be it in students’ transparency of multiple offers, statement of their interests or faculty’s responsibility of recommendation. Everyone understands that Social Darwinism has sharpened our ‘selfish genes’ enough to choose the best offer, everyone legitimately should be allowed to, the Universities and us. It’s last-minute and unprofessional defection that irks them. It begets more defection since everybody’s doing it and we have a privately smart, publicly dumb set of squealers with peer-influenced moves and futilely flooded “Sent Mails”, operating unabashedly in the fourth quadrant. Game Theory for those who understand, Religion for those who don’t.

…they demand $3000 – $4000 as stipend. When I tell then I have no money to support them, they harass me by repeatedly calling my office, my cell phone and email telling about deadlines for visas etc. This kind of unprofessional student behavior makes a negative impact and I suggest you put an end to it before it tarnishes the reputation of your university in the eyes of your colleagues.

Unquestionably, it’s time for Commandments, Dharma, Suras and Sins. The working environment abroad is extremely liberal, IIT alumni are earning laurels splendid enough to ignore these small scams and Prof. Bhattacharya says, “My colleagues and I would delete most of such mails from international students without registering the content and not form any opinion about the parent University”. But from an administrative viewpoint, the Institute can’t completely concede to the idea of IIT UG applications being treated like Viagra spam. Prof. Chakravarty mentioned measures for streamlining the FTs (see following box), they will not be abolished and each case will be subjective. Given our student strength, it is likely that clerical more than academically endowed labor would be hired for the discernment. And all ‘Sins’ always started out with being subjective.


 

  • Exploring Institute level collaborations with organizations to allow the central processing of applications and the research/industrial collaborations of IIT faculty to provide additional internship opportunities to the UGs.
  • Encouraging students to explore Nationally and Internationally well-acclaimed internship support programs, such as those funded by the DAAD.
  • Imposing strict deadlines beyond which Training options may not be changed, for the best utilization of the Training seats available with the Institute.
  • Self-arranged internship applications to be routed through proper channel/forwarded by faculty in the Institute after internal assessment. Otherwise, NOC to be refused.

 

Prof A.K. Sinha added with a shrug, “Slowly they’ll stop taking students, students will realize that foreign faculty have lost interest due to their seniors’ actions and the craze will have to die down. It’s a phase, it’ll pass.” That sounds as demure as punishing sins, a choice of end in fire or ice, well-deserved foreign training have/had valuable benefits. We don’t really need to be super-rational – a simple Hofstadteran morality would suffice for a relatively Utopian equanimity. There’s no denying the difficulty, but it’s time we learnt. We once had a class on human behavior where Bayesian learning was explained using a rat which learnt to find the path of least voltage shocks and maximum rewards. In a race or not, in society or not, rats were utility maximizers too.

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