Prof SSS Kumar
At the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, Prof SSS Kumar, CAT Convenor for 2012 is known as Triple S. And the name suits him rather well because being perpetually dressed in a loose shirt and casual trousers, he can easily be mistaken for a student. With a face that breaks into a grin at anytime and a low-pitched voice, Prof SSS Kumar makes quite an unlikey candidate for a CAT Convenor.
But of course, all that changes when he actually starts talking on what has been his pet subject for the last six months - The Common Admission Test.
Prof Kumar gave PaGaLGuY his first official and exclusive full-length interview. He however refused to be photographed, saying that his work needs to show for himself, not his photo. We got the photo from the IIMK archives.
So, you ready to take on the heavy mantle of the new responsibility?
CAT is a systems-driven operation. I cannot take credit for the work that is actually done by a team of 15-20 people in the background. Yes, I will be implementing all that has been decided and worked upon. During CAT, all the IIMs come together to make this thing work. There is great comraderie. It started in January when I was told about this new responsibility. I have been in touch with the fomer CAT Convenors of IIMA and IIML. I have also personally met and spoken to the last Convenor Prof J. Murthy. It was only when Prof Murthys work as such ended on March 31 that I formally took the reins.
There is always a hype around CAT, sometimes negative too.
There is lack of understanding of CAT from many. I would like to make people more aware of what CAT is. More than the knowledge coming from the IIMs, it is better that the knowledge comes from authoratative sources and informative websites like yours rather than peers who may also not be too well-informed. I would like to clear the skepticism and make things lucid.
There are no surprises in CAT 2012?
Yes, the biggest surprise is that there are no surprises in CAT this year. Some big changes were carried out last year and it is best that the changes are given time to settle. I would like to work with the parameters which have been laid. The changes last year were good and CAT went off smooth, which meant the changes were effective. No changes this time at all. The two sections and the timing remains exactly like last year.
But why not give candidates the freedom to choose the section they want to attempt first and also give a cumulative time for the whole exam instead of individual sections?
What you are saying makes sense but that can probably work better in a pencil-paper format. In CBT, it would be difficult if some candidates are on section one and others on sections two in one class taking the exam at the same time. It could lead to a difficult situation for the invigilator if some students try to compare notes. Besides, a good candidate is one who does well in both the sections rather than displaying intelligence in just one.
And even after all those changes in CAT last year, 'male-engineers' still dominate CAT?
Yes, they will but if that is the population of those who apply, it will be the same population that will seek admission and be part of the final intake of students as well. Yes, everybody likes to have diversity and more than anything gender diversity really helps in a class. Both men and women students come with their own characteristics and positives and that is important. We would love to see more of English Literature graduates and Biology graduates, (as example) at the interview. CAT takers reflect society as a whole.
Normalisation remains an ugly word?
Yes, there is some confusion on that. I would like to take on the mantle myself of clearing this issue. I would like to, by the end of my tenure prepare a word document that actually states the connection between scoring and the merit of the answers. At the moment, some candidates are not able to connect their performance with the actual scores. I would like to give a clearer explanation to it so that normalisation is understood correctly.
But normalisation works on the principle of relativity, so how will you come up with an objective definition ?
A candidate who does well in a paper expects scores to match what he thinks is his performance. But yes, there are others who have properly scored better than him, and that is where the understanding needs to take place. How marks are given needs to be explained. Our education system right from KG is on absolute marking, not on relative marking and we are obsessed with that method of being graded. So suddenly if one is exposed to the relative marking of scoring, understanding does pose a problem.
But are difficult levels really kept the same for all the papers to come up with one formula.
Yes, difficulty levels will be the same. The questions are checked and re-checked by experts before they are sent to the centres. And the scoring is also done after keeping the level of difficulty in the paper. In every paper, there will be some difficult and some not so difficult questions. The overall performance to each type of question is checked and then the scores are allotted.
But in the past candidates have complained about difficult questions and nothing is really done?
What is a difficult question is also debatable. Is it difficult just because a student is not able to attempt it or because he realises later that his answer was wrong or because it was genuinely difficult. If at any point there are genuinely very difficult questions, scores are also given accordingly.
What about wrong questions? Candidates have written in to us that they have complained and nothing has been done about them?
Like I told you, questions are given a thorough check and re-check before they are made part of the question paper. If after all that, if we get thousands of candidates saying that a question or a set of questions are wrong, we will get it checked from proper agencies. And if there is any doubt, we give the benefit of the doubt to the candidates. Remember, the candidate is the utmost priority for us. It is not that we want to purposely give wrong questions to make things difficult.
If what you are saying is true then taking the exam any day is the same. However, papers on the first day tend to be relatively easier than others?
Papers are allocated randomly over the testing days. No efforts are put in to make sure some papers are easy and some difficult. No, we do not set the first day papers as easy compared to other days. And what do you mean by easy? Easy could be that the students who wrote the paper were intelligent or may be the questions were in fact easy which means easy can be interpreted differently. Same with difficult questions or wrong questions. The questions may not be difficult or wrong but if a group of candidates find them difficult to answer, they will be labeled as wrong or difficult because thats the sentiment in that particular group of candidates.
Number of CAT takers stabilised last year after dropping for a few years. Anything that you plan to do?
Yes, the numbers have stabilised. But that is what I think the average CAT market is and will be for a while. It will not drastically go up or down. On our part, we are encouraging more schools to take CAT as the entrance test. This way we will increase number of candidate since the school pool will widen.
CAT was not part of the court case concerning entrance exams, that ensured some stability. How different is a paper like XAT when compared to CAT?
Yes CAT did not figure in the case. I guess XAT also comprises some testing of psychological aspects while CAT emphasis on Quant, logical and analytical skills.
But other exams like CMAT which are only one version old have raced forward. The exam is not only going abroad but also going to have multiple versions? CAT is nowhere close?
I cannot comment on CMAT and on the changes in CAT. Yes, changes have been discussed in CAT but none of them are going to happen this year
Why is CAT scheduled so much earlier in the year?
We have been seeing that every year CAT comes in the way of many festivals, typically Dusherra, Diwali and also Idd. We just decided to keep as many festivals out of the exam season so that candidates can revise without any distraction. This year, probably only Dusherra clashes with the CAT exam.
The revision is anyway taken care of coaching centres? What is your view on them?
Its a free market. If students are deriving something from the coaching centres, it is their call. We cannot stop or tell them not to. But what does CAT require really? Just a good brushing up of math at undergrad and school level and a good thorough reading of a few newspapers everyday. Those who wish to go for coaching classes do it on their will.
But CAT is made out to be one final goal to attain so there is a pressure to do well?
Yes, CAT is a prestigious exam. It is the pride of the IIMs and an exam that is looked on with high respect but what is asked in the exam is what one has learnt before. You dont really need to pressurise yourself too much for.
The irony is that while there is a pressure to get good scores in CAT, some of the top IIMS are not even taking the 100 percentilers in the name of diversity?
Yes, but IIMs have their own criteria. There are other qualities that schools want today which CAT scores alone cannot give for instance Team behaviour. A lot of calls are taken on the basis of personal interviews and other criteria. But it is not also that only the low scoring people are taken in the IIMs. It is the 96-99 percentilers who are there in the IIMs.
Anything being done to debar coaching centre officials who take the exam?
That is an ethical call the coaching centres have to take themselves
Have you increased the number of exam centres from last year?
No, but we have rationalised the number. There were some centres that got few takers and some got too many so we have just re-calculated depending on the usage of the last few years?
What about invigilators and the facilities inside the centres?
We will try to visit almost every centre to make sure that all services are constant and in line with what is required. Sometimes we will also make surprise visits. I want to ensure that differently-abled students are taken care of very well too.
Do the vouchers cost the same as last year and will they be avilable with Axis bank?
Yes, vouchers will cost the same and yes a trip to Axis Bank is mandatory. We tried to make the entire process online but due to lack of time could not do it. Next year, we will try for that.
But there were complaints that Axis Bank sent mailers about their banking services to CAT candidates last year?
Yes, we have made it very clear that there will not be any cross-selling this year in any condition.
Will you give up teaching for the next few months for CAT and has family life started getting affected?
I have been given the choice to give up teaching as long as I am CAT Convenor but I will not do that. Teaching gives me the breather when there is so much CAT work to do. Teaching energises me. Only yesterday, after many weeks, did I have proper home food. Have been travelling extensively and spent very little time at home with my wife and two small children. For my son, however CAT means cat, the animal. But I am the first generation academician in my family so this new responsibility makes them all happy.
Responsibility has finally sunk in?
I feel there is a responsibility over me. I am a little scared of the media since I do not want to be the centre of attention. I would prefer if my institute IIMK is given the importance instead. My appointment is an institutional appointment so I would prefer if there is no brand building for me.