Two eminent scientists working with the Union government have cautioned against AICTE’s decision to give engineering colleges the flexibility to admit students without mathematics and physics in high school and offer them remedial bridge courses to cope in class.
Principal Scientific Advisor K VijayRaghavan told The Indian Express that “rigour and depth in mathematics and physics comes easier early on” and that it would be wiser to study these subjects in high school before seeking admission to BE and B.Tech programmes. Scientist V K Saraswat, former head of Defence Research and Development Organisation and now a member of the NITI Aayog, called the decision “retrograde” and a “step in the wrong direction”.
VijayRaghavan and Saraswat have undergraduate degrees in engineering from IIT Kanpur and Madhav Institute of Technology and Science in Gwalior respectively.
Last week, AICTE, India’s technical education regulator, tweaked the entry-level qualification for undergraduate engineering programmes making students who haven’t studied either physics or mathematics (or both) in Classes 11 and 12 eligible for admission.
Under the new norms, a candidate is expected to have scored at least 45% in any three subjects out of a list of 14 — physics, mathematics, chemistry, computer science, electronics, information technology, biology, informatics practices, biotechnology, technical vocational subject, engineering graphics, business studies, and entrepreneurship.
Earlier, an engineering aspirant should have passed high school with physics and mathematics as compulsory subjects.
The regulator has been defending the changes on the ground that they are in line with the new National Education Policy’s multidisciplinary approach. AICTE chairman Anil Sahasrabuddhe said last week that the changes, which are not binding on institutes and colleges, will “open a window of opportunity” for students from diverse academic backgrounds to pursue engineering, especially branches like textile and biotechnology where, he argued, an advanced knowledge of physics and mathematics is not required and can be fulfilled with bridge courses in college.
The Principal Scientific Advisor, however, told The Indian Express that these “flexibilities must be exercised with care”.
“There may be some areas of natural sciences and social sciences where a high-school knowledge of mathematics (or physics) may not be essential but even here a strong schooling in logic, quantitative approaches, mathematics and physics learned early is valuable.
“What is true for the natural and social sciences is, of course, true of engineering of every kind. For example, a high-quality biotechnology course without, at the least, a strong high-school level training in physics and mathematics to start with is difficult to progress through. A good course will require advanced methods in statistics, computer science, probability, the physics of motion, and of colloids, and so on,” he said.
On the proposal to offer bridge courses to students, he said: “It will be the rare individual who comes in unschooled and reaches par through a bridging course. Rigour and depth in mathematics and physics comes easier early on. It will be wiser to reach a high-school level in these subjects before applying and wiser for colleges to require this, and not sort to bridging courses as the main route.”
Saraswat echoed this. “An engineering programme spans four years. A student with a background in physics and mathematics will have to study the bridge course for at least two semesters. Such a student (needing remedial courses) will be completely at loss in (B.Tech) class. How can you expect a student to learn the letters of the alphabet and appreciate poetry at the same time?” he asked.
Saraswat added, “There is a renewed focus on STEM. Even MBBS doctors are now using mathematics. You no longer argue that just because I am a biologist I do not need to know physics. This is a retrograde step.”
According to him, the only way AICTE’s decision could work is if students from diverse academic backgrounds first spend a year studying the bridge course, before starting normal classes of the engineering programme. “You cannot attend the bridge course and normal classes simultaneously,” he said.
Professor Guhan Jayaraman, head of the biotechnology department at IIT-Madras, said AICTE’s proposal isn’t exactly new. Many private universities, he said, are already admitting students without mathematics in high school to biotechnology programmes and claim to offer them bridge courses to cope in class.
“But when the graduates of these colleges come to an IIT for Ph.D, we have seen that these students cannot use simple mathematical formulations to answer our questions. To give you an example, these students will not be able to calculate the number of infected people in a month based on the infection’s R naught value. So it’s not as if this (bridge course) model is really working,” he told this newspaper.
TV Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education that runs Manipal Academy of Higher Education, said the AICTE’s move is good in case of B.Tech programmes that do not require an understanding of “high level of mathematics”. He suggested the bridge courses should be completed before starting formal classes.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Biocon Limited, said that the tweak can work for biotechnology. “Without a background in maths you can still pursue biotechnology, but you will end up limiting your opportunities. There are some realms of biotechnology that do not require an advanced knowledge of maths… I didn’t have mathematics as a subject, but I am working in this area,” she said.