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‘If you oppose Dinesh Singh, you face the music’

For several months Delhi University (DU) has been at the centre of a debate which has spread well beyond its boundaries. This debate is of national importance as it not only encompasses the merits and demerits of the academic restructuring at DU but also the idea of a University and the purpose of education itself.

FYUP: Major concerns

Educational systems must evolve and respond to new challenges. On one hand we have the ground realities – social, cultural and economic. On the other, we have the founding mission. The new Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) at DU is being introduced with the claim that it better handles the ground realities than the previous system. In this article, we will show that it does not. Its real purpose is a complete rewriting of the mission of the university, and the country must make an informed decision on the fate of Higher Education.

DU is the preeminent university of India. It is also a Central University – 60,000 students come to it every year from all over the country, and from a huge diversity of backgrounds. Thus the very first ground reality is the problem of equity. At present the country handles this problem through the National Policy on Education which stipulates the 10+2+3 structure. The FYUP, by abandoning this structure, breaks the synchronisation between our many universities, with consequences beyond DU’s own undergraduate students studying an extra year. The additional year has been estimated as costing every student another 1.5 lakh rupees in living and study costs, beyond the tuition fees. Large numbers of students will not be able to afford this. To these the university offers an exit after three years with a Bachelor’s degree but without the Honours appellation. The university has thus institutionalised discrimination on an economic basis. The poor but bright student has no option but to accept a lesser degree than the better off, with all the consequent ramifications for her future.
The second ground reality is the variety of student expectations from higher education. In response, DU provides a plethora of programmes. Some cater to the student who wanted a particular specialisation (Honours programmes), leading to a specific career. Others (General or Pass courses), to those who sought a more general education, with specialisation occurring later in the programme. When FYUP was first proposed it was claimed that it would use a uniform modular structure to bring even greater flexibility.

Curiously, FYUP decreases choice instead of expanding it. The approved syllabi have no space for elective courses in the major. FYUP integrates three different degrees into one structure and same curriculum will be offered to all. The lack of choice has made departments optimise their syllabi for a particular exit point. Thus the curriculum works against one set of students or the other.

The eleven compulsory Foundation Courses (FC) are considered by FYUP proponents to be their best contribution. Yet they are a study in contradictions. Being compulsory for all, they are necessarily elementary, and several read like a random selection of topics from high school. Students taking a Diploma after two years will have primarily studied these FC courses and thus not picked up any specialisation towards a career. DU believes they will have acquired data and project handling skills. The syllabi show these are so elementary that the employment opportunities can only range from BPO companies to the service sector.

Indeed the extra year is completely taken up by the FC courses. This means the student graduating after three years has done less in the primary discipline than she would in the earlier system, while the one spending four has done no more. What then are the gains? The third ground reality consists of the university’s limited resources. The OBC expansion of 2007 led to a 54 per cent expansion in terms of students. The promised corresponding expansion in infrastructure and faculty strength has never happened. The additional year in FYUP will add further strain. The university administration refuses to recognise this issue and has explicitly directed its colleges to not do anything about it. St. Stephen’s College calculated that it must reduce student intake to accommodate the extra population in the future but was not allowed to do so. These directives allow for only one resolution of the problem – a high drop-out rate. We must ask why the University is not ready to take corrective measures and why there is no hesitation in imposing a flawed structure on the 60,000 students who shall take admission this year.

Larger Picture

The restructuring of the curriculum has been accompanied by a change in the form of governance at DU. Statutory processes and norms which provided democracy and gave a voice to the faculty and staff have been systematically eroded. Decision making is now restricted to the Vice Regal Lodge. If you meet the VC you are counted as one who has been consulted but your actual opinion is not recorded. If you publicly oppose the VC you face insult and harassment. Such has been the fate even of eminent citizens such as Ramachandra Guha, Krishna Kumar (former Director, NCERT), Nayanjot Lahiri (former Dean of Colleges, DU) and Javid Chowdhury (Chancellor’s Nominee to the Executive Council, DU).

A trend over the last several years has been that Academic and Executive Council meetings dealing with major changes such as semesterisation and FYUP are not routinely called by the VC. Instead special emergent meetings are requisitioned by a few members of these bodies. Such meetings allow the VC (who chairs them) to supress contrary opinions as diverging from the agenda.

As details of FYUP have become public, more and more scholars have written articles warning against its implementation. Delegations have met Professor Ved Prakash, Chairperson, UGC; Pallam Raju, HRD Minister; and Pranab Mukherjee, custodian of DU, the Visitor. Delegations have met the prime minister and the protest has also reached 10 Janpath. The silence on the part of these agencies and peoples’ representatives points towards a deeper nexus. The real reasons for these ‘reforms’ and the haste in their implementation can only be understood in the context of the Six Bills, especially the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, pending before Parliament and the recommendations of the XII Plan to allow profit making in higher education.  It is well-known that in India the public higher education institutions, with all their faults, are well ahead of the private ones. So it is not enough to just legally allow private players to make profits from higher education, a situation must be created where students and faculty are driven to them.

The primary markets for private institutions are the metropolitan cities, and among these the largest is Delhi. DU is acting as a dam, both in terms of student and teacher populations. It has over 1.5 lakh students in regular programmes and over four lakh students in its School of Open Learning, besides positions for over 10,000 teachers. It is important that this institution falls, so that the population which can afford to buy education is pushed to the private players and those who cannot afford it graduate with inferior education and degrees.

Education is a means of social and economic mobility and this hope and need can be realised only with a strong publicly funded system. The shift in the government policy for higher education is going to work against the idea of equity. The question is, therefore, a political one and both academics and the larger society must address it as such.

The author is professor of physics at Miranda House, Delhi University.
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