Report on University Science Education

 

4. GENERAL VIEWS OF THE ACADEMY PANEL

In its own discussions the Academy Panel paid careful attention to many aspects of the overall problems of science education at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This was against the background of the knowledge of the efforts of other groups and agencies, such as those briefly described in Section 3.

The discussions in the Panel and the large number of letters received by it from the Fellowship of the Academy brought home the point that there is a strong and unanimous feeling in the community both about the importance of science education and about the present alarmingly sorry state of affairs. The selection of commonly voiced concerns recounted in Section 2 appears to give a fair description of the present situation; urgent steps are necessary to avoid a crisis in the near future. The importance of science education of high quality, especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, cannot be over-emphasized in a country like ours. Science education becomes even more important in the-context of the present efforts of the country towards globalisation and a market economy. Perhaps too, much emphasis is being paid to the improved prospects for attracting foreign investment that the new climate in the country provides. But the basic objective of these new policies of the Government must be presumed to be to provide an opportunity for our own trained human power to create wealth for the nation by participating in and contributing to scientific and technological endeavours in India and across the globe. At the same time we need to support and strengthen our capacity to create, absorb and transform technology at various levels, and this can only be achieved against a background of solid foundations in the basic sciences. Clearly, we need to gear up our science education to meet these challenges if we are to fully reap the benefits, of the new economic policies.

At the same time, it seems very clear that the current state of university education in science, borrowed about a century ago from Britain and maintained essentially unchanged since then, is woefully inadequate to meet this challenge. Indeed, the Chairman of the 1966 Education Commission, Dr.D.S.Kothari, had forcefully expressed himself in the following words to the Minister for Education of the Government of India [10]:

"If I may say so, the single most important thing needed now is to get out of the rigidity of the present system. In the rapidly changing world of today, one thing is certain: yesterday's educational system will not meet today's, and even less so, the need of tomorrow".

At a time when barriers between the traditional disciplines are breaking down, breadth and flexibility have to be key features of an educational system that expects to attract and retain gifted young people.

In suggesting possible solutions, the Panel discussed at length two crucial issues. One has to do with the apparently mutually incompatible demands for equity and excellence. The other has to do with the need to simultaneously provide adequate opportunities for both the small number of gifted students who may be able to enlarge the horizons of scientific knowledge, as well as the large number of students who need to be trained to contribute at diverse levels to the welfare of Indian society in an intelligent and competent way. The Academy has kept both these goals in mind in its proposals for improving the situation.

The Panel had extensive discussions on the issue of equity and excellence. It was unanimous in recognising that this issue is an extremely complex one with far-reaching ramifications and room for a variety of points of view. This Paper places on record the Academy's general thinking on this matter, not so much with the aim of suggesting definitive solutions, but rather with that of initiating a debate on the issue among academics in the country. Such a debate on the seemingly incompatible twin desires for equity and excellence is essential, and should not be left merely to the politicians and the judiciary, as is currently the case. Perhaps the reason for the present state of affairs is that academics are, rightly or wrongly, perceived as being concerned only with excellence and ignoring the issue of equity. With such a prevailing perception, it is not difficult to see that political measures have been seen as the only method of promoting the cause of equity. The situation can only change if the academic community faces the real need for achieving both equity and excellence and suggests ways of doing so. Many academics have asserted that merit should be the sole criterion for admission to educational institutions. There is no denying that such a rigid rule will considerably disadvantage many potentially able people, at least at the present time. Conversely, laws are being enacted in the country to set aside quotas of various types. It is equally clear that beyond a certain level such reservations will be counter-productive in the long run and harm the country as a whole, including the very segments that need to be brought into the country's social, educational and economic mainstream.

The important question is whether there is a way that would promote social justice and at the same time preserve academic values. One promising possibility is to reorient our thinking so that we would be able to view the whole issue as one of equity and excellence rather than one of equity versus excellence. It is essential to recognise that for a variety of historical and social reasons, a very large segment of our population aspires to a college degree. This aspiration has to be met. However, this need not mean that all these hundreds of thousands of students must enroll in the same few monolithic B.Sc. or B.E. degree programmes. The situation may be compared to that prevailing in the U.S.A. towards the end of the last century: by deliberate planning and conscious effort the system supported a few centres of high excellence along with a large number of universities that successfully provided education of 'value to the vast majority seeking it.

In our present situation, it is essential to completely revamp the fundamental structure of our university education system. We need to enlarge the educational opportunities by several orders of magnitude and create such a rich menu of possibilities and opportunities that the problem of providing for equity gradually disappears and becomes virtually irrelevant. We need to develop a large number of different kinds of flexible undergraduate degree courses that will permit the channelling of students according to their aptitude and motivation, without depriving any segment of society. One way to do this would be to have a large variety of undergraduate degrees in "applied science", where the students get a thorough exposure to the fundamentals of different subjects such as Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Biology in the first year and then go on to learn specialised skills in chosen branches of science or technology. The system should also provide the flexibility for an individual to transfer from one institution to another, say after the first year, carrying credit for courses already taken, if such transfer helps fulfil the aspirations of the student in a better way. In this process, the advantages offered by distance education methods should also be exploited. When such a large and diverse set of opportunities does become available, the sensible thumb rule of using aptitude as the criterion for admission will, in all likelihood, cease to prove discriminatory towards anybody.

In the light of the above comments, Council proposes to set up a special Committee to examine these issues in greater depth, and to advise the Academy on the role it can play in bringing about this transformation in attitudes. The Academy is convinced that such a reorientation in thinking is about the only way to achieve equity while at the same time ensuring the advance of science to serve the needs of the country.

The views expressed above, along with the realization that different and appropriate strategies have to be planned for the large majority of students who need science education to run the country efficiently on the one hand, and those few who may take up careers in scientific research on the other, suggest that undergraduate education in science is best organized into three streams, to cater most effectively to the needs and aspirations of large numbers of young people. These might correspond, in purely organizational terms, to the framework proposed by the Planning Commission Working Group referred to earlier. In suggesting a three-stream system of education, this framework recognises the need for adopting diverse strategies for achieving the objectives of the system. The comments made above regarding a rich and diverse menu of degrees in applied science are most appropriate to the third stream mentioned above. The more specific comments which are grouped below under two major headings apply largely to the first two streams of this initiative.

Council's views on the functioning of Colleges and Universities, the roles of Government agencies, national laboratories and industry, are expressed through general recommendations in Section 5.

A) Patterns for undergraduate and postgraduate science education

At the undergraduate (U.G.) level the basic aim should be to make the spirit and excitement of science come through, so that appreciation for science would remain with the student independently of what he or, she might do later. The U.G. course should be solid and broad based, providing a good foundation in at least two subjects, and should definitely avoid specialisation too early. Thus all U.G. students should take some common courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology in the first two years, or perhaps select combinations from a core curriculum so designed that they will be exposed to the fundamentals of these basic subjects; then choose subjects in one or two of the four streams for the third year. This will avoid variations in levels of teaching in the main and subsidiary subjects. One may reduce the content of each major subject, but no subject would be left out.

There is often a tendency to sacrifice essential areas of the four major (P,C,M and B) to make room for trendy specialisations such as chemistry, theoretical computer science, and the like; or such "job-oriented bio-courses" as poultry, fisheries, sericulture, etc. These can come later; early specialization at the U.G. stage must be strongly opposed, as it leave with a weak conceptual foundation which is very difficult to make good later. This is especially true for those students who plan to go on to the postgraduate level and then possibly on to scientific research. For genuinely job-oriented courses, such as the "applied science" options referred to earlier, at least one year of good teaching of fundamentals is essential; this can then be followed by specialisations like those mentioned above, and many others.

Curricula can never be static, and should be constantly reviewed and improved. In the process, room must always be made for really new subjects, but not at the expense of the foundational courses.

Curricula can never be static, and should be constantly reviewed and improved. In the process, room must always be made for really new subjects, but not at the expense of the foundational courses.

At the post-graduate (P.G.) level, the first year should concentrate chosen subject with common courses for all students within that discipline. Further specialization, choice of elective courses, and project and seminar work should form part of the second year, and then preferably in the second term. It is common experience that industry also prefers students who have gone through and common core curriculum, with no basic areas neglected, with specialization coming towards the end of the P.G. course. For example the two year M. Stat. programme of the I.S.I is a successful, solid course which has an established reputation over the years for P.G. education in the mathematical sciences. It provides the right degree of flexibility and specialization in the second year of the course. Some other examples are the M.Sc. course in General Chemistry in some I.I.T.'s and Central Universities. A similar approach would be most beneficial in all the other sciences.

At the post-graduate (P.G.) level, the first year should concentrate chosen subject with common courses for all students within that discipline. Further specialization, choice of elective courses, and project and seminar work should form part of the second year, and then preferably in the second term. It is common experience that industry also prefers students who have gone through and common core curriculum, with no basic areas neglected, with specialization coming towards the end of the P.G. course. For example the two year M. Stat. programme of the I.S.I is a successful, solid course which has an established reputation over the years for P.G. education in the mathematical sciences. It provides the right degree of flexibility and specialization in the second year of the course. Some other examples are the M.Sc. course in General Chemistry in some I.I.T.'s and Central Universities. A similar approach would be most beneficial in all the other sciences.

At the post-graduate (P.G.) level, the first year should concentrate chosen subject with common courses for all students within that discipline. Further specialization, choice of elective courses, and project and seminar work should form part of the second year, and then preferably in the second term. It is common experience that industry also prefers students who have gone through and common core curriculum, with no basic areas neglected, with specialization coming towards the end of the P.G. course. For example the two year M. Stat. programme of the I.S.I is a successful, solid course which has an established reputation over the years for P.G. education in the mathematical sciences. It provides the right degree of flexibility and specialization in the second year of the course. Some other examples are the M.Sc. course in General Chemistry in some I.I.T.'s and Central Universities. A similar approach would be most beneficial in all the other sciences.

Mathematics: It is a fact that mathematics syllabi of most universities read very well on paper; and excellent texts in the various areas are now available at affordable prices in the country. The tragedy is the way in which the subjects are taught at the U.G. level, leading to poor inputs at the P.G. level and then at the research stage. Classical mathematics presented well at the U.G. level would be a fine beginning. What is important is to convey the spirit of mathematics, and to develop such core subjects as analysis, differential equations, algebra and probability and statistics on solid foundations.

As stated in (a) above, specializations should be taken up only in the second year of the P.G. course, not earlier. There is also a general need to drop obsolete courses and improve the content of applied mathematics wherever it is offered.

Physics: The same weakness at the U.G. level seen in mathematics afflicts physics as well. We need more devoted U.G. teachers able to convey concepts and illustrate the unity of physics clearly. Such subjects as atomic and molecular physics and quantum mechanics often get short shrift in favour of various early specialisations. At the P.G. level the core should consist of classical mechanics, classical electrodynamics, statistical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, again with specialisation only towards the end in the final term. At the P.G. level and later, physics students should preferably learn the mathematics they need from mathematicians. A major improvement is required in the way that laboratory training is imparted and the so-called practical classes are conducted.

Chemistry: The traditional division of this subject into inorganic, organic and physical chemistry has outlived its usefulness and is now doing more harm than good. It leads to loss of a sense of the unity of the subject, lack of appreciation of basic principles' and too early branching into narrow specialisations. Starting from the U.G. stage, chemistry should be taught as based on the trinity of bonding, structure and reactivity. This is not an easy task, but at least at some universities in the country the effort to change in this direction must be made.

At the P.G. level the core in physical chemistry, for instance, should consist of thermodynamics, chemical dynamics, quantum chemistry and statistical mechanics. Also at the P.G. level, the interfaces of chemistry with biology and with physics should be brought out in some detail-, and the transition from molecular to macroscopic behaviour made clear. The comments about laboratory exercises apply as strongly to chemistry as they do to physics.

Biology: This is an extremely rapidly changing subject, which incidentally should be distinguished from biotechnology! An approach stressing unity in the various branches of the life sciences, both at the U.G. and P.G. levels, should be possible. Students of biology need to know allied subjects rather well. In this respect it is realized that many aspects of the subject can be learnt informally by motivated students on their own, while receiving more formal training in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.

© 2017 Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru.