Delivering the JN Tata Memorial Lecture at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) the President of India Abdul Kalam urged IISc to start undergraduate program – especially in cross disciplinary programs such as Bioinformatics, Nanotechnology and Aerospace. More on his lecture can be seen in today’s The Hindu. In a sense Kalam has just reopened the old ghost that is time and again bottled by IISc faculty and administration. This time, the ghost is set free by none less than the president of the country. I hope they come with a considered and reasonable response.
A considered and reasonable response, in my opinion, could only be just to accept the challenge Kalam has thrown at them. Remember approximately a year ago, the Finance Minister in his budget speech provided a huge sum of Rs. 100 crores to IISc for nurturing at as world class university. While delivering that speech P. Chidambaram pointed that IISc is, in fact, the only institute in India that can have ambitions to become a world class university on par with Harvard, Stanford, Oxford or Cambridge. True, no other organization in India comes even remotely close to that.
What makes the Harvards and Oxfords great? Not only they do bleeding-edge research, but all of them also have excellent undergraduate programs. There is no doubt that the IISc is the best research institute in India. If anyone wants to seek alternatives to IISc only a few other names may come to mind for comparison – IITs, and TIFR. While IITs have proven themselves as good undergraduate institutes, their research is not world class (IITs are not to be blamed for this – their vision does not include world class research in the first place). On the other hand, TIFR pales in to insignificance compared to IISc in terms of its magnitude.
All that is needed is to just add some water and salt and shake – it that simple. You need more classroom infrastructure and additional staff. These can be taken care by the Rs. 100 crore that is already earmarked. While salt and water seem that simple the toughest part is shaking. I am talking about shaking the mindset of the IISc faculty. Talk to any professor in IISc, you will soon realize how much they loathe the idea of classroom teaching. During my Ph.D days, I had to take at least 5 class room courses to qualify for the comprehensive oral examination at the end of the second year. As someone set to work on experimental physics, I could not find even 3 courses from within the Physics department that would equip me for the laboratory works of the later days. This is in a department with 30+ ‘teaching’ staff. Instrumentation department which is supposed to teach building equipment was offering a basic course on lasers with no practical sessions. The ‘Optolectronics’ course offered by the Electrical Communication Engineering started with Maxwell’ equations and ended solving for waveguide modes. No hands-on. So, pre-Ph.D course work in IISc is more of a ‘legal’ requirement than anything else (I am talking about the professors here).
It is going to take an awful lot of bulldozing the IISc staff to make them amenable to the idea of standing in classrooms – probably 5 hours a week. But if this opportunity is not grabbed with both the hands, I hate to say, IISc is destined to die a painful death. Yes, insiders may not realize this. Refusing to teach is a chronic symptom of a terminal disease in any educational institution.
During my stay in IISc I could see it growing (under the every ambitious CNR Rao). I saw several new departments spring – Materials Science, Solid State Chemistry, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Electronic Design, Bioinformatics – all these happened mostly around 1980-1990. I do not see any further initiatives in the last decade. IISc is currently in a plateau. But there is a lot of room to grow and I reckon undergraduate teaching will infuse the much needed younger blood in IISc as it ages.
India badly needs a university of Stanford’s stature. With huge economic and political ambitions there is going to be a definite requirement for indigenously grown highly qualified people. While IITs and IIMs are going to keep focusing on getting HQP in technology and management, science is going to be sadly left behind. I see this as a national challenge and it will only be sad if IISc does not grab the bull by its horns. I am fortunate to have lived in worked in three highly developed countries – UK, Japan and now in Canada. Let me reiterate that greatness in research is possible only with sustained highly motivated undergraduate education. I do not see that happening much in the current university environment in India. With more employment opportunities in service sectors and middle management, it is essential to attract talented young kids towards science with better infrastructure and greater incentives.
All these said, I still consider the current majority of IISc faculty and administration will seek all possible avenues to shun this responsibility. One easy way (probably a transition solution) is to create a two tier faculty structure – (1) 70% research and 30% teaching responsibility (existing faculty) and (2) 60% teaching and 40% research responsibility (newly hired or willing to move). Slowly all researchers should be made to earn their 60% salaries through teaching (or direct revenue generation through the even tougher route of industrial consultation). I am sure there may be many other workable solutions. All that is needed is willingness to experiment.
IISc is a minority institution – compared to the magnitude of IITs and national universities – the number of people who can speak for IISc is very small. How may people would talk about the role of IISc in opening the IT floodgates in India. (For anyone doubting this – Pl. do not get carried away by the stories IITians spin about this. Just patiently go back chronologically and find where it all started. If this may help convincing you, consider why Bangalore is the hub of all Indian IT activities). No less a contribution is made by IISc to the old crown jewels of Indian scientific achievements – Space and Atomic Energy. But, praise does not come IISc’s way often and money even rarely. I was stunned to see P. Chidambaram making that Rs. 100 crore announcement. If the current IISc administration fails to build on this they are the only ones to be blamed.