Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Proposal for change of demands rather than stipend hike for TIFR graduate students

{Blogging seems to reveal a lot about the skewed priorities of the world. When I wrote about some large-scale issues like reactive self-perception theory or use of technology in elections or nuclear disarmament, nobody ever cared to read the blogs. Now when I write about some very narrow local petty issue of salary hike etc lots of people are reading it and commenting about it!

It seems that we prefer to be living in a radiation filled world and get blown up with nuclear weapons as long as we are paid a high salary.}

I would urge the reader to look at the 17th comment on this blog where I have made more efforts to clarify some of the important counter points raised by a batch mate of mine in the 16th comment.

TIFR never leaves me searching for topics to write about. Almost always something debatable is happening here. So here I find myself in the midst of a huge hullabaloo going on about some students asking the authorities for a stipend hike suposedly in accordance with the UGC rules. And off-late many have decided to sit in silent protest infont of the main canteen for 2 hours daily for a week demanding that their requests be met. Apparently they are disappointed that neither the director is meeting them nor is any progress happening with their demands. I have also been receiving many emails from the coordinators asking me to join the General Body Meetings that they organize for this and to join this demonstration.

I have not attended any of the GBMs or the demonstrations. Simply because I am not convinced of the reasonableness of their demands. I am pretty disappointed at the adoption of such cheap means of protest and TIFR students denting the dignity of the instiute and their own image by choosing such coarse techniques such as mass demonstrations even if silent.

Before jumping to calling me an "elitist", let me list 8 objections and weaknesses that I see with this entire scheme of things,

{Or you can jump to the last italicized paragraph where a person I know for quite some time has summarized what all I have to say here}

Basically I think there are much more important, pertinent and useful ways in which government can pump in necessary money into TIFR rather than increase of salaries. There are issues far higher in priority and areas of monetary deficit where government can pump in money rather than salaries. Along this article I shall propose various such alternative ways of sending money into the institute which are likely to have greater positive impact than just a slary hike.

1. I know students in TIFR who have recently bought cycles costing upto 15000Rs and I have myself bought an Apple iPoD of the same cost from my stipend. We students of TIFR seem capable of affording such objects of luxury beyond fulfilling our essential needs of roti-kapda-makan-internet. None of us are dying of poverty.

Hence I 't see a real "need" for a hike in the salary.

2. There are students in TIFR whose families are dependent on their stipends and they have to send a good fraction of their stipend home to sustain their families. This is the segment of the population which really needs a hike.

Why not put in a precise demand for a need-based-scholarship for such students? Why not ask the authorities to set up a committee to accept applications from such needy students and grant specific scholarships to them on a case-by-case basis.

I am disappointed that this specific demand doesn't seem to have been made.

In general a flat hike to everyone seems quite debatable. One can ask for more incentive based hikes like ask for a rewarding system for students which will increase their salaries by a certain fraction everytime they publish a paper or give a seminar in some international conference. (modulo all the debates of how you can compare quality of research papers etc, one person's single paper might be more non-trivial than another person's 5 papers. I think these questions are secondary here and can be tackled later)

Such hike would definitely add more accountability to the money being spent by the government. It would surely make the student feel more cared for as he/she gets rewarded for efforts and the government can also feel the money getting well spent.

Or why not ask for a salary hike with some added quality check like cutting down the TIFR intake by say half and then doubling the salary ?

Otherwise what is the guarantee that a flat hike in the salaries will not merely add to the sales of the local bar 'Gokul" ?

Is there any guarantee that a flat hike in the salary will actually channelize money into useful directions?

Is there any guarantee that increase in salary will actually make the people refrain from such corrupt practices like photocopying books and downloading pirated movies and books from Gigapedia?

Will just a pay hike ensure that the students actually buy more books and buy the movie DVDs that they want to watch instead of using BitTorrent?

I don't see any such guarantee of good effects of just a flat salary hike.

3. One can surely say that a hike in the salary of graduate students will have little effect in drawing the top-notch students of colleges like CMI, ISI, and IIT to join TIFR for graduate studies. (I have interacted most with students from these 3 instututes) Even if the salary be made 50000Rs per month the top people of these collegs are unlikely to consider TIFR over a place in Princeton or Harvard or a job in an MNC. 50000Rs will be peanuts to the best students of these places since they are looking for and are getting much more deeper returns from their studies than just a big salary.

With even a tripling of the salary TIFR is likely to still lose out on almost all of the of the best people from CMI, ISI and IIT who don't seem to see the incentives here that they see in the options elsewhere. With reasonable confidence I can say that the incentive is not a big salary.

4. None of the mails that I have been sent give me a primary reference proof of the claimed fact that the government has indeed made a rule about stipend hike. The only document I ever received was a clipping from a newspaper (Page 9 of August 18, 2009 Hindustan Times epaper). Now a newspaper report is a secondary reference and definitely not an official document. Who is to say that the article was not just the reporter's day dream?

Apparently they claim to have primary reference but for reasons unknown to me they cannot be shared with us.

5. None of the emails to me state precisely what are the demands they are making and why? Any arbit person on the street can come and shout at the governmnet that "I want more money". So? Should the governmnet pay more money to whoever comes screaming at it? The organizers don't seem to state any clear reasons in any email as to why the hike is being asked for.

6. Apart from the general lack of precision and thinking in the emails that I receive in this regard one is also repelled by the general sense of hype and senstionalism around about it. Many people campaiging for the hike don't seem to have done enough studies about the rule and laws and pros and cons of it. Much isbeing driven by local limited imagination. Most people seem to have conjured up their own personal reasons for why they want a hike and there doesn't seem to be a common consensus. For example some of reasons that I heard from the students are like,

a) I should be paid enough salary so that I can marry and have a family. I am of marriable age and the government should provide me enough money to fulfill this dream.

{One is free to dream whatever one wants. Why should the government go about fulfilling every dream of every person?}

b) I support the hike since the price of food in the canteen has risen by 20% and hence government should compensate for that.

{Seems this person is confused between the idea of a D.A and a salary. And moreover the prices of objects are fluctuations in local economics and government can't implement rules based on such flimsy statistics. One can argue that in the converse scenario the government is likely to reduce the salary once the prices come down. Will that be acceptable?}

c) I want more salary because I think the 12000Rs that I get is too low compared to my peer group who work in IT jobs.

{Then why didn't you join it? I am sure you saw some benifits in joining a research career than an IT job when you made the decision. Has that reason suddenly disapeared?}

d) It is a fight for legal justice since government normally follows the principle that people with equal qualification should be paid equally and the scientific officers of TIFR who have equal or less qualification than the graduate students are paid about triple the graduate students.

{Why should qualification be a criteria for the amount of salary given by the government? I am not sure. I would find it more reasonable if the salary is a function of the impact factor of the job or the importance of it measured in some scale that the government chooses. One can have 3 Nobel Prizes hung up in one's living room and then be a complete drunkard all the day. Hence contributing nothing to anyone. Now should the government pay this person more than others based on his/her past deeds knowing that the money now goes to the wine shop?}

7. Moreover this counting of the salary as 12000Rs is just simply misleading. One should add to it the fact that the TIFR student gets free lodging in Colaba in Mumbai near the sea-shore! Colaba in Mumbai is definitely one of the costliest places to live in India and that too near the sea-shore a plot of land will be worth its weight in gold. Further as a student in TIFR one gets extremely subsidized food and free broadband connection. In this region of the world food and broadband are both costly and here in TIFR one gets one at very low prices and the other for free. So one is being extremely narrow in one's vision by doing such a reductionaist count of the salary.

One notes that the grad students in the US pay for their housing from their own stipend. And house rents near universities like Cornell can be as high as 600$ a month. All this is completely factored out as a student in TIFR. And the pristine location near the sea makes the housing option here far more attractive and costlier. All this one gets for free in TIFR. And the first year students are kept in far more luxurious apartment alsbeit very very far from the instutute and probably the travelling pain nullifies the apartment grandeur.

I would have found it more reasonable if I saw the first year students on a protest demanding housing near TIFR than how painfully far they have to live. Such a protest makes more sense.

Like a another student in TIFR said that he would want to see the kids in the campus protesting against why there is only one badminston court.

I can think of many more reasons for putting up demonstrations and protests in TIFR like,

a) Demand for better classes and lectures.
b) Demand for a complete overhaul of the library (it has currently practically gone defunct! Over the last few months most astrophysics books I have gone looking for have either been lost or stolen or there is only 1 copy issued by someone else. Almost never do I find any book in the library for any of my courses.)
c) Demand for repair of the seeping doors and roofs of Theoretical Physics students room.
d) Demand for fair and transparent grading systems.
e) Demand for upgrade of some of the labs.
f) Demand for better sanitation systems in some of the hostels.
g) Demand for a proper cricket and a football ground.
h) Demand for more shelves to keep books and cubicles.

I would have happily gone and stood for demonstrations demanding any of these things.

But never do I find people so keen on putting up demonstrations and protests demanding these things which seem to me to be of far greater importance than just putting money in the pockets of students. I wonder how many people will be ready to stand for demonstartions for a week for any of these demands.

If one is looking for money from the governmnet then why not ask it in the form of specific upgrades and new facilities? Almost always there is more to be gained by getting money used in building resources of common benifit rather than putting it in the pockets of individuals.

8. One has very little justification being here in TIFR and to ask for stipends comparable to US grad school since a major component of their stipend is a kind of payment they get for TA and RA duties. Unfortunately this idea hasn't come to TIFR in any major way beyond the idea of a "grader" which is just correction of assignments. One should probably make teaching tutorial courses compulsory for the TIFR students to ensure that the next generation of teachers are not of the same inspirng quality that we have to put up with! I can very well say that almost all the TIFR students I know are completely incapable of teaching and that explains the quality of teaching in general in India. One needs to take the job of teaching far more seriously and like Harvard we should probably have courses for students and graders on how to teach and awards for good teaching.

Unfortunate scenario is that some of the "top" students of TIFR would be reluctant to attend classes on how to teach or be willing to take up duties of regular tutorial teaching. It is an interesting paradox that many people who complain of terrible teaching in the classes are themselves reluctant to take up teaching duties. Such hipocrisy lies at the heart of the jeopardized Indian academic scenario.

A stipend hike would make a lot more sense if the students are ready to take up regular RA and TA jobs and demand the hike as a payment for it.

Conclusively I see little reasons why the administration should concede to the demands of the students as they stand now. There is definitely a need for greater money and resources to be pumped into TIFR but a salary hike is definitely not the way to get that in!

Finally let me quote here what Vipul had to say about the entire issue.
He has nicely crystalized many of my amorphous feelings,

``I don't think there is any problem with higher pay per se, but
increasing pay without increasing accountability or answerability
usually has no effect. It might have the effect of attracting somewhat
more talented people into TIFR over the longer term, because
competition for the higher pay will prompt people to try harder for

However, I think the stipend at TIFR is pretty reasonable considering
that most of you don't have any responsibilities other than research
(once you pass your courses). May be it needs to be increased by about
25-30%, but doubling or tripling it seems out of order, particularly
when you also consider that hostel fees are heavily subsidized in TIFR
as well. Most universities in the United States that offer higher
stipends (after controlling for the cost of living, the lack of
subsidy for living costs, etc.) also have students teach or grade plenty of
undergraduate homework -- for instance, last year I was TA for the
undergraduate algebra sequence, and this year I am teaching calculus
to first-years. Besides, at least part of the money for higher pay
comes from the tuition that undergraduates are charged. TIFR doesn't
even have undergraduate education, so almost all the higher pay will
come at taxpayer expense with little in return for the
taxpayer. Perhaps students at TIFR who seek more money should try to
get TIFR to tie in with local undergraduate colleges to offer their
services and help with teaching and grading undergraduate courses."

PS: Experience has made me aware of the many block-headed questions that one gets asked when one is trying to move out of the common road being walked by others. Here one such head-strong question that I guess many will be asking me is "If the demands are met and the salary hike does happen, will you return the extra money since you claim not to need it?"

Ans: I would not. (At this the the person asking me the question might feel a great sense of having drawn first blood and I can hear his/her jeering laughter arising from his/her illusory sense of victory) Firstly I know from previous experiences that returning money to the government can be a very troublesome process and I would like to save that trouble. Secondly in my second point I have said all the possible good effects that a raise in salary can have but is not all assured. At least I can try in my personal case to ensure that the good effects do happen. May be I can then buy some more of the costly books that I am refraining from buying now and mitigate to some extent the corruption caused by many others who photocopy books.