Notes of Dissent

Photo:Pushkar Vyas
Photo: Pushkar Vyas

Delhi University has always been political, but rarely has it been embroiled in as much controversy as it finds itself today. On 9 May, the university issued a press release stating that its Academic Council, an elected statutory body, had by an “overwhelming majority” approved a radical new four-year undergraduate programme. The programme, to be introduced in the coming academic session, will be the most radical change in the university curricula in the past few decades. It proposes to replace the standard three-year undergraduate programme with one that stretches over four years, and includes mandatory vocational training and foundational courses – which aim to give undergraduate students a broad-based education. It is hoped that this will make them more “all-rounded” and “employable”. The announcement set of a maelstrom of protest from student and teacher groups that spanned the political and social gamut. The Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) unanimously rejected it, saying it was against the National Education Policy, and asked for the dismissal of controversial Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh. A group of political leaders such as Sitaram Yechury, Ram Vilas Paswan, D Raja and Sharad Yadav also stepped in, claiming that the four-year programme would be “detrimental” to the interest of SC/ST and OBC students, and those coming from “Hindi-medium, weaker sections”. Academics like noted historian Shahid Amin said that the haste with which the changes were being implemented was “self-defeating” and the whole exercise had an “impossible timetable”. Even members from the DU’s Executive Council, its highest executive body, were critical. Dr Abha Dev Habib says that a “nationwide debate leading to a coherent policy must take place” before DU is allowed to go ahead with these changes.
The criticism prompted the VC to react strongly. He reiterated that DU “would introduce the new four-year undergraduate programme from the ensuing academic session”. “The rumour mills,” he said dismissing the criticism, “were rife with baseless propaganda.” Under the new system, the three-year bachelor’s degree with BA and BSc courses in the ‘honours’ and ‘programme’ streams will be replaced with a four-year course that will have multiple exit points. Having chosen a course of study, a student who decided to exit after two years would get a diploma in the subject. Those exiting after three years get a bachelor’s degree; and those who complete all four years get an honours degree.
As part of the broad-basing of education, the new system requires all students to study six different types of courses. Eleven ‘foundation’ courses occupy two-thirds of the first year of study and a third of the second. They range from language, literature and creativity to science and life and business, entrepreneurship and management. These are accompanied by courses on ‘integrating mind, body and heart’ and ‘cultural activities’.
Discipline I courses (of the subject in which the student has chosen to graduate) comprise a third of the first and second years, and the bulk of the third and fourth. In addition, students are required to do ‘applied courses’ or skills-based ones; and Discipline II or ‘minor’ courses.
It’s a system that purportedly builds on and amplifies the controversial semester system that the VC had introduced in 2011. In the semester system, courses have been divided into semesters; and exams that were previously annual have become biannual. The criticism of the four-year programme has been wide-ranging. Most critics accuse the VC of having pushed it through in a hurry, with little thought to how the courses are going to be structured. According to a petition filed by Amin and a group of DU teachers, the new programme was pushed through at an ‘extraordinary’ meeting of the Academic Council in December 2012. The council was given three days to peruse and opine on such major changes. In his defence, the VC has said that he had appointed a ‘task force’ to design the four-year undergraduate programme in September 2012. However, this group was appointed entirely by him – neither were all members of the Academic Council included, not were even the heads of all departments of the university.
On 5 March, the university issued the first official letter asking departments to initiate the syllabus-making process. The teachers were required to frame the syllabus in just two weeks. Even though this deadline was relaxed by a month, it was still unrealistic. Apart from the suspicious hurry in pushing through the course, there were other lacunae. In a letter to the University Grants Commission (UGC), Dr Abha Dev Anand complained that due to the course structure, those “leaving at the end of two years would have studied very little of the major discipline and hardly much vocational training”. Other critics have seconded this, pointing out that by trying to combine different courses and objectives into a single course, the new system ends up falling between stools. Worse, they say that students are shortchanged – those interested in earning a diploma and bachelor’s degree learn far less than what they would in the current system, and are therefore unlikely to be employable (which according to the VC is one of the key objectives of the new system). And those doing an honours degree end up spending a lot of time on (foundation and application) courses that are either irrelevant or repeat what they have already learnt in school.
The system does not match any accepted pattern of undergraduate education. Both the American and British systems keep vocational education and undergraduate degree courses apart, the former by way of community colleges and liberal arts colleges and the latter by way of polytechnics and degree colleges. While movement between the two is permitted, it is conditional.
The touted academic flexibility of the new programme is also elusive – there are fewer optional or elective courses for ‘main’ subjects, and none at all for courses in which a student is getting a ‘minor’. DU also seems to be unprepared with the additional infrastructure the new programme will require. It currently has 3,000 UGC-sanctioned teaching posts that have remained unfilled for the past three years. The semester system has already put the DU under severe strain by compressing courses into fewer teaching days so as to be able to accommodate two rounds of exams.
The four-year programme adds to the pressure by increasing the number of undergraduate students; and requires the teaching of additional (common) courses.
The VC, however, says that DU is in the process of filling up these positions. “We expect to initiate the process for regular appointments of permanent faculty through selection committees by June,” he said. Even if it were possible to fill all these vacancies, it seems unlikely that the teachers will be ready to shift to the new teaching paradigm by the coming academic year.
There have been vague pronouncements on allowing undergraduates from the four-year programme to finish their master’s degrees in a year – but how this will be done, and what it entails, remain unclear. The UGC, which is tasked with reviewing the infrastructure of universities and colleges, does not seem to have looked at these shortcomings.
Neither is it clear how admissions will be impacted, given that admissions to all courses in a particular discipline will now be amalgamated. Nor has the possible effect of a large number of students deciding to exit after either the second or third year, on the viability of teaching the remaining students, been debated. The additional year will also commensurately increase expenditure for students, which according to Udit Raj of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations will only make education inaccessible to poor and underprivileged students.
What makes critics even more apprehensive is the VC’s penchant for introducing changes with little discussion. A little over a year ago, he had similarly pushed through a set of multi-disciplinary courses – a BTech in humanities and a BS in innovation – as part of the Meta College (a kind of supra-college) that he started. The idea was to allow students to range across disciplines, choosing in the BTech between areas as diverse as journalism, education, counselling, historical tourism, etc.
Beyond this there was little clarity on the rationale for this new scheme, the costs, or how it would be implemented. It was railroaded through despite 25 Academic Council members submitting notes of dissent. Not surprisingly, the response to it has been lukewarm. The undue haste with which the change is being pushed through is inexplicable. If all 600 universities in India start creating separate rules and courses without wide-scale consultations, it will result “in a chaotic situation in the field of education,” says Ram Vilas Paswan.
“The most puzzling aspect of the four-year undergraduate programme is that a major reform has been initiated without the backing of a national policy statement or white paper examining its rationale,” says the statement issued by Shahid Amin’s group.