Faculty, students resist university’s sweeping changes

Delhi University, arguably India’s top higher education institution, is facing criticism for its decision to adopt a four-year degree model. Lecturers and students are bitterly opposing the latest in a series of sweeping changes and accuse the university of bending over backwards to accommodate Education Minister Kapil Sibal’s numerous higher education schemes.

In 2011, Delhi University moved from an annual to a semester system, despite fierce opposition from lecturers, and strikes and court cases.

Then, in late 2011, the university said it would be part of a meta-university project, and would launch courses allowing students the flexibility to design their curriculum and combine subjects of their choice.

And in early 2012 the institution announced it would move from a three-year undergraduate to a four-year model, as per the American system, in order to make higher education “broad-based and application oriented”.

Too much too soon

These are some revolutionary ideas that could change the face of higher education in India. But introducing such reforms without adequate planning, support from faculty, and infrastructure has made Delhi a breeding ground for academic chaos.

In the first semester of the new system, students scored exceptionally highly, amid allegations that authorities had inflated the marks to prove the new system was a success.

And teething troubles have only increased since then.

Recently, question papers for the second semester exams arrived late at centres. Some students did not get the correct papers while others had to make do with photocopies of hurriedly scribbled ones. And in several colleges second semester students have moved into the third semester although their results are late and yet to be announced.

Lecturers at the university and its constituent colleges accuse the vice-chancellor of taking unilateral decisions that lack planning and coordination between the university and its colleges.

“Look at the magnitude of reforms and the pace at which they have been imposed,” said Abha Dev Habib, an associate professor at Miranda House. “Colleges are struggling to adjust to the semester system, which was implemented without a comprehensive plan.”

The semester system was a big opportunity for course revision. But rather than being restructured, annual courses were slashed in half for each semester or “mindlessly cut” to fit the semester pattern.

“The students are the actual guinea pigs on which this system is being practised,” said Vernika Agrwal, a student at Sri Venkateswara College in Delhi.

“The [literature] syllabus has been so unwisely divided that the students learn the primary text in the second semester and its background in the third semester!” said Agrwal.

Challenges abound

The sheer numbers the university deals with make it impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. At least 400,000 students study in 62 affiliated colleges and the School of Open Learning.

Delhi University is obviously in a hurry, but it cannot hope to turn into a world-class university without fixing the basics.

At least 4,000 teaching positions are vacant, while teaching is pretty much an ad hoc arrangement. While the university has lost lecturers in economics and sciences to corporate jobs, several lecturers have left after waiting for years to get a permanent position.

Outdated courses, a poor regulatory system and lack of basic infrastructure such as adequate classrooms and libraries add to the university’s woes. A handful of top colleges have managed to maintain the university’s reputation, but the majority of them remain mediocre.

According to some lecturers, the idea behind the reforms may have been good but the ground realities were ignored.

“Unlike universities abroad where the class strength is small, we have as many as 60 students per class. How can one lecturer manage intensive contact and an interdisciplinary approach?

“Moreover, the quality of colleges, lecturers and students across the university varies widely. Each one is implementing the changes as per its capacity and there is no minimum standard being followed,” said a senior professor at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, who did not want to be named.

Universities abroad also give lecturers a semester off to prepare the lesson plan for the next semester but there was no such system in Delhi University, she said.

Bowing to foreign pressure?

Vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh has been accused of blindly following Education Minister Kapil Sibal’s dictates for reforms that are geared to cater to foreign universities.

“Does Indian higher education not have an identity of its own? If our students have done so well for so many years with a three-year system, what is the logic of adding an extra year?” asked Professor Tarun Kumar Patra, president of the All India Federation of University and College Lecturers’ Associations.

Singh dismissed the accusations.

“People think that we are copying the American system. But there are significant differences. What we are trying to do is study best practice across the world and change our education system accordingly,” Singh told University World News.

“We want to make the courses application oriented so that students acquire a large number of skills. We will couple this with a good [work] placement programme. We will also give exit options, which no other university in India offers,” Singh said.

According to Singh, students would be able to pick a broader range of subjects from different disciplines in their first year before continuing to their area of specialisation.

“The new system is flexible and a student leaving after two years of study will receive a diploma if the required number of credits has been completed. A general bachelor degree will be awarded after three years of study, and an honours degree after specialisation during the fourth year,” said Singh.

Changes needed

Experts said colleges have their strengths and weaknesses and a blanket formula cannot be applied.

Further, managing the administrative and academic issues for a large number of colleges has been the primary reason behind the decline of universities in India.

“The role of universities is not to manage affiliated colleges but to produce knowledge, apply knowledge to research, and build an academic culture,” said Professor MK Sridhar, secretary and executive director of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, a think-tank under the chief minister’s office, which recommended the changes.

“Centres of excellence such as Delhi University should lead the way by decentralising the administration of colleges and giving them autonomy…It should develop inter-disciplinary schools with highly flexible curricula and focus on research,” said Sridhar.

Dr PC Jain, principal of Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), agreed.

“The demand for seats at SRCC has increased phenomenally. But several requests to the university to allow us to start an MBA programme have been declined because of inflexible university rules.

“Colleges should be given autonomy to grow and evolve,” Jain said.