Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Four-year bachelor's program in the sciences

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.

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The Academies' position paper on the need for a four-year BS program is not available online. However, a couple of things mentioned in it are. The first one is a column by D. Balasubramanian (President, IAS) in The Hindu last July. The other one is a letter to the editor of Current Science by Tushar Chakraborty of IICT.

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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.

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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.

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Finally, a couple of observations about the meeting; specifically, about the people that were missing at the meeting.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?


  1. Anonymous said...

    I think that students can actually benefit from a 4 year program since it can actually allow space for exploration. For eg:-Somebody who may wish to pursue an MCA can actually take a few courses during the BS to build a small background, or perhaps less pragmatically , someone with an interest in history and science can develop a joint expertise in 4 years which would be impossible in 3 years.

    Also, one look at the curriculum set up by IISER Kolkata shows two characteristics: 2 courses in Humanities and Social Sciences across 5 years and mandatory 5 courses per semester; which will automatically lead to 2 things, students with a very narrow vision
    and of course students will not master any subject since it requires next to super human effort to learn about 5 difficult subjects simultaneously.

    It is an interesting exercise to compare the curriculum at the most rigorous science program in the US at Caltech and to see the difference, students required to study at least 12 courses , early and extensive introduction of electives, institutional introduction to research.

  2. Anonymous said...

    An error in my last comment in the last para; "students are required to study at least 12 courses in Humanities and social sciences."

  3. cipher said...

    I agree to the previous comment. While the establishing of these 4 year science programs is laudable, what is more important I think is to take a relook at the way students are saddled to a particular discipline from day 1. Although there is a minor stream and there are a few electives here and there, the avenues of exploration are very few. The emphasis on exploration is even lesser which is unhealthy for the students in the long run. I can't speak for everyone but quiet a few people are disgruntled by the stream which is thrust upon them and there is a big sense of loss at the end of 4 years.
    One last thing. The quality and value of our Masters programs is absolutely abysmal. People complain about engineers only doing MBAs but the fact is that an Indian masters program adds no value and is not coveted. Perhaps we need to create some really coveted MS programs which add value in visible terms to a student's CV.

  4. Anonymous said...

    aha but you don't mention the most important position paper of them all published in Ganashakti by the education cell of the CPI(M). "Efforts to breed elitism by attacking student democracy and by allocating scarce educational resources to a few select educational institutions must be condemned as just another pillar of the imperialist privatization agenda. The need of the hour is to make available resources in an equitable manner to even the most remotest and deprived of our public universities, which are the only instruments of social change." (translated from Bengali by not a native speaker)

    The necessities of coalition dharma entail that there be no movement whatsoever on this front. This is no trivial matter but a critical part of the left front agenda

  5. Anonymous said...

    Humanities? Social Sciences? Never heard of (them). At least not in the hallowed portals of IISc.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Hi Abi!!
    Having lived in the IISER system for quite sometime now, I cannot help but agree with your opinion that IISERs have committed a mistake by not taking the initiative and starting a 4 year B.S course. This is really important considering that the 1 year research and thesis component of the 5 year course is not being implemented in a proper manner. The students are being literally forced to choose their thesis projects in areas delimited by the interests of the faculty at the IISERs (which is very narrow anyway). They are not being allowed to collaborate with people outside the respective IISERs and work on things which really interests them. A 4 year B.S would be a much more likeable option for the students since it does not involve them working on things which do not interest them at all for a year (which is considered to be a very long period of time by most of them).