Why flying remains the safest form of travelling despite crashes

cartoon-airplaneVivek Kaul  
The Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, with 227 passengers and 12 crew members, around 40 minutes after taking off. Whenever there is an air crash, questions are raised on how safe it is to fly. Given this, it is not surprising that the same seems to be happening at this point of time, with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
“It increases the fear for people who are already afraid of flying. It temporarily makes people who may not be phobic about flying uneasy about flying. And people who already really have difficulty flying — it stops them from flying for a while,”
 Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist, told nbcnews.com.
Let’s take the case of what happened in the United States in the aftermath of two aeroplanes colliding into the two towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Many Americans took to driving long distances instead of flying.
But was that the right thing to do? As Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hograth and Anil Gaba write in 
Dance with Chance – Making Your Luck Work for You “In 2001, there were 483 deaths among commercial airline passengers in the USA, about half of them on 9/11. Interestingly in 2002, there wasn’t a single one. And in 2003 and 2004 there were only nineteen and eleven fatalities respectively. This means that during these three years, a total of thirty airline passengers in America were killed in accidents. In the same period, however, 128,525 people died in US car accidents.” The authors point out that close to 1600 deaths could have been avoided if people had flown instead of deciding to drive.
So, why did so many people take to driving in the aftermath of 9/11? The answer lies in what psychologists call “the illusion of control”. As the authors point out “The simple explanation is that, behind the wheel of your own automobile, it is natural to feel in control. Try telling drivers that they have no influence over the skills of other road users, the weather, the condition of the road, mechanical problems, or any other common causes of accidents – they will agree. But they still 
feel in control of their destiny when they drive. They can’t help it. Put them on a plane, and they think their life is in the hands of the airline pilot or, worse, a bunch of terrorists.” In fact, in the case of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, pilot suicide is also one of the theories being bandied around and that definitely adds to the illusion of control.
The media plays a huge part in magnifying the illusion of control. “Plane crashes are turned into video images of twisted wreckage and dead bodies, then beamed into every home on television screens,” write the authors. The images of the crash lead people to conclude that flying is risky. In case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 there have been no images of the wreck till now, but there has been constant news coverage all over the world.
What people don’t take into account is the fact that many airplanes make safe landing almost every minute. None of this makes for news, though. “The thousands of airplanes which arrive safely at their destination every day hold no media interest. This isn’t news. So even the most logical of us are led to believe that the chance of a passenger dying in an airplane accident is much, much higher than it really is,” write the authors.
Also, car crashes rarely get talked about. “Car crashes, on the other hand, rarely make the headlines…Smaller-scale road accidents occur in large numbers with horrifying regularity, killing hundreds and thousands of people each year worldwide…We just don’t hear about them.”
What psychologists call the “availability heuristic” is also at work here. Daniel Kahneman defines the availability heuristic in 
Thinking, Fast and Slow as “We defined the availability heuristic as the process of judging frequency by “the ease with which instances come to mind.””
And given that more air crashes make it to the news than car accidents, it is easier to recall air crashes and deem air travel to be riskier. But driving remains much more risky than flying. As Kahneman puts it “Even in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never came close to the number of traffic deaths.”
In fact, flying has become more safe over the years.
 Data suggests that fatal accidents on commercial airplanes happened once in every 140 million miles flown. Now the number stands at once for every 1.4 billion miles flown.
Also, there have been improvements on other fronts as well. 
As Christian Wolmar points out in The Guardian “While extremes of weather and bird strikes continue to pose a risk, modern planes are far more resilient than in the past. Hijacking, a cause of several accidents in the 1970s and 1980s – and of course 9/11 – has been made very difficult thanks to the security passengers have to go through to get on a plane.”
Given these reasons, air travel remains the safest form of travelling, notwithstanding the air crashes that happen now and then.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on March 11, 2014

 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

The illusion of control

book cover 1Vivek Kaul  
By the time you are reading this my first book would be out. Writing a book is an extremely strenuous and lonely exercise, with huge opportunity costs. And very few writers actually make any money out of their writing. Even fewer writers become famous.
Nevertheless, despite the near zero chance of success, people continue to write and publish books. Why is that?
I have been thinking about this for the past few weeks. What made me leave my job, sit at home and slog away on my laptop for the last 18 months to write a book, which possibly very few people are going to read?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has answer in his book Anti Fragile. He attributes this to what he calls the fooled by randomness effect. As he writes “Information has a nasty property: it hides failures. Many people have been drawn to, say, financial markets after hearing success stories of someone getting rich in the stock market and building a large mansion across the street – but since failures are buried and we don’t hear about them, investors are led to overestimate their chances of success.”
This is precisely the way it works with people who go about writing books as well, feels Taleb. As he writes “The same applies to the writing of novels, we do not see the wonderful novels that are now completely out of print, we just think that because the novels that have done well are well written(whatever that means), that what is well written will do well.”
This explanation clearly summarises my state of mind when I decided to write a book. There was a confidence in my ability to write a good book, which would do well. But as has been proven time and again there is very little link between the quality of a product and how well it does.
Hence, it is safe to say that those who write books are “mildly delusional” and at the same time have an “illusion of control”. Given that the odds of a book succeeding are close to zero, anyone in their right mind would never get around to writing a book.
But that is not the way it works. People take on risks like these because they often underestimate the odds of success. As Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, writes in Thinking Fast and Slow “The evidence suggests that an optimistic bias plays a role – whenever individuals or institutions voluntarily take on significant risks. More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are.”
And this is what leads to individuals taking the plunge inspired by the stories of success they see all around them. As Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hogarth and Anil Gaba write in Dance with Chance – Making Luck Work For You “We hear a lot about people who are successful, but very little about those who fail to realize their dreams. The press makes sure that we’re all familiar with the achievements of Sir Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods,or Nicole Kidman. While we’re dimly conscious that these people are exceptional, we rarely hear about the entrepreneurs, sports people, or actors who fail – or the sheer scale on which they do so.”
Entrepreneurship is another good example. People continue to take the plunge despite the odds of success being very low. “For example, did you know that in the USA there were more than 55,000 bankrupt firms and over 1.4 million bankrupt individuals in 2009? And the great majority of these involved believed it would never happen to them,” write Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba.
In fact, a majority of the entrepreneurs are convinced that they will make it big. As Kahneman points out “ A survey found that American entrepreneurs tend to believe they are in a promising line of business: their average estimate of the changes of success for “any business like yours” was 60% – almost double of true value. The bias was more glaring when people assessed the odds of their own venture. Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said their chance of failing was zero.”
This optimism helps keep capitalism going as people try and launch new businesses, and some of them ultimately succeed. But there are situations when the illusion of control comes with costs attached to it. An excellent example is when a lot of people in the United States stopped taking flights and started driving, in the aftermath of what happened on September 11, 2001.
Flying remains the safest form of travelling. And the numbers prove it. In 2001, nearly 483 people died in the US in air crashes. Of this nearly half of them died on 9/11. In 2002, not a single person died in an air crash. And in 2003 and 2004, the number of deaths stood at 19 and 11, respectively. Now lets compare this to the number of deaths in car accidents. “In the same period, however, 128,525 people died in the US in car accidents. Moreover, it has been estimated that – in the year following 9/11 – some 1,600 deaths could have been avoided if people had not driven but instead carried on taking the plane as usual,” write the authors of Dance with Chance. 
This happened because drivers have an illusion of control. They have more faith in their driving than they have in the ability of the pilot to fly a plane safely. What also does not help is the fact that any plane crash makes it to the top of the news headlines whereas most car crashes don’t.
Also, no media reports about the thousands of planes that land safely every day. Given this, people have a tendency to think that flying is riskier in comparison to driving, and that is clearly not the case.
The dotcom bubble which ran from the late 1990s to the turn of the century is another brilliant example of the negative effects of the illusion of control. As Robert Shiller writes in the second edition of Irrational Exuberance, “Using the internet gives people a sense of mastery of the world. They can electronically roam the world and accomplish tasks that would have been impossible before. They can even put up a website and become a factor in the world economy themselves in previously unimaginable ways…Because of the vivid and immediate personal impression the Internet makes, people find it plausible to assume that it also has great economic importance.” While using the internet people felt in control. And then they bought dotcom stocks, thinking that the companies would make a lot of money in the days to come. That never happened and most of the companies went bust.
The illusion of control plays a very important part in our lives. And hence, it is important to figure out which it is leading us to.
The article originally appeared in the Wealth Insight magazine dated November 1, 2013 

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

The Complexity of Money

indian rupees

Vivek Kaul

Over the last two weeks I have come to realise that people share a very complex relationship with money. A friend of mine who makes more than Rs 50 lakh a year, owns two homes, a couple of cars, and holidays abroad in exotic locations ever year, has constantly been cribbing about the 10% increment he got after the yearly performance appraisal.
“So were you expecting more?” I asked him. “Not really. The company hasn’t been in a great shape, so even 10% is very good. The average increments this year have only been around 6-7%,” he replied.
“So then what is the issue?” I asked.
“Well you know,” he said, such and such person, “who I tend to compete with got an increment of 11%.” This difference of 1%(actually I should be saying 100 basis points, but that sounds too technical) had been bothering him no end.
I tried telling him that his salary was nearly 50% more than the other person he was talking about. “So in absolute terms your increment is greater than his,” I explained.
“Yeah. But it would have been better if I made more in percentage terms as well,” my friend replied.
What this little story tells us is that people share a complex relationship with money. How else do you explain what my friend earning more than Rs 50 lakh per year was going through? There is no doubt that money motivates. An experiment carried out in 1953, showed just that. As Margaret Heffernan writes in 
Wilful Blindness – Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril “Patients were asked to hang on horizontal bars for as long as they could; most could take it for about 45 seconds. When subjected to power of suggestion and even, in some cases, hypnosis, they could stretch to about 75 seconds. But when offered a five dollar bill the patients managed to hang from the bar for 110 seconds.”
So money does motivate people to work longer. And in many organisations that is equivalent to working harder. But as Heffernan puts it “money has a more complex influence on people than just making them work longer.”
Experiments carried out by behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely suggest that the less appreciated we feel our work is, the more money we want to do it. Ariely gave research participants a piece of paper that was filled with random letters. The participant were divided into three groups, and had to find pairs of identical letters on the sheets of paper given to them and mark them out.
While returning their papers, the the participants in the first group wrote their names on the sheets of paper and handed it back to the experimenter. He took the sheet, looked it over, said “Uh huh” and put it in a pile.
The participants in the second group did not write their names on the sheets of paper. The experimenter took their sheets without looking at them and without saying anything. He placed them in a pile. The sheets handed over by the participants of the third group were immediately shredded, as soon as they handed them over.
In order to be a part of another round of the experiment, those in the third group whose sheets were shredded wanted twice the amount of money in comparison to those in the first group, whose sheets were simply put in a pile. Those in the second group whose work was saved but ignored wanted as much as participants of the third group whose sheets were shredded.
As Ariely put in a blog on 
www.ted.com “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes.” And when that happens people want to be paid more.
The next question that crops up is that does paying people more money make them work smarter?This question is of utmost importance given the fact that some of the highest paid people in the world brought it to the verge of economic collapse a few years back in late 2008.
Ariely and a group of researchers tested this out in an experiment they carried out in India (to control the costs involved in running the experiment). In this experiment, research participants were asked to play memory games and assemble puzzles while they were throwing tennis balls at a target. One third of the participants were promised one day’s pay, if they performed well. Another one third were promised two weeks pay. And the final third were promised five months pay (the real reason behind conducting the experiment in India), if they did well.
The results were surprising. Those who were promised a day’s pay and two weeks pay as a financial reward, performed equally well. But those who were offered five months pay, performed the worst.
Ariely explained this surprising finding in an article he wrote for 
The New York Times. Very high financial rewards act as a double edged sword, Ariely wrote. “They provide motivation to work well, but they also cause stress and preoccupation with the reward that can actually hurt performance.”
Of course this in no way means that people don’t want to paid more, even though the prospect of earning more money starts hurting their performance beyond a point. Also, more money doesn’t always make people happier.
Research carried out by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who won the Noble Prize in economics) in 2010 found that more money makes people happier upto an income of $75,000 per year. As Kahneman writes in 
Thinking, Fast and Slow “The satiation level beyond which experienced well being no longer increases was a household income of $75,000 in high cost areas (it could be less in areas where the cost of living is lower). The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero…Higher income brings with it higher satisfaction, well beyond the point at which it ceases to have any positive effect on experience.”
So earning more money is not always directly proportional to greater happiness. But then why does money continue to bother people (as we saw in my friend’s case) so much? Nassim Nicholas Taleb perhaps has an explanation for it in 
Anti Fragile “The worst side of wealth is the social association it forces on its victims, as people with big houses tend to end up socialising with other people with big houses.”
Beyond a point the need for more money is an essential part of being seen at the top of the rat race. More money is also equated with higher intelligence and leads to greater respect from the society at large. As John Kenneth Galbraith, one economist who thoroughly deserved a Nobel prize, but never never got it, put it in 
A Short History of Financial Euphoria: “Individuals and institutions are captured by the wondrous satisfaction from accruing wealth. The associated illusion of insight is protected, in turn, by the oft-noted public impression that intelligence, one’s own and that of others, marches in close step with the possession of money.” Hence, money after a point becomes a measure of intelligence and success and that creates problems of its own.
The article originally appeared in the Wealth Insight magazine dated August 1, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Why we're not best-equipped to multitask

Businessman on cell phone in car
Vivek Kaul

Nidhi Pandey, a 17 year old girl died, after she was hit by a speeding bus in Dadar, Mumbai, on June 3, 2013. The Mumbai Police strongly believe that she was listening to music while crossing the road.
As the Mumbai Mirror reportsNidhi died around 10 am yesterday after she was hit by a private bus while crossing a road at Dadar TT. While her family denies she was wearing earphones at the time, the police believe it is highly likely that she was. Manisha Murumkar, sub-inspector, Matunga police station, said, “We strongly suspect that Nidhi was listening to music while crossing the road as she was found with her earphones plugged into her phone and both ear pieces near her ears.”
Prima facie it does seem that Nidhi was listening to music while crossing the road given the statement of the Mumbai Police, which claims to have reached the accident spot within ten minutes of the accident. “
We reached the spot in 10 minutes and took her to Sion hospital in our police van. However, it was too late – Nidhi died before she could be admitted,” sub-inspector Murumkar told Mumbai Mirror. Given this, the conclusion one can draw is that Nidhi was so immersed in the music that she had no clue of the speeding bus.
But Nidhi Pandey was unlucky. There are so many people who have their earphones on and are listening to music while doing other important activities, like crossing the road, climbing onto trains and so on. A common sight these days is people smsing while walking on the pavement or even crossing the road. Then there are others who talk on their mobile phones while driving. The ‘smarter’ ones either use ear-phones or hands-free while speaking on their mobile phones while driving, thinking that using such gadgets makes the experience safe and risk-free.
But that is not the case.
Christopher Charbis and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla – And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us refer to this situation as inattentional deafness. “When people are focussing attention (visual and auditory) on (a) task…they are unlikely to notice something unexpected,” write the authors. So when people are engrossed listening to music while crossing the road, they are likely to miss the oncoming bus.
In fact Chabris and Simons conducted a very small experiment which has since then gone global. They made a small film which basically had students of Harvard University playing basketball. One team was wearing white and another team was wearing black.
After they had made the film, they ran a small experiment, where they asked volunteers to watch the film and count the number of passes made by the team wearing white, ignoring the passes made by the team wearing black.
Around a minute later, the volunteers were asked whether they had seen something else. Nearly half of them said they hadn’t seen anything else. But they had missed out on something major. As Daniel Kahneman writes in
Thinking, Fast and Slow “The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual.”
As author Margaret Heffernan admits in
Wilful Blindness – Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril “The experiment has been shown repeatedly, around the world, in front of diverse audiences. I first saw it in Dublin, in an audience full of executives. Like them, I was so focussed on counting the passes I never saw the gorilla.”
In fact so stunning were the results that Chabiris and Simons did not believe the results initially. As Heffernan points out “Simons was so stunned by the results that he says that for several years afterwards, he still kept expecting people to spot the gorilla.”
So what happened here? Why did the people fail to see the obvious? As Kahneman writes “Intense focussing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention…It is the counting task (counting the passes being made by the white team) – and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams – that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without the task would miss the gorilla….The authors (i.e. Chabris and Simons) note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there – they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”a
There was another experiment carried out by the Washington Post newspaper a few years back, with Grammy Award winning violinist Joshua David Bell being a part of it. At 7.51am on January 12, 2007, Bell started playing violin at the L’Enfant Plaza subway stop at Washington D.C in the United States. Bell had kept his violin cases open for donation as he played six classical pieces over the next 43 minutes. During the period 1097 people crossed him.
Gene Weingarten, a staff writer at the Washington Post, was the brain behind the experiment. After the experiment Weingarten asked Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, of what he thought would happen
if a world famous violinist decided to play his violin incognito at rush hour time and with an audience of around 1000 odd people.
“Let’s assume that he is not recognised and just taken for granted as a street musician… Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe… but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening,” replied Slatkin.
The actual result was very surprising and nowhere near what Slatkin thought it would be.
As Weingarten later wrote in the Washington Post “In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”
And this for the same Joshua David Bell playing, whose concert tickets could cost as much as $100, and who earned as high as $1000 per minute, everytime he played. Weingstein was very disappointed with the way the experiment turned out. As he wrote “It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgement…If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing.”
But the people travelling through the subway stop had been inattentionally deaf to the great music being played. They were totally focused on boarding the Metro train from the station and were totally deaf to the great music being played around them. It was the same as what happens in the invisible gorilla experiment. People are so focussed on counting the passes that they totally miss the gorilla.
The basic point of these experiments is that multitasking is not something that human beings are good at, even though most of us do it all the time. One of the most the common multitasking situations is drivers using mobile phones while driving to talk, sms and these days even for posting something on Facebook. But as Charbis and Simons point out “the driving impairments caused by talking on a cell phone are comparable to the effects of driving while legally intoxicated.”
One solution that has emerged is the hands-free. Turns out a hands-free is equally bad. “Experiment after experiment has shown no benefit whatsoever for hands-free phones over handheld ones. In fact, legislation banning the use of handheld phones might even have the ironic effect of making people more confident that they can safely use a hands-free phone while driving,” write the authors. So while traffic police fines people for talking on their phones while driving, there is no punishment for talking using a hands-free or earphones for that matter.
Charbis and Simons summarise it best when they write”the main conclusion from studies of multitasking is that virtually nobody does it well: As a rule, it is more efficient to do tasks one at a time rather than simultaneously.” So the next time you are crossing the road, just cross the road, the music blaring through the earphone can wait for a few seconds.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on June 5, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Why is DU in such a hurry to introduce a four-year degree?

Vivek Kaul 
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning psychologist (he won the Nobel Prize for economics) , in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, writes about a very interesting experience in designing a course he wanted introduce in high schools in Israel. Kahneman is currently the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the Princeton University in the United States. But he started his career in Israel.
As he writes “I convinced some officials at the Israeli Ministry of Education of the need for a curriculum to teach judgement and decision making in school. The team that I assembled to design the curriculum and write a textbook for it included several experienced teachers, some of my psychology students, and Seymour Fox, then dean of the Hebrew University’s School of Education, who was expert in curriculum development.”
The team used to meet every Friday afternoon. In a year’s time they managed to construct a detailed outline of the syllabus, write a few chapters and even run a few sample lessons in the classroom. At this point of time Kahneman thought of running a small exercise and asked the team he was working with, to write down the time they thought it would take to present a complete textbook to the Ministry of Education, which could then go ahead and introduce the course.
As a part of the exercise Kahneman asked Fox, who was an expert at curriculum development, what had his previous experience been like. How much time did the teams in previous cases take to complete, what they had set out to do, Kahneman specifically asked Fox. ““I cannot think of any group that finished in less than seven years…nor any that took more than ten,””replied Fox.
Now contrast this with what is happening at Delhi University, where Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh, is trying to introduce a four year course to replace the current three year one. As things stand as of now, the four year course is expected to be introduced in a few months time, when the next academic session of the university starts.
The work towards introducing a four year course started only in September last year and in December a proposal to that effect was passed. As an article in the
 Outlook magazine points out “At a hastily called emergency academic council meeting, held on a restricted holiday (December 24), the proposal for the overhaul was passed. The agenda pap­ers of the meeting were made available to council members only two days bef­ore the meeting.”
The new academic session of the university starts in July, later this year. In six months time, between July and December, the Delhi University is trying to change the fundamental way it teaches, when it took at least seven years to introduce just a new course in the high schools of Israel.
Now that does not mean that India should also take seven to ten years to overhaul its education system, just because Israel used to do that. But the larger point is that changing the fundamental way of teaching in a central university cannot be done overnight, which is what Delhi University seems to be trying to do.
The first question that needs to be answered is that why is the change being made? Satish Despande, who teaches at the Delhi School of Economics told 
Outlook, “Not a single public document has been distributed for the rationale beh­ind introducing the four-year course. So, all we are saying is, tell us why.”
The purported reason that seems to be coming out is that it will help those students who want to go to the United States for further studies. As Swapan Dasgupta 
wrote in a column in The Times of India yesterday “Shashi Tharoor proclaimed his support for the four-year degree course Delhi University is set to introduce from July. Tharoor’s logic was simple: the American 12 + 4 pattern has become the norm. “Indian students with 10+2+3 were made to do an extra year in the US. It was frustrating for many.””
Tharoor passed out of St Stephens College in Delhi, and then went to do his PhD from the Tufts University in the United States. Given this, Tharoor’s concern for those students of Delhi university who go to the United States for further studies is understandable.
But what about the ‘lesser mortals’ who decide to stay back and carry on their education or work to make a living, in India? As Ramachandra Guha 
writes in a column in the Hindustan Times “The logic of converting an established three-year degree programme into one of four years has not been carefully examined. When all other public universities in India have a three-year programme, how can one university alone stand out? The argument that the change will help students get admission into American universities is extremely elitist, since that possibility is open to (at most) 1% of DU students.”
Even if one does not get into the specific reasons for this change, there are other practical issues that need to be addressed.
The new four year structure allows students to drop out at the end of two or three years. Where will these students stand? Will a student who completes three years at Delhi university be eligible for its Post Graduate courses?
As mentioned earlier, Delhi university is a central university, which attracts students from all across the Eastern and Northern India. So will students who complete three year courses from other universities all across India, be eligible for Post Graduate courses on offer at the Delhi university?
If yes, then shouldn’t that be the case with students who complete three years at Delhi university? And if that is the case then why have a four year course at all? These are practical questions which need to be answered for the benefit of students who plan to apply in the various colleges affiliated to Delhi university later this year.
Then there is the problem of how will others treat Delhi university students who drop out at the end of two or three years? Will these students be eligible for MBA/UPSC/PO/any other exam that requires a three year bachelors degree?
That’s the practical part of it. Now lets come to the learning part. A 
senior administrator of the Delhi university told The Telegraph “Students are not gaining adequate skills and fundamental knowledge on matters relevant to life. The four-year course aims to teach those subjects that are relevant for students for their career, personal conduct and good citizenry.” The question of course is why can’t that be done in three years instead of four? And if its not being done in three years time what is the guarantee that it will be done in four years time?
The way the university plans to go about doing is this is putting students through 11 basic courses in the first two years. 
As Jayati Ghosh writes in The Hindu “Regardless of their previous training or choice of subject, allstudents will be forced to take 11 foundation courses, which will occupy most of their time in the first two years. These include two courses on “Language, Literature and Creativity” (one in English and the other in Hindi or another Modern Indian Language), “Information Technology,” “Business, Entrepreneurship and Management,” “Governance and Citizenship,” “Psychology, Communication and Life Skills,” “Geographic and Socio-economic Diversity,” “Science and Life,” “History, Culture and Civilisation,” “Building Mathematical Ability” and “Environment and Public Health.”
While broadening the horizon of students is always a good idea, doing it in an unplanned way can have unpleasant consequences. There are multiple questions that crop up here. Who will teach these courses? Are the current lot of Delhi university equipped enough to teach these courses? The Delhi university currently has 4000 vacancies for teachers. So is it in a position to take on this extra burden? What about the text books for these courses?
Also what will be the level of these courses going to be? As Ghosh puts it “These courses will have to be pitched at a level that can be understood by anyone with a basic school qualification. So the course on, say, “Building Mathematical Ability,” must be comprehensible to a student who has not done Mathematics at the Plus Two level, which would make it too basic to retain the interest of students who have already done it in school.”
The multi-disciplinary course goes against the entire idea of the Indian education system where students are expected to pick up their broad specialisation at the 10+2 level.
There are too many questions which need to be answered before a four year course can be introduced. Introducing the course without answering these questions would amount to experimenting with lives of students. Something that should not be done.
Let me conclude this with a personal experience. My three year bachelors degree in mathematics from Ranchi University took me four years to complete. The university during those days was running a year late. Final year exams which should have happened in May-June 1998, finally happened in May-July 1999. In fact, we were told that we were lucky because in the late eighties and the early nineties it took even five and a half years to complete a three year bachelors degree from Ranchi University.
In the end it were students like me who lost precious time because the university system kept screwing up. If the Delhi university goes ahead with its four year programme in its current shape, it is the students who will have to pay for it.

PS: And who has come with the names for the new Delhi university degrees? The university will award an Associate Baccalaureate (after 2 years), a Baccalaureate (after 3 years), and a Baccalaureate with Honours (after 4 years). Can we at least have names for degrees which we can pronounce, the fascination of Delhi university and Dinesh Singh for French notwithstanding.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 6,2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)