Sunday, September 06, 2009

Undergraduate program at IISc

It appears that our Institute's worst-kept secret is finally out: IISc is planning an undergraduate progam.

Why do I call it that? Alert folks would probably have noticed all kinds of clues in MSM as well as blogs. Sure, some of it was speculation, but some others did allude to real and serious discussions that were -- and are -- going on in IISc.

Interestingly, the proposal is for a 4-year BS program in the sciences -- the first such program in the country. [see these   posts for some earlier discussions].

The proposal still has a few more hurdles to overcome, but it has the right sort of momentum that I believe will see it through.

* * *

Some of you may remember that the Institute did run a (highly successful) post-BSc undergraduate program in engineering leading to a BE degree. In the 50s and the 60s, it was a 2-year program; it was converted into a 3-year program in late 60s.

The decline in this program's fortunes began in the 1980s due to two key developments over which IISc didn't have any control:

  • In 1981, the conventional (post-secondary school) BE/BTech degrees went from 5-years to 4-years (I belong to the fist batch of the 4-year BTech program); this development made IISc's effectively six-year program -- with 3-years of BSc followed by 3 years of BE -- relatively unattractive.

  • But, more importantly, it was also during this time when the private engineering colleges began to grow in number -- a process that's still underway. Ever-growing (and easier!) opportunities for a 4-year bachelors program made the 6-year version at IISc even less attractive.

In response to not just these developments, but also to its own perception that it should become a "pure" post-graduate institution, the Institute replaced the BE program with a 4-year Integrated ME program for BSc graduates. But the die was cast: even this program was scrapped 1996, with the final batch graduating in 2000.

But all that was in engineering. The current proposal is largely in the sciences, with engineering departments playing only a supporting role.

* * *

As expected, I'm going to use this opportunity to do some attention-seeking, by pointing you all to this post from 2005 when this idea was, in the memorable words of Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon - 3, I think), "no more than an itch in [somebody's] pants."

I'm also posting here an e-mail (after a bit of editing) which I sent to about a hundred colleagues on an internal mailing list.

* * *

Dear [Colleagues],

Here are some arguments for why, from an institutional point of view, it is in IISc's long-term interests to start a UG program. These arguments (especially 1 to 3, below) are based on my perception of the direction of policy winds, which I have been following on my personal blog for over four years. Your perceptions may differ from mine; if they do, I would be interested to hear your views on these trends.

With that preamble out of the way, here we go, starting with the most important:

  1. Sooner or later, the government will demand a UG program. When it does, it'll be insistent, strident.

    [Maybe I need to explain why I think this will happen.]

    India's higher ed system has effectively delinked research from teaching. Universities don't do UG teaching; they do only UG examinations. UG teaching is what happens in colleges, a vast majority of which have little or no footprint in research.

    This state of affairs is now widely recognized as dysfunctional; less than 25 percent of our engineering graduates (and less than 15 percent overall) are deemed employable. Politicians and business leaders have taken notice.

    IITs, IISERs, BHU, and a few Central universities that offer integrated MSc degrees (and, to a smaller extent, some of the NITs) are the honorable oases in our vast, barren higher ed landscape.

    To the extent that India's progress needs an effective higher ed system, it is clear that more and more of our institutions must be transformed into "real" universities that do both research and UG teaching.

    This means that colleges will be asked to do (more) research; more importantly, our universities (and research institutions like IISc and TIFR) will be asked to do UG teaching.

    This is not idle speculation. Prof. Yash Pal has already made this suggestion for JNU, and forced their Senate to take it up for discussion. NKC has recommended that the new universities we start must combine research with UG teaching. These demands will only intensify.

    [Arguments such as "500 graduates from IISc are too small in number to matter" are not valid, because over 95+ percent of those half a million engineering graduates go to colleges whose capabilities are so evidently sub-par. In a national effort to raise the quality of UG education, everyone will be asked to contribute -- and that'll include the universities, and yes, the IISc, too.]

    It is far better for IISc to be proactive in adding a UG program, than to react to external demands. Also, if IISc takes the initiative, it'll get to do it the way it likes.

  2. In fact, if IISc were to lead the initiative in offering UG programs, it will cement IISc's leadership position further in the public consciousness. It will be seen as showing the way to the Central and State universities. [By the same token, a PR disaster is a certainty if IISc were to say no after a public demand is made that it start a UG program; if you think this demand will not be made, read 1 again].

    With active researchers -- most of whom have benefited from the very environment that IISc's UG program will create -- IISc is well positioned to pull it off. If it does it now, it will also benefit from a benign funding environment.

  3. Elite research institutions like IISc attract huge amounts of government funding (measured in terms of, for example, amount per faculty); it takes just one or two politicians, or activists (or even Council members ;-) to start asking probing questions about what the country gets in return, and if those returns are commensurate with the level of funding, particularly in comparison with other institutions.

    IISc's leadership position in its own bastion is increasingly under threat. IIT-B produced more PhDs last year than IISc did; IIT-KGP is likely to leapfrog IISc as well (if it has not done it already). And Several IITs are not too far behind IISc in terms of publications (Giridhar or Ram may have numerical evidence for these observations). IISc's performance will come under sharp, and increasingly harsh scrutiny in the years to come.

    Bottomline: A diversified portfolio -- that includes a world-class UG program -- is good for IISc.

  4. UG program will ensure a stability in funding. In this era of abundance, this argument may look laughably silly. But, don't count on good times to last long; just ask the poor souls who suffered through the horrible crunch of the late 80s and early 90s.

  5. Our graduates are our allies. Particularly when times turn tough. Our UG graduates will provide more bang for the buck (in terms of moral and financial support) than our masters and doctoral graduates. The emotional attachment of graduates to their UG institutions is strong, long-lasting. IISc will be wise to create this resource and nurture it.

I admit that 1-3 are based on environmental drivers (in the sense that they are external to IISc). But, institutions aren't islands -- especially those that are almost completely dependent on public money. It doesn't take much -- a couple of scandals will do! -- to change the public perceptions.



  1. as said...

    This is just great news. Its a giant leap forward in institutional thinking. I am very glad to see that the curriculum and choice of stream has been designed to be flexible, a sharp contrast to the IITs. Kudos to IISc, you are now inches away from becoming a full fledged university.

  2. Anonymous said...

    with regards to curriculum, some IITs have already created a flexible system offering more and more electives and minor programs. The contrast is narrowing for IISc. Also, full fledged univ. requires more than science and engineering departments.

    @Abi: It is a good move by IISc. I hope the engineering program also starts soon. One thing I should mention is that teaching undergrads at IITs is satisfying and yet challenging as we find some very bright students who keep us on our toes.

  3. as said...

    I am well aware that the undergrad programs at IITs are significantly more flexible as compared to a decade ago, however the IISc program is qualitatively more flexible as it asks the students to choose a major after 3 semesters which will definitely help them to make a far more informed choice than any IITian can make today. Yes, science and engineering do not alone make a university, and thats why I said inches away :), after all IISc will need some faculty to teach students history and other subjects mentioned in the article and the step from there to full fledged departments will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

  4. Anonymous said...

    After one says "the GoI pays much of our bills, so they can do as they please", there isn't anything to add. For some reason, folks keep finding all possible remedies for "the lacuna in higher [sic.] education" without focusing at the state of "lower" education. We will set up hundreds of IITs. IISc will go UG. IITs will give MBBS degrees and open schools of management. Free laptops will be given to village schools. Oh, did you say there is no flesh-and-blood teacher and no meal plan at the village school, and what? no blackboard either? Hush, that sounds so Fourth World. The reason our college education sucks is not "higher ed system has effectively delinked research from teaching". Look at Harvey-Mudd, Mills College, Pace University, Hoffstra. They do great UG education without any research charter. "Politicians and business leaders have taken notice." --- sure, that there is another vote bank to milk here. Force boys from slave labor to the classroom, or girls from managing siblings to the classroom, and see where the village vote bank goes. "To the extent that India's progress needs an effective higher ed system..." exactly. That extent is negligible. It's amazing that from top to bottom, our power structure and supposed intelligentsia is this badly disconnected from reality. Solving any problem from the ground up is strangely odious to us; we would rather cut off a tree at the root and water it from the top.

  5. Anonymous said...

    Those that the gods would destroy, they first disconnect from reality.

    Some statistics from ground realities:

    A little over one-third of all children who enroll in grade one reach grade eight.

    In India, only 20% of habitation has a secondary school.

    In nearly 60% of schools, there are less [sic.] than two teachers to teach Classes I to V.

    On an average, there are less than three teachers per primary school. They have to manage classes from I to V every day.

    [The] need to work to support their families and little interest in studies are the reasons given by 3 in every four drop-outs.

    More than 50 per cent of girls fail to enroll in school; those that do are likely to drop out by the age of 12.

    50% of Indian children aged 6-18 do not go to school.

  6. ggop said...

    Will the real anon please stand up? :-)
    (apologies to Eminem!)
    Please choose a handle!

  7. Anonymous said...

    "inches away" huh!
    It took IISc a long time to "think" about starting a UG program. And the size of the entire program proposed is that of my UG class.

  8. as said...

    I think it is right to start with a program of that size and scale up according to the response and resources. This will minimize the birth pangs which will surely occur. As to the 'inches', you may well turn out to be right, I prefer to think that it takes time to start a train but soon it has an unescapable momentum of its own. For now, I'll take heart in the fact that at least three people maintain the idea of a full-blown university in India in their minds.