Delhi University rolls back four-year degrees after 'politicised' row

The recruitment season at Delhi University – India’s top university – has been thrown into chaos. A number of its constituent colleges were forced this week to defer undergraduate admissions in a highly politicised row over the university’s attempt to switch to four-year degrees from a three-year British-style model.

Delhi University adopted a controversial new Four-Year Undergraduate Programme last year – pulling away from the standard three-year degree in the rest of the country that dates from the British colonial era.

It was the only university in the country to move all its undergraduate degrees to a four-year programme, although other universities have been considering a switch.

On 22 June the university was ordered by the higher education regulatory and funding body, the University Grants Commission or UGC, to dismantle the four-year programme and revert back to the old system.

The UGC gave the university just one day to implement the directive, and ordered college principals to “strictly follow” the three-year system.

"Any deviation or contravention shall be viewed seriously by UGC and may attract action under the UGC Act including withdrawal of grant to the college", according to a letter delivered by hand to each principal of the university’s 64 constituent colleges.

The UGC argued the four-year programme – pushed through in 2013 by the university’s Vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh with backing from then human resource development minister Kapil Sibal – was a violation of regulations on a national system of three-year undergraduate degrees.

Admissions affected

Some 270,000 students have been vying for 54,000 places at the university’s 64 colleges – some of the most competitive institutions in the country. Students said they were unsure whether applications that refer to the four-year programme will now be handled.

Hundreds of students – many of them with the highest marks in the country – who arrived from other states for admissions that were to have taken place during the past week, found the process thrown into utter confusion.

The UGC order to reinstate the three-year programme had been accepted by 57 of the 64 colleges, the UGC confirmed on 24 June.

These included the country’s most prestigious colleges such as St Stephen’s, Miranda House, Lady Shri Ram and Shri Ram College of Commerce, which attract students with the highest marks and set the academic tone for the university.

Although the UGC said it had received ‘letters of compliance’ from the 57 colleges, the colleges said admissions due to start on 23 June could begin only after they received ‘clear directives’ from the university.

The president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association Nandita Narayan told a press conference that admissions should not begin until there was clarity on the situation. “There is so much confusion,” she said.

Delhi University’s central administration said it was waiting for ‘unambiguous guidelines’ to be issued before admissions could go ahead. Nonetheless, the university’s website scrapped ‘four-year’ from its description of the undergraduate programme.

Dr Pratibha Jolly, principal of Miranda House – a prestigious women’s college – said colleges were bound by university ordinances. "We have never claimed that we are autonomous. It has to be a collective decision.

“We receive our funding from the UGC and we have agreed to comply by its directives, but then we need to have unambiguous directions from the competent authority to go ahead with the admissions,” she said.

Dr PC Jain, principal of Shri Ram College of Commerce, said: "We will comply with the national policy and restore the three-year-programme. But admissions remain deferred as we will wait for further directive from the authorities on the admission process.

“I hope for the students’ sake a solution is reached at the earliest."

Politically inspired campaign

In a week of high drama, during which it was first announced that Vice-chancellor Singh had resigned and then emerged that he had not, the university said in a letter drawn up by its legal counsel that it had followed all the procedures while introducing the four-year programme.

It insists that the curriculum is a matter of university autonomy.

Singh had touted the change to four years as a switch to a modern programme in tune with global higher education systems that would facilitate student mobility and inter-university credit transfers.

But he met with strong resistance from faculty members and students. As the university attracts students from around the country, its decision to switch to a different system from all other universities caused confusion among student applicants.

The vice-chancellor has insisted the campaign against the new programme was “inspired by” political groups.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, had last year promised to scrap the programme as part of its manifesto for elections, held in the Delhi region in November in advance of national elections this May.

Although the BJP failed to come to power in Delhi, BJP leader Narendra Modi’s landslide election victory in the national poll last month reopened the issue after the university’s teachers – who have constantly opposed the four-year programme – met with the new Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani.

Irani kept her distance, insisting that she could not get involved in a matter that was between the UGC and the university.

However, the BJP youth wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, celebrated the end of the four-year programme, saying it was now “a thing of the past”.

“We promised students a rollback and that is what is happening," said ABVP's Rohit Chahal.

The Aam Aadmi – Common Man – Party, which won the Delhi regional election in November, issued a statement welcoming the UGC’s decision to revert to three-year degrees. The four-year programme “should have never been implemented”, it said.

Delhi’s vice-chancellor and former minister Kapil Sibal “owe an apology to the academic and student communities for having imposed such a measure”.

“Opposition to [the four-year programme] was a unique feature which had united the academic, student and political classes across the spectrum, barring the [then ruling] Congress Party and its students' and teachers' wing,” Aam Aadmi said in its statement.

UGC role questioned

But questions are being asked about the UGC’s own role. “UGC has a lot to explain about its earlier position,” sources said.

It was unclear why the UGC had allowed the four-year programme to go ahead last year even after then human resource development minister MM Pallam Raju, who replaced Kapil Sibal in late 2012, questioned whether it was advisable to do so.

“The only plausible answer is that UGC honchos want to curry favour with the current administration, which it senses is against the four-year programme," said an editorial in The Times of India.

The newspaper said the UGC was denying autonomy to institutions, “leading to whimsical flip-flops in policy”.

That the UGC directive “comes in the middle of the admission process for the next academic year makes it all the more irrational”, the newspaper said, adding that the UGC’s stance had nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of the four-year programme.

Admissions confusion

Students currently following the four-year programme are now uncertain how their degrees will be structured. The UGC said it was working on a plan to assist some 60,000 students who started the four-year programme last year shift to the three-year system.

It said a standing committee of academics, students and university officials was being set up to advise the university on migration back to the three-year degree so that students did not lose an academic year and acquired “necessary academic and other competence during the next two years”.

Some existing four-year students protested against the UGC directive. Those taking the four-year BTech engineering degree said their future was in the balance – BTech degrees are four-year courses around the country.

The UGC said in a statement: "Students who feel they will be denied a BTech degree if the three-year course is introduced should not worry. Their interest will be fully safeguarded.”

The commission claimed in its statement that BTech students “are being egged on by the [Delhi University] authorities to agitate”.