India’s premier institution of higher education is rushing to change its undergraduate degree without adequate wider consultations
The University of Delhi is perhaps one of the few in the country whose undergraduate degrees still command respect within and outside the country. But all this may change quite rapidly. This enormous institution of nearly half-a-million people is being forced through cataclysmic changes that may have significant impact on its academic credibility.
The main change is this: from July this year (just a few months away), the undergraduate programme will shift from a three-year degree programme to a four-year one, with no more B.A.s or B.Sc.s. Instead, multiple degrees will be offered within a single stream: Associate Baccalaureate (after 2 years), Baccalaureate (3 years), and Baccalaureate with Honours (4 years).
11 foundation courses
Regardless of their previous training or choice of subject, all students will be forced to take 11 foundation courses, which will 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), “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.”
Obviously, these courses will have to be pitched at a level that can be understood by anyone with a basic school qualification. So 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. What is the rationale for forcing these relatively basic courses on all students? And who will teach them, given that even the outlines of these courses have still not been made public and are unknown to the college teachers themselves?
After two years, students who have done mostly these courses and five others in some disciplines can leave with an “Associate Baccalaureate” degree. Who will recognise this degree? What kinds of jobs would be suitable? And even after three years (during which students will also be exposed to two non-credit courses on “Integrating Mind, Body and Heart” that will be spread over a full academic year) what would be the worth of the Baccalaureate degree that contains just a few courses specialising in any discipline?
The full four-year programme contains 20 courses in a “major” discipline, six courses in a “minor” discipline, five courses in “Application” (which are supposed to be “skill-based courses that enable employability for students,” with no further details provided) and six courses devoted to “Cultural Activities.” The only choice for students is in terms of major and minor disciplines: thereafter, everything is given. So, contrary to claims, the proposals actually dumb down the programme and reduce the choice of students.
How did the decision for such a momentous change get taken? Throughout most of last year, there was little in the form of discussion, apart from a few stray public statements from the Vice-Chancellor that a four-year undergraduate programme would replace the current three-year course from 2013. No concept papers were circulated by the administration and no feedback was formally sought from any segment of the University. The consultations with “stakeholders” that have been subsequently publicised include an “Academic Congress” in November 2012 that involved around 10,000 specially invited students, teachers and parents in a big jamboree. Obviously no serious discussion was possible there and, in any case, the four-year course was not part of the listed agenda.
Then, during the university vacations of December 2012, an Extraordinary Meeting of the Academic Council was convened to discuss this — with three days’ notice, and without sending any prior details on the structure of the programme to the Committees of Courses at the Faculties or Departments, or to the Staff Councils of Colleges. Despite low attendance and some dissent, the changes were passed, and the Executive Council passed the scheme on the next working day!
Even then, teachers who would be responsible for handling this programme were still completely in the dark about everything, including the most basic information on what would be its structure. The course structure was announced (without giving any details) in February, but there is still no public document explaining its rationale or providing any kind of elaboration. On March 5, orders were issued to departments to prepare syllabi for the newly announced courses within two weeks — a deadline then extended by another month, but still a ridiculously short time.
On April 20, the Faculty of Social Sciences officially “approved” the new courses for Economics and Political Science, even though the courses were not circulated before the meeting and most of the attendees had left the meeting earlier because they were assured that the university had decided not to consider the courses until April 27. The Registrar’s Press Note making the announcement stated 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” — and indeed this is what happened.
Anyone who deals in higher education will know that such speed and lack of real discussion seriously undermine even the most minimal academic standards. Incredibly, 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. Currently, around 4,000 teaching posts are vacant, with the work actually being done by ad hoc or “guest” lecturers. The increase in the cost to students and society of funding an extra year of undergraduate studies has not been dwelt upon, nor has it been weighed against the supposed benefits.
It is no wonder that so many faculty members of departments and colleges are up in arms. But those 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 Teachers’ Association, DUTA, has been sidelined and repressed. 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.
Instead, the university website displays prominently a letter from some senior professors that claims that “for almost two years, thousands of teachers, students and parents have been engagingly consulted in meaningful ways to help in the design and evolution of the proposal for the new undergraduate system of study”. (Clearly this is a group that would benefit from the proposed new course on English language ...). As a parent who meets many students and teachers of this university, I can vouch that this is simply not true!
What is perhaps hardest to understand is the rigid determination and reckless speed with which these drastic changes are sought to be made. Even if the four-year course is to be implemented, why not wait until 2014 to give enough time to develop a proper programme? Even if some collective madness has overtaken those at the helm of affairs in the University of Delhi, can saner voices not prevail? What about the checks and balances in the system that could prevent such extreme measures from being taken with such unseemly haste?
The matter is now urgent. Going about things in this way would make a mockery of undergraduate education in one of the few public universities in India where the degree is still held in some regard. So it seems that the fate of Delhi University is too important to be left to those who currently seem to control it. Anyone who cares about higher education in this country should see what can be done to prevent the reckless destruction of such a significant institution.
(Jayati Ghosh is a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)