INDIA: Central universities agree to credit transfer

In a move that could significantly enhance the mobility and choice of students, central universities across India have agreed to create an inter-university credit transfer system.

Vice-chancellors of 40 central government-funded universities recently met and agreed on a common credit system, the details of which are yet to be worked out.

"Universities will have to change over to a choice-based credit system. This means students will have more choice and flexibility in subjects they want to study," said a senior government official.

The transfer policy does not include private universities or the yet-to-be-established innovation universities. But government sources indicated that any new university established with government involvement could be brought into the new system.

It also marks a shift away from the system established in British colonial times of completing a degree within three to four years at one university to a system more similar to that of the US, and could herald the introduction of more combined subject degrees and even liberal arts programmes on the US model.

Many central universities that do not follow the credit system will have to change and will also have to standardise the credit system within their respective departments, a move that will make it easier to compare different universities and courses within them.

It will also enable more flexibility across the current humanities-science divide apparent at many universities.

At present, students in most universities across India have a limited choice of subjects. For instance, a science student cannot opt for a course in psychology or music. A student with a psychology major cannot opt to study accountancy or maths.

A fluid credit system, similar to that of the US, will mean that students will have greater choice of subjects within a maximum number of credit points.

The concept of students completing all three years of an undergraduate degree or two years of a masters degree in the same university will also change with an inter-university transfer policy in place.

"Students will have the option of completing the first two years in one university and if they have the required credits, transfer to another university for the final year," said a vice-chancellor who did not want to be named.

He said the transfer policy would also add competitiveness and transparency to the quality of teaching. "If there is a lot of demand for a particular course, you know it is doing well," he added.

This is not going to be easy.

A flexible credit system would mean recruiting more teachers, since students could be distributed in a large number of small groups. Shortage of faculty has often been the most important argument put forward by universities for resisting introducing a credit system.

Students have welcomed the change. "This has been long overdue. If all universities have credit transfer in place we can experience different teaching environments. But for this to happen course structure, content and assessment have to change," said Neeta Bali, a final year economics student at Hindu College in New Delhi.

The central universities can learn from the experience of autonomous colleges in Tamil Nadu that have successfully embraced this 'academic liberalisation'.

At Loyola College, Chennai, arguably one of the best in the country, students have been picking their subjects for eight years. "It wasn't easy. The teaching and non-teaching staff had to be convinced about the merits of a choice-based credit system," said principal Albert Muthumalais. "Everyone knew the workload would increase."

In a bid to reduce the burden of tests on school-leavers, central universities have also agreed to use a common aptitude test combined with marks in the Class XII qualifying examinations to admit undergraduate students, despite a panel of vice-chancellors emphasising admission autonomy.

The proposed common aptitude examination will not test subject knowledge but general awareness and critical thinking, Education Minister Kapil Sibal has said. Students will not need to appear for multiple entrance examinations and will instead be admitted on the basis of a combination of their board examination marks and scores in the aptitude test, he added.

Each central university will be free to decide the weighting to give to board examination marks and aptitude test scores. But details of how the plan is to be implemented are yet to be worked out.

The new system could be in place by next year.

Sibal admitted that the idea could face criticism from within universities. "The universities will each finally have to decide whether or not the plan is acceptable to them," he said.

Some vice-chancellors have expressed reservations about the acceptability of the admissions mechanism to all stakeholders at their universities.

"We may agree to anything between ourselves and the government. But to ensure that the universities accept the plan will be a big challenge," one vice-chancellor said.