Delhi University, regarded as India’s top university, is in turmoil amid an increasingly politicised battle over its plans to switch to a four-year undergraduate programme from the next academic session, beginning in July.
Ongoing protests by academics and students against the initiative to move from a three- to four-year undergraduate degree modelled on the US system, announced in early 2012, have escalated.
Just weeks before admissions into the new, four-year system are due to begin, protesting academics have been backed by politicians, who have called on the prime minister to reverse the new degree structure.
The changes in Delhi University are widely seen as a testing ground for a general shift to four-year degrees in India.
But with at least 400,000 students enrolled at Delhi University’s 62 affiliated colleges and the School of Open Learning, expanding to a four-year course would require additional infrastructure and teaching staff.
A group of political leaders recently appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene to postpone the “hasty implementation” of the switch so that “its various ramifications can be examined through wider debate and consultation.”
“No provision has been made for additional infrastructure or teaching posts for the extra year. The shift to the four-year undergraduate programme, without ensuring these essential requirements, will be an irresponsible move,” stated 40 members of parliament in a memorandum addressed to Singh.
While the university is an autonomous institution, it is fully funded by central government.
But on Thursday 9 May, in a meeting that went on into the night, the university's executive council approved the new curricula and degrees.
"With these approvals, all formal requirements as per the University of Delhi Act, statutes and ordinances have been complied with and the university is all set to launch the programme," said a statement from the registrar's office.
Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor said on Thursday that the ministry would not intervene. "It is completely within the prerogative of the university to start a new course. It would be inappropriate to tell a vice-chancellor what he should or should not be doing," said Tharoor during a Google+ online question-and-answer session.
He said the ministry would not overrule the university’s decision as it would be a very dangerous step and set a wrong precedent for the future. "For now the ministry can only make sure that due processes are being followed in its implementation."
In a hurry
Members of Delhi’s highly politicised faculty, often with party affiliations, have been lobbying the ruling coalition. Critics believe a botched introduction of the new four-year degrees could lead to the premier university’s rapid decline.
“When the [parliamentary] delegation submitted a signed memorandum, the prime minister asked why Delhi University was in a hurry to implement the move,” left-wing opposition party CPM’s Sitaram Yechury revealed to local media.
Rashid Alvi, national spokesperson for the All India Congress Committee, the decision-making body of the ruling party, had earlier requested an “impartial enquiry” into the university’s affairs.
In letter dated 3 May, Alvi asked the prime minister “to intervene in the matter and rescue the university from its decline”.
The university leadership has been accused of being dictatorial, and failing to build consensus before implementing the change.
“The vice-chancellor seems to be in a tearing hurry to reform the university, which has been running soundly for so long,” said Abha Dev Habib, an associate professor at Miranda House, one of Delhi University’s colleges. She described the new courses as “barely cobbled up under duress”.
Critics argue that the sheer size of the university makes it impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. Others do not oppose the switch but say it is too rushed, particularly as other changes are being implemented.
Over the past two academic sessions the university has moved from an annual system of one academic year to a semester system, despite fierce opposition from teachers, and strikes and court cases.
“The curriculum was trimmed and timetables changed to fit the semester system and colleges are still adjusting to that. A four-year programme means several new courses and an extra year of academics. A change of such magnitude requires greater debate,” said Habib.
For example, under the new programme students will have to take 11 foundation courses in the first two years.
Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said foundation courses would have to be pitched at a level for those with a basic school qualification, which may not retain the interest of students who have already done it in school.
“What is the rationale for forcing these relatively basic courses on all students? And who will teach them, given that even the outlines of these courses have still not been made public and are unknown to the college teachers themselves?” Ghosh said.
Although the university’s academic council this month approved many of the new foundation courses, there was some reported dissent over the four-year programme’s structure.
According to Delhi University Vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh, the four-year programme will be skills-oriented, supported by work placements and different exit options.
After two years of study, students will receive a diploma based on a minimum number of credits, while a general bachelor degree will be awarded after three years, and an honours degree after specialisation during the fourth year.
Many students are doubtful.
“The US has the concept of community colleges, where you can take up certain subjects with limited credits and vocational courses. Then it has teaching and research institutions,” said Sreeja Mathur, a final-year student at Delhi University’s Hindu College.
“Everyone is confused about how the university plans to cater to both vocational and academic areas.”
However Vice-chancellor Singh said the four-year programme would be a “vast improvement”. The previous system was not turning out employable students, he argued. Quality would still be maintained.
“We are not touching the knowledge component. We are just adding other values that will include knowledge-based skills but depending on the student’s choice,” Singh said.
He also said the new system would stem a high dropout rate, with around 30% of students leaving each year without a degree. “If they have multiple exit points then they will leave after being exposed to some fundamental skills in the first two years,” said Singh.
Chandrachur Singh, an assistant professor of political science at Hindu College, is optimistic. “Transitory processes are initially painful but they settle down over a period of time. Great institutions have all gone through such phases.
“It would be premature to say that a great institution like Delhi University can be ruined by one or other such phase,” said Singh.
Implications beyond Delhi
Delhi University draws students from all over the country.
"While students elsewhere will get an honours degree in three years, the students of Delhi University will have to do an extra year. This will not only put them one year behind other students but also significantly raise the cost of education," said the MPs, in the memorandum to the prime minister.
“The extra year is also likely to put students from other universities at a disadvantage when applying for postgraduate programmes at Delhi University.”
The University Grants Commission, or UGC, the statutory body overseeing universities, has the authority to question the changes and ask that additional financial and infrastructure requirements be met.
However, a member of the UGC said the Delhi issue had not yet been put on the agenda of a full commission meeting expected this month. The member said that the UGC appeared to be waiting for a signal from the government.
Social scientist Yogendra Yadav, a member of the UGC, has argued that since the Delhi change is a “major initiative” that is being showcased as a model for other universities, the commission should “arrive at a policy view that can inform decisions by other universities”.
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