The article in The Hindu by Mr. Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, on the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) in the University of Delhi (Op-Ed, “Drop the rhetoric, start the debate,” June 1, 2013) raises certain important issues.

Mr. Tharoor, like most of the mainstream media in India, seems to be unaware of the arguments that are currently being made in opposition to the FYUP. The issue is no more confined to course structure or syllabi. Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class (SC/ST/OBC) groups have advocated caution on the potential of the new programme to make the reservation policy mandated by the Constitution nugatory, as a large number of students from SC/ST/OBC groups may not be able to complete four years of education. The multiple exit points may become death traps for these students. In spite of the claims made by the university that every student can do a four-year honours degree in the new scheme, the percentage of reserved category students will dwindle in the third and fourth years. They will exit with unequal degrees, the equalising force of education will be lost, and the social stratification will be further hardened.

Students from socially and economically backward communities, persons with disabilities, and linguistic and ethnic minorities have also expressed concerns that are yet to be satisfactorily addressed by the university. In fact, while disposing of an appeal challenging the FYUP on behalf of students with visual impairment, the Supreme Court warned the university that it “has to bear in mind the need of sensitivity and expected societal responsiveness” in the implementation of the new programme (Sambhavana v. University of Delhi). The apex court stopped short of intervening in the matter, as they did not consider themselves “experts.”

The question is not about the autonomy of the university, but whether the Government of India can turn its face the other way when the mandate of the Constitution is made a mockery of by the university. It is the duty of the government to ensure the success of the steps taken for the “advancement of … socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes” as mandated by Article 15(4). Any policy change that has the potential to endanger these steps can only be taken with exercise of due caution and care.

Apart from the Constitutional mandate of Reservation, Entry no. 66, List 1 of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution vests with the Union “co-ordination and determination of standards in institutions for higher education.” It is precisely with this mandate that the University Grants Commission (UGC) was established by an Act of Parliament. When questions about standards and parity with other universities in India are raised, both the Government and the UGC cannot remain mute spectators.

The University of Delhi, like all central universities in India, is established by an Act of Parliament. The President of India, who is the highest executive authority of the State, is its Visitor, and has extensive powers. According to clause (7)(A) of the Delhi University Act, 1922, the Visitor has the power to “cause an inquiry to be made … in respect of any matter connected with the University” and to “annul any proceeding of the University.” As per Statute 11F, the Vice-Chancellor of the university is appointed by the Visitor. Thus, an autonomous educational institute in India functions within the larger structure of the state, and is subject to its ultimate control.

If the overall control of the university and the coordination of standards is very much in its hands, the government cannot shy away from its responsibility when the national education policy of the 10+2+3 system is replaced by another system without a national debate, especially when it threatens the fundamental policies of social affirmative action mandated by the Constitution. The lack of will to intervene from the government cannot be seen as arising out of “respect for autonomy,” as what is at stake is not the routine running of the affairs of the university. It can only seen as the encouragement and the promotion of an anti-poor, anti-SC/ST/OBC policy by the government.

The Minister’s comment that the FYUP is not the end of the world and that it is part of the freedom to experiment and fail is not in the least amusing. The failure of the FYUP experiment may not be the end of the world for the honourable ministers and their officials, but it will be precisely that for the thousands of students who will be made guinea pigs in this exercise.

Shashi Tharoor responds

(Dr. Udit Raj is chairman, All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations and convener, Joint Action Front for Democratic Education – SC/ST/OBC/Left. Dr. Hany Babu, who teaches English in the University of Delhi, is coordinator, Alliance of Social Justice and member, Joint Action Front for Democratic Education – SC/ST/OBC/Left.)

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