UGC doesn’t get it

It needs to learn from the IITs, not impose its outdated norms.

Written by Sanjay G. Dhande | Updated: September 3, 2014 8:13 am
The UGC has never been an instrument of change. In fact, it is a hindrance to change. The UGC has never been an instrument of change. In fact, it is a hindrance to change.

The UGC had recently undertaken a review of the structure and duration of four-year programmes leading to a bachelors degree in the arts or sciences. Referring to the National Education Policy, it directed all academic institutions to follow the 10+2+3 model. However, by also sending this regulation to the IITs, the UGC has created a furore. The IITs are governed by the IIT Act and the IIT Council. The UGC’s action is being seen as an intrusion on academic autonomy.

The policy framework for higher education has been guided by the reports of well-known commissions such as the Radhakrishnan Commission, the Kothari Commission. Unfortunately, most of these reports are reasonably old and do not address present-day issues. By imposing certain provisions on the dynamic IITs, the UGC is barking up the wrong tree.

The IITs have evolved a unique model of higher education thanks to the freedom and autonomy provided to them by the IIT Act. They have evolved a model of science education that is the envy of many international academic institutions. Science education includes the social sciences — economics is taught alongside physics, chemistry, mathematics and scientific computing. But what is so unique about these programmes? First, all students — engineering and science — are admitted through the same entrance process. The second unique aspect is the common core programme. A set of 10 courses in natural sciences, engineering sciences, technical arts, social sciences and humanities is taken by all students.

The IITs have a semester system. Their credit-based system awards a degree based on the acquisition of credits — not on the number of years completed. An intelligent student can register for more credits and graduate earlier than usual. This is not possible in a rigid paper- and year-based academic programme. Besides, the continuous evaluation method, course-based promotion, quizzes, tutorials and mid-semester examinations all add up to a very different, dynamic academic environment for both students and teachers.

For a vibrant academic environment, the curriculum must frequently be updated. In many IITs, the curriculum is evaluated every 10 years. The views of students, alumni and other stakeholders are taken into account during this process. The revised model is discussed extensively in the senate, and only then is it implemented. This is where Delhi University’s FYUP went wrong. Unfortunately, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

The UGC has not understood this process of design and implementation in academic programmes. Rather than encouraging a vibrant academic environment, it operates with a license-permit-raj mindset. Instead, the UGC should follow the IIT model and extract lessons from it. It should actively help institutions that wish to implement dynamic, credit-based, semester-system programmes. Unfortunately, the UGC has never been an instrument of change. In fact, it is a hindrance to change. It does not provide academic guidance or support to institutions. It just issues diktats that are called regulations.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the IITs used to have a five-year programme for both engineering and science degrees. Then, the engineering programme was redesigned to be completed in four years. Recently, the bachelors programme in science was also modified to four years, with a provision that a masters degree in science or engineering could be obtained by completing a fifth year. A student with a BSc in physics could get an MSc in physics, or even an MTech in electrical engineering, say, by completing a fifth year. Many options are available. In short, there is freedom for learning.

Let us now consider the question of jurisdiction. The IITs are governed by the IIT Act, 1961. The apex body for all IITs is the IIT Council. The format of degrees and their titles are approved by the council. However, curriculum details are designed and approved by the senate and board of governors. The UGC and AICTE chairmen are members of the IIT Council. As such, the UGC should only write to the IIT Council, which could, in turn, deliberate on this issue, an essentially academic matter.

The question is, what should the UGC do? It should invite IIT directors for a discussion, exchange views and evolve a policy that allows innovation in academics in India. The UGC must respect the academic strength of institutions and allow them to flourish. It should help universities compete at the international level. Most importantly, the UGC must not adopt a confrontational attitude. All of us want excellence in higher education — the IITs and the UGC should each be able to appreciate the other.

The writer is former director, IIT, Kanpur, and member, UGC. Views are personal

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