A step back for education

The stand-off between Delhi University and the University Grants Commission reflected an ad-hoc, callous and arbitrary approach toward higher education in India 

Published - June 28, 2014 01:52 am IST

The deadlock between the University Grants Commission and Delhi University over the national education regulator’s directive to scrap the university’s four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) and replace it with the old three-year undergraduate programme has finally ended, but the episode left many students in the lurch. Had the stand-off been about the merits of the FYUP, things would have been different. Instead, it reflected an ad-hoc, callous and arbitrary approach toward higher education in India and showed the degree of derision with which we treat our universities and their decisions.

UGC’s 180-degree turn There has been a difference of opinion on whether the FYUP programme was adequately debated within DU’s academic community before being introduced. The proponents of FYUP claim it was, but this is seriously contested by many other faculty members and students of DU. What cannot be overlooked is the fact that the FYUP programme was approved by the academic council and the executive council of the university, which are statutory bodies under the Delhi University Act of 1922, though it was not approved by the Visitor of the University — the President of India. The UGC has known about the programme all this time and in fact, as has been reported widely, it has maintained that universities have the right to choose the duration of their academic programmes.

So, the question to be asked is this: what prompted the UGC to take a 180-degree turn on this issue after one year? Did it discover some new facts that were not known to it in 2013, when FYUP was rolled out, to come to the conclusion that this programme is in violation of the national policy on education that provides for the 10+2+3 format? The answer seems to be ‘no.’ All material available in the public domain shows that many people, including some of the members of the UGC, had objected to the FYUP on this very ground when it was being introduced in 2013. It certainly cannot be the case that UGC discovered something new about the programme now that was not known to it earlier.

This impasse may be over, but the entire episode has raised a very important issue that has received scant attention and needs to be seriously debated: the relationship between the UGC and India’s universities. UGC is an autonomous body that has the mandate “of coordination, determination and maintenance of standards in institutions of higher education” as per the UGC Act of 1956. No one disputes the fact that all Indian universities have to comply with the UGC’s regulations relating to maintenance of standards in higher education. Many Supreme Court judgments have also held this fact. No university, including DU, is autonomous to the extent that it can function with complete disregard to UGC’s regulations. But where does one draw the line between regulation and over-regulation? In the name of ensuring compliance with its regulations, can the UGC over-regulate and micro-manage our universities? Section 12 (1) of the UGC Act clearly states: “It is the duty of the Commission to determine and maintain standards in higher education in consultation with the universities [emphasis added].” This makes it incumbent on the UGC to respect the institutional autonomy of all universities and accord them due deference and latitude in complying with its regulations. This is necessary to empower universities to undertake bold academic initiatives.

Institutional autonomy The controversy revealed many instances in which the UGC did not accord the institutional autonomy and respect that DU legitimately deserves, and did not act in accordance with the spirit of its own statute.

First, to argue that the 10+2+3 policy does not allow a university to offer a four-year undergraduate programme, which allows students the option to exit after three years with a bachelor’s degree, is a clear example of over-regulation. This tramples upon the university’s autonomy to decide the length of its academic programmes. It also smacks of arbitrariness. If a four-year undergraduate programme violates the 10+2+3 format, then how is Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore running a four-year undergraduate programme in subjects like Physics and Chemistry? Similarly, how is Ambedkar University, Delhi running a four-year undergraduate programme, ‘BA Honours with a Dual Major’? Has the UGC issued similar directives to other universities offering four-year undergraduate programme as it did with DU?

Second, the UGC, surpassing the vice-chancellor and DU’s other statutory authorities, issued a directive to all DU-affiliated colleges to replace the FYUP with the old three-year programme. This ridicules the concept of institutional autonomy; DU colleges are not accountable to the UGC, but to the statutory authorities of the university of which they are a part. Also, warning the colleges that their grants will be cut if they do not comply with the UGC’s directive reflects the body’s patronising attitude toward institutions of higher learning.

Third, to ask a university to scrap its existing undergraduate programme and introduce a new programme in the middle of the admission process is inexplicable. Eminent academicians manning the UGC should know about the academic processes that a university must follow to scrap or start a new academic programme, and the enormous administrative and academic difficulties the university will face if it has to do this in the middle of the admission process.

Attaining global standards Delhi University has caved in. >It has scrapped FYUP and agreed to go back to its old three-year undergraduate programme. While this may end the impasse, it has set a very dangerous precedent. Our universities will be deterred from undertaking brave academic decisions in future fearing UGC’s indignation. This does not augur well for India’s higher education. This episode is a grim reminder why India, despite having talented academicians and students, has failed to develop world-class universities. Our universities cannot attain global standards till they are freed from excessive officious control and the bureaucratic mindset of regulatory bodies.

(Prabhash Ranjan is assistant professor of law at the South Asian University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)

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