Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bachelors program at IISc and TIFR?

Update (almost 10 months later): Venkat, over at Domesticated Onion, offers his opinion on this matter here.

Before I begin, I request you to read this disclaimer: I am writing all this stuff as a private individual; my employer is not responsible for any of the views and opinions in this post -- or, for that matter, in any of the other posts in this blog! .... Hmmm.... I feel much better now!

Let us now start with a scene in the movie, Desperately seeking Susan, in which the character played by the pop diva Madonna is at a party, and her friend introduces one "Dr. Smith" (see [1] in the footnotes) to her. After a bit of stilted conversation, the man leaves the two friends alone, and Madonna asks her friend in a voice full of thinly suppressed disdain, "Is he a real doctor, or is he one of those Ph.D.'s?".

This post is about the question of whether our elite research institutions (ERIs), represented by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR), should offer undergraduate (UG) programs. This question is only going to become more and more insistent with time. The reason is simple: the ERIs, whose research capabilities are unrivalled at any other Indian university, do not have an UG program. Sure they offer PhDs by the hundreds every year; but shouldn't they also award Bachelors degrees if they want to be seen as a real university [2]? After all, there aren't many universities without a strong UG program (in fact, I cannot think of any, right at the moment).

There is a widespread perception that undergraduate education -- particularly in the sciences -- is not in a great shape in our universities. Given such perceptions, there will certainly be a move to make the ERIs start UG programs. Let us take a look at two important drivers behind the move, which I think will succeed sooner or later:

1. Remember the recent budget speech by our Finance Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram? He announced that he "propose[s] to provide [to IISc] an additional sum of Rs.100 crore as a grant for this purpose". What is "this purpose" that Chidambaram is talking about? To make IISc a world class university! While the media went berserk with the "world class" meme, I am sure quite soon the attention will turn to the "university" meme. If the premise that real universities -- particularly the ones mentioned by Chidambaram himself: Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford -- are deeply into UG education, don't you think someone in the Parliament is going to ask, "how far has this 100 Crore largesse helped in achieving its stated goal?".

2. Research degrees alone don't a university make. Thus, if you disregard any of the masters programs (e.g. IISc's engineering departments offer M.E., M.Tech and M.Des. programs), what the ERI's do is quite simple, conceptually: almost complete focus on research, coupled with meagre teaching. In other words, this mode of functioning is so similar to that of research labs -- including those run by the Departments of Space (DoS), Atomic Energy (DAE), Defence (DoD), and a giant organization called the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Here is an interesting twist: CSIR has already caught onto this fact, and has already applied to the University Grants Commission (UGC) for a "deemed university" status for some of its labs, so that they can offer Ph.D. degree programs without having to depend on the benevolence of nearby universities. Some people have told me that UGC has granted some of its labs this status, but I have not been able to verify it.

A related point is that starting such institutions that concentrate only on the research programs leading to a Ph.D. degree is not all that difficult. All it requires is a sufficiently motivated scientist who has a powerful politician as a friend. There are quite a few examples of such institutions in India.

Given these facts, I think it is only a matter of time before ERIs decide that they are better off joining the ranks of "real universities" than being a part of this motley crowd of labs and small, specialized research institutions.

I think these two important drivers will do much to push the ERIs in the direction of starting UG programs. I also think that the journey of ERIs towards the goal of UG education and real university-hood is much less difficult than the reverse journey of the universities to improve their research performance (which, I hasten to add, is also essential). Further, given the intellectual firepower available in ERIs, they can easily set an example (for other universities to follow) in terms of innovation in designing and delivering UG programs [3].

Finally, there is an argument that, with the proliferation of engineering colleges all across the country, there will be no takers for UG programs in science. My answer is that science will always attract students if good institutions offer programs in science. In this respect, ERIs are better placed than anyone else.

It is time to end this post with a question similar to Madonna's: "Are you ERIs ever going to become real universities, or are you going to be content with being "deemed universities"?


[1]: I haven't seen the movie, so I am not sure about this name (Dr. Smith).

[2]: A university can be defined as the place where knowledge is created, preserved, and disseminated. ERI's are certainly good at the first two, but contribute very little to dissemination of knowledge to the younger generation on a large scale. Our universities, on the other hand, seem to concentrate on educating students, than on knowledge creation and preservation.

[3]: An educational innovation that comes to mind immediately is to move away from the archaic 3-year B.Sc. program to a more standard 4 year BS program in sciences, that will put it on the same footing with the 4-year BE programs in engineering. Some of you may recall that the earlier, 5-year BE programs underwent some "reforms" to become the current, rather successful 4-year program.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I think that turning the ERI's in to full fledged universities over time will be a very positive step. Care should be taken, though, to not make the bachelor's programs too large without hiring additional faculty. ERI's should and must continue to engage in their research activities, so a careful balance is required.

  2. Unknown said...

    It's very simple why IISc has lift up UG programs. Earlier it had education of even diploma programs. Two main reasons are there behind it: Research ambience should not be spoilt by a large number of UG students who are mostly immature (maybe intelligent) and secondly, administration & management becomes really difficult. Moreover, at premier institutions, the research are mainly contributed by graduate students (ME, MS and PhD) not by UG students because of the type of course structure. Anyway 30% of students from IITs and NITs go abroad for their higher studies to do research or earning bigger salaries. So, if IISc restarts the program for UG then merely it will serve to push UG students to abroad for higher studies and get nothing back.