Difficult Times Ahead For The BS Programs ?

The following is an opinion piece by Bhawesh Kumar, a Y14 undergraduate student from the Department of Physics . The author shares his concerns about the future of BS programs offered by Department of Physics and Chemistry at IIT Kanpur. The views conveyed in the article are solely of the author. The opinion section of Vox Populi provides a platform for the campus junta to voice their opinions

IIT Kanpur was first among the IITs to initiate programs in Basic Sciences. The institution realized very early that science and engineering cannot be separated if it was to succeed as a research institution. Keeping this in mind, the Department of Chemistry was established in the early nineteen sixties. This turned out to be a landmark step.  Professor P. Balaram, former director of IISc Bangalore and an alumni of the Department of Chemistry, IIT Kanpur, mentions in one of his speeches that Chemistry department used to carry out the maximum amount of research at IIT Kanpur during his time[1]. Even today the Department of Chemistry has continued to excel in research, accounting for more than 50% of research output of the institute[2]. Similarly, the Department of Physics has been quite successful too. Some of the most successful Physicists in India  have been its alumni. In 2012, professor Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at HRI and an alumnus of the Physics department of IIT Kanpur was awarded the inaugural edition of the Fundamental Physics Prize, the most lucrative prize in Physics, carrying a prize money of $3 million. The BBC described him as ‘India’s million-dollar scientist'[3]. When Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was announced for detection of Gravitational Waves recently, as many as seven alumni of the institute figured among those sharing the prize[4].

IIT Kanpur has been traditionally the first choice of students for studying physics. Many students who had options of studying elsewhere have chosen its Physics program over others. Professor Rajesh Gopakumar, now a string theorist and the director of ICTS-TIFR Bangalore, chose IIT Kanpur for studying physics as an undergraduate. He was ranked first in JEE 1987[5]. This is in contrast to the recent trends where students are increasingly preferring IISc Bangalore and even other IITs for studying Physics. The closing ranks for Engineering Physics program at IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi have been better than that of IIT Kanpur for quite some time now. Last year, a student ranked 26th in JEE advanced decided to choose IIT Kanpur only to later choose IISc Bangalore, whose undergraduate program is only 5 years old (see note 1).

How do we make sense of the changing choices? Why has Mathematics and Scientific Computing remained very competitive, unlike Physics and Chemistry? How will increase in fees at IITs impact the students’ choices? Most importantly, what should we do to attract the right kind of students to our Bachelor of Science programs in Physics and Chemistry? We will try to analyze these issues through this article.

The Outlier: Mathematics and Scientific Computing

The admission to BS program in Mathematics and Scientific Computing at IIT Kanpur has become very competitive, particularly since last two years. However, programs in Physics, Chemistry and Economics have not witnessed such competition. For example, the closing ranks of Physics, Chemistry and Economics were 2641, 5942 and 2771 respectively in 2015[6], as compared to 1214 for the Mathematics program.  It was a similar story in Mathematics only a few years ago, with the closing rank being 2259 in 2013 and 2781 in 2012[7]. With Computer Science becoming  more popular than ever, students are ready to join the BS program in Mathematics in a hope of doing something which is close to Computer Science. Thus, the competitiveness of the BS program in Mathematics might well be a reflection of increasing popularity of Computer Science program rather than that of Mathematics.

Making Sense of the Changing Choices

IISc is a 100-year-old institution with a rich  history of excellent research in Basic Sciences as well as Engineering. Prior to 2010, it did not have a UG program. After it started its UG program in 2010, it was only natural that many students would opt for it. IISc admits students to its UG program through multiple exams like KVPY, JEE Main, JEE Advanced and AIPMT. However, the majority of the students are admitted  to the program based on their rank in KVPY exam[8]. Vijyoshi Camp organized for KVPY students is an important event for IISc to introduce its UG program to its potential students. When I attended the Vijyoshi Camp in December 2013, IISc had organized a separate session to introduce its UG program to the students attending the camp. After attending the session, I was so impressed that I declared my father on phone that I was going to join IISc for my undergraduate studies. The lesson here is that IISc utilizes the opportunity provided by the Vijyoshi Camp to make the potential students well informed about its UG program. KVPY is a very selective scholarship program. Students who qualify it almost always do very well in exams like JEE &  AIPMT. Many students make their mind to attend IISc for their UG studies after attending the Vijyoshi Camp.

The UG program at IISc is unique in some aspects. Students admitted to the program take core courses in  Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering and Humanities for first three semesters. After three semesters, students choose their specialization in one of the six offered specializations, namely,  Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Materials and Earth & Environmental Science[9]. As students have already taken core courses in first three semesters, they are in a better position to choose their major. The liberty to choose one’s major is one of the most important reason for the success of the undergraduate program of IISc in attracting some of the best students from across India.

Fee Increase at IITs and Its Impact on the BS Program

Recent increase in fee at IITs including IIT Kanpur can discourage many students from joining the BS program  at IIT Kanpur, particularly in Physics and Chemistry. The tuition fee charged at IISc Bangalore and IISERs is approximately Rs 10,000 per semester[10][11]. Once recent fee hike at IITs is in place, IIT Kanpur will be charging around ten times more fee for its BS programs than IISc Bangalore and IISERs. This may lead to even more number of students opting for IISc Bangalore over IIT Kanpur.  Moreover, the students may now prefer the newly created IISERs due to the severe disparity in the tuition fee.

Charging huge tuition fee for BS programs in Physics and Chemistry is problematic for another reason. There are less job opportunities for students graduating from these two departments in comparison to other engineering departments and also a lot of students prefer to go for PhD after graduation . Going for a PhD entails a huge cost in terms of lost economic opportunity and personal commitment. Burdening such students with heavy academic fee and education loan will discourage future students from joining these programs. This is undesirable in a situation when programs in Basic Sciences are struggling to attract students due to the overemphasis on Engineering. The IITs and the Government of India should remember that for every student loan-driven American model for higher education, there exists a free of cost German or French model too[12][13][14].

In a situation of a massive hike in fee, the role of banks become important. In this context, the discriminatory attitude of  the State Bank Of India is worrisome.  From 2015, the State Bank Of India has stopped its ‘Scholar Loan’ scheme for the BS students in spite of the fact that students enrolled at IITs pay the same tuition fee irrespective of BS or BT program and are admitted after proving themselves in the same exam. This scheme is a very comprehensive loan scheme that covers almost all aspects of educational expenditure from tuition fee, books, mess bill to laptop etc[15]. The scholar loan is provided to students from selected academic institutions like IITs, IIMs, NITs etc on very easy terms. It should be a matter of concern for IIT Kanpur, if a part of its student community who need such loans are not able to get them only because they choose to study Science and not Engineering.

The Way Forward

Tackling the Issue Of Fee Hike

IIT Kanpur will have to make sincere efforts if it is interested in attracting right kind of students for its BS programs, particularly in Physics and Chemistry. The immediate concern of the institute should be dealing with the issue of the fee hike. The institute should understand that charging such hefty fee  from BS students (Physics and Chemistry) is not a good idea when other comparable institutions are charging only a fraction of it. Once the fee hike is implemented, our BS program will no longer remain competitive to the BSc (research) program at IISc Bangalore. IISc is as good a brand as IIT Kanpur and there is no good reason for spending 10 times more money by joining IIT Kanpur when one has the option of studying at IISc. Professor Avinash Singh, ex-HOD of the Physics department says, “The fee disparity has been affecting our PhD intake for two decades, and now looks like this will sadly get extended to the UG  programs in Science as well.” Another professor from the Physics department(requested anonymity) is also of the opinion that the fee increase will have an adverse impact on our BS program in Physics and Chemistry. The professor says that the concern regarding the issue has been raised at the highest level accessible. However, it might not have any immediate result to benefit the in-coming students in 2016 and they might have to pay the increased tuition fee. On a positive note, the professor says, “IISER students often say that there is no comparison between IIT Kanpur and IISERs, when it comes to teaching quality and that their first choice was always IIT Kanpur”. However, the professor is not sure if the better teaching experience of IIT Kanpur faculty will continue to guide the students’ choice, when there is such a severe disparity in fee, and doubts whether the parents will be willing to finance their children’s education for a BS degree in Physics or Chemistry at IIT Kanpur. Professor H. C. Verma, a senior professor in the Department of Physics, expresses a similar view on the issue.  He agrees that we could lose students to other institutions and says that if at all there is a need to  increase the fee, the institute should ensure that all incoming students admitted to the BS programs are provided scholarship.

Currently, students enrolled in BS programs in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics receive KVPY or INSPIRE  fellowships, provided they have a CPI above 6. The first year students receive INSPIRE fellowship if they are in top 10,000 in JEE Advanced. However, these scholarships won’t be enough to meet the educational expenses of incoming students. In such a situation, the institute should request the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, to increase the INSPIRE and the KVPY fellowships from the current amount of Rs 60,000 and 80,000 respectively, to cover the increased tuition fee for the students enrolled in BS programs at IIT Kanpur.

An Innovative Model for the Academic Fee

The institute should also look into an innovative model for academic fee suggested by Professor Pankaj Jalote and Professor M Balakrishnan of IIT Delhi in an opinion piece that they wrote for the Indian Express. In this model, a student joining the institute has the option of deferring the payment of a significant part of his/her academic fee till he/she graduates. Once the student graduates and takes up a career, he/she is required to pay a part of his/her salary (say 15%) as the deferred tuition fee for some years (say 5 years). This helps the student choose a career without worrying about paying the education loan. A student taking up a high paying job pays more and a student taking up a less paying job pays less. What about the students who go for higher education? Well, as far as I understand, the model seems to suggest that those going for higher study should pay very little since they chose a very less “paying career” after graduation. Of course, the details of the model need to be worked out. However, it is a wonderful idea worth considering, since it could solve the problem of over dependence of IITs on government funding without stressing students with a huge debt. It is certainly better than the student loan-driven model of financing one’s higher education, which forces students to go for the job that pays them highest even if it does not suit to their temperament. In fact, this model could help attract more people to pursue PhD. This is important in a situation where higher education is witnessing a huge expansion and a large number of faculty positions are vacant even in IITs.

The Need for the Lateral Entry of Students

As a long term measure, IIT Kanpur should also reflect upon the admission process for BS programs in Physics and Chemistry.  After branch change, many seats go vacant in these departments as is evident from the graph below. It is interesting to note that same is not true for the Economics and the Mathematics departments, which tend to overshoot their sanctioned strength.

The vacancies in Physics and Chemistry departments can be filled by the lateral entry of students from other institutions. This was proposed recently in Students’ Senate[16]. The senate modified the proposal,  approved it and forwarded it to Senate Under-Graduate Committee (SUGC) [17]. It remains to be seen if the proposal is implemented or not.

Making Academic Programs More Flexible

Academic flexibility is another important factor which influences the students’ choice of an academic institution. Our academic programs fare better than most other IITs on this parameter and it was also the most important reason for me choosing IIT Kanpur from whatever options I had two years ago. I enjoyed doing Physics then but was not very sure if it was what I wanted to see myself doing in future. IIT Kanpur, with options like double major, minor and a relatively liberal branch change rule, seemed a great option for someone like me, who was still undecided. However, the academic freedom here has its limitations. I painfully realized this fact during my pre-registration for the third semester, when my request for at least five courses got rejected.  Thus, we need to keep moving in right direction, finding ways to make our programs even more flexible. In this context, lowering the CPI criteria to 7 for a double major is a welcome step. Nonetheless, as my and others’ experiences show, there is still a great need for improvement. In particular, we need to have a fresh look on the Core courses. Professors should also be open to welcome students from other departments in their class, which is currently lacking. The possibility of increasing the diversity of the minors offered should also be explored. Interdisciplinary minors could also be offered.  For example, the department of Biological Sciences currently offers a minor in Tissue Engineering. However, additional minors in Bioinformatics, Neuroscience, Biochemistry etc could be offered either independently or with a collaboration from other departments.

Reaching Out to the Potential Students

Finally, IIT Kanpur should work on improving its outreach to the potential students and their parents. The success of the UG program of IISc can be a lesson for us here. In case of IIT Kanpur, prospective students are hardly aware of the academic flexibility or superior infrastructure that it provides. Then there are several myths associated with it like tougher academics and lack of overall development of students. One of my friends chose IIT Delhi over IIT Kanpur because she thought that IIT Delhi would better contribute to her overall personality development. IIT Kanpur should work on dispelling such popular myths and making prospective students better informed. Prospective students should be aware of the flexible branch change rules, the option of getting a double major and minors and in general the freedom that institute offers in the day to day life. IIT Kanpur needs to connect to its potential students to make them aware of such choices. Currently, students’ choices are heavily influenced by their mentors at the coaching institutes and previous years’ opening-closing ranks. This continues to work against the BS programs particularly, as often programs in Basic Sciences are not thought good enough as compared to those in engineering. One way of helping students make informed choices can be by letting professors of concerned department answer to the queries of potential students during the time of counseling. Lastly, this website hosted by Professor Dheeraj Sanghi, mentions some initiatives we could take to increase our outreach and to make our UG program in general, more attractive to the potential students. The website suggests that we increase our online presence to improve our perception by communicating to our future students. In particular, we should be able to dispel  myths regarding our academics, placements and campus life, while also communicating the strengths of each of them.

Note 1

The opening rank for the BS Physics program at IIT Kanpur was 26 after the first round of counseling in 2015[18]. It moved to 231 after final round of counseling since the student with AIR 26, who chose IIT Kanpur initially, went to IISc Bangalore. The cutoff rank for admission to BSc (research) program of IISc Bangalore through JEE Advance was 26 in 2015[4].

References:

1.Professor  P. Balaram speaking at INSA on rankings of Indian Universities (19:04-20:12).

2.Research output of various departments of IIT Kanpur according to Nature for the period 1rt    March 2015 to  29th February 2016.

3.Ashoke Sen: India’s million-dollar scientist – BBC News – BBC.com

4..List Of IIT Kanpur Alumni Who Will Be Sharing The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics awarded for detection of Gravitational Waves (Posted on Facebook by Professor Gautam Sengupta of IIT Kanpur on May 16th, 2016).

5.Rajesh Gopakumar’s page on Wikipedia.

6.Opening-closing ranks for IITs (2015).

7.Opening-closing rank for the year 2012 for admission to IITs.

8.Cut-off detail for admission to UG program at IISc.

9.A brief introduction to the UG program at IISc.

10.Details of fees charged at IISc.

11.Details of fees charged at IISER Bhopal.

12.You Can Now Go to College in Germany for Free, No Matter Where You’re From.

13.Criticism Of The Higher Education Model Of USA (Wikipedia Article).

14.How Much Does it Cost to Study in Germany?

15.Scholar loan.

16.Proposal for Lateral Entry of students to the bachelor programs in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics

17. Response of Students’ Senate to Proposal for Lateral Entry of students to the bachelor programs in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics(Check Item no 13).

18.Opening-Closing rank of IITs, NITs and IIITs after first round of counselling (2015).