Examining Academic Reforms: Part 2

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The structure of academic programs has undergone extensive changes over the past few years. As the administration and student representatives strive for even better programs, we look at some such policies. While some opinions are conflicting or unfeasible to implement, some are novel and have seen the light of the day, providing students much more flexibility in their curriculum.

A 5 year M.Sc. Mathematics programme was offered through the JEE way back in the 1980s. Later on, this course was discarded because most students took up the course simply because it was the only available option, and not because they were genuinely motivated towards pursuing a career in mathematics. Despite the M.Sc. Mathematics degree not being offered as a course through the JEE, it still exists, however humbly, maintaining a low profile. But in the last few years, math enthusiasts have begun to take up this degree. Students can make the transition to this pure science degree either at the end of their first, second year or third year. It is necessary for the student under consideration to have a good overall CPI as well as good grades in all math courses completed. For getting in after the third year, it is necessary for the student to have done additional courses in the Mathematics Department, and to have had good grades in those as well, over and above the aforementioned requirements. Prof. Ravi Raghunathan of the Mathematics department, who is actively involved with the 5 year M.Sc. programme, is very supportive of more students keen on pursuing careers in maths taking up this course. “A decade ago, I was hesitant to encourage engineering students to switch to maths because there weren’t so many opportunities outside of academia, and academic positions were also scarce. Now, however, the scenario for math graduates has changed, both in academia as well as outside. A large number of sectors employ math graduates in coding, statistical analysis, programming, finance and related fields, in which they are just as proficient as any engineering graduate. In addition, there are a large number of open math faculty positions in many institutions across the country.” Currently, students who have shown interest in mathematics have been offered this course. The number of students making this transition has
not exceeded three students in a given year so far, possibly because they are unaware that this is an option, or simply because of the belief that coveted engineering degrees beat a mathematics degree in terms of employment opportunities. Importantly, however, he speculates that the department could probably accommodate up to 10 students a year without too much difficulty

The Dual Degree programme has seen several widely varying revisions across the different departments in the institute. While some of the departments have scrapped direct admissions to the Dual Degree programme through the JEE entirely, others have retained it, while yet others have retained the specializations they deem fit, and scrapped the ones they don’t. For example, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, admission to two out of the three DD programmes has been scrapped through the JEE, because the department felt that they were not proving to be so useful as the research output was not appreciable. However, the DD programme continues to exist across departments, and may be taken up by students in their second or third years subject to the department’s recommendation. This shift is handled on a case-to-case basis, subject to requisite academic standing.

The need for the increasing the credits allotted to basic science courses was felt because of the varied expertise they provide an individual, to develop an aptitude for research and thinking, above and beyond the conformist scholastic tiers.

On asking Prof. Narayan Rangaraj, Dean AP the reasons behind the erratic amends to the DD programme, he said that this was but an interplay of several governing factors involving conflicting notions of academic policy. The syllabus and curriculum are discussed at the departmental level with inputs from alumni, industry and peer review, and are revised regularly. Some faculty members believe that the DD programme is beneficial as students are oriented towards learning a field of specialization of their choice early on in their academic careers. Others, however, argue that a student is not well-informed about the specifics of a field of interest right after JEE and hence, must be left to choose his/her specialization programmes once adequately informed, after his/her third year.
The decision of implementing these programmes remains a constant debate within and between departments, and from time to time, different conclusions emerge as the most favourable, in keeping with the demands for research and
academic opportunities. Students too are divided in opinion in this regard. The DD programme is more rigorous and gives more in-depth knowledge in the respective field. Student grievances, however, are more directed towards the
specialization not being of their choice; so, why go into depth at all? There are cases where students have suggested that they would be very happy to complete a Dual Degree programme had it been more liberal, and they could align their coursework to their interests. Dual Degree courses are few in number, and do not cover every major area of specialization. So, for example, while a Physics student may be interested in specializing in particle physics or thermal physics or even cosmology, the only choice he has available is a nanotechnology
specialization. Also, in a few departments, some specializations have little further opportunities in India, while companies abroad, in those fields, do not recruit from IITB.

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Freshers at IITB are required to do a fixed number of mandatory basic science courses. This curriculum
has seen quite a few changes in the past few years. The chemistry courses were offered as a single course till 2012, inclusive of physical, organic and inorganic chemistry. The recent curriculum changes saw the course being split into two separate courses – one on physical chemistry, and the other consisting of both organic and inorganic chemistry. A similar trend was followed in the physics courses. Earlier, a single course on either one of modern
physics or electricity and magnetism was offered. Since 2013, the curriculum has been revised to include two courses for freshers of all departments – one on quantum physics and another on basics of electricity and magnetism. Also, the introductory course in economics has been postponed to later semesters, and an introductory biology course has filled its place. The math courses, however, have retained their form and content. Prof. Rangaraj, Dean AP remarked that the need for increasing the credits allotted to basic science courses was felt because of the varied expertise they provide an individual to develop an aptitude for research and thinking, above and beyond the conformist scholastic tiers. He also noted that companies too appreciate this students’ breadth of knowledge owing to a more holistic education. In most top-ranked universities, students can select their courses to satisfy their basic science credit requirements from a bouquet of courses available. While Prof. Rangaraj says that there is a great deal we can do to enable students to achieve this flexibility, the cost of such a policy would be a compromise on academic uniformity and linear grading scales which the institute tries to establish as parameters to fairly evaluate students. The Dean AP is of the opinion that this limitation set by uniformity requirements is but a consequence of the larger prevailing mindset of establishing fairness over granting choice, in our country.

The number of compulsory electives across different departments in IIT Bombay is non-uniform. The number of department electives, specialization electives and open electives, B.Tech. projects, and the semesters in which students take them up, are subject to one’s department. This has often evoked questions about how evenly students across departments work, and thus, are graded. For example, the number of department electives that an MEMS student has to do is just one. CSE and Civil have six, in contrast. And, while on the one hand, CSE students can take three out of their six department electives from other departments as well, on the other hand, students in MEMS face a rigid curriculum for their department electives. On asking Prof. Rangaraj, Dean AP his thoughts on the matter, he said, “Every department has its autonomy in matters of deciding their course curricula. Different departments parameterize a student’s subject knowledge differently, and hence require varying course requirements to satisfy those.”

Different departments parameterize a student’s subject knowledge differently and hence require varying course requirements to satisfy those.

Shubham Goyal, General Secretary Academic Affairs (UG), provides another view: “I agree with Prof. Rangaraj. Departments need to be given autonomy. Student feedback pertaining to individual departments needs to be taken and sent to HoDs. Having talked to many HoDs, they more than welcome such student feedback.” “The institute simply approves certain programs, but the departments then choose what they want to offer ,” says Prof. Rangaraj. “Students through the DUGC are part of such decisions. Every department has its own views. There is a whole window, and then departments can choose to be somewhere in this window,” he adds.

In our Senior Survey of the Class of 2014, students, on an average rated academic flexibility at IIT Bombay at a meagre 7, on a scale of 10. Although, this is a lacklustre figure for one of the top engineering colleges in the country, IIT Bombay does hold promise for change- a promise to make student’s opinions on policy decisions count. Policy decisions involve debates at the level of the DUGC and the UGPC of which student representatives constitute a fair proportion. Department level feedback through student representatives and Department Councils are a channel to push for any change that a large proportion of students in the department deem fit.
Open Houses are yet another platform for discussion and to put forth opinions. Prof. Rangaraj encourages students to insist for Open Houses to be held. “The decision to implement an academic reform largely lies with the faculty and students at IIT Bombay,” he says.
Thus, students can press for change, to meet their ever-changing academic demands, for it is their right to exercise.