Monday, May 08, 2006

Why not a 4-year Bachelors program in science?


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 two IISERs are entirely new, autonomous institutions, and they have nothing at all to do with IISc. In particular, they are not 'branches' of IISc!

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.

In the eighties, the engineering curriculum underwent a major revamp, which pruned the B.E. or B.Tech. courses from the then existing five-year programs intothe current four-year version [I belong to the first four-year batch; our batch graduated in 1985 together with the (last 5-year batch) students who entered college one year ahead of us, in 1980.]

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.

* * *

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.

7 Comments:

  1. Raghu said...

    Your posts on education have an uncanny knack of putting into word what most "academically-oriented" people feel.

    I strongly believe that IISc, TIFR or the IITs are in the best position to create the niche 4-year science degree programs, especially by tapping the JEE. I know of so many students with an amazing aptitude for physics, math etc who end up in CS or other engineering streams because the only socially prestigious undergraduate institutions are the IIT's. When these people get into a PhD program, they end up doing what they were interested in earlier (science).

    Case in point - the 'Primes is P' guys (Neeraj Kayal, Nitin Saxena)from IIT Kanpur who won the 2006 Godel Prize. Their work is essentially math. Both are CS grads with Math Olympiad pasts. They said the only reason they took CS at an IIT was due to peer-pressure even though their hearts lay in math. Its another matter that they did find a way to do what they like, eventually.

    I think the idea is that a 5-year integrated M.Sc program is consistant with the existing indian system of 3+2+PhD. While a 4 year one would allow the students to apply abroad for a PhD (with ease) whereas the 3 yr BSc or 5 yr MSc is oddly placed for this. Meaning - the 4 year BS can only be justified in its ease in allowing students to go abroad for a PhD, which is not the motive of indian science (per say). Though, for the sake of indian science, I think, it would be necessary.

  2. Krish said...

    I agree with you on this idea. It will boost the popularity of science tremendously. I have seen many people opting for Engg. over science because of the extra 1 year necessary for completing M.Sc. program. Another proof for your suggestion is B.Tech (Engg Physics) in IITB. Once they brought in a 4 year B.Tech program instead of 5 year Integrated M.Sc. program, it became immensely popular. This program gave an early start for many students who went on to do Ph.D. compared to 5 year programs in many other places (say IITK, for example). I also feel that if all the undergraduate programs in our country (including arts, social sciences, business administration, commerce) are converted into 4 year programs, it will put them on par with BEs and B.Techs while competing for students' interest. We can then eliminate the current day Masters programs in various universities and make them more specialized training students on specific areas of interest.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Hi Abi

    IITKGP has started courses on Law. IITM is starting an integrated MA programme (5 year one) from this year. It already has B.Tech(BioTech) programme going on. If this new humanities course succeeds, it may inspire other disciplines too. Perhaps when the five year courses succeed, they may get 'pruned' to four year versions. Looks like some of the speciality institutes are slowly diversifying themselves to become 'real' universities. A welcome trend infact.

    -Phani

  4. Abi said...

    Raghu, Krish, Phani: Thanks for your comments, with additional information about various programs, their duration and their attractiveness.

    Phani: With law, IIT-KGP is probably following what the leading institutions (such as NLSU) are already doing, so there may not have been much of a choice. But, with the IISERs, there was a great opportunity to start with a clean slate, simply because these institutions have been mandated to become the torch-bearers of Indian science education. They could have taken this bold step, but alas, they didn't.

    As for IIT-M's MA program, I think they too could have gone in for a radical change, and introduced a four-year BS program in social sciences/humanities. I am not sure, however, about how attractive such a thing would be in these subjects.

    Raghu: Whether graduate studies happen in India or abroad is immaterial. What is important is whether we can attract a lot of Indian students get into science. Currently, it is attractive for them to get into an engineering program, and then switch to science (typically, physics or math) during their graduate studies. While quite a few do it every year, a lot more are 'lost' to engineering, MBA, etc., along the way; if the four-year BS was available, my bet is that quite a few would have joined science right away.

    Krish: Your example of what happened to BTech in Engineering Physics is interesting. I now have one more data point supporting my hypothesis. Thanks!

  5. pennathur said...

    We have a cockeyed and stupid ranking of science and engg. disciplines (written before here and now repeated) where the top rankers get to choose with CS and MechE a close 2nd (used to be EE or "electronics engg.") on top with civil at the bottom; and the sciences coming even lower. The IITs in their infinite wisdom have continued with this silly scheme and show no signs of changing their minds. Of course once in a while students with real passion for the sciences follow their instincts (eg., Anand of Locana). A graduate student at the IUCAA, Pune tells me that even with all the support available for the sciences these days in India, it is still a suboptimal career choice. And while we go about setting up yet another string of elite institutions what about the 100s of once elite institutions we already have? When is Calcutta University going to produce another Saha and another Bose and when will Madras University produce another GNR?

  6. The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

    My $0.02: not many science students realise that they want to pursue research, or higher studies in science when they're committing to a bachelor's program. For most, they discover the appeal during the course of doing their B.Sc. Therefore, if offered a choice between a 4 year and a 3 year bachelor's degree, most will opt for the 3 year. Exactly because of what you say , the typical mentality is calculating that one year as a big deal, when it's not.

  7. Abi said...

    Shiva: You have posed some important questions. That our universities have been neglected for so long is something that bothers me too. However, I feel that this issue is slightly different from the attractiveness of science as a career. Unless science courses are seen to be viable options for a great career, they will continue to be discounted by the teenagers (and their middle class parents).

    TGFI: I agree with you on your 4-year and 3-year courses within the same college. My point is that between a 5-year M.Sc. and a 4-year BS within the IIT (or IISER) system, the latter would attract a lot more people, which could then be a precursor for extending this idea to other colleges (Central Universities and University Colleges, for example).