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Education Plus

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Emphasis on integrated research

A major Central educational institution that is taking shape in Thiruvananthapuram is the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research(IISER). Its director E.D. Jemmis shared with G. MAHADEVAN, his perspective on matters related to research and the role of institutions like IISER in the present context.

— Photo: S. Gopakumar

E.D. Jemmis.

E.D. Jemmis was born in Chevoor, Kerala, and had a significant part of his education in the State. A distinguished academic, he did his M.Sc. at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and went abroad for higher studies. He then went on to academically distinguish himself and has been associated with several institutions of higher learning both in India and abroad.

A professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he is currently on deputation as IISER director. What follows are the highlights of his interaction with The Hindu-EducationPlus that was spread over two days, partly as a written reply to questions sent by email and partly as a conversation.

He points out, among other things, that the development of IISER would be a long term process.

It could be regarded a success story if the institution evolves into a world class centres in about 20 years. Development of a number of islands of excellence would lead to a renaissance in quality learning and research.

On why Kerala lags behind other States in higher education, particularly research, even though Kerala is generally said to be ‘ahead of other States’ in matters of education.

I left Kerala in 1971 after my B.Sc. and came back to the State only a few weeks ago. There are several issues specific to the State which are not familiar to me. These comments have to be seen in that light.

Experts on school education at all levels are more easily available everywhere. Their knowledge base is much larger than what will be tested in a school.

In addition, it is obvious to the public at large that someone who has studied only up to 10th class should not be appointed to teach the Plus Two. So school education is usually in competent hands. This is not the case in higher education, particularly in research.

In the absence of experts whose knowledge is at the cutting edge of research, one makes do with what is available. Often the expert who may be good at a lower level is forced to decide on matters related to research and higher education.

It is important to realise that there might be as much or more of a range of expertise between scientists with Ph.D.s as exists between a 4th class and 12th class student. We will not make a 6th class student to monitor the extent of difference in knowledge between the 4th class and 12th class. This is obvious to all. But this common knowledge is not followed in judging research.

Another important aspect that is often forgotten is that good research is the result of continuous intense effort, a ‘thapasya’ in the old sense of the term, spanning months and years. An atmosphere conducive to this, without much distractions, must be developed.

Institutions in Kerala that have made worthwhile contributions during the last few years would have several such scientists spending long hours without worrying too much about what goes on outside.

At the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST) and the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB) with which I am familiar, there are several research groups continuing their activities for long hours everyday. This is true of any leading research institution in the world and any cutting-edge activity in general.

On whether the advent of institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research((IISER) or, say, the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) necessarily imply a revival or renaissance of higher learning in Kerala

The impact may not be visible in one or two years. In fact, nobody should look for the ‘instant coffee effect’ from such institutions. They are not there to produce results overnight.

A good example is what the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) did to Bangalore. Some years after IISc went on stream many other top-notch research institutions sprang up; their beginnings were triggered by the activities of IISc.

At first such institutions were part of IISc, but later went on to become institutions in their own right.

IISc played the role of a catalyst; it created an ambience of excellence, of hard work, of quality research… all the components that make an institution world-class. It is to be particularly noted that the gap between the time when the IISc was announced and when classes actually began was three years. The people who ran IISc did not want to rush in, in a half-baked manner.

In Kerala IISER may take longer to find its feet; if the institution shapes itself into a world-class centre in, say, 20 years it can be called a success story. That would be among our main areas of focus — to gear the institution to take off as a world-class centre of learning and research in, say, two decades down the line.

What would be IISER’s role in seeking to stem the drain of brains from study or research of pure science subjects?

The very objective of IISER is to stem this drain of brains from study and research in science.

Over the years, there has been a decreased interest among the youth in taking up scientific research as a career. While nations around us have increased research output manifold during the last 20 years, we are not enhancing our research capabilities fast enough.

IISER Thiruvananthapuram offers a five-year integrated M.S. programme in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology and related interdisciplinary areas. During the first two years students will take courses in all the four subjects. Part of the fourth year and the fifth year will be for research.

The emphasis will be on relating topics to each other so that subjects will not viewed as compartmentalised modules.

There will be a regular Ph.D. programme for students with M.Sc. degree. There is also a plan to start integrated Ph.D. programmes for students with B.Sc. degree.

The integrated view of research and education that is envisaged at IISER demands teachers of the highest calibre dedicated equally to research and teaching.

On apprehensions that institutions such as IISER would end up being ‘islands of excellence’.

What is wrong in having islands of excellence? The idea should be to have more and more islands of excellence (It may be a problem if there are just one or two such institutions). Eventually there may be a very large number of such ‘islands.’ Together they would make for a renaissance in quality learning and research.

When such quality institutions are there in large numbers it may be difficult for other institutions, be it universities, colleges or other research institutions, to continue being mediocre, doing run-of-the-mill academic activities.

On tailoring syllabi to meet industry requirements and the nature of university-industry linkages.

There is nothing wrong in taking up projects that are based on real problems faced by the industry. If an industry can set up an endowment to fund research in one particular area, the fruits of that research would benefit that industry and the process of research would benefit academia.

There is nothing inherently wrong in dove-tailing syllabi to meet requirements of industries provided it is ensured that industry does not dictate the syllabi and that the academic does not remain in an ivory tower. A robust institution-industry linkage would further quality research.

The Yash Pal committee set up by the University Grants Commission (UGC) is now studying ways to upgrade the functioning of institutions such as the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the UGC itself. Which areas call for reforms?

The States should consider giving up the system of affiliations. Institutions should be autonomous as far as possible. This will also raise the level of their accountability.

The process of a university setting questions for the students of an institution to write examinations is not workable.

At leading institutions in the world the teaching (including what is to be taught), the question-setting and the evaluation are done by those who teach.

If institutions are made autonomous it will also become evident very quickly which institution has quality. By and by students would go only to the institutions that offer quality education, the institutions themselves can see where they stand in comparison to each other. And quality higher education is what Kerala is trying to move towards.

The integrated view of research and education that is envisaged at IISER demands teachers of the highest calibre dedicated equally to research and teaching.

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