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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Degrees of half measures

The proposed reforms in India’s premier university,Delhi University,shed interesting light on the institutional challenges of reform in India and offer wider lessons.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
November 17, 2009 2:32:32 am

The proposed reforms in India’s premier university,Delhi University,shed interesting light on the institutional challenges of reform in India and offer wider lessons. Many reforms have been on the table. But the switch to a semester system has elicited most discussion and consternation. In principle the idea of a semester system is a good one. But the idea is being fetishised in a way that fundamentally confuses ends and means. As often happens in reform debates in India,the focus is more on the form,rather than the objective of reform. What should have been a reform ensconced in a wider pedagogical debate,has become largely a calendar reform. And the result may be that we have a course structure that is neither fish nor fowl.

What is interesting about Delhi University’s reform towards a semester system is that it neither takes on board the truly revolutionary elements of a semester system. Nor does it take fully into account the local context,so that there can be adequate preparation for the switch. Ideally,a semester system allows you to achieve the following objectives. It can facilitate the creation of a credit system,and hence allow more choice and flexibility. In institutions where the semester system has real pedagogical bite,it is premised upon one important fact: that the teachers teaching particular classes evaluate their own students. Delhi University’s reform does not achieve either of these objectives.

On the choice and flexibility front,ostensibly a system of majors and minors has been introduced. So the course requirement in the majors has been reduced to allow for more courses in a minor. But this expansion of choice is relatively illusory. A genuinely intellectually interesting expansion of choice would not be limited by a major-minor structure. Once the requirements of the departments are fulfilled,it would allow wide choices,including the possibility of social science students taking science classes (at the appropriate level). So someone interested in environment majoring in history could,after fulfilling their major,take a relevant course offering in any discipline including the sciences,rather than being confined to the minor. But this would require better basic preparation.

A semester system works well when each individual faculty member has substantial freedom to innovate in course offering at his or her level. This is possible only where there is no disjunction between those who set the syllabus,those who teach and those who evaluate. The crisis of undergraduate education has its source,in part,in this disjunction. In some ways,by increasing rather than decreasing the prominence of university-wide exams,the semester system may exacerbate this disjunction. Given our institutional realities,this is not an easy disjunction to fix. But it is disappointing that there is no roadmap that is even trying. The ways in which the major-minor choices have been configured also diminish departmental autonomy. In a good American university,the departments you are majoring in have great autonomy to set the distributional requirements you need to fulfil in your non-major courses,to balance pedagogical objectives and choice. In some ways,it would have been better if this move had also been in the context of a discussion of what kind of autonomy is appropriate at each level of the institution.

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But the discussion of autonomy really brings out the issue at the heart of the reform: the serious trust deficit within Indian institutions. In some respects Delhi University has more of an administrative identity than an academic one. Delhi University has top-end colleges,but it also has a considerable number of bottom-end ones. And across departments there is great variation. More accomplished departments think taking courses in certain other departments will be a diminution in standards. What this enormous variation produces is several different universities rather than one; yet administrative logic has to operate on the fiction that DU is one academic entity. When reforms try and average across great variation,the result is often odd: it inhibits the good from getting better,and it fuels anxiety at the lower end. One of the reasons a proper discussion of who should have how much autonomy is impossible is because the good departments or colleges don’t trust that others will put it to good use; the weak ones don’t care if the good ones are being trampled on. Thus you have a very paradoxical outcome: a reform can go through by due process even when many of the top colleges are opposing it.

This reform story is also symptomatic of a larger trend in reform. While we are good at picking out the general direction of reform,we do not want to confront difficult questions about putting in the preconditions that would make reform meaningful and successful. In the DU story three elements are missing. First,there needs to be much more thorough conversation about the degree structure as a whole. For instance,can undergraduate degrees give the combination of basic skills and choice in the current three-year format? Or,if we are committed to the three-year format would we be better served by concentrating on the basics rather than the illusion of choice? There has to be a more explicit articulation of the pedagogical tradeoffs we are making. Second,there is a nuts and bolts institutional context of reform. The promise of pedagogical innovation rings hollow when your ability to cater to basics of infrastructure,student-teacher ratios,and the relative supply of teachers are diminishing. Each university needs a long-term strategy map that is more than a statement of objectives,where all the different elements of reform can be placed in relation to the concrete circumstances of that university,not in relation to an abstract template.

Finally,most of these reforms are being mandated by the UGC. So the source of reforms is consistent with the logic of bureaucratic centralisation; hence the emphasis of form over substance. Delhi University was right to reject the authority of NAAC; though it would have been better if this had been consistently argued on the grounds of the university’s stature,rather than exaggerated fears about commercialisation.

Delhi University is also a victim of the best in it. Some exceptions apart,the best teachers have a self-satisfied complacency about the state of their university and react in negative mode to serious proposals for change. Delhi University can set new benchmarks in how to make public universities better. It will be terrific if it can move beyond half-baked reforms and half-baked opposition to a genuine game plan to elevate India’s most important university.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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