This Article is From Jun 25, 2014

Why UPA Allowed The Four-Year Undergrad Programme

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

The renewed controversy about Delhi University's four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP), the UGC's sudden ultimatum declaring the course not to be in conformity with the National Education Policy, and the reported resignation of Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh, have all brought the nation's attention to an issue that has sadly been mishandled by the new Government.

Delhi University is the premier university in the country, its pre-eminent position reinforced by its location in the nation's capital and its reputation for attracting students from across the country. Whether it is the quality of its faculty, the diversity and brilliance of its students, or the wide-ranging achievements of its alumni, the university ranks at the forefront of all these parameters and is rightly regarded as the fountainhead of our nation's intellectual capital. Whether you like the FYUP or not, whether you think Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh is a brilliant and committed educationist or an academic dictator, the University (of which I am an alumnus, 1972-75) should not have been allowed to suffer in the course of this contentious debate.

The FYUP was formally introduced into DU when I served in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, and I am familiar with the passionate views of its critics amongst both faculty and students. The former felt the new concept was insufficiently thought through and ill prepared for; they were also resistant to the new teaching demands the changed system would make on them. Many students, including the principal student unions (both the Congress-backed NSUI and the BJP's ABVP) disliked being asked to put in an extra year to earn the honours degree they used to be able to earn in three years; they were also resentful of being made the guinea pigs in a new experiment while students in most other universities could emerge with a bachelor's degree in 3 years.  

MHRD officials, led by M.M. Pallam Raju, and I  tried to address the issues raised by both groups in a reasonable and responsive manner. But we did not overrule the University as it set about implementing FYUP. My fundamental argument in this debate was one of principle: I did not think it was healthy for politicians and bureaucrats to overrule universities on matters that are clearly within their academic prerogatives. I dare say that those professorial friends of mine who most vociferously demanded my intervention to "save" the university would have been among the first to object if I had interfered  on a matter infringing their own areas of responsibility.

So instead I asked: has the University adopted FYUP in conformity with its own rules, regulations and established procedures? I was assured by the senior officials of the Ministry -- most of whom are still there, serving the new Government -- that indeed it had. The FYUP proposal, I was told, had been the subject of numerous consultations with  faculty, students and parents; it had been presented to and approved by the University's Academic Council and its Executive Council, that too by lopsidedly overwhelming majorities. In that case, I said, I saw no basis for a Minister to intervene. Students and faculty should work out their objections and concerns within established University processes.

Nonetheless, Pallam Raju went the extra mile and set up a committee of experts under the UGC to look into the working of the FYUP and the process of its implementation. This was not to question the policy itself, but the academic rigour with which it was carried out. Course design, syllabi and patterns of instruction are legitimate areas for teachers to be heard by administrators. MHRD and UGC have an overall responsibility in educational policy-making. So the committee was a sensible mechanism to reconcile the two camps and ensure that the University's interests were safeguarded.

It is presumably this committee that has advised the UGC to find the new system in violation of the established education policy, which decrees a 1023 format. I must say I am puzzled that such an obvious objection was not raised earlier, when the FYUP was first being rolled out. The UGC's surprising directive to DU last week to scrap FYUP on these grounds smacks of political expediency -- the fulfilment of a BJP campaign promise -- rather than of principle.

It may be heresy to say it, but education as a sector remains the last frontier largely untouched by reforms. Higher education in India is still largely over-regulated and under-governed. The economic reforms of the last 20-odd years have unleashed our economic potential, and the governance reforms of the last 10 years have raised our civic awareness. However, we as a nation need to completely overhaul our educational systems and processes if we are to realise the full potential of the demographic dividend that awaits us in the coming decades of the 21st century. Resisting change comes too easily to us, but inertia does not facilitate progress.

While government expenditure on education has gone up to 4.8% of GDP under the UPA, the truth is that the investments that we make in our educational sector do not yield satisfactory returns. Teaching and research at all levels of the academic spectrum, which are professions that attract the most promising minds in our competitor nations, have largely become another sarkari naukri that offer a job for life replete with perks and benefits but with little incentive for performance or disincentives for non-performance. Relative to the national per capita income, our teachers enjoy a salary structure that is one of the most favourable in the world. And yet by any measure of performance, as repeatedly shown in a number of professional surveys and global rankings of universities, we are languishing at modest to mediocre levels of educational achievement. There are honourable exceptions, but we are not in any position to consider ourselves beyond change, improvement or reform.

The academic community has repeatedly responded to concerns about academic quality by arguing that academic institutions and processes need to be freed from the clutches of government functionaries and their overbearing interference. Paradoxically in the case of DU, when the UPA government  tried to go by this policy, all hell broke loose. This unwillingness to abide by due process when the outcome is unfavourable has increasingly become entrenched not just in academia but in our national character.

I had urged the Vice-Chancellor (who was a batchmate of mine at St.Stephen's) and his critics to engage with each other in a spirit of academic give-and-take, so as to ensure that both sets of concerns about FYUP were fully taken into account in the implementation of the new policy. Now he is gone, and a serious, well-intentioned effort to introduce change has been scuppered, with even less consultation than when it was introduced.

The four-year undergraduate degree (which is, incidentally,  the international standard) may or may not be inherently superior to the three-year degree. However, the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University must, in principle, be accorded the respect and autonomy to follow the statutes that govern the University and, with the approval of the Academic Council and Executive Council, carry out the changes that they believe will strengthen DU's position as a centre of excellence. The freedom to experiment, to innovate and perhaps even to fail, is a freedom that must be recognised and cherished. That freedom, along with the Vice-Chancellor, has been demolished by the events of this week.

The victims of the mishandling of this entire episode are many: the principle of academic autonomy, the quest for educational reform, the Ministry's reputation for consistency and integrity in policy-making, the Vice-Chancellor's career, the University's reputation,  and above all the students themselves. Both those students who joined the FYUP last year and those who are about to seek admission to DU this week have been plunged into confusion and uncertainty. They -- and Delhi University -- deserved better from our new rulers.

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