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Students as scapegoats

Friday, 27 June 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Thursday, 26 June 2014 - 8:51pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
DU vice chancellor and the UGC must shoulder responsibility for the FYUP debacle

The pseudo-academic change by Delhi University authorities from the time-tested three-year undergraduate course structure (of which the undersigned was a product), to a hurriedly patched up  four-year undergraduate programme ( FYUP), has been now reversed  by the University Grants Commission. On Tuesday, 24th June, 57 of the University's 64 colleges communicated to the UGC that they were reverting to the three-year course. These colleges included, among others, prominent institutions like -- Hindu College, Lady Shri Ram College, Shri Ram College of Commerce, Kirori Mal College, Miranda House and Sri Venkateswara College. This reversion to the three-year course signified the widespread solidarities built between Delhi University academics,  and academics as well as students from other parts of the country.

Let's recall the dubious methods by which the FYUP was introduced. There was clearly no systematic oversight to examine the curricula, it's sequencing, and the various mix of courses  keeping in mind the marketability of the FYUP degree. A text written for the VIII Standard course in History was prescribed for the First Year FYUP students. The shocking thing is  that ALL students have to take 11 foundation courses, which occupy much of their time in the first two years. These courses include two courses in Language, Literature and Creativity (one in English and the other in Hindi or another Modern Indian Language), Information Technology, Business, Entrepreneurship and Management, Governance and Citizenship, Psychology, Communication and Life Skills,Geographic and Socio-economic Diversity, Science and Life, History, Culture and Civilisation, Building Mathematical Ability, and Environment and Public Health.

This is just too much of a workload even for an above average student, and much too generalised for the student who wants to specialise in any graduate degree. Under this policy, students who have done mostly these courses in some other disciplines for two years, can obtain an Associate Baccalaureate degree. Which employer would hire students who have studied such scattered subjects? Why hire them even if they have done three years -- during which they are exposed to non-credit courses on Integrating Mind, Body and Heart spread over a full academic term?  Why should employers be interested in recruiting students with degrees specialising in a few courses in any discipline? 

The full four-year programme contains 20 courses in a 'major' discipline, six courses in a 'minor' discipline, five courses in 'application' ( which are supposed to be 'skill-based facilitating  employability for students,' even though no details are given), and six courses dedicated to 'cultural activities.' It  is clear that there is little flexibility in the courses. Contrary to claims -- the only choice is in terms of major and minor disciplines. So, far from being an advanced futuristic course, these degrees dumb the curricula down, and reduce choices for students.

The changes for a four-year BA course were moved during the University vacations of December 2012, with an extraordinary meeting of the Academic Council (AC) called with just THREE days notice with NO notice or prior details. Despite low attendance and dissent the changes were passed, and the whole scheme was hurriedly passed  on to the next working day.

The quality of these changes and the method by which they were rammed through leave major questions unanswered. How were successive former Union and state Human Resource Development ministers --  Kapil Sibal, Pallam Raju, Shashi Tharoor -- allowed to push through such thoughtless and destructive policies? What were the Congress party activists including the NSUI doing? Why didn't the Congress high command reconsider? After all, this was not purely an academic matter. What was done in vice chancellor  Prof Dinesh Singhs's name, was backed by the Congress. Till now they have made no gestures of apology.

 But there is also a bigger question. What was the UGC -- the prime regulator of central universities -- doing all this time? The UGC is empowered to ensure that the courses taught in the University  bear a strong relationship to the further development of the social sciences, arts and sciences, thereby facilitating the employability of students. This is the apex organisation which  is expected to oversee that academic norms including that adequate notice is given to  decision-making bodies like the academic council and executive council before sweeping academic changes are implemented.  This clearly did not happen in this FYUP case. A fact that is likely to become a major issue in the judicial case coming up in the Delhi High Court on July 1st. 

There have to be clear-cut norms and procedures by which University decision-making bodies function and these cannot be swept aside by the vice chancellor. In such a situation it would be expected that the chancellor and Visitor (if there is any) would intervene. Unfortunately no such intervention was made despite the media, faculty and student furore over what was being done in Delhi University by a coterie hovering around the vice chancellor. In view of the public furore and detailed media reporting, it would seem that the regulatory authorities inside and outside Delhi University failed to perform their function of insuring that the University functioned normally. 

 The UGC cannot claim to not have known what was going on. They were fully aware of what Prof Dinesh Singh, the Delhi University vice chancellor was doing to the University, the faculty and the students. Why didn't the UGC then intervene? It seems that  major regulatory institutions, yielded not to the needs of the new generation, but to the imperatives of power. Perhaps the political and bureaucratic classes should have  greater respect for universities and institutions of learning.

The Delhi University experience should be a major lesson for educational institutions everywhere in the country. A complete overhaul of syllabi, going as far as to change the duration of the Bachelors Degree, should be subject to the greatest possible scrutiny and reviewed at the highest level including the UGC. University autonomy cannot be whittled down -- as practiced by Prof Dinesh Singh -- to arbitrary rule and no accountability, within or outside the University. 

India's universities are proud institutions. And Delhi University is not only the largest but one of the most respected among them. The MHRD and UGC should actively consider putting such a regulatory mechanism in place, in consonance with judicial norms. Universities cannot be places of partisan politics. To defend all that is best in these institutions they must be protected from within. Any alternative to this ethos would be disastrous.

The author is professor in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University


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