India's three science academies -- the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, and the National Academy of Sciences, India -- came together to organize a meeting at IISc last Saturday to discuss this topic.
Participation was by invitation; while I wasn't among the invitees, my colleague Prof. Ranganathan alerted me about this event and encouraged me to attend it.
The meeting started with statements from the Presidents of the three academies -- Prof. D. Balasubramanian (IAS, Bangalore), Prof. M. Vijayan (INSA, New Delhi) and Prof. Ashok Misra (NASI, Allahabad). All of them said they liked the idea (phew, that's a relief!). Then, there were four talks: Prof. S.C. Lakhotia (Professor of Zoology at the Banaras Hindu University) outlined the reasons why there is a need for this program, its advantages and (potential) disadvantages. Then, Prof. V. Balaji took the audience through several different models of undergraduate programs that are in actual practice: Harvard, Oxford, National University of Singapore and University of Toronto. Two IISER directors, Prof. N. Sathyamurthy (Mohali) and Prof. S. Dattagupta (Kolkata), spoke about how their 5-year MS programs are structured, and the philosophy behind their choices. Both emphasized that the MS programs could be thought of as a combination of a 4-year BS program and an additional year of masters thesis research.
* * *
Two years ago, I liked this idea so much that I felt that IISERs missed a great opportunity to introduce this program; they chose a 5-year MS program instead. I still like the idea, and it is worth pursuing. I think institutions with a strong research footprint -- IISERs, IITs, and Central Universities, in particular -- are best positioned to introduce it.
We should resist the urge to impose One National Curriculum on all the institutions. During the meeting, it was made clear that we have a wide variety of institutions, ranging from tightly focused schools such as the CMI, through IISERs with their science programs, IITs with their programs in both science and engineering, all the way to research universities with programs in many fields. While a program that has a broad base in humanities, natural and social sciences (such as that in Harvard) is feasible in our universities, it would be impossible at CMI. Thus, each institution should have the freedom to choose a curriculum that plays to its strengths.
For a large fraction of our students, a bachelor's degree is just a stepping stone for other things in life: a job, an MBA, or a masters in computer applications or History. While these students may also benefit from a 4-year BS program, they would probably prefer the current 3-year program to continue. .
Given that colleges cater to more than 90 percent of our UG population, and given that not all of them are likely to be able to offer the BS program, the BS and BSc programs will need to coexist for a long time to come!
From the structure of the MS programs at IISERs, it appears that they are a combination of a 4-year BS program and a one year of thesis research. In other words, they are like the dual degree programs in the IITs. Thus, in principle, IISERs could easily switch to what the IITs currently do: admit students into both the 4-year BS and the 5-year MS programs (perhaps in the ratio of 60 percent to 40 percent). While the institutions benefit from the MS students' research, they will be able to satisfy the country's need for a greater number of well trained science graduates.
* * *
Finally, a couple of observations about the meeting; specifically, about the people that were missing at the meeting.
- I got the impression that there were just a few professors from our colleges (where over 90 percent of our students study). Their views -- particularly about the possible pitfalls in implementing the BS program in our universities and colleges -- would have been helpful at this stage.
- Another jarring absence was that of professors from humanities and social sciences. Surely a change in the UG program's structure in the sciences cannot happen (easily) without a corresponding change in the other fields? Getting these folks on board at an early stage would be a good idea, no?