Semester Fever – Is it curable?: Alok Rai

This is a guest post by ALOK RAIIt was first sent to the Indian Express which refused to publish it.

Deepak Pental’s inter-personal skills are, of course, legendary. And this last – his parting shot in Indian Express (28 October)merely strengthens his already formidable reputation, and ensures that he will be regarded with the customary affection even as he leaves. Thus, not only is the Teachers’ Association compared to a khap panchayat – could this conceivably be a compliment, either to his beloved teachers, or to the khap panchayats? – but an entirely gratuitous insult is directed at college teachers, en bloc. Thus, they are stagnant, distant from research, unlike (!) University professors. This is rich, but Professor Pental can manage his own friends and enemies, and I have no desire to engage with him at this point. However, this is being written in the hope that his successor – whoever he or she may be – would at least like to choose their own battles, and not merely fight inherited ones on the bloodied, toxic battlefield bequeathed to them. And, indeed, by way of doing my citizenly duty to assist the honourable judges of the High Court, who are periodically asked to take a stand on the vexed question of “semesterization”.

There is something about the idea of the semester that appeals to the minds of people who have otherwise very little to do with education. (It has a certain appeal to some educated others also – to wit, the grandees of the Knowledge Commission, who are apparently the authors of this current instalment of semester-fever. But with these latter it is at least theoretically possible to have a discussion – even though there are no fora where such discussions could happen. The usual process is that some Moses brings a tablet of wisdom down from the mountain where the gods of the KC abide –and lesser mortals then struggle to interpret and implement the magic formulae.) But to the half-educated, “semesterization” appears like a panacea for the many and undeniable ills of education. Suddenly, as if by magic, syllabi can become flexible – and not be subject to the current, generational cycle. Something like continuous evaluation – and modularized, micro-managed pedagogy – ensures that students and teachers – both groups currently perceived to be slacking off – are forced to work in a closely monitorable format. And in some ideal world – in relatively homogeneous institutions with decent faculty-student ratios, and not vulnerable to the political pressures that make for both sub-standard faculty and sub-standard students – such a “semesterized” solution might even be possible. But if it were possible, I suggest, it would not be necessary. It would be strictly superfluous.

However, the moment the semester model is sought to be translated to a monstrosity like Delhi U, the absurdity is immediately evident – except, obviously, to the faithful who gathered around Pental, and the sheep that allegedly bleated their assent in the Executive Council, making the ongoing disaster of “semesterization” something like a death foretold. The first and potentially most attractive aspect of the semesterized model of education is the possibility of the infinity of knowledge – now clumsily apportioned into disciplines and departments – being modularized into relatively bite-sized units which can both be administered measurably, and also recombined and reconfigured to yield new, interdisciplinary knowledge-conjunctions. Possibly. But clearly the possibility of modularization would apply in different ways to different domains, and the question of cross-domain modular interfaces would require a philosophical attentiveness that has not been witnessed in the halls of altercation for years.

The other core element of the semester model is decentralization. This decentralization applies both to pedagogy, and to evaluation. What is coordinated is the rhythm at which the semester progresses – so that all courses march broadly in step, particularly around some key points, like the minor and major examinations. But what happens within the courses – quite simply, the syllabi, the particular texts, etc – is up to the course instructor, who also has the freedom to evaluate in the particular fashion that he or she desires. Obviously, there is a certain minimum of regulation – and bureaucrats everywhere seek to expand that “minimum” – but this decentralization is the key. It is this that gives the creativity of the faculty room to express itself, and engage and inspire the particular students that they confront from semester to semester.

But does any of this decentralization exist in the model of “semesterization” sought to be implemented for the undergraduate courses of Delhi University by the charming Mr Pental? The short, blunt, unambiguous answer is – NO. The University of Delhi is a large, affiliating, heterogeneous institution, whose colleges both in respect of faculty and students range all the way from excellent to barely-sentient, and perhaps the only thing that holds it together is the centralized examination system. It is because of this examination system that the tens of thousands of students of widely divergent abilities call all be examined, theoretically, by the same standard – and given the same Delhi U degrees. Decentralize this, and you will instantly have College A and College B at opposite ends of the competence spectrum, both in respect of faculty and students – now suddenly rendered free and responsible (or irresponsible) to design their own courses, and conduct their own examinations – but still draw on some common shared pool of academic merit for their degrees? The limited workings of the internal assessment system at the undergraduate level have already revealed the problems with this model – not to put too fine a point on it, the worse the college, the better the internal assessment marks!

Quite rightly, then, the proposed model of “semesterization” at Delhi University does not embrace decentralization. And the only whiff of modularization that I have caught over the last five years is that the existing annual syllabi be chopped into two! And then chopped further to accommodate the heightened level of evaluation which is the core idea in Delhi University’s proposed “semesterization”. But since this evaluation also cannot be decentralized, the idea is to retain the current centralized examination run by the Exam Branch – which is, as I suggested, perhaps the only thing that keeps the Delhi University together. Except of course that instead of the centralized examination happening once a year, as it does at present – under the proposed semester system, the whole exercise would happen twice a year. The little detail – unbeknownst to most people, and key knowledge for the learned judges – is that this process takes four months from start to finish – for one exam! Twice a year would mean that Delhi University could dispense with courses and pedagogy altogether – and merely do evaluation, except of course that there will be precious little left to evaluate! Several people – including professors who have been involved with the conduct of the examinations in the past – have pointed out the absurd unworkability as well as the academic folly of the idea. But even if, by some miracle, the centralized examination could be run in less than four months, the ambition to have two centralized examinations a year, instead of one as at present, can only be called a grotesque travesty of the semester system!

Alok Rai is Professor, University of Delhi

11 thoughts on “Semester Fever – Is it curable?: Alok Rai”

  1. Oh, but they do in fact know what they’re doing. Yeh bablog aur netalog bahut door ki sochte hain. The point of semesterisation is precisely to effect a breakdown/breakup of the monolith called DU, now held together in the fragile way you described so well through centralised exams. Lets look into the near future. Semester system will go through. There will be two centralised exams a year. Mayhem will reign. The ‘better’ colleges (high cut offs, higher subsidiary fees and posher facilities) will revolt, saying we can’t do this anymore; ‘our’ students are suffering because of this absurd centralisation. Since students, parents and principals of these colleges wield higher social power and have greater influence on policy, there will be a rising demand for these better colleges to become autonomous from the cesspool called DU. Once they become autonomous they will dramatically raise fees and eventually completely privatise. Before they do that they will make sure to invent cute names for themselves; for example, ‘centre of excellence’. Gradually, all the better students will migrate to these colleges, along with better faculty from everywhere (of course, ‘better’ defined in some quantified way). The rest of DU will be allowed to die a slow death like some regional universities. The chattering classes won’t mourn, because secretly they’ll be relieved they don’t have to send their children to this vast, diverse, complex, chaotic place called DU, a microcosm of India itself. They can hide away in their high performing privatised oases and secede from public services (somebody should sue them for sedition). In the meanwhile, semesterisation will speed up intra-year migration between private and public institutions, thus producing all kinds of surplus for all kinds of rogues and ruffians that will jump into the education sector. Education is all set to become the biggest business investment in the foreseeable future. What that tie-up with the market will do to subjects like Sanskrit, or ancient history, or drama, or pure maths, one can only guess.

    Its basically decentralisation of the most sinister kind. At the recent HT summit, we have it from the horse’s mouth. Kapil Sibal says there is no hope for education without private investment. Education for his kind, he means. I think the elites of this country won’t rest until they’ve repeated in education what has happened in telecom.

    Lovely piece, by the way, as always, Alok Rai. Thanks for this.


  2. While the semesterisation process is absurd in its current form, but I dont see the the great misfortune of better colleges/faculties “seceding” from DU…In a way, that might be the only way of enhancing, in fact even preserving their quality…Most students, current and “ex” (like myself) recognise the obvious examples…The “centralised university system” has been a massive bane to FMS, as a classic example..Its facilities have remained inadequate, as a result its capacities have remained stagnant, its syllabus not updated in line with the IIMs..Ditto for DCE, DSE, the Faculty of Commerce and Business and quite a few of the better faculties/departments..The same story goes for a number of colleges…

    Recently, St Xaviers and Presidency in Calcutta were given university status – it was overwhlmingly supported by pretty much everyone in Calcutta..It was the only way these institutions could be revitalised…

    I dont think DU is in the same state as Calcuttta Uni..As a former student, I think it still has a great reputation and brand..But letting select faculties “secede”, or become autonomous in as many ways as possible, is only going to enhance its reputation and quality, not demean it..

    the question of institutions being “privatised” as a result of greater autonomy is the biggest red herring that can be invoked…The IIMs and IITs have been more autonomous than any central uni has ever been…By policy in recent years, that autonomy has only increased…Has any one of them gotten privatised? In fact all new institutions of repute that have come up in the last 10-15 years have been in the “public sector” – NLSIU, IIIT, Indian Institute of Space Technology…So the so-called elites are still going to “government” institutions…The argument of a linkage between autonomy and privatisation is so rarefied that it exists only in thin air in practice:)…

    Indian students pay an estimated 8-10 billion dollars every year on getting education from foreign unis..Some of that is implicit migration efforts, but some of that is genuine search for education with some quality…The chap who qualifies only for Bhagat Singh College will also probably qualify for a second-rate college in UK, and the latter will give him a much better education…Unfortunately only those who can afford can do so..In case these colleges are allowed to be set-up in India, many more could afford them…At the other end of the spectrum, our IITs and IIMs can do very well with extensive tie-ups with the MITs and Harvards of the world…Its not remembered any more, but each of the original 3-4 IITs and 2-3 IIMs were set-up under collaboration with an Amercian uni (IIT-Kgp with Caltech, IIM-C with MIT, IIM-A with HArvard etc)…Reinoforcing those links could only be better for us, not worse…

    And all of this does not argue for a lesser public allocation to education..In recent years, in fact the reverse has happened, allocation to education (in absolute terms as wel as in terms of % of GDP) has gone up…

    So while half-baked measures (in true govt/UGC style!) are of no use, allowing graeter autonomy is a great idea!!


  3. I don’t understand how teachers can make students suffer so much just because of the fact that teachers feel injustice is being done to them. So in order to fight this injustice, the teachers decide to do the same on the students.
    I myself being a student, fortunately not in DU, feel so sad about this situation. And, I blame teachers more than the Mr. Pental or Mr. Sibbal. I study in a semester based system, and know that no hell will break lose if this system is practised in DU.

    I am sorry to say, the actions taken by the teachers at DU have severely affected the students of the country, and nothing can be more unfortunate than that.

    And the last thing I want is people coming at me because of my published name.


  4. Can I just say that it was a pain to read this article. Why? Because the sentences are long and twisted like a jalebi. One had to read the sentences multiple times to try to make sense of them and even then writer’s point does not come across lucidly.

    Can I say one more thing? If someone who writes so badly thinks semester is a monstrocity, it must be a good thing.


  5. dear mr bond,
    your name suggests you like solidity. which is good. universities however flourish best in a flexible environment. we teachers want the ‘free’ character of our universities to remain untrammeled (Ankitji, ‘untrammeled’ means not trod upon) by dictates from people who have no stake in our system. semesterisation is perhaps good. professor rai says nothing else really. however, that which is perhaps good about semesterisation will not see the light of day as it is planned for implementation in Delhi University. which is why we are opposing it. the way it has been implemented, the semester system in delhi university is merely a calendar reform, not a substantive shift from one system to another.
    finally, we are not fighting it for our own sakes. we are opposed the the semester system because we believe it will adversely impact the quality of education we impart to our students.
    just one more thing, under the semester system we will be expected to work less hard than we currently are under the annual system. this my friend, is important for you to note.
    best …


  6. Firstly I must congratulate Prof. Rai for wonderfully epitomizing the problems that DU is facing currently.

    Mr. Bond : I agree that semester could possibly be a better system. But one can not use one knife for all jobs. Semester could be well suited for IITs, IIMs but the situation in DU is completely different (as also mentioned in the Prof. Rai).
    One can not and should not blindly follow a system because this is followed in US or some elite institutions. Note it’s a myth that is being created by media that DU teachers are against semester (or for that sake any new system). What DU teachers are demanding that one should have a debate, discussion on these issues with a very open mindset. We will eventually adopt whatever is best suited for DU !! Is this unjustified ??
    I agree that probably strikes are not the way to put our demands but the unfortunate reality is that in India peaceful protests are never given a hearing. Note DU teaches are protesting peacefully since last October on these issues but no-one paid any attention to it until they called strike.
    Why is this so ???
    The day DUTA called for a indefinite strike HRD minister immediately came out with a statement that DU will get a new VC next week. Note Deepak Pental’s (Ex-VC) term expired on 1st sept and he continued to head (illegally) the University for almost two months. It’s only when DUTA announced indefinite strike, HRD minister came out with a statement.

    Why can’t HRD/UGC expedite the things. Look at JNU that is running without a (proper) VC from last about six months?? Isn’t this a deliberate way by UGC/HRD of creating chaos in Universities ??

    Anyway, as the things stands now HC order is being followed and teaching is done in semester mode although the teachers and students of DU knows it well that this will lead to more chaos next year. Now will anyone take responsibility of the chaos that will happen next year or again DU teaches will be blamed for it ??

    Somnath : I agree that autonomy is good at certain level. But I disagree that that it is better for individual colleges to be given autonomy. Note students comes to DU colleges that there is a standardization across the colleges because of the centralized examination system (also argued by Prof. Rai above). Regarding autonomy given to presidency college in Kolkata. I would like to note my personal experience (last week) about a physics faculty from Presidency college. I met him during a DST (Dept. of Science & Tech) meeting last week in Mumbai. He remarked that autonomy has created a confusion in presidency college. He couldn’t even able to get a project proposal (to be submitted to DST) forwarded from Presidency college after the autonomy has been given. He also remarked that earlier things were much better.

    In any case DU teachers too are fighting for the autonomy of DU. They are demanding that DU being a autonomous institution need not follow UGC diktats whereas UGC/MHRD are trying their level best to invade to this autonomy. So are DU teachers wrong to protest against this interference ??


  7. It is all fine to talk about Semester system if the “system” in place works well. For instance some of the Departments in the University of Mumbai has switched over to the semester system. However the results of the Third Year BA was so delayed that we are no where near getting the proposed 15 weeks of teaching. So much so, I have now reached a point where I almost panick when the discussion in the class gets lengthy as I am racing against time. Further, the students who have joined are not attuned to the new system and hence find it so difficult to cope with the sudden expectations of term papers, and reading handouts given to them before coming to class. Language is yet another barrier. Many of the students write in Marathi and in absence of decent transalations or books they are left in the lurch. The present rushed semester schedule does not even give them the time or space to get used to the lectures being only in English.
    Since most of the Universities are shifting gears without adequate preparations it is creating additional problems. For instance there is a suggestion in my university (Mumbai) that we should go for 100 credits as against the 72 credits that we have worked out. So, confusion galore.
    It is in this context there is a need for a more rigorous debate on such major changes that are being brought about. The decision to shift to semester was taken in the Faculty of Arts in 15 minutes ….


  8. I just want to clarify that when I say ‘cesspool called DU’ in my comment above, I don’t believe DU is a cesspool of course. Its what it will be called by mainstream media and public opinion. A cesspool ruled by khap panchayats of lumpen teachers. Ha! How quickly an institution can be made dispensable in these breathless, overheated times.


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