System error

Print edition : May 17, 2013

Students of All India Democratic Students Organisation staging a protest against the four-year graduation course at Delhi University in New Delhi on April 22. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

FOR some time now, the University of Delhi has been in the throes of convulsions, if not cataclysms. This matters to all of us, because it is arguably one of the most important institutions of higher learning in the country. It is of gargantuan size: more than 430,000 students of whom around 140,000 are regular full-time students; 9,000 teaching posts; 14 faculties and 86 academic departments; nearly 80 affiliated colleges. Its faculty—in the postgraduate departments as well as in the colleges—contains some of the best and brightest of Indian intelligentsia. Its alumni list is distinguished and varied, with members prominent in every segment of Indian professional classes as well as the ruling elites.

For these and other reasons, it has been a magnet attracting students from all over the country, particularly for its undergraduate programme. This does not mean that Delhi University is free from faults and problems —from its unwieldy size to the unevenness of quality across and within colleges and departments, and now the added frictions associated with haphazard implementation of the semester system. But despite these, it is one of the few universities that provides an undergraduate experience and a degree that still has value across the country and outside it.

In the past few years, the dominant news from Delhi University has been about uncertainty and strife, and now chaos. It began with protests against the semester system, which was introduced two years ago but has yet to be implemented effectively in an organised and problem-free manner. (Disclosure: I personally am in favour of a semester-based system of higher education, although I recognise the genuine concerns of many with the manner of implementation in this instance.)

The most recent proposals for change in the university are much more sweeping, altering the very nature of the undergraduate programme. These proposals should generate much greater concern, especially because of the haste with which fundamentally new features are being introduced, seemingly with little or no academic preparation. One significant feature is the shift from a three-year degree programme to a four-year programme that offers multiple degrees within a single stream. The degrees will be called Associate Baccalaureate (after two years), Baccalaureate (three years), and Baccalaureate with Honours (four years).

Compulsory courses

The four-year programme will require students to study six types of courses—11 “foundation” courses, 20 courses in the major discipline, six courses in the minor discipline, five courses in “application”, and some non-credit courses such as two on “integrating mind, body and heart” and six devoted to “cultural activities”.

The foundation courses will be compulsory for all students, and will therefore occupy most of their time in the first two years. These include two courses on “language, literature and creativity” (one in English and the other in Hindi or another modern Indian language). The other nine compulsory courses have the following titles: “Information Technology”, “Business, Entrepreneurship and Management”, “Governance and Citizenship”, “Psychology, Communication and Life Skills”, “Geographic and Socio-economic Diversity”, “Science and Life”, “History, Culture and Civilisation”, “Building Mathematical Ability” and “Environment and Public Health”. Surely, I am not the only person who finds such a list ridiculous?

Note that these courses do not constitute a menu from which students can choose so that they can pick subjects they have not been exposed to previously. Rather, they will have to be done by every student regardless of previous background, which means the courses will have to be pitched at a level that can be understood by anyone with a basic school qualification. The course on, say, “Building Mathematical Ability” must be comprehensible to a student who has not done mathematics at the plus two level, which would make it too basic to retain the interest of students who have already done it in school. The absurdity of such compulsion in what should be an institution of higher learning is hard to understand.

Indeed, although the proposed content of these “foundation” courses has still not been made public, it stands to reason that the level will be approximately higher secondary level. Why this large set of what are likely to be basic courses is to be made compulsory for all undergraduate students in their first two years is not clear. When I checked the university’s website on April 21, there was no further information on any of these courses. Nor was there anything on the content of the “applied” courses, other than the claim that these would be “skill-based courses that enable employability for students”. I was also curious (as anyone would be) about the two courses on “integrating mind, body and heart” that students will have to do over a full academic year —but no details were provided.

Since all this has barely been discussed within the university community as a whole, it is perhaps not surprising that the rationale and the details have not been spelt out clearly. Even worse, less than three months before the start of the academic session, when these courses will be introduced, it is still not clear who is going to teach them, or how colleges will handle the infrastructural and logistical needs of ensuring that the entire undergraduate intake of the coming year will be able to take these courses.

Meanwhile, even in the major and minor disciplines, students are to be given no choice at all but are simply presented with a set of courses. This is completely different from the four-year structure of undergraduate education in the United States (which is at least partly the model) that allows students much greater freedom of choice of individual courses.

The matter of suddenly creating the syllabi of a large number of new courses is another extraordinary aspect. In any university, even a relatively small one such as the one in which I teach, course revision (not to mention course creation) is a long and complicated process, involving lots of discussion, consultation, peer review, feedback, and so on. Ideally, each course should go through all these processes—to ensure the highest possible quality and relevance—and the care with which an institution creates its courses (which are after all the essence of its reason for existence) is a basic indicator of its seriousness of purpose. Most academics would accept that creating a new academic curriculum and the associated course syllabi would take months if not at least a year to work out if they were to be done carefully and in a proper academic manner.

Speed and obduracy

So the speed and obduracy with which these new courses are being sought to be introduced is not just remarkable but downright terrifying. From mid-2012 the Vice-Chancellor made public statements that a four-year programme would replace the current three-year undergraduate course from 2013, effectively pre-empting future decisions without providing further details. No concept papers were circulated and no feedback was sought formally. The official changes occurred during the university vacations in December 2012. An extraordinary meeting of the Academic Council was convened to discuss and pass this momentous change—with three days’ notice! Most departments received the notice on December 22 (a Saturday, not a working day) for a meeting that took place in the morning of December 24; many did not even know about it until it was over. The structure of the programme that was discussed at that meeting had not been sent to the committees of courses at the faculties or departments, or to the staff councils of colleges. Despite some clear indications of dissent, the change was hurriedly passed and sent on to be passed by an executive council meeting convened (again extraordinarily) on the next working day—December 26.

At that point those who would be required to teach in this programme were still completely in the dark about everything, including the most basic information on what would be its structure. By February the overall course structure (described above) was announced, but without any clear sense of how exactly it had been arrived at. Indeed, there is still no public document explaining the rationale of the programme. Despite this, on March 5, orders were issued to departments to prepare syllabi for the newly announced courses within two weeks. Unsurprisingly, that deadline was not met and had to be extended by another month, though even that was clearly too little time.

Farcical situations

The pressure to finalise courses at any cost has created some almost farcical situations. On April 20, the university administration declared that the Faculty of Social Sciences had approved the new courses for economics and political science. But then college teachers who attended the meeting protested that they had not been shown the proposed course outlines earlier on grounds of “confidentiality”.

Indeed, it is strange to make an argument based on confidentiality when tradition and common sense dictate that course outlines should be circulated at least a week in advance to enable people to consider them carefully. Many teachers left before the end of the meeting because they were told that the university had decided not to consider the courses until April 27. A hastily generated “vote” then enabled the courses to be passed.

Regardless of such peculiar and even desperate methods of considering courses, the Registrar’s Press Note making the announcement states complacently that “the Faculty of Science shall hold its meeting on April 22, where all courses related to the four-year programme for the entire gamut of science departments are expected to be granted approval”. No prizes for guessing the methods that could be employed to ensure this.

Meanwhile, all these massive changes are being forced through without planning for the required additional physical infrastructure or faculty for teaching four cohort years of students rather than three, or even filling up the existing glaring gaps in the system.

So there is no sense of urgency in the administration about filling up the 4,000 teaching posts that are currently lying vacant, with the work actually being done by ad hoc or “guest” lecturers. In any case, with this kind of academic confusion adding to professional insecurity, the best scholars are no longer likely to be attracted to teaching on such terms. The increase in the cost to society of funding an extra year of undergraduate studies has not been dwelt upon, nor has it been weighed against the supposed benefits.

What is perhaps most surprising of all is the rigid determination of the university administration to push through these changes without seeking to work them out carefully and consult widely about the best course of action. The consultations with “stakeholders” that have been publicised include an “academic congress” that had around 10,000 specially invited students, teachers and parents in a jamboree in which obviously no serious discussion was possible and where the four-year course was not a part of the listed agenda. To consider this to be a plausible method of garnering academic feedback is not even a bad joke.

Meanwhile, faculty and students who have raised questions and protested are being threatened and victimised in various ways. Letters by heads of departments and even deans of faculties expressing concerns are simply ignored. The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) has been sidelined and repressed, and finds it difficult even to get a hall on campus to hold open meetings. Individual faculty members who publicise their views find their life made difficult in various ways, with blatant attempts to threaten or cajole them into silence.

What exactly is going on? Why this crazy rush and this aggressive attitude to any questioning? Even if the four-year course is to be implemented, why not wait until 2014 to give enough time to develop a proper programme? Has a collective madness overtaken those at the helm of affairs in the University of Delhi? And if so, are there no sane voices that have the power to be heard, no checks and balances in the system to prevent such extreme measures from being taken with such unseemly haste? Surely, the attempt is not to make a mockery of the entire system of undergraduate education in one of the few public universities in India where the degree is still held in some regard?

Or could that actually be the purpose? There are in fact some who argue that the implicit purpose of such half-thought-out moves executed so rapidly is to run down the university to make it less attractive to legions of young people who continue to choose Delhi University over the many private institutions that are mushrooming in the National Capital Region and elsewhere in the country. This may be seen as excessively conspiracy- theory-based. But there is no doubt that many potential students and their parents are seriously considering alternatives to Delhi University, given the chaos and lack of academic seriousness that seem to characterise the changeover.

It is still not too late. The fate of Delhi University is too important to be left to those who currently seem to control it. It is essential for anyone concerned with higher education in this country to prevent the reckless destruction of such a significant institution.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor