It is an attempt to reinvigorate higher education in India, make it broad-based and accommodative in consultation with all stakeholders

I write this in dismay after reading Prof. Jayati Ghosh’s article in The Hindu,How to Destroy a University” (editorial page, April 29, 2013). Prof. Ghosh is a leading academic and her comments are valued but the article appears to be based on hearsay and carries a whiff of a campaign against the current administration of the University of Delhi (DU).

DU has taken on the Herculean task of redesigning the pattern of higher education. As a leading Indian university, it is duty bound to do so. For years, the pattern of higher education in India has remained unchanged. Revamping it to make it contemporary, robust, inclusive, and broad-based is a necessity. But there has been opposition to this from a set of teachers for who change and reforms are welcome only if brought about by intellectuals and administrators of a particular ideological commitment.

Prof. Ghosh believes that the subjects offered as part of foundation courses serve no real purpose and questions the rationality of “forcing these relatively basic courses on all students.” However, in her zeal to criticise the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP), she forgets there are other novel courses on the list. The subjects offered at the foundation level convey the impression of a serious attempt at broadening the base of learning, something much emphasised in the Indian tradition. The poet Kabir wrote:

“Bada hua to kya hua, jaise ped khajoor

Panthi ko chaya nahee, fal lage ati door

(What is the point of the date palm’s height, it offers no shade and its fruit are too far away.”)

In other words, what good is stature that is not helpful?

Making students learn different subjects at the foundation level is like nurturing a tree with a big trunk, an attempt at broadening the knowledge base, and making it encompass enough to benefit society as a whole.

Another chance

Equally perplexing is her point that a student who has learnt something at the school level would lose interest if it is taught (though for a short while) again at the college level. On the contrary, it is very likely that learning would be fun for those students because of their familiarity with the subject. It may also help in peer learning.

On the issue of some students who did not do a particular subject in school and would be forced to do it in college, the four-year programme provides them another chance and access to an alternative pedagogy. Prof. Ghosh is concerned about the future of students who exit the new programme after two years. But does she have any idea about the future of those who drop out of DU now at the rate of 40-45 per cent? FYUP is a blessing to such students, as it will ensure that they get a formal award when they leave, which could offer better and more respectful living. There is no logic in forcing a student to undergo a long-duration course against her/his interest. In fact, such students often use this time to pursue other objectives. It is well known that many PhD students use their research period to attempt the civil services examinations three or four times. Do we want a university to be an institution of rigid structures in which a student can either become a graduate or nothing? Or do we want it to be accommodative of students from diverse backgrounds, having something for everyone, presenting possible outcomes even in worst-case scenarios?

As far as recognition of a four-year degree is concerned, it is well known that what DU does today, other universities in the country do tomorrow.

Respect for statutory bodies and processes is of utmost concern and being an insider, the current Vice-Chancellor would know this much better than anyone else. In fact, never before has any Vice-Chancellor reached out to the stakeholders as he has. The focus and special attention being given to the Non-Collegiate Women’s Education Board is worth mentioning because the girls in the programme are from extremely poor and weak backgrounds. Through his innovative practices, he has found new and better ways of understanding and communicating with students and teachers of this vast university that has between four and five lakh students on its rolls. Decisions of such a huge implication require both formal and informal consultations with the stakeholders. Credit must be given to the university administration for creating new channels of communication where none existed, aside from the politically-fragmented Delhi University Teachers’ Association. The meeting of the teachers-in-charge, followed by meetings with parents and students were the first of their kind. They were held to map the mood of the stakeholders. Given the composition of the statutory bodies such as the Academic Council and the Executive Council, getting the scheme and courses approved would have been a forgone conclusion. Yet the administration chose to converse with the stakeholders, proof enough of its democratic functioning. It is evident that the younger members of the academia are supportive of the FYUP and their participation in large numbers in the Academic Congress as well as in the framing of syllabi proves it.

Changing communication

The accusation that syllabi have been framed in haste is amusing. Are tardy decisions always better decisions? In their eagerness to trash the FYUP, its critics tend to ignore the massive transformation in communication styles. Assembly-based discussions and deliberations have made way for cyber discussions where conclusions and consensus are much easier to reach.

Transitory processes are often painful but they tend to settle down over a period of time. Great institutions have all gone through such phases. It would be premature to conclude that a great institution like DU can be ruined by one or other such phase. The system’s resilience is in its structure, of which teachers and students form the core.

(Chandrachur Singh is an assistant professor of Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He is the India Research Outreach Coordinator and Universitas 21 doctoral fellow at the College of Social Sciences, University of Birmingham, U.K. The views expressed are personal.)

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