IISER - Unscientific Science

In one of the panels I moderated on 'Ancient Indian Science,' Prof. Soumitro Banerjee mentioned that science to him is more than what his profession offers. It is rather a way of life. He further mentions that if it is not possible to quantify the topic at hand, then such a discussion is not scientific (coarse but useful definition). Now, this makes sense coming from an IISER professor. You are expected to be scientific in your ways of life. Sadly, however, this understanding fizzles out when decisions are taken by and about the IISERs. It shall become apparent as we proceed through the article.

IISERs, as some of you may know, are institutes of national importance established by the MHRD in 2006 to introduce a modern curriculum and research right from the undergraduate level. It also aims to create conditions for world-class research at the postgraduate level. Though the IISERs have undoubtedly met several of their core dreams in the last 11 years, a restricted understanding by the people on top, now shines an ominous light on the future of IISER.

A few days before this article was written, the IISER and NIT Council decided to introduce a 10% hike in tuition fees for three consecutive years (compounded ofcourse; what else did you think). If that were not bad enough, this hike comes after a 127% fee hike that was already implemented the previous year. On reading this, one can accuse me of speaking on a relative scale. So, here are some numbers as broken down by the Student Affairs Council of IISER Kolkata:

Course 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20
BS-MS tuition fees in INR 10981 27500 30300 33400
PhD tuition fees in INR 5324 16500 18200 20000

Let us take a look at another data set on stipends for the same period

Course 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20
BS-MS (INSPIRE) 5000 5000 5000 5000
PhD (UGC, CSIR, etc.) 25000 25000 25000 25000

To make matters worse, INSPIRE Fellowships have now been restricted to roughly half the IISER undergraduate students. These were earlier available to all BS-MS students. (INSPIRE fellowships are currently availabe to 10000 students across Inida studying Basic Sciences.)

One of the most common retorts received on presenting this data is that engineering aspirants do not get a similar stipend. Notwithstanding my belief that they should be given an allowance too, it must be recognized that when IITs have practically become an assembly line for producing bankers, the students in Basic Sciences are more or less restricted to a life of low wages and high-stress. Therefore, it becomes imperative in a country with a socioeconomic status such as ours that the government actively support these avenues of inquiry. In the current situation, the 60000 INR that a BS-MS student receives is entirely spent on fees alone. Therefore, we have effectively shut down any opportunity for a student from an economically challenged background ever to enter the system. It is a risky bet for him. There is not even an opportunity of a job at the end of the tunnel.

Herein enters my criticism that IISERs are inherently unscientific. The decison to increase the fees are not made using any study that shows that increased fees are not restricting entry for students or that IISERs as a whole have succeeded in retaining its students for post-graduate studies. All we are doing is unashamed guesswork. And pardon me for being optimistically cynic about this. We can keep complaining that India is not a scientific powerhouse, it will continue to be so if we keep marginalizing students out of Basic Sciences.

Adding insult to injury, a B.Tech from IIT is eligible to receive a monthly stipend of 60000 INR on pursuing his PhD in an IIT. You guessed it right, there is no such structure for IISERs.

If that were not enough, have a look at the data below

Institute Tuition Fee per Semester (PhD)
IISER (current) 16500
IISER (proposed) 20000
IITs 2500

The argument often used to explain the high fees is lower funding. If that is the case, the MHRD must introspect the purpose it created the Institutes for. It's all fine and dandy to dream of a scientifically robust India. It's another to invest in it. Digging even deeper, I am even curious to ask why is it that we don't relate the tuition fees of our institutes to the stipend received. Perhaps then, our scholars can be busy working than going on strikes demanding stipend hikes. And if IISERs follow the same passion in raising our stipends as they have done the fees, such an article would no longer be necessary. I will be singing hymns next.

P.S.:- When raised the question of tution fees in India, it is often remarked that the USA also has very high fees. Certain points they fail to mention are that most scholarships in the USA also cover the tution fees and that the stipends provided are far more generous. German institutes which don't generally cover tuition fees have these expenses at about 25% of a month's stipend amount.

P.P.S.:- The same IISER council which happily signed the fee hike was also supposed to discuss a fee waiver for students from economically weak backgrounds. Funnily enough, that never found a mention.

1. IISER Kolkata 2016-17 fees:- goo.gl/iEjHVX
2. IISER Pune 2016-17 fees:- goo.gl/Etylnh
3. For hiked fees (2017-18 onwards):- goo.gl/Z6EWke

Published:- 12th June, 2017