Our universities are changing. Never has the pace of change been this fast, nor the protests this loud. On the rare occasion that the media take notice, the discussion usually focusses on whether or not due procedure has been followed. Given our authoritarian power structures, it is as important to ask whether adequate thought has gone into the initiation of the changes.
Teachers of the University of Delhi are especially familiar with changes; the recent spate began with the introduction of the semester system in undergraduate teaching in 2011. Although there are certain serious logistical issues involved, there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching in a semester mode. What is problematic is when the introduction of the system is done in a manner in which little attention is paid to the content of semester courses. Unfortunately, these courses were created by snipping the existing annual courses in half, sometimes badly. Why? There was no time to reflect on curricular or pedagogic issues.
An impact across India More recently, we saw even more radical changes with the introduction of the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) in the University of Delhi. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a four-year BA programme. A great deal hinges on the quality of the courses that form the programme. Of course, questions can be asked about whether a single university in the country can move to a four-year system and the implications of an additional year’s education in a country where many students find it difficult to pay even the highly subsidised fees. Anyhow, the programme was introduced in 2013, again without adequate time to think seriously about curricular or pedagogic issues. And then, in the summer of 2014, it was just as > suddenly withdrawn .
The University of Delhi is still reeling under the impact of all these changes, but what is now on the cards is something even more worrying; something that will affect not one but all Indian universities. A communiqué from the University Grants Commission (UGC) dated November 14, 2014, gives certain directives that were apparently discussed at a retreat of the vice chancellors of Central universities on September 12 and 13, 2014; these were subsequently approved by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The directives require that all universities follow a > Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) from 2015 onwards. We are told that the aim is to provide choice to students within an institution as well as “seamless mobility across institutions” in India and abroad by adopting a “cafeteria approach”. These guidelines are apparently supposed to apply to all undergraduate and postgraduate level degree, diploma and certificate programmes being run by Central, State and deemed universities in India. Once again: such sweeping change, so little thought.
Affecting autonomy There would have been no problem if the new system only involved giving students grades instead of marks. However, it gives an all-India scale of conversion of marks into grades which does not take into account the fact that there are radical differences between the “standard” in different colleges and universities. But even this is only a small part of a larger package that has very serious implications for the autonomy of universities and the quality of university education across the country.
All universities are to have a uniform structure of syllabi. There will be “core” courses, “compulsory foundation” courses, and “elective foundation courses” that “are value-based and are aimed at man-making education”. This seems to be the FYUP in a new three-year, all-India garb. In the new system, in at least half of the core courses, the assessment will be based on examinations in which external examiners will set and mark the papers. The new system will also have an impact on PhD programmes. Theses must be evaluated by external as well as internal examiners. In the University of Delhi, while undergraduate examination papers are currently marked by teachers from across the university, postgraduate assessment is done within the departments. In the History Department, we currently have three external examiners for PhD theses. The new diktat is set to change all this.
No say in courses It gets worse. It is now clear that the new system also aims at introducing uniform syllabi across universities in the country. The website of the UGC displays model undergraduate syllabi for various subjects, from which only minimal deviation will be permitted. It does not specify where these syllabi have come from. The History syllabus on the UGC website happens to be the syllabus of the University of Delhi, with a mishmash of elements drawn from the old FYUP syllabus. This is the “chosen one” which will presumably be imposed on universities all over the country.
This is not in the least bit flattering. In normal times, the process of syllabus revision in our University has involved wide-ranging consultation and discussion among all the teachers involved. It takes time — sometimes too much — but it is worth it. For example, the MA History syllabus was revised a few years ago, and the History Department has recently initiated a revision of its BA syllabi, because teachers are convinced that these syllabi need to be changed and improved. Now it seems that we need not bother. Our old courses, with which we are dissatisfied, will continue and will be imposed not only on us, but on other universities in the country. In the best universities in the world, postgraduate courses represent cutting-edge approaches and research, and are tailored to the research expertise of its teachers. The uniqueness of the profiles of departments and universities rests, to a great extent, on this. But this will no longer be possible, will not be allowed, in our universities. We teachers will no longer have a role in designing the courses that we teach.
The changes that are envisaged in the new system are much more far-reaching in scope and scale than the recently jettisoned FYUP. But in both cases, we see an attempt to bring about radical change in a hasty manner without adequate thought about the rationale and logistics, and even less time devoted to what matters the most — the actual content of courses. Many universities have already fallen in line and have embraced the Choice Based Credit System, and others will no doubt follow suit. Instead of uniform excellence, the result will be uniform mediocrity and a lowering of the academic standards of our best institutions. Given the enormous logistical problems involved in introducing too much change too fast, it could also involve a break down of our university system.
European parallel A few months ago, while in IIT Gandhinagar (Ahmedabad), I met a Portuguese professor. In the course of our conversation, he told me that ever since the initiation of the Bologna Process, academic standards had declined and teaching was becoming increasingly meaningless. He talked about the lack of recognition given to solid academic work, teachers scrambling to collect “points” for promotion, and random students walking in and out of his classes. I recognised with shock the very changes that successive governments have been trying to introduce in our own universities. The university as cafeteria came alive. Were we simply dealing with a case of copycat “reforms”? In that professor’s expression of demoralisation, I recognised the feeling of despair that many Indian university teachers who have served their institutions for many decades currently feel. Some of the talented younger teachers are moving to private universities, but this is not an option that many senior teachers, with strong ties of commitment to their institutions, would like to consider.
There is much that is wrong and rigid about our universities, much that needs to be improved, and it is very difficult to bring about meaningful change. So it is easy to present those who are initiating the recent changes as impatient visionaries trying to reform a decrepit system. And it is easy to dismiss the protesters as a group of disgruntled old fogeys who don’t want to keep pace with the times. A cynical view that has been doing the rounds for some time in university circles is that the so-called “reforms” are a part of a government strategy to destroy the Central universities so that private universities can flourish. One may not buy this argument, but there is just too much evidence to show that nobody in the higher echelons of power is thinking seriously about the quality of higher education. Otherwise, it should have been obvious that what is important is not the canteen (suitably Indianising the potent metaphor) but the food that it serves.
The fate of our universities is too important to be left to the whims of individual mandarins, ministers or vice chancellors. It is time that an Education Commission consisting of experienced and respected academics and educationists was set up to take stock of the state of our universities and to seriously deliberate on what needs to be done to improve the quality of education that they impart. But is anyone listening and does anyone care?
(Upinder Singh is Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi.)