As I waded my way through various documents that are generally referenced in any discussion on a four-year undergraduate degree programme in India — starting with the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), the Learning Outcomes-Based Curriculum Framework (LOCF), and the University Grant Commission (UGC)’s latest draft National Higher Education Qualification Framework (NHEQF) document — the lost undergraduate student in me was happy.
Implications for teaching
Anyone who has gone through the rigid and terribly outdated course structure of degrees such as B.Com or B.A. in most Indian universities, would be really happy to see the choice, flexibility, and liberal ethos embedded in its vision. Following on with the proposed changes in higher education under the New Education Policy (NEP), it seems like Indian students are finally poised to receive an actual education and not just meaningless pieces of paper masquerading as degree certificates. Despite this bold vision, however, there seem to be quite a few kinks that need to be ironed out at the conceptual level before embarking on its implementation. Here I deal with the implications of the credit system as currently envisaged in these documents vis-à-vis the teaching quality and research productivity of faculty espoused by the NEP.
While the NHEQF attempts to provide much-needed clarity on a variety of issues, from the types of courses in initial and later years of a four-year degree and the associated nomenclatures for multiple exit options, it continues to equate one credit to one teaching hour. If the CBCS or LOCF credit structure of core courses of six credits and electives of four credits each is to be followed, then it has serious implications for the teaching workload (about which there is not much discussion in any of these documents). At six credits for a core course, with an emphasis on tutorials in sections of not more than 20 students, a faculty member would end up teaching about eight hours per week per course. If as outlined by the NEP, a faculty is responsible for course content, assessments, and grading, it would require at least double the hours of preparation. Given the considerable ambiguity in the UGC’s description of faculty workload, many institutions inadvertently might end up burdening a faculty member with two such courses mechanically, adding the hours to 16 per week.
Interpreting the credit
Before we delve into the issue any further, let us think about the concept of academic credit. Though often used as a unit used to describe the workload for students, its meaning and interpretation differ across continents. In the United Kingdom or under the Bologna Process, a core undergraduate course might be listed as six to seven credits, indicating the total expected engagement from the student including the time spent in lectures and tutorials. The implications for the faculty teaching load are very different from students. A seven-credit course might mean approximately two hours of teaching per week, with the remaining hours credited for preparation and assessment. The standard workload for a faculty is typically decided via negotiations between faculty unions and the university administration, making it difficult to get the information officially. But a quick search on Google shows that a faculty in a typical U.K. university is expected to teach about two hours per week.
In the United States, the situation is a bit different. The credits listed for a course typically indicate the hours of classroom engagement, with the actual workload on students left undefined. On an average, in most U.S. universities, a typical undergraduate course is three credits and, therefore, about three hours of total classroom teaching for a faculty per course. Depending on the nature of the employing institution, the faculty workload could vary between two courses per year in a research-intensive university to four or five courses per semester in a community college. Obviously, faculty with lower teaching loads have higher research productivity, and possibly better content and delivery in teaching. A credit also signifies the minimum skill attainment for graduating from one level to another in education. Based on a personal experience of teaching in U.S. universities, a three-credit course would mean at least four additional hours of engagement for the student, making it a six to seven credit equivalent of a core course in the U.K.
Despite these differences between the treatment of credits on the two sides of the Atlantic, one thing they have in common is that faculty teaching hours per course are much lower than what is currently practised in Indian universities and outlined in several UGC documents. If the higher education regulatory bodies in India are serious about boosting research productivity of faculty while staying true to the liberal ethos of NEP, then we cannot have course credits directly proportional to the teaching hours. Or reduce credits per course in line with the practice in North American universities. We must make sure that faculty have enough time to create quality teaching content and engage in research. For this we will have to train students to take more responsibility for their learning. Given the very high number of students that need to be educated in India, creative solutions such as technology-aided larger classrooms for introductory courses in universities with the help of graduate students as teaching assistants can be implemented to economise on faculty time and effort.
At a more fundamental level, we must acknowledge the resources and the time that go into the production of research and teaching. Otherwise, we risk perverse outcomes that would undermine the very objectives of the NEP. The vision is grand and very much needs to translate into reality. However, we need to spell out clearly now the resource requirements for this vision to pan out. The higher education sector in the U.S., which seems to form the basis of many things that have been said in the NEP, has evolved to its current state over a long period of time — at least a century. It is also one of the least regulated educational sectors in the world. So, we are literally trying to replicate the outcome of organic unregulated growth through a deliberate policy change. It is like taking a finished product and reverse engineering it to figure out how to produce it. As a start, we need to think about how to devise regulations that incentivise stakeholders in the higher education sector to behave in a way that collectively leads to the desired outcome. Not a trivial task, I would say!
Parag Waknis is an Associate Professor of Economics at Dr. B R Ambedkar University Delhi. The views expressed are personal