Towards a factory model

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Students from Jawaharlal Nehru University protesting against the Choice Based Credit System and other changes proposed under the Central Universities Act, in New Delhi on March 3. Photo: V. Sudershan

A protest by the Delhi University Teachers' Association outside the University Grants Commission office demanding, among other things, regularisation of lecturers who have been working on an ad-hoc basis for years, in New Delhi on September 25, 2014. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The introduction of the Choice Based Credit System in Central universities, many educationists feel, aligns education with industry needs instead of encouraging independence and critical thinking.

IN what seems to be yet another radical reform aimed at energising higher education, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has directed all Central universities to offer a Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) to its students from the next academic year. The CBCS, under which all universities have to move from numerical marking to grades, offers students flexibility to choose courses from across disciplines. For instance, a student who is specialising in English can do a course in history as her elective subject. To begin with, the CBCS will be an intra-university model but will later become an inter-university model once every Central university adopts a semester system of evaluation and common syllabi. This will allow a student to switch between different universities to pursue elective subjects in the near future. The model, according to the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), will be an important step towards its greater goal of standardising and centralising higher education.

The CBCS is one of the many academic reforms in higher education initiated by the United Progressive Alliance II government. Despite the change in regime, there seems to be a consensus between the UPA and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) about the nature of the academic reforms proposed by government-appointed commissions, such as the National Knowledge Commission. These commissions have invariably felt the need for a more vocation-friendly higher education system, ostensibly to increase the employability of students in a growing market like India. Hence, the MHRD of the UPA II government, in conjunction with the UGC, introduced the semester system in various universities and experimented with a poorly conceptualised Four-Year-University Programme (FYUP) in Delhi University.

These reforms met with strong resistance from the student-teacher community, which saw them as superficial and hastily implemented and not taking into consideration the existing problems in the university system. It felt that issues such as a skewed teacher-student ratio, inadequate infrastructure, and corrupt practices needed to be tackled first. The UPA government’s blatant disregard for democratic norms in introducing these changes was seen as serving the interests of corporates, who have heavily invested in the business of higher education.

Such reforms were also viewed as a departure from the existing pedagogical philosophy which advocated the coexistence of mass education and critical public research in the higher education system. The intention of the government to allow foreign universities and other vocational universities outside the system of government-sponsored public education to offer courses increased the distrust between the government and the university community, which felt that the new system would usher in an industrial, profit-driven model of education when the need of the hour was to make public education more accessible and affordable and, at the same time, encourage critical thinking.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other parties in the NDA were against such reforms when the UPA was in power. However, in the one year it has been in power, the NDA government has shown that it is as keen to institute these reforms as its predecessor. In fact, the introduction of the CBCS, many teachers and student activists say, seems to be a clear indication that the NDA is going to pursue a factory model of education ardently and could be as undemocratic as the UPA government was. The NDA government’s overemphasis on the centralisation of higher education seems to point to this.

In fact, the CBCS is a part of the Central Universities Act, 2009, passed during the UPA regime. It envisions a common syllabus, a common entrance test, semesterisation, grade-based marking, standardisation of examinations, centralised recruitments, and provision for faculty transfers across Central universities. The MHRD has directed the UGC, without proper consultations with the universities concerned, to implement many of these provisions. On March 31, 2015, UGC Chairman Ved Prakash wrote to all Vice-Chancellors: “You may agree that there is a greater need to give vocational orientation to higher education in the country so as to enhance the employability of pass-outs of our graduates. Having regard to this, UGC has framed guidelines for adoption of Credit Framework for Skill Development (CFSD) across the universities and colleges from the coming academic session, i.e 2015-16. Further, UGC has also initiated several measures, including identification of different trades, establishment of community colleges, introduction of B.Voc degree programmes, and launching of Deen Dayal Upadhyay KAUSHAL Kendras.”

This letter was preceded by a letter (dated January 21) from Surat Singh, Deputy Secretary, MHRD, to the Registrars of all universities reiterating the need for universities to “quickly initiate action” with regard to the implementation of the CBCS and the CFSD. This letter emphasised that in order to implement these reforms, the universities must also ensure “semesterisation of curricula, restructuring of syllabi in the form of modules, standardisation of examinations, and switching over from numerical marking system to grading system”.

Increasing inequality

It is clear that implementation of the CBCS and the CFSD will also ensure the implementation of other reforms mentioned in the Central Universities Act. Sachin Narayanan, an elected representative in Delhi University’s academic council, said: “The reforms that the government wants to introduce gloss over more urgent problems, which, if left unaddressed, may lead to the collapse of the university system. In these circumstances, these reforms may prove disastrous, just like it happened in the case of FYUP.”

The MHRD feels that centralisation will bring smaller universities on a par with more prestigious universities and provide a level playing field for all students, irrespective of the universities they are studying in. However, while the proposal intends to diminish inequalities in the education system, its implementation may lead to a sharp decline in the quality of education, thereby increasing inequalities. The hasty introduction of the CBCS in some State universities has led to a sharp decline in quality and is proving to be unworkable. First, all public universities in India face a severe shortage of teachers. More than 5,000 posts are lying vacant. Most universities are staffed with teachers who work either on contract or on an ad hoc basis. These teachers do not get salaries mandated by the UGC. Secondly, most universities lack the infrastructure to formulate a comprehensive module-based programme.

Nothing positive to say

In a few universities where the CBCS has already been introduced, teachers do not have anything positive to say about it. “With such a shortage of staff and poor infrastructure, all teachers have to teach for more than five hours every day. In many disciplines, one course is taught by many teachers, leading to a chaotic situation. Teachers do not get enough time to prepare for classes. Overemphasis on examinations in the new system has created a rote-learning environment. Students face a lot of difficulties comprehending a subject well in such an environment,” said an assistant professor in Ravenshaw University in Cuttack, Odisha.

Similarly, Sudhir Raniwala, a professor of physics in Rajasthan University, said: “Our university hurriedly implemented the CBCS, and that has been the beginning of another downslide. Currently, the faculty strength in the university is less than 60 per cent of what it was 30 years ago. The student strength has increased multifold. This has decreased the teacher to student ratio, which is currently about 1:60 in our university. Each subject has compulsory courses and elective courses. Our university has a rule that the credits for the compulsory courses may not necessarily be added for the final computation of the grade. This means that a degree in MSc in physics can be awarded without the student qualifying in the core courses, which exist in almost all universities across the world. In the present scheme of the CBCS in master’s degree courses, the minimum requirement of credits for the degree is 120. The credits for compulsory courses alone are 136. Do you see the anomaly? This happened because the scheme was implemented without proper groundwork or understanding, without consulting people from outside who have been working in this scheme, or have a greater understanding of the scheme.”

Yet, the NDA government seems to be in a hurry to implement such reforms. Although Ved Prakash said in a press meet that Vice-Chancellors had been consulted several times and they had committed themselves to introducing the CBCS from the session starting June-July 2015, many teachers this correspondent talked to accuse the UGC of not holding consultations and claimed that the present government was as despotic as the UPA when it came to introducing sweeping changes in the university system.

“The decision to introduce the CBCS happened in the most discreet way possible in Delhi University. Without any prior information, it was taken up in the academic council for discussion. There was absolutely no consultation with the people who had a stake in implementing the model. Correspondence between the UGC and the Vice-Chancellors of the universities in the last few months indicates that the UGC has given clear guidelines to the Vice-Chancellors to implement the model. The UGC letters read more like directives in which the Vice-Chancellors are expected to ensure its implementation,” said Naveen Gaur, a professor of physics in Delhi University.

The political scientist Aryama says: “The message that the government is sending out is clear. Higher education must realign with industry in terms of employability and skills that industry needs. Colleges and universities have to turn into a training centre for industry-specific requirements. The idea is that ‘industry’ will invest nothing for their processes, and higher educational institutions have to take up this role.”

Undermining autonomy

Clearly, education is being reimagined along the assembly line model of private production. And this, many educationists fear, will undermine the autonomy of universities. Universities, if utilised creatively, have the capacity to ensure diverse regional and contextual research activities.

Experience from some universities in India has shown that disciplines have evolved through a constant engagement between students and teachers. A centralised system will not only leave these disciplines to be (mis)handled by dominant political groups at the Centre but also discourage new thinking and ideas. Many educationists believe that such a system may kill all forms of critical thinking, which is necessary for any nation’s growth, and curb independent education which focusses on knowledge.

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