Bangalore: When Aprajit didn’t get through medical entrance tests in 2006, he didn’t have to think hard about Plan B. From Delhi Public School in RK Puram, he headed straight for a professional degree at the Amity Institute of Biotechnology. “Who wants to do a BSc these days?” he says, recalling that not even 5% of his DPS classmates opted for a BSc.
Two years later, citing remuneration offered in campus recruitments for biotechnology BTechs which range from Rs3-5 lakh, he justifies his decision—“simple BSc or MSc students barely manage half of this salary offered to professional course graduates.”
It is this mismatch between students’ perception and the realities of science careers, both in academia and industry, that is deepening the crisis in science education.
Students at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, which aims to stem the decline in science education. It counsels parents, instead of students, about prospects in the stream
“One of the major issues today is that we have failed to distinguish between acquisition of knowledge for research and acquisition of skills for jobs,” says Satyajit Rath, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi.
Rath, a physician by training, has been involved in the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s (NCERT) science textbooks development programme and the government’s department of biotechnology’s initiative in improving life sciences teaching in the country.
A vocal champion of reforms in science education, he says: “It’s neither fish nor fowl.” A “grab-bag curriculum” is what most colleges in India follow—neither are rigorous fundamentals of science taught; nor are students provided training that prepares them for a career.
As a result, says Rath, in the past 15 years, in New Delhi at least, while the percentages secured by students at 10+2 levels (when school-leaving exams are held) are rising, the cut-off marks for science courses in college admissions are decreasing—an indication of the fact that there are few takers for these courses.
Indeed, one of the recommendations of the Indian National Science Academy (Insa) and the Indian Academy of Sciences to the Planning Commission for the 11th Plan said: “Urgent steps need to be undertaken to enhance the perceived status of conventional BSc degrees in universities as a career option. The low morale of BSc students in the country is a very worrying feature of the higher education scenario…” The Planning Commission is India’s top planning agency and drafts plans for the country’s development over a five-year period. The 11th Plan period covers the years between 2007 and 2012. Both Insa and the Indian Academy of Sciences are agencies that work towards promoting science and science education in India.
The status of BSc degrees has a lot to do with the peer and parental pressure, which arises from lack of immediate and lucrative career prospects for students graduating in science. “By the time our children are 16 years old, we make them into zombies,” says Gautam R. Desiraju, professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad, who, in 1969, despite securing all-India ninth rank in the entrance exam to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), continued with BSc in chemistry at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
“My parents were not crazy but, today, if a student takes that decision, parents would commit suicide,” he says.
This rings true nationally, so much so that the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, an institution that aims to stem the decline in science education, has been counselling parents more than students. “We had to educate the parents, particularly of those fence-sitters who did not get into medicine or engineering, about prospects in science,” says Krishna N. Ganesh, director of IISER. Ganesh says IISER counselled about 400 parents in 2007, trying to train a new generation to study science for the sake of science.
The career perspective
Experts offer several reasons for the decline of science as a career—lack of job opportunities, low remuneration for researchers, poor infrastructure, the inability to identify good students and reward them, neglect of the university system in a drive to encourage pockets of excellence or specialized educational institutes, even though most universities globally have undergraduate and postgraduate programmes on the same campus.
“The best of research and the best researchers cannot be divorced from undergraduate teaching,” says K. VijayRaghavan, director of the National Centre for Biological Science, or NCBS, who says IISERs—three are operational in Pune, Kolkata and Mohali and two more will come up in Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram —are an “audacious attempt” to rectify some of these problems by exposing BSc and MSc students to research. However, he adds that more innovative ways are needed to reinvent the reunion of research and teaching.
The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) panel on getting more students to enrol in math and science courses has recommended two major steps: introduction of a four-year integrated masters programme in place of the five-year term today, and mentoring of junior students by seniors. “The situation in science is desperate,” says Dipankar Chatterji, member of the NKC panel, who thinks reducing a year in the master’s programme might encourage more students to take up PhD. Insa, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, India, which seeks to serve as a forum for the publication of research work in India, plan to discuss this in their inter-academy meeting in May.
At the Science Congress in January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the creation of 30 new central universities, 1,600 polytechnics, 10,000 vocational schools and 50,000 skill-development centres. “We need a quantum jump in science education and research,” he said. The Union government has already announced that it plans to invest Rs2,000 crore in science education in the next five years.
While scientists and educationists such as C.N.R. Rao, chairman of the scientific advisory committee to the Prime Minister, believe that the university systems have become “political hotbeds” and are very difficult to revive, the consensus still seems to be in favour of restoring the universities for the larger good.
“What is needed is massive infusion of funds in the universities which are administered honestly,” says Desiraju. He thinks, IISERs will not have much of an impact. “These institutes are becoming elitist as they pick students from IIT JEE (the joint entrance examination for admission to IITs) and other such tests,” he adds. “They will also grow into so-called world brands like the IIMs and IITs, which in reality are far from being world brands.”
Most universities do not even have funds for recurring expenditure on Internet connections, journals and laboratories. Starved of funds, faculty, and facilities, they have been reduced to degree-giving centres. In mathematics, for instance, says Sujatha Ramdorai, a mathematician at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, and member of NKC, there have been just two appointments in Hyderabad University in the last 10 years. And Mumbai University fares no better. As for the syllabus, there’s been no revision for BSc and MSc in 30 years in most places.
The unfortunate thing, say experts, is that this comes at a time when the banking and finance sectors are booming in the country. “In the US and UK, graduates and PhDs in maths get absorbed in the financial sector; similar avenues will open here,” says Ramdorai. She adds that Indian universities could devise courses with a judicious mix of pure and applied math, which would be beneficial both for the academia as well as the industry.
Still, devising courses is the easiest part, and as Desiraju says, one can simply download it from places such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which make them accessible online for free. What is important is ensuring capabilities of teachers to teach the syllabus and the infrastructure required to carry out classroom and laboratory activities.
“We are given the circuit and the wire and asked to connect and record the results,” says D. Chandrika, a BSc final year student at Mount Carmel College in Bangalore, of her physics classes (Mount Carmel is among the top 10 colleges in the country for science, according to an annual survey by India Today magazine).
Missing is the science that begins with a question, in quest for the unknown. “College feels like an extension of school,” says Chandrika, who, however, has managed to keep her research interests alive, she adds, due to inspirational teachers in electronics.
Most vice-chancellors (the people who manage universities) say if the universities have more funds, they’d do better. For instance, Cochin University of Science and Technology has a budget of around Rs25 crore and its vice-chancellor Gangan Prathap says: “If we get Rs100-250 crore, we’ll start doing well.”
Since the IITs and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (an autonomous body under the government that seeks to “provide scientific industrial R&D that maximizes the economic, environmental, and societal benefits for the people of India,” according to the agency’s website) systems were set up almost 60 years ago, very little has come the universities’ way in terms of basic research.
“We have only pursued the mission-oriented projects in space sciences and atomic energy, leaving our universities to languish,” adds Prathap.
The technological universities are no better. The three state universities—Visvesvaraya Technological University, or VTU, in Karnataka, Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in Andhra Pradesh and Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu—which together produce about 75% of the technical graduates in the country, suffer from similar problems with about a 25-30% faculty shortage. Money is needed to upgrade these universities, says H.P. Kincha, vice-chancellor of VTU in Belgaum, Karnataka. He does not deny the much criticized “unemployability of technical university graduates”, and says that “they can be better than what they are today”.
“You need money to let your first- and second-year students to make mistakes in the labs and learn,” adds Kincha. He says these state universities have huge potential for improvement if granted “complete autonomy”. VTU has granted autonomy to 14 of the 140 colleges under it this year.
A strong believer of using technology to augment existing resources, VTU has linked 30 colleges with video link through Edusat, India’s dedicated satellite for education, and hopes to connect more colleges by the end of the year. “This is not a replacement for teachers,” Kincha says. Other universities could use such technologies to take their best teaching to remote areas.
Still, funds are needed even for that. And many experts say the Chinese model is a good way to go about addressing the situation. China has started 100 universities, each with a budget of around Rs100 crore, which can together handle half-a-million undergraduates, says Desiraju. “That kind of money is not impossible for India; atomic energy alone gets Rs7,000 crore,” he says.
Money is welcome, but IISER’s Ganesh has some novel ideas—market science as a career which goes beyond teaching and research. Science gra-duates could take up jobs related to intellectual property, science policy, science comm-unication, writing, and so ma-ny other fields, says Ganesh.
“Why don’t we have documentaries in science, the kind we see on BBC? Media is another option for our science graduates.”
This is the second in a three-part series on the quality of science education in India. Part 1 covered schools, and Part 3 will cover research.