Battle over four-year degrees hits IITs and privates

The battle to rein in Delhi University’s controversial four-year undergraduate degrees and revert to British-style three-year degrees has expanded to include the prestigious Indian institutes of technology, or IITs, and private higher education institutions.

Higher education regulatory and funding body the University Grants Commission, or UGC, ignited a new controversy just weeks after forcing Delhi University to abandon four-year degrees.

It wrote to the country’s 16 autonomous IITs and the prestigious Indian Institute of Science – IISc – in Bangalore in a bid to compel them to change their four-year undergraduate courses.

The UGC has also turned to private institutions such as Shiv Nadar University, Azim Premji University and OP Jindal Global University – some of which recently set up American-style four-year undergraduate liberal arts degrees – and told them to conform with UGC rules.

Earlier this month Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, in a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, said the UGC had asked several universities, including the IISc, to discontinue four-year courses and “follow UGC notification” on degrees.

IISc Bangalore was this month forced to change its four-year bachelor of science degree – first offered in 2011 to improve students’ research skills – to a BSc research degree option and offer a three-year BSc as well, to conform to the UGC’s regulations.

Political commentators noted this was a compromise that the UGC had rejected for Delhi University, insisting instead on a complete dismantling of Delhi’s four-year degrees.

The IISc compromise was seen only as a partial victory for the top institution, with the institute’s students and families protesting about a downgrading of qualifications.

“These moves could push the brightest students of India away from choosing a career in science. It could threaten innovation in higher education that is in bad need of an overhaul,” said Vishwesha Guttal, an assistant professor at IISc.

“Experiments to improve education must be encouraged, especially if the premier institutes of the country are taking the lead. We can only know what works best if we attempt a variety of approaches,” he argued in an opinion article.

The IITs

However, the IISc compromise has raised hopes that there may be room for manoeuvre to save some IIT four-year degrees in what some are calling a UGC ‘crusade’ against such programmes.

The UGC said in a statement earlier this month that “a communication has been sent to IITs to align their courses and degrees with the ones recognised by UGC. This communication has been sent to IITs to ensure all degrees granted by an institute in the country [are] recognised and ensure employment of students.

“In case IITs do not adhere to the established and recognised nomenclature and academic programmes, the government will take a call on the same.”

UGC Chair Ved Prakash said the notification was issued to ensure that all degrees issued in India were recognised everywhere in the country.

However, the move has sparked anger within the IITs – autonomous engineering institutions that are governed by their own act of parliament rather than UGC regulations. IITs are directly funded by the central government, not the UGC.

IIT-Kanpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh started a four-year BS programme in 2011, with its first intake of some 150 students due to graduate in 2015.

Professor Dheeraj Sanghi, dean of academic affairs at IIT-Kanpur, said the idea behind the four-year BS and dual degrees was to encourage bright students to take up research.

“The BS has a substantial research component, and any undergraduate who enrols for the dual degree has to complete the masters component too, which includes research,” he said.

“Prescribing a uniform standard will go against innovation and research, and the interests of bright students,” Sanghi said in his online blog.

Fight back

Some institutions are fighting back, insisting such decisions by the UGC impinge on their autonomy.

Sanghi told local newspapers his institution would not be “taking cognisance” of the UGC letter. Academic matters are decided by the IIT council and the senate of each institution, he said. “If UGC presses ahead, we will take the issue to our senate if necessary and decide on it.

“The UGC communication, however, raises other serious issues as it would also mean dual degree programmes are largely illegal. Dual degree courses are highly popular in IITs and the UGC directions could therefore upset many IITs,” Sanghi told India Today magazine.

Partha Chakrabarti, director of IIT-Kharagpur in West Bengal state, has written to the ministry challenging the UGC’s authority over IITs, after the ministry asked it to list all degrees that “do not conform to the commission notification”.

So far, the ministry has sided with the UGC, saying IIT-Kharagpur was attempting to “stretch” its powers to “institute its own degrees”, according to reports.

“Every university is also a statutory body, but there is a procedure to be followed. No other body except the UGC can specify degrees. We are a conduit between the government and the institution, and no one can award a degree that is not approved,” said UGC’s Prakash.

The UGC has also said that if a university or institution “of national importance”, as the IITs are designated, wishes to award a degree other than one specified by the UGC, then it can approach the regulator with its proposal and a proper justification.

Private providers

The first intake of the flagship four-year liberal arts programme at the private, non-profit Ashoka University on the outskirts of Delhi, was to have started classes this month.

But pre-empting UGC intervention, the university has re-jigged the course to a three-year degree with an optional fourth year project or research paper.

Symbiosis International University, a non-profit private institution in Pune near Mumbai, took the matter to the Mumbai high court on 20 August, for a stay on a July UGC directive received by Symbiosis on 9 August to discontinue its four-year liberal arts programme.

The court ruled that the UGC “never communicated and-or even asked any explanation and-or even issued a show-cause notice before taking such a drastic action”, court documents said.

Symbiosis’ four-year liberal arts programme was launched in 2011-12 following one-time permission given by the UGC. Some 300 students have enrolled on the four-year course in the past two years.

Although it was also contacted by the UGC, another non-profit, OP Jindal Global University, said it did not offer four-year programmes, only an optional study abroad year where students can go to the United States.