University autonomy eroded in four-year degree battle

Admissions at Delhi University have re-started. The old three-year degree programme has been reinstated, marking the end of the stand-off between the University Grants Commission, or UGC, and the university’s vice-chancellor over the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme that was started last year.

It has been a tale of dramatic twists and turns, leaving thousands of students stranded for weeks – they did not know whether they had really applied for a three-year programme or a four-year programme. Student choice and security, of course, was mere collateral damage in this battle that was finally won – or lost, depending upon your point of view – on technicalities.

Most undergraduate courses in India are three years long – India follows the 10+2+3 year pattern for education – although engineering courses are four years long and medical degrees a minimum of five years with additional internship years.

The Four-Year Undergraduate Programme, or FYUP, of Delhi University was attacked for violating the three-year norm for undergraduate degrees as stated in education policy. This clearly was a weak argument as other undergraduate programmes are more than three years in length. Also, a policy is always a guideline and not a law.

The key issue at stake is university autonomy. The UGC is not just the body that awards and monitors funding to universities, but also sees itself as the authority over them.

Surprisingly, it supported and funded the four-year programme last year. The UGC chair has been quoted as supporting the innovations the university has brought in, even going so far as to call the Delhi University vice-chancellor his brother.

Changed politics

Something changed in a year – and that clearly is the political scenario in India.

The FYUP was seen as a step towards the Americanisation of Indian universities while the new government has been elected on a more nationalist platform, though business friendly. The new leaders have also indicated that the entry of foreign universities is a priority in their commitment to raising capacity and quality.

This raises an interesting question for foreign universities waiting in the wings to start operations in India – will they be subject to the UGC in a similar manner or will they be allowed to decide the design of their own courses?

As the Foreign Universities Bill waits for parliamentary approval, the roll back of the FYUP also puts doubt on the ordinance passed by the previous government that allowed foreign universities to set up campuses and offer degrees in India without an Indian partner. That decision may need to be ratified before international universities invest in India.


For all those students who have the grades or the money to study abroad, the decision is so much easier now. No student wants to go through the kind of uncertainty that the current FYUP candidates face.

And it is not over yet, even though the new admissions are clearly for a three-year programme. What happens to those admitted last year for a four-year programme? Do they graduate along with the current batch or do they get to play catch up in the next two years?

There is no clarity on the Delhi University BTech course either – it stands isolated, if secure, for this batch. Will employers recognise this solitary batch of engineers from Delhi University? It will take a while to find out, and even then the situation may remain unclear.

It is not as if those in favour of scrapping the FYUP sang in unison. There was good reason to implement a four-year programme.

It aligns with the degree length of many programmes abroad, thus allowing Delhi University students to join a masters or a doctoral programme without having to invest in a dummy bridge year. The foundation year could have filled the gaps in research and analytical and communication skills that rote learning in traditional schooling systems fosters.

But the programme was put together too quickly to convince academics and students of its virtues. Or even to deliver a satisfactory foundation year. Four years seemed an over-investment to many, especially when other reforms to quality were not evident – a waste of a year when young people could be out earning.

With the best of intentions, but a patchy design, the FYUP was pushed through to the implementation stage. A half-baked cake is rarely palatable and this was no exception. In the end it fell on a technicality.

The support of the previous government had rushed these changes through – and this is what was at the root of the downfall of the FYUP. Due process had been ignored in the rush to implement it to meet the start date of the academic calendar.

Order, technically, has been restored. But the higher education boat has been rocked in a way that gives rise to uncertainties for innovative and new players in India.

* Meeta Sengupta is a writer and advisor on education, and tweets at @meetasengupta.