Harish Kumar Trivedi’s article on the proposed four-year undergraduate programme at Delhi University, “Is Delhi University Dying?” (TOI May 29th 2013), for all its rhetorical flourishes, makes in fact a single point – the need for change. He is not alone in this belief; who could possibly be against reform? Who would want to stick their necks out in these breathless times and say, “Stop, why so fast?”
Many, many right-thinking people, actually, as the absolute barrage of criticism against the FYUP has shown. From the ordinary undergraduate teacher to academic and executive councils, committees of courses, and internationally renowned scholars, writers and academics. Now, there can be two responses to the range and variety of criticism that has been expressed. One would be to engage with it, based on the reasonable assumption that so many people involved with a profession cannot be entirely wrong. The other response is of the kind Professor Trivedi makes – to make an a priori argument for “change”. I say a priori because in fact there is only one, short paragraph in the article that discusses the possible advantages of the new system. One, that the new system ends the distinction between pass and honours courses. Two, that even if students exit after two years, they will still earn a “university qualification”. Three, it allows college teachers to frame a course in the fourth year.
A simple question – how are any of these advantages causally related to each other, and to a four-year degree with multiple exit options? That is the technically correct name of the new system, and therein lies the rub. Because despite Professor Trivedi’s claim that the four-year programme is simply a matter of a change of structure and syllabus, the real core of the new system is the “exit option” for students. The phrase “exit option” for a college degree is strange, to say the least. In the real world, “exit options” are exercised either by desperate individuals who want to cut and run from a system, or by those empowered with several, meaningful choices. In Delhi University, the “exit options” would result in a diploma at the end of the second year, and a BA degree without honours at the end of the third. If the old hierarchy between the pass and honours courses was egregious, the question begs itself: how does the new system help by creating an even bigger hierarchy – between diplomas, non-honours degrees and honours degrees? Indeed, the new system is no simple addition to the existing three-year BA. It adds a fourth year only by downgrading the previous (honours) degree, which would now be like the old “BA Pass” – a BA without honours. About the two-year diploma, we are even more confounded. At the end of two years, a student would have studied a set of compulsory “foundation” courses in arts, science and commerce subjects they dropped after tenth standard; a few compulsory discipline-centred courses, one compulsory spiritual guidance course and compulsory extra-curricular activities. How would this mishmash compare to, say, a specialized vocational degree from NIIT, or a three-year degree from another university? What statistics or research is this two-year diploma based on?
Let us understand the larger consequences of this new three-tier system at Delhi University. In the new programme, admissions to all subjects would continue to be based on school board marks and the relative prestige and reputations of various colleges and courses condensed into “cutoffs”. So if all students in a classroom enter the class with roughly equal academic records, what could the possible criterion be for them to drop out at the end of the second or third years? Previously, there was an exit option available to all students – it was called failing. Therefore, one can only assume that a formal “option” to exit may now be exercised on extra-academic considerations, like the pressure to enter the job market, or, in the case of many women students in India, to get married.
Professor Trivedi’s article suggests that the only major change in the University was back in 1943, and that took twenty years. The truth is that students and teachers have been bombarded with one change after the other in the past decade or so that I have been teaching at Delhi University – all offering an experimental bouquet of “solutions”, without addressing the essential administrative and academic issues that plague the university, and that the ordinary teacher is powerless to change. In fact, one of the more promising changes was to end the “BA Pass” course and create a new “BA Programme” course offering a genuinely multi-disciplinary syllabus for students who don’t wish to specialize. Admissions to this programme have been based on increasingly high cut-offs – belying the impression that it is a non-rigorous course for the non-serious student. One can only wonder why Delhi University did not consider the option of redesigning the BA Programme further to offer a high-quality, three-year liberal arts degree within the existing structure.
Perhaps there are extra-academic considerations here too. Perhaps the idea is to convert Delhi University – a historic public university – into a large, standardised teaching workshop offering basic, community-college style diplomas and BA degrees for those students whose parents can’t afford to keep them in college for all four years. As for those who can stay all four years, they will study in addition to the lesser mortals a somewhat larger set of (compulsory) disciplinary core courses, minors and “applied courses”. The surfeit of course types may convey the impression that the new degrees will be more rigorous. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of teaching weeks and topics has been reduced; strict page limits have been enforced in syllabi (sometimes this has meant cutting off a reading in the middle of a sentence); wikipedia is included as an official reference in many courses, and in others, project questions and descriptions have been copied verbatim from the CBSE school textbook. The idea clearly is for students to gain a superficial acquaintance with everything without specializing in anything. Most remarkable, students must take an entire set of six minor courses from a single discipline which as of now, due to inadequate infrastructure (mainly no buildings and teachers!) will be compulsorily combined with particular majors. Thus in fact the new system (which should in the interest of precision be called the two/three/four year programme) is less flexible than the previous system. The entire flexibility is in the exit options – which as we have said, may depend on the “flexibility” of students and parents’ circumstances. In a “flexible” economy, all must have permanent exit options.
Professor Trivedi believes the opportunity given to college teachers to frame a course in the fourth year would be immensely empowering for talented teachers who didn’t become professors. I agree, however, again, why do we need a fourth year to introduce such a measure? Why not implement the previous Pay Commission’s recommendations for professorship at college, or rationalize recruitment to university positions so that the best talent is attracted? Already, those teachers who have the opportunity and inclination have exercised the exit option from Delhi University itself, migrating to private universities offering a better professional experience to faculty (at exorbitant fees for the student of course). The flight of teachers will be followed by the flight of academically oriented, better-off students to private universities, here and abroad. The UGC has now proposed another exit option for the “best” colleges in Delhi University – Lady Shri Ram, St Stephens and SRCC. They along with Loyola college of Chennai are to be made autonomous, thus “liberating” them from the clutches of the University itself. Newspaper articles on the proposal have dutifully parroted the government’s claim that this will allow the liberated institutions to frame their own courses and expand campuses, conveniently forgetting to mention that autonomy would extend to the matter of student fees.
So the government is arguing in the same breath that the FYUP is wonderful, but the better performing colleges must be liberated from it. It would be a refreshing display of honesty if we as a society could say, look, we can offer quality education only to the rich, so the poor can take their cheap diplomas and plunge themselves into their drudgerous careers immediately. One can only imagine the consequences of these ‘reforms’ for a country that is looking to speed up on the knowledge highway. By contrast, China is pumping money and expertise into expanding English-language higher education research and infrastructure. The easy and lazy assumption is that it is the bad teachers who are protesting, because they don’t want to work harder. The uncomfortable truth is that it is the most committed, able teachers who are, because it is they who see the future clearly – a lower, not higher teaching component in their jobs, a deteriorating university and a generation of barely-educated graduates.