Millennium Post

The question of choice

Today “reforms” in higher education are being thrust with a jingle of Choice and Employability for students. One such “reform” which is immediately going to impact the education of students is the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS). Semester system, cafeteria approach and credit transfer are the three basic components of CBCS. It proposes that students will be free to move between universities and earn their credits for a degree from any institution. It is being sold with a promise of choice, seamless mobility and employability. Why has a package with these attractive promises 
generated debate? Why has the government felt compelled to force these changes rather than arguing them out? Are these reforms like packets of chips? 

November 2014 onwards universities across the country received letters from the UGC and the MHRD asking them to implement CBCS and a common grading system from the 2015-2016 academic session. Then, in April 2015, the UGC stipulated a common structure and uploaded syllabi of various courses, allowing universities a deviation of maximum 20 <g data-gr-id="108">per cent</g> in syllabi. While the UGC announced syllabi of 19 courses on 10 April, the list today includes syllabi of over 60 undergraduate programmes. 

The UGC has prepared a common rigid framework for the entire country, taking away from the universities and their teachers the ability to frame syllabi in accordance with the needs of the diverse student population to which they cater. Even as the government is aping the West in constructing academic reforms for us, it is ready to ignore the essentials for translating these changes into beneficial reforms. Nowhere in the world are universities forced to teach the same curriculum. This takes away from universities the chance to create something new, to innovate, and to attract students by showcasing areas they have developed. In the context of our country, common syllabi will not only demoralise the good universities, while failing to rescue the ailing universities, but also boost the culture of kunjis and coaching centers which have already downgraded the quality of school education. 

In creating the common structure and syllabi, the UGC can neither show application of mind nor pan-India consultation. The sham is further exposed by the fact that though the UGC lists disadvantages like lack of infrastructure and fluctuating workload for teachers in bullet form in the proposal, it refuses to present a study of the implications. The UGC also makes no attempt to review the semester system despite the fact that teachers and students of universities and colleges of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam, Haryana, and Delhi University have shared their experiences of semester system and their opposition is in the public domain.

When the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP), implemented in 2013 at Delhi University in much the same way went wrong, Lady Sri Ram College invited academicians who had spearheaded reforms in Hong Kong University (HKU) and Trinity College, Dublin, for discussions on this topic. While talking about reforms, Amy B M Tusi, HKU and Jane Ohlmeyer, Trinity College, disclosed how rounds of consultative processes were held to convince academicians about a four year programme at HKU, over 200 proposals for restructuring were debated and how changes of the undergraduate programme were preceded by corresponding changes in school curriculum. It took them seven years to roll out a new programme. We, however, refuse to learn from them or the FYUP fiasco. 

This time the magnitude of damage will be much more as the restructuring is for all public funded universities across India. The UGC seems to be moving without a script. In November 2014, there was no mention of <g data-gr-id="115">common</g> framework and in a short span a rigid structure and syllabi of over 60 courses were dumped on us. What shocks us even more is that the document on structure and syllabi come without any authorship. A study of the syllabi <g data-gr-id="113">show</g> that they are “cut and paste” of the syllabi of the <g data-gr-id="114">much discredited</g> FYUP courses!

Are syllabi of Delhi University the correct medicine for all ailing universities? To give credit solely to DU for the admission rush for a seat would be a very naïve interpretation. It also reflects that many public funded universities have failed to deliver. They <g data-gr-id="88">ail</g> from acute shortage of infrastructure and faculty. The disease is fast spreading. Even at DU, teachers and students have to deal with <g data-gr-id="90">over-crowded</g> <g data-gr-id="91">class rooms</g> and labs and over 50 <g data-gr-id="92">per cent</g> of the teaching staff is today working on <g data-gr-id="89">adhoc</g> basis (contract renewed every four months). Its collapse is a matter of time. 

For these very <g data-gr-id="86">reasons</g> the much hyped Choice shall only remain on paper. Since 2005, Delhi University curriculum has been revised to offer optional papers in the main discipline and in the interdisciplinary subjects. However, as colleges have limited infrastructure and teachers, there is not much choice which can be offered to students. Similarly, student mobility from one university to another became difficult because of the tight schedule of semester system and because of <g data-gr-id="82">shortage</g> of space. 

Under CBCS, the students will be allowed to study electives of their choice from other institutions or take some on-line courses. But this Choice comes with the cost as it is based on PPP model. For a long time now, governments have been forcing public funded universities to sign MoUs with private universities, so much so that it was added as a clause in Central Universities Act 2009, is part of the Central universities Bill, 2013 and is a key feature of CBCS. The NDA government is furthering what the UPA II had started, only with much more zeal. 

The UGC maintains a deliberate silence on issues of fees and reservation in case MoUs are signed with private universities. What is shown as a choice for students is a way to fill empty rooms in private universities which offer degree programmes for lakhs. If education has to be sold as a commodity like shampoo, it has to be offered in variable sizes, and small affordable packets which disguise the long-term cost. Hence, first came in semesterisation and now this idea of pushing students to other universities for electives. 

While the country needs strengthening of public funded universities to bridge an ever growing economic disparity, and to bring into the mainstream those who have been marginalised, the government is ready to force on us the failed American system of education. The correct analogy of these reforms would be Maggi. A slow poison which is fed to masses for decades as a “two minute” solution to their hunger.  

With governments pushing the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, it is not difficult to see that these “reforms” are being imported. India is being eyed as a huge education market. These “reforms” will gear the system to run on student loans and adjunct teachers. There are no real choices for those who are in the system and for the many more who are forced to remain outside. It is important to mask the real issues of quality, equity, massification, lack of infrastructure and shortage of teachers, which demand greater public spending in education. The advertisement jingle grows louder with the government slashing over two per cent in the education budget.
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