The latest flashy proposal of Delhi University -- biometric smart cards to ensure teacher attendance and reward those who work overtime -- reminds us of Sanjay Gandhi’s Emergency, certainly not of Harvard Yard or Oxford’s dreaming spires.

A recent piece by an ex-energy adviser on India’s carbon intensity reduction holds lessons for our educational CEOs. It makes the point that India’s low carbon growth in recent decades has left untouched 500 million Indians without electricity, and 700 millions who use some sort of biomass for the bulk of their domestic energy requirements. The lesson is not that we should abjure, mock Gandhi-style, energy-efficient gadgets. It is rather that a sub-continental polity like ours can ill afford to clone enclaves and islands, surrounded by a stagnant water body of disprivileged citizenry.

Quick-fix solutions are being flashed on websites of the HRD Ministry and several front-ranking universities. In both instances, there is a gesture towards openness and feedbacks from stakeholders and civil society. But instead of the responses being placed on the same website -- creating an open access -- these inputs are shredded into files or simply ignored.

This seems to be the case with the Ministry’s plan to create 14 world class universities, funded by the state but “unencumbered by history or culture of the past” -- something that no world-class institution would dare boast about. The underlying idea is to build islands of excellence by relying on “the highly skilled Indian diaspora.” While other publicly funded universities -- even premier ones like Calcutta and Delhi -- are clearly hobbled by their sheer size, teacher politics, and professorial apathy, the new ‘national’ edifices will simply skip over resident Indian talent. The message is that even those who returned home with research degrees from world-class universities to put their shoulder to the wheel before the new dispensation need not apply.

For their part, older institutions such as Delhi University cannot quite effect Bertolt Brecht’s sardonic suggestion: if dissatisfied with the existing lot, “elect another people.” For desi vishwa vidyalayas, the parameters are given: a national intake of students from unequally diverse backgrounds and a sudden doubling of enrolments to accommodate all categories of reservations. And of course the problematic lot: more than 7000 teachers, as with Delhi University, some of them of indifferent quality, but a large number of dedicated professionals who are responsible for the brand of the university’s flag-ship undergraduate Honours courses.

Naturally, our Vice-Chancellors are not immune to the buzz about India as an emergent knowledge giant. And so they no longer see their role as one of steering an overburdened ship buffeted by the squall of equity, access, and quality. For them, it is not the receding horizon that is the limit. If they could, they surely would abandon ship and ‘take off’ from the crowded deck. As that is not possible, the basic contours of a university need to be quickly altered. This, it is argued, will help improve our ranking on the international table of world class universities. ‘You cannot lift a bucket of water from mid-air; you have to lift it from the ground’ -- this modern Chinese saying has a lot to commend to our educational planners in a hurry, especially those advocating a Great Leap to catch up with China.

It is against this background that Delhi University is currently being genetically modified by its administrators, to make it conform to the highest Ivy League, Oxbridge standards. Its flagship undergraduate Honours courses in more than two dozen disciplines, affecting a 100,000 students in some 80 Colleges, have to be slashed, and retrofitted into smaller, 15-week-long semester courses.

The current practice of allowing Honours students to specialise in one basic subject, leaving a quarter of the scores to a wide choice from specially designed units in other disciplines, is to be replaced by a Major and one Minor, from the very point of entry. That in the United States an undergraduate is not required to decide on a Major straightaway; that there is, in fact, a medley of ‘Minor’ subjects that she or he could choose from seems of no consequence. The fluffy mantra, “A critical level of knowledge of a second discipline is being increasingly realized globally,” is supposed to take care of any criticism.

Clearly a hybrid semester system cannot remedy all that ails India’s universities. The vast number of first-generation learners has to be enabled to develop core competences; teacher truancy has to be curbed; and new pedagogical synergies need to be developed. The latest flashy proposal of Delhi University: biometric smart cards to ensure teacher attendance (and reward those who work overtime), as reported recently, is no doubt front-page news. Beyond that, it reminds one more of Sanjay Gandhi’s Emergency, certainly not of Harvard Yard or Oxford’s dreaming spires.

Somebody needs to tell Manmohan Singh about this ‘fingerprint and thrive’ strategy being chalked out for India’s premier university, which is proud to count the Prime Minister among its scores of distinguished faculty.

(The authors are respectively Professors of History and Physics at Delhi University.)

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