The two Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) at Pune and Kolkata have already advertised their admissions process for the academic session starting in July 2006. These institutions don't have a website, yet. So, I am not able to comment on their faculty strength, or infrastructure.
The USP of IISERs is that that their faculty will do undergraduate teaching and pursue basic scientific research. UG teaching differentiates them from CSIR labs and their academic counterparts (such as TIFR and IISc ;-) that offer only doctoral (and/or masters) programs. Basic research differentiates them from the run-of-the-mill colleges that do UG teaching, but have little research footprint.
In short, IISERs are to the sciences what the IITs are to technical fields.
Well, that's the theory. It turns out that the IISERs will not offer a 'pure' UG course; what they will offer is the 'integrated' masters course leading to the M.Sc. degree in five years. Such a program already exists in several IITs, except, of course, that it is confined to physics, mathematics and chemistry. To my knowledge, IITs don't offer this program in biology.
I believe this is exactly where the IISERs have missed a great opportunity to improve on the current UG programs in the sciences. Specifically, the launch of these institutions could -- and, IMHO, should -- have been used to create a 4-year bachelors program in the sciences. In order to differentiate it with the current B.Sc. degree programs, let me refer to it as the BS program.
What are the advantages of the 4-year BS program? From the point of view of a student who is also a science enthusiast, there are quite a few. The first, of course, is standardization; this would be a step to make all our UG programs be of the same duration: 4 years.
In particular, the 4-year BS program will bring science on par with engineering. At present, science students have to slog for five full years -- and get their M.Sc. degrees -- before they can be admitted into Ph.D. programs -- either in India or abroad. With the 4-year BS program, this difference will go away, and science graduates can 'save' one year.
The current five year slog for M.Sc. makes it unattractive to a student who's agnostic about choosing science as opposed to engineering; in the present system, I wouldn't be surprised if he/she ends up choosing engineering. You want evidence? Just look at the cut-off ranks for the four-year B.Tech. programs and the five-year 'integrated' M.Tech. programs in the IITs. Even within the same engineering discipline, the five year program is considered to be less desirable! When this is so, a five year M.Sc. program in the sciences is even less desirable.
Granted, over the life span of a scientist (i.e., a 30 to 35 year career), the loss of a year should not be important. But, teens -- and more importantly, their parents -- just don't think that way! From this psychological point alone, a four-year BS program makes enormous sense.
So, IMHO, removing this barrier would do a great deal to make science more attractive. [This is not to deny the importance of taking other measures to make science careers attractive: such careers must pay a lot more than they do now, and our universities have to spruced up with better funding and infrastructure.]
Well, what might be the disadvantages? I can see at least one. And that is from the point of view of those students whose main interest is somewhere else: management, computer applications, Indian civil service, chartered accountancy, or any one of their equivalents. These are students who just need a degree -- any degree! -- to get on with their real goals. For them, a 3-year B.Sc. program is better than a 4-year BS program!
Research departments, as a rule, should cater to those who are going to stay in the field; not those who are planning to bolt! So, science departments at IISER, IITs, and our Central universities (which offer 5-year M.Sc. programs) are better off with the 4-year BS prorams. Simply because it's in the interest of those students who are likely to contribute to their field. Right now, by continuing with their 5-year M.Sc. programs, they are repelling an important group of students: science enthusiasts. And that, I think, is a terrible shame.
Our senior scientists -- and in particular, the biggest of them all, Prof. C.N.R. Rao, Chairman, Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council (SAC-PM) -- have been bemoaning the lack of interest among our teens in pursuing careers in science. The formation of IISER is a direct result of addressing a keenly felt need: availability of high quality centers of science education, where UG students would be taught by practising scientists. However, by going with the tired old option of the 5-year, integrated M.Sc. program, the IISERs are missing the bus. Again.
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Whatever I have said here is about science education, about which I think I know something. What about courses in humanities? Social sciences? Commerce? Business Administration? Would a 4-year bachelors program be better (than the current 3-year program) for these disciplines, too? Perhaps I can request some of you to comment on this point.