The debate over reforms reflects the pathologies of our larger politics
To assume that a high-end undergraduate degree,aiming at global benchmarking and a stream that allows students to drop out after two or three years,should be one integrated programme is to live in a pedagogic fantasy land: it risks diminishing the standards for real honours students and leaving behind those who are not inclined to be challenged. There will be no pedagogic identity left to the university.
The debate over reforms in Delhi University is not just a matter of parochial university politics. At stake is the future of the last of the great surviving public universities in India. Reform in the university was long overdue. But the nature of the reforms runs the risk of making DU irretrievable. Parents are already worrying whether DU will remain a viable option. But in a strange way,the politics around this reform has also become a microcosm of the pathologies around reform politics.
At the heart of the reform debate is the proposal to shift to a four-year,semester-based undergraduate degree. A strong case could be made for this shift,provided there is a strategy to put in place preconditions for making the reforms a success. But in the place of reforms,what we seem to be getting is a slash and burn exercise,bent on ruining the universitys existing strength,without any prima facie improvement. The move to the semester system did not introduce any positive or fundamental pedagogic change; it simply took the existing vices of the system and made the students go through them twice with syllabi (at least in the social sciences that I am familiar with) that make even less sense. Like a government bureaucracy,it confused a calendar change with a substantive one. But the current reforms seem to pose even more fundamental challenges.
The core problem is this: what is the fundamental identity of an undergraduate degree? On the surface,there is a well-meaning reformist structure: foundational courses,coupled with a choice to students to drop out at different stages as well as choice across disciplines. But what is actually being proposed at the moment looks like an odd amalgam that makes the DU degree look like part remedial course for a failed school system,part vocational degree,part New Age fluffy pedagogy integrating mind and body, part honours research degree and part conventionally overloaded syllabi with rote learning. In principle,it is not a bad idea to think about pathways to higher education. For example,can students with an initial vocational training enter conventional systems? But to assume that a high-end undergraduate degree,aiming at global benchmarking and a stream that allows students to drop out after two or three years,should exist as one integrated programme is to live in a pedagogic fantasy land: it risks both diminishing the standards for real honours students and leaving behind those who are not inclined to be challenged. There will be no pedagogic identity left to the university.
The second issue is the question of interlocking parts. The relationship between the foundational courses and choices students will have made in school is not clear. We used to joke that India did not have a three-year undergraduate degree,it had a five-year degree. The MA had become a remedial BA in many instances. What is going to be the relationship between the four-year BA programme and other masters programmes? Again,in principle,there is scope for doing things like a one-year masters programme. But again,these proposals are not about the identity of degrees: they are largely about checking off a mathematical formula on the number of years.
The third is the question of concrete tactics. Admittedly,all reform is a matter of adaptation and adjustments will take place. But the question is: are all the material preconditions for moving in the right direction in place? DU has thousands of vacancies,and even though there is a promise to fill them up,there are questions about how quickly this can be done. It is hard to assess workloads till the final course protocols are in place. But it is very hard to avoid the impression that,with the kind of workloads in place,the university will find it more difficult to attract teachers who also want to sustain research careers. Many professors in the university are doing wonderful work. But the nuts and bolts of what it now takes to service a large number of students stifles the creativity of so many teachers. The tension between DU as a teaching and as a research university is bound to be exacerbated.
The fourth question is organisational. For good or for ill,DUs strengths rested on a series of institutional commitments: autonomy to colleges,a certain standing for different faculties,a toleration for a bit of internal institutional diversity among colleges and so on. As the proposed reforms stand,all this is going to be fundamentally eroded. Again,this is something that could be argued. There is a case for expanding choice through inter-college coordination. But will a decimation of the collegiate system serve the university well?
More importantly,the fundamental question plaguing higher education has remained unanswered: who should define the identity of the university? And what is the role of each of the constituent parts in this definition? Can the debate over autonomy simply be reduced to the autonomy of the vice chancellor? We seem to want to copy the core of the American system,without the fundamental ingredient that makes that system tick: autonomy at different levels of the institution. Individual faculty,for the most part,in charge of the content and standards of their class room and so on. But reform without taking on board autonomy of the constituent parts is like trying to do Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
The debate over DU reforms mirrors the pathologies of our larger politics. The old system needed change. But the need for reform has become a ruse for centralisation of power. The relationship of reform to pedagogic objectives is tenuous. Impatience with nuts and bolts threatens to imperil its success. Many procedural niceties and due deference to form was put aside. If Parliament can pass dozens of bills in a few minutes,why cant an academic council clear courses in equal time? Initially,the debate oscillated between a decrepit ancien regime that many teachers represented and a Jacobin administration confusing change with improvement. Sensible,pedagogically engaged and detail-oriented voices lacked conviction and were sidelined. The social credibility of the professoriat had sunk so low that it was easy to marginalise them,to portray them as self-serving naysayers standing in the way of a forward looking vision. DU urgently needs to find its centre,a path between a thoughtless revolution and an obdurate conservatism. Whether such a path is possible is for the university to decide. But the risk of losing the colossus amongst Indian universities is palpable; one that we ignore at our peril.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ firstname.lastname@example.org