In the top league

How did the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, break into the league of top 100 science and engineering institutes of the world? Varuna Verma seeks answers

  • Published 7.12.15

Back in his college days, Krishna Kumar Menon mostly worked in the graveyard shift. "I would be in the laboratory till 3am, doing my physics experiments," remembers the associate professor, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Calcutta. Menon did a PhD in solid state physics from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, in the mid-1990s.

He remembers the labs and canteens at IISc throbbing with activity through the night. "It was a vibrant campus, working 24/7," recalls the professor, adding that it was these little aspects of life at IISc that helped him focus on academics.

Last month, IISc broke into the Times Higher Education's (THE) list of world's top 100 science and engineering institutes - rubbing shoulders with Stanford, CalTech and MIT, the US. No Indian university has figured in this elite list before, prompting Phil Baty, editor, THE World University Rankings to call India, "this year's stand-out success story."

Located in Malleshwaram, in the heart of Bangalore, with its huge green areas and students on bicycles, the 116-year-old institute does not look like any other institute in India.

IISc director Anurag Kumar, however, believes the institute's recently rolled-out undergraduate programme - the bachelor in science (BS) - helped the institute enter the THE top 100 rankings for the first time ever, for an Indian institute.

Umesh Varshney, dean, undergraduate programme, however, downplays the laurels. "IISc has always been an international brand name. The BS course only gave it an added edge," he says.

Started in 2011, the undergraduate programme's primary objective was to bring the focus back on research and core sciences - and away from the job-focused engineering courses that are the driving force of Indian science education today.

"We noticed that the Indian education system was increasingly failing to produce students capable of doing high quality scientific research. The undergraduate course attempts to change this trend," says Varshney.

The USP of the BS programme is that it is a "jack of all science trades", he explains. Although the primary subjects are mathematics, physics and chemistry, students learn everything from biology, computer science, engineering, to even humanities. This interdisciplinary approach makes them adept at undertaking research in varied streams.

During admission counselling sessions, Varshney says parents of short-listed students often ask him about career prospects after the BS course. "We tell them that our focus is on training students to become adept at scientific research. The jobs will follow," he says.

Like Varshney, Krishnan Iyer, a final year undergrad student at IISc, also believes the research-based approach of the BS programme is its stand-out feature. "This is one of the few programmes in the country that incorporates research at the undergrad level," he says.

Last year, there was a rough moment when the University Grants Commission (UGC) decided to scrap all four-year undergraduate courses. But at the end of the day, the programme remained unaffected, says Varshney.

Abhijit Chakrabarti, physicist at SINP, Calcutta, and an IISc alumni, also believes higher education in science and research should go hand in hand. "In the West, most quality research is done in the universities. This culture is retained in India primarily at the IISc," says Chakrabarti, who did a PhD in biochemistry at the Bangalore institute in the 1980s.

Ratings for ranking educational institutions depend on several factors, including student-teacher ratio, student exchange programmes, the quality of faculty, research and citations and industry collaboration. And IISc has always scored high on these fronts.

Varshney, who is also professor and chairman, department of microbiology and cell biology, says the department has a strength of 3,000 students and 500 faculty members. "The average student-teacher ratio at the institute is 6:1," he says.

Student exchange programmes are a regular part of every academic curriculum at IISc. For instance, IISc undergraduate students are regulars at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, US, where they head for summer programmes. "Our student presence in Western universities gives the institute a lot of visibility," says Varshney.

The focus on research cuts across all IISc departments, with a lot of collaborative work happening with Western researchers. Varshney himself is collaborating with researchers in Sweden, Estonia, Hungary and Australia for his project on protein synthesis and DNA repair mechanisms. "This happens across the board at IISc," he says.

It's the faculty that defines an institution. And IISc has a rigorous selection procedure to pick its professors. "It starts with screening applications, intensive interviews and long interactions with department faculty members - who then select candidates through common consensus," says Varshney.

Menon also remembers the IISc faculty giving optimum guidance as well as freedom to research students. "The guides give direction as well as freedom to discuss anything with anyone in and out of the institute. This helps create an open and vibrant academic environment," he concludes.