The common course content debate
Uniformity and diversity are not synonymous with black and white. Recently a move by the UGC to enforce a common syllabus in the entire country has generated intense discussions in academics. Traditionally, higher education in India has been following a trend of rejecting any such proposals.
One of the prime arguments offered in favour of rejecting such a proposal is that nowhere in the world, where institutions are known for their excellence, has such stringent uniformity been imposed. Ironically, while carrying out these comparisons, these arguments conveniently choose to ignore the glaring inequalities between the performances of those institutions with ours.
It is no secret that our education sector currently needs to expand its age-old outlook to include many other important and extremely useful aspects of modern education. In addition, it is also advisable to never overlook the enormity of the exercise that we need to carry out in the education sector. One must not forget that nowhere else does the education sector face such incredible constraints, as it faces in India. In my view, and in the context of India, the absence of a common structure and syllabus has been encouraging anarchy and chaos in the mass education sector instead of providing any glimpse of excellence.
In the name of autonomy, inexplicable ‘innovations’ have been encouraged in the higher education sector. Identical degrees issued by two universities of this country can’t ensure anyone that their syllabus would also share some level of commonality.
It is strange because the ‘eligibility’ to become a teacher in an institution is decided not by the course content covered by the applicants but only by the nomenclature of their degrees. On the one hand, I fail to understand why we can’t ensure that if the names of the degree are identical then at least sixty-seventy percent of the course content should also be the same. On the other hand, if two sets of courses do not share a common syllabus, then why shouldn’t they be identified by two different names? Is it not a fact that a common test called NET has successfully worked to an acceptable extent in ensuring a minimum standard of the quality of teachers?
When one has a task of regulating the academic standards of more than one institution, common structure always helps in fixing a lower bound on the academic standards of the educational institutions. In the absence of such a common structure, it often becomes impossible to stop the falling standards of a deteriorating institution. Enforcing a common structure and course helps in carrying all the institutions along and also aids in putting the brakes on their gradual decline.
An autonomous institution, showing signs of failure, is undeniably designed for a free fall in such a scenario. Autonomy is undoubtedly beneficial but only for those who are showing signs of improvement since a uniform structure would ultimately limit their rise.
In a typical Delhi University scenario, we all would agree that if all the colleges of this prestigious University are made autonomous, many would fail to survive beyond a decade. Therefore, we have argued in favour of having a common course, a common degree, a common structure for all the colleges of Delhi University.
I also believe that some of the decently performing colleges of Delhi University are well poised to become great if they are allowed to become autonomous. Since we are aiming at quality mass education, we must not think of doing that too. IITs and IIMs are better-performing institutions and, therefore, any move to implement a common syllabus over there would limit their rise. On a deeper analysis, since the tags of ‘IIT’ and ‘IIM’ have recently been extended to additional institutions, this fact may add a new dimension into this discussion, as even these entities are now being dragged into mass education.
So the strategy of a regulatory authority is crucial in these circumstances. It should be able to assess the timing of when to provide greater autonomy to an institution. All central and state universities must be asked to adhere to some level of commonality in the course structure and contents to ensure a minimum standard in education.
(The author is an Associate Professor in Physics, University of Delhi)