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The State Of Biotechnology Education :


The current state of biotechnology education, in karnataka in general and the bangalore university area in particular, leaves far too much to be desired. A serous attention has to be paid by the concerned authorities to set things right, in order to offer a meaningful and purposeful education. 

Although this report was drawn basing mainly on the state of courses in biotechnology, it applies equally to the courses in the basic sciences, which are in a much worse condition, particularly because of the severe fall in enrolment, over time. It must be noted that the position of the basic sciences in the matter of student enrolment and conduct of courses outside the bu area is not so bad and that outside karnataka it is reasonably good.

The concept of biotechnology

Biotechnology is not a single subject as it is being projected all around.   Biotechnology is a term of convenience for an integrated approach using a conglomerate of several disciplines such as botany, zoology, microbiology, biochemistry and chemistry, molecular biology, genetics, plant breeding, pharmacology, medicine, information and computer science and others.   Biotechnology is a collection of tools, and is about problem solving, where experts from different disciplines collaborate to find a solution to an identified problem, such as pest control, nutritional enhancement, an improved drug, a vaccine or an antibody, and the like.   While there can be a department of biotechnology with expertise in all the relevant areas, no one is really qualified to be called a biotechnologist in a comprehensive concept, as no single person can be an expert in all the relevant areas of biotechnology.

Biotechnology requires expertise at two levels: the thinkers and planners who have the experience, competence and vision to identify a problem and the design the required biotechnological approach to solve it and bench workers who carry out the procedures designed by the expert team.

Biotechnology is not a new approach:  it is several thousand years old as exemplified by numerous day to day applications such as production of antibiotics, wine, vinegar, bread, soy sauce, curds/yoghurt, iddli, dosa, etc.   What is new are the experimental protocols that merged from advances in molecular biology, since the discovery of the structure of dna.   Without some 50 years of basic research in molecular biology and genetics, modern biotechnological procedures would have been as impossible as ever.

Curriculum and syllabus

A curriculum is the subjects a student is obliged to study at a course, while a syllabus is an abstract of the series of lectures and lab schedules in the different areas of the subjects in the curriculum. This important distinction is often missed. 

The syllabus for the m.sc., course in biotechnology of the bangalore university (bu) has been restructured for the semester scheme. However, the curriculum and the syllabus need to be revised giving a new dimension and orientation in tune with ground realities.   The curriculum for the b.sc., course in biotechnology was provided by the ugc, adopted by the bu with certain changes, nearly a decade ago. This was revised for the semester scheme.

The current syllabi are inadequate in the context of the present state of knowledge of the subject area and its ever-increasing applications.    They are also divorced from ground realities, as they do not leave scope to educate on the issues that are currently hotly debated.

Certain items, such as projects, practical training and on job training etc., are not feasible with about 3,000 students each year. Such aspects should be incorporated into the lab work part of the curriculum and conducted in the institution where the candidate is studying.    Otherwise the students are forced to run around seeking placements, often spending their money, with the largely reluctant institutions and industrial establishments, giving rise to an anomalous situation where the colleges take the fees and other institutions impart the training at own expense.

Vocational vs non-vocational

The BU started the b.sc., course in biotechnology, in a few colleges, about a decade ago, as a vocational programme of the ugc, with ugc's syllabus, guidelines and financial support. Subsequently, several colleges were given affiliation for b.sc., biotechnology, ignoring ugcs norms regarding sanctioning vocational courses.   In course of time the vocational component of the programme was deliberately blurred.

The BU should make a clear distinction between vocational and non-vocational schemes.   It is inherent in the concept of a vocational programme that the candidates would take up employment in industry or start their own business ventures. However, this basic objective of the vocational programmes was defeated also by admitting the b.sc., vocational stream students into m.sc., course in biotechnology, on the excuse of constitutional rights to pursue one's own education.

Student intake 
As per an estimate, the BU produces about 3,000 graduates and over 850 postgraduates in biotechnology, each year. To this, the visveswariah technological university adds nearly 800 students in b.e., biotechnology, each year.

Barring a handful of colleges, these courses are run by institutions without adequate and appropriate infrastructure, in terms of class and lab space, lab equipment, library, adequately qualified teaching staff, etc., resulting in grossly underexposed and under-trained candidates. Even when the institutions have adequate and appropriate infrastructure, even the whole country, let alone one state, cannot sustain such a massive turn out. We need people appropriately trained in different areas of biotechnology but not mere degree holders. The country's efforts in capacity building in biotechnology are not served by enormous enrolment, which will only kill the prospects of meaningful education in the area and ruin careers. It is unethical to allow hype to build up in education to foster moneymaking organizations, in the name of service to education. Once the hype recedes the whole system collapses, severely damaging the county's interests.

The recent announcement of the minister for higher education, government of Karnataka, that no pg courses would be sanctioned outside the university departments is welcome.     The government should also ensure academic discretion in sanctioning ug courses to the colleges.

Workload of teachers, strength in lecture classes and strength in practical classes
since the middle 1960s, following kothari commission report on education, the quantum of work to be done by a teacher and the strength of classes and practical batches have been debated umpteen times. Norms that were accepted a long time ago and were followed even in the bu colleges in the past, have now been violated. The university should review the situation on the following issues, and pass suitable orders.    When academic justice is not taken care of, the objectives of social justice too would be defeated.

A) Workload of a teacher
it has been an accepted norm that the teaching work load of a post-graduate lecturer in the university should be 14 hours per week, that of a reader 12 hours, that of a professor 8 to 10 hours and for a head of a department 6 to 8 hours, in view of the other responsibilities these teachers have.    The ugc’s norm of 40 hours per week includes several other duties and responsibilities of teachers and does mean only teaching.

For the college teachers, who do not have responsibilities such as conducting personal research or research guidance, 16 hours was accepted as the norm. However, over a period of time the college managements including the government, have jacked it up to 20 hours and we hear of 24 hours or even more of workload in some colleges. This is detrimental to efficiency in teaching and was done for an unethical objective of only saving money. The university should fix a maximum of 16 hours of teaching workload per week for science subjects, in the colleges and ensure that it is implemented. 

B) Strength in a class for lecture classes
it has been an accepted norm that a class for lectures in science should not contain more than 48 students. It is an unacademic viewpoint to say that a teacher, who can teach 48 students, can also teach 60 or even 90 students in a theory class. 
In basic sciences the students learn the subjects in continuation of what they learnt at the puc. In courses like biotechnology where the subjects are very different from their puc background, a close student-teacher interaction is essential. Hence, a degree class in biotechnology should not have more than 30 students. There are colleges with intake of 60 or even 90 students, all in one class. These numbers are undesirable even for basic subjects and are certainly not congenial for efficient teaching in biotechnology.

A postgraduate class should ideally contain about 15 students, but several colleges have a sanctioned intake of 30 to 60 students, which is highly undesirable. 

C) Strength in a batch for practical classes
Considering the student-teacher interaction and personal attention from the teachers required to teach in a practical class, it was accepted a long time ago that a practical class in basic science subjects can have a maximum of 12 students and if for any reason the strength is more than 12, then two teachers should handle that class. We now see batches of 20, 24 or even more and only one teacher is asked to handle this. This is not at all in the interests of efficient teaching. 

In biotechnology, for reasons already given, a practical class should not have more than 10 students.

Recruitment of teachers

The need for adequate numbers of suitably qualified teachers cannot be over emphasised.

Currently, temporary staff (the so- called 'guest faculty'), does most or all of the teaching in biotechnology departments. Some of them are part timers in more than one college, at the same time. Teachers also seem to be frequently shifting from one college to another, not for academic reasons.

In addition to administrative and financial responsibilities, continuity of norms, traditions and teaching cannot be maintained if a department does not have at least 50 per cent of its staff appointed on a permanent basis. Departments run by largely or wholly temporary teachers do not gain any credibility, and also lose on the front of employee loyalty to the department and the college.

Teacher training as biotechnology is not a single subject in itself and as it is of a recent origin, necessarily teaching has to be done by those who have degrees in botany, zoology, microbiology, biochemistry, etc. However, the teachers who teach biotechnology must have some exposure to the theoretical aspects and hands-on-experience in the practical aspects, of the subjects they teach. Hence, colleges that recruit people qualified in basic subjects in to teach biotechnology, should encourage and support the teachers to gain the special skills they need to carry out their teaching responsibilities satisfactorily.

Salaries and service conditions of teachers

In the matter of appointments, salaries and service conditions, there is not much that upholds the confidence and pride of teachers. Some colleges do not even give letters of appointment, though the teachers have been working in the same college for some years. 

Most teachers of biotechnology being temporary, there is no uniformity in the salaries they are paid. There are no service security or benefits that accrue. It must be ensured that all the teachers get the same salaries and service benefits as the permanent teachers 

Arming the lics with statutory documents on the requirements to be fulfilled for affiliation to run courses of study
every course of study has its own requirements by way of classrooms, labs, library, equipment, running expenses, and more importantly teaching staff.  The local inquiry committees (lics) of the university that are responsible for inspecting and recommending on the sanction of affiliation, are in the dark as to what is required from the colleges to run a particular course, and much less in the case biotechnology. The lics have no statutory authority to insist on any requirements for affiliation of a course of study, since there is no statutory document to stand by.

Universities in the country have statutory documents giving the details of all requirements for different courses of study. Currently there are no such documents in the bu, that tell a college intending to start a course of study, of what they are expected to provide, to be affiliated to run the course. In the absence of such a document, the lic also is helpless. Such a situation only leads to arbitrary decisions.

It is an urgent necessity that the university prepares statutory documents for all the courses of study that will help both the colleges as well as the lic and will bring some uniformity in the facilities provided by the colleges. 

A biotechnology course should be run in its own department. Alternatively the colleges should organise departments of bioscience, so that the infrastructure and staff can be meaningfully used for all the biology courses.

In the engineering colleges it appears that the departments of chemical technology, wherever present, seem to stake claim to run the b.e., course in biotechnology, which is not in the interests of the course, in the long run. 

The fbae is currently working on a document detailing the infra-structural and financial inputs required for a b.sc., course in biotechnology.

Unethical combinations of subjects in b.sc., biotechnology course ,botany, zoology, microbiology, biochemistry and biotechnology are cognate subjects. Chemistry is basic to the understanding of the modern areas of these subjects. Biotechnology curriculum includes the required aspects of microbiology, the fundamentals of which are also taught in botany, at the degree level. Consequently, botany or zoology is the logical subject to go in combination with biotechnology, along with chemistry. Under the circumstances, the combination of biotechnology, microbiology and chemistry is unethical. This combination gives a very unfair advantage to the students, over the students of other combinations, as large parts of the curriculum and syllabus biotechnology and microbiology overlap. Worse are the combinations of microbiology, genetics and biotechnology or biotechnology, biochemistry and chemistry.  

Refresher courses and laboratory training programmes for biotechnology teachers
the ugc supports teacher training under the refresher course programme in all subjects. But there are hardly any refresher courses organised for the biotechnology teachers, who need them more than the teachers of other subjects.   It is an urgent necessity that such courses are organised immediately. The fbae is prepared to organise refresher courses for teachers, provided the university extends support.

The refresher courses are mostly confined to theoretical aspects. Biotechnology teachers, more than the teachers of other subjects, require hands on experience to satisfactorily carry out their teaching responsibilities in the practical classes. It is an unarguable need that such training programmes are organised to enhance teacher competence. 

Central instrumentation facility

Facilities for biotechnology research are very involved both technically and financially. It is neither possible nor necessary that the hundreds of institutions involved in biotechnology teaching and training replicate all the expensive and sophisticated facilities, particularly when the institutions are situated in the same state and certainly so when they are situated in the same town/city. A lot of financial expenditure can be avoided and standard facilities offered for research, at reasonable cost to researchers, if instrumentation service centres are established, with possible support from the industry. 

Costs of degrees in biotechnology as per the information available to the fbae, a management seat in b.e., biotechnology costs from rs. Five to seven lakh. The merit and payment seat have the fee fixed by the government, but the colleges would certainly charge additional fee, in some form or the other, as they have been for the other be. Courses. 

Non-karnataka candidates have paid rs. 75,000 for a seat in b.sc., biotechnology in one college and they also have to pay another rs. 75,000 as tuition fee for the three years. Candidates from karnataka generally pay about rs. 7,500 plus, whatever the college takes.

These are frighteningly unrealistic fees. Such high expense for education drastically curtails opportunities for candidates who cannot afford. The government must rationalise the fee structure and put in place schemes of scholarships and educational loans to deserving students.

Bioinformatics at risk

If biotechnology is a hot area, bioinformatics is its hotter arm. There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding what bioinformatics is and what it can do. It is being treated as another face of information technology and the fact that bioinformatics is biology first and informatics next, is ignored.  That bioinformatics requires enormous amount of biological data inputs to be functional, also is either not realised or is suppressed. 

At least two colleges which teach biotechnology courses and several other bioinformatics 'institutes' advertise to offer training in bioinformatics and assured placement, at costs ranging from rs. 75,000 to 1,25,000, for three to six month courses. They operate on low-level out of tune software, or on the trial versions or what is available in the public domain. Candidates dream of becoming drug designers or of highly remunerative jobs in proteomics or genomics. They secure bank loans to get trained and then get disheartened.

No one should take a career or open a course, simply because there is money in it or because it is fashionable. This is the lesson taught by the rise and slide of information technology education.

The bioinformatics training centres can only give a certificate but they offer diplomas. While the question may be who will recognise these diplomas, the fact is that only institutions recognised under the provisions of the ugc act or other relevant acts of the government of india can rightfully confer degrees and diplomas. 

This craze for bioinformatics, in the face of greed on the part of both the trainers and the trainees, with an absolute disregard to academic requirements and ground realities, is actually damaging the science, besides shattering hopes and careers. And it is time that some regulatory process is put in place to control this dis-service to science and the society.

The need for an academic audit under the circumstances, an academic audit is an urgent need in order to identify the colleges that are up to an acceptable standard and to caution those that are substandard, and to be given time to rectify the shortcomings. If they do not comply in a reasonable time they need to be disaffiliated. It is in the interest of the colleges to go through the audit process, as they get an opportunity to officially establish their credibility. 

It is anybody's guess, as to on what basis the vtu has granted affiliation to engineering colleges, which do not seem to have anything, not even the faintest idea of what biotechnology requires.  

It is also very much needed, though easier said than done, that the non-statutory bioinformatics dispensers should be subjected to a very stringent audit, with regard to infrastructure and faculty.

The need for a single national statutory body to regulate education and training in biotechnology in india currently there are four categories of m.sc., course in biotechnology in the country supported by, a) the UGC,
b) the department of biotechnology,
c) the aicte (in engineering colleges) and
d) the university system.

The result is an utter lack of uniformity in requirements, the quantum of financial support and the standards of education. There should be only one statutory body that regulates all education in biotechnology in the country. Only then, it would be possible to train internationally competent manpower in biotechnology.

The biotechnology council of india for all the reasons stated in this document, the fbae has been striving towards the establishment of a high-powered national statutory body, the biotechnology council of india, on the same lines as the aicte, medical council, dental council, pharmacy council and the bar council. The bci should have all the power to prescribe curricula and syllabi, standards of teaching facilities, qualifications of teachers and their emoluments, regulate fee structure and decide on all matters related to education and training in biotechnology in the country, and to affiliate or disaffiliate institutions. The department of biotechnology, government of india, has accepted the position of the fbae in principle, but has been painfully slow in processing the proposal. 
Should biotechnology be taught at the ug level?
Strictly speaking, biotechnology should not be taught as a single subject at any level.   One can get into the field of biotechnology at any time in a career, provided one has the competence in any of the cognate subjects.   In fact, candidates with appropriate training in basic subjects like botany, zoology, microbiology and biochemistry have a better chance to succeed in biotechnology.   Nevertheless, we have come a long way in projecting biotechnology as a single subject and the clock cannot be turned back.   We only can, and must, make all efforts to make biotechnology education more objective and logical to serve the needs of both academics and industry, than what it is today.

Revised november 8, 2005