At the end of a year-long exercise that began in May 2022 and ended in April 2023, colleges across the State have now been urged to follow a syllabus framed by Tamil Nadu State Council for Higher Education (Tansche), from the current academic year. Arts and science colleges, which have admitted over 1.11 lakh students this year, are to teach students as per the new syllabus, T.N. Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy announced. About 75% of the syllabus of every college should be the same, as per the decree.
Initially, sporadic voices rose against what was termed “the imposition of a common syllabus”, and these voices became more vehement, closer to the start of the academic year. A few teachers’ associations, were, at first, against this move, but later issued statements supporting it, adding to the confusion. Mr. Ponmudy regularly addressed these concerns, through meetings with Vice Chancellors first, and later with the principals of autonomous colleges in Chennai. Yet, divided opinions persist, and those opposing the move to bring about a uniform syllabus seem loudest in the academic community.
Loss of autonomy, academic freedom
The principal of a leading autonomous college in the Western region is one of the many who are against the imposition of a common syllabus. “It is unfair to enforce a common syllabus before the release of the State Education Policy,” he said. Colleges, he said, oppose the 75% uniformity that the government has mandated, as it could affect the leverage they enjoy in offering a choice-based-credit system. Rigidity could hamper the choice of elective subjects, which is the only way of infusing skills into students, that are relevant to the job market. The policy, could actually run counter to the intended aim and exacerbate the unemployment problem further, said a senior faculty member of a government college.
Former V-C of the University of Madras and Madurai Kamaraj University, P.K. Ponnuswamy said, “A common syllabus is a regressive move. It will be disastrous for the higher education system in general, if it also implies common question papers and examinations.” Colleges would lose their academic freedom he pointed out, wondering where the need for universities was, if a common syllabus was enforced. “It is not workable,” he said.
Academic councils and boards of studies in autonomous colleges play a major role in introducing innovative subjects in consultation with experts. Regular discussions are held, and the colleges have the liberty and freedom to introduce any subjects they feel will be relevant, pointed out R. Murali, coordinator of the Makkal Kalvi Movement. What is the hurry when the committee for the State Education Policy is yet to file its report, he asked.
The Tamil Nadu Government College Teachers’ Association also has reservations. State President P. David Livingstone said, “The syllabi of subjects such as science have the same lessons from 10-15 years ago. In zoology, for example, animals that are now banned for laboratory use, are still being suggested for dissection in laboratory practicals.’
It is “the prerogative of universities and colleges” to set and review the syllabus every three years as per current norms. “Tansche does not specify if this will be withdrawn when the common syllabus is implemented,” Mr. Livingstone said Will the imposition of the common syllabus prevent colleges from creating new courses to meet local needs asked S. Ismail Mohideen, principal and head of PG and Research, Department of Mathematics at Jamal Mohamed College, Tiruchi.
Colleges may not be able to offer new programmes without Tansche’s approval, under the new common syllabus system. Also, courses approved under the direct benefit transfer Star College scheme may also suffer, as, “Students will not be able to pass muster with the 75% external and 25% internal marks ratio,” Mr. Mohideen said.
“At present, Part 1 (language Tamil) and Part 2 (English) must be implemented according to a recent Naan Mudhalvan scheme. We duly carried out the order. Now on July 27, we were given a new syllabus that is very different from the earlier one. With the semester exams due to start in a few weeks, teachers and students are expected to deal with a new set of lessons at short notice,” Mr. Mohideen rued, arguing that the Council “should give colleges time to adjust to the conditions and implement the new syllabus next year. Sudden changes are not conducive to learning.”
Convenor of the Joint Action Council of College Teachers (JAC) M. Nagarajan believes that experts, and not the government should decide on content development. “There are Boards of Studies. Each university is governed by its Act. Centralisation could result in a loss of regional balance.” He averred that equivalence and mobility should be decided by universities, as education is for liberalisation and democratisation.
No discussion were held, allege associations
MUTA, a teachers’ association that represents faculty from four universities including Madurai Kamaraj, Manonmaniam Sundaranar, Mother Teresa and Alagappa universities believes the move is an effort to bulldoze autonomy. M. Nagarajan, general secretary of MUTA said, “There is tremendous pressure to follow 100% of this common syllabus, an unprecedented policy decision, which should have been framed by involving subject experts and academicians. Unfortunately, no such discussion was held,” he added.
“Most of the suggested lessons for the subjects are of inferior quality. Local flavours included in Tamil and English papers have been bulldozed. Literature should reflect society like a mirror, and hence will vary from place to place. It cannot be part of a single twine. If this is the case, then what is the need for 500 boards of studies in 13 universities? This is a precursor to the ‘one nation, one language, one culture policy’ being pushed by the Union government,” Mr. Nagarajan charged. He feared that the move would prevent students from pursuing research in specialised fields, where they compare a topic from two different subjects. “Tansche can only be a facilitator and not a dictator. It has no overriding power,” he said
Voices for the uniform syllabus
Christober M. Davamani, president of the All India Association for Christian Higher Education and principal/secretary of American College in Madurai, however, believes the new syllabus will help students in skill training. It is sufficient that Tansche has given colleges leverage to alter 25% of the syllabus, he said. With over 300 courses in arts and science and 27 branches in the B.Com degree alone, students have a wide choice. Institutions could choose programmes suited to local needs and at the same time, the new syllabus gave them the same exposure, he pointed out.
Besides, there was an assurance from the Higher Education Department that there would not be undue pressure. “We can follow Tansche’s syllabus for the betterment of students. After a semester or two, there may be better scope for analysis of the entire proposal,” Mr. Davamani said.
‘Syllabus was drafted with consultations’
Tansche officials however state there there were discussions before putting out the syllabus. They say colleges were involved in the drafting of the new syllabus. Of the 922 subject experts who participated, 379 were from 30 autonomous colleges (23 from Chennai), and the rest from Madurai, Coimbatore and Nagercoil. Presidency College sent 43 subject experts and DG Vaishnav sent 37 experts. A total of 34 faculty from Ethiraj College and 25 from Madras Christian College also participated.
Tansche uses the term ‘model syllabus’ that aims to eliminate the hassles of having to provide equivalence. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission, the government’s recruiting body, was entrusted with the job. Since 2019 when the council was given the powers, it has received 1,247 applications seeking its approval for degrees offered. A total of 20 equivalence committee meetings were held. Of the 982 government orders issued, 560 were for subjects that were equivalent to the degrees offered and 422 were not.
“Colleges offer fancy degree programmes. When candidates are appointed to government posts their certificates come to us for verification. They would have studied just 16% of the core subject and the rest would be irrelevant,” an official explained. For example, a B.Com degree is not equivalent to B.A. Co-Operation or B.Com (Computer Applications) or B. Com. (Professional Accounting) degree, he said.
“We found that many colleges and some universities had not developed their own syllabi at all. As a council, we must address the needs of all colleges,” pointed out an official. The Council has now determined a template for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, specifying the number of hours for core and elective subjects in each semester.
Tansche developed 166 undergraduate and 135 postgraduate courses, including 15 language courses. Given the popularity of B.Com the council has developed 29 courses for it. One of them, one is B.Com (GST) and another is B.Com (Digital Banking and Fintech). It has also developed eight courses exclusively for the vocational stream. There are five new courses to choose from in the science programmes. A B.A. in Women Studies will be offered from this academic year as well.
To charges that the council had no overriding powers, the officials cite the Tamil Nadu State Council for Higher Education Act, 1992. Section 10 (h) of the Act states that one of its functions is to “encourage and promote innovations in curriculum development, restructuring and updating of syllabi in Universities, colleges and institutions of higher education.”
But senior academicians are not sure if these rules prevents universities from framing their own syllabus. Academicians have always relied on the University of Madras Act, framed in 1923 and periodically revised. Former V-C P. Duraisamy pointed out: “In the Madras University Calendar, (the statute is known as the calendar) on Authorities of the Universities, Chapter XB, the constitution of the Boards of Study, powers and functions are given and state (page 350): ‘to make recommendations in regard to courses of study and examinations in the subjects with which it deals.’ Based on this, the course of study has been designed by BoS.”
Mr. Duraisamy said when boards of studies prepare a syllabus, it is presented to the syndicate which then presents it to the Academic Council for approval.
Minister declares ‘no interference in autonomy’
At a meeting with heads of autonomous colleges in Chennai on August 2, 2023, the Higher Education Minister said there would be no interference with their autonomy. Tansche officials also maintain that autonomy would not be disturbed. “We only want the colleges to follow 75% of the core syllabus… that will be the same across all colleges, but electives will differ, depending on the specialisation. We have structured it so that students do not have a problem when they apply for government jobs. Colleges have the freedom to plan a variety of electives. Ultimately, we want the students to benefit. They should not be denied jobs because their degrees do not comply with the degree requirements the job demands,” said the Tansche official.
“We have only revised the syllabus. We are open to suggestions and corrections where needed. Some teachers’ bodies that are levelling charges have not approached us with their grievance. To those who did, we have explained the process. When colleges frame the syllabus they must have the required subject experts from the university, which is the affiliating body,” a higher education official pointed out. The course work must be cogent, and follow through with the programme requirements, he pointed out.
(With inputs from L. Srikrishna and B. Tilak Chandar in Madurai; P. Sudakar in Tirunelveli; R. Krishnamoorthy in Coimbatore and Nahla Nainar in Tiruchi)