Strings pulling strings

Delhi University fiasco reveals the toxic relationship between the HRD ministry, UGC and universities

Updated: June 26, 2014 12:51:45 am

Admissions to Delhi University have been put off, and tens of thousands of students are waiting for a resolution to the clash between the university and the University Grants Commission, which has ordered a rollback of the four-year undergraduate programme adopted recently. The question is not about the merits of the FYUP — this newspaper believes that a semester system that offers cross-disciplinary learning, flexibility and the capacity to choose both abstract and applied learning is an idea that should be encouraged, despite the inevitable teething troubles.

The crux of this controversy, as it is playing out now, is the working relationship between the UGC and a premier public university. Should the UGC, whose task is to coordinate and regulate higher education, arbitrarily intrude into the university’s decision-making? The FYUP had been subject to much consultation with faculty, students and parents, it had been approved by the university’s academic and executive councils. The UGC may have played a role in reducing the friction, but it is not its role to summarily order a university to abandon an innovation it has invested in.

This is a travesty of the very concept of higher education governance. Accountability for an autonomous public university should not flow from a group of education apparatchiks, it should arise from competition, reputation, peer professional standing, etc. What’s even more disturbing is the lack of autonomy within the UGC itself —  its self-conception seems that of the government’s little helper, rather than that of an independent regulator.

While the HRD ministry has claimed that it refuses to intervene in a matter between the UGC and DU, that claim is belied by the fact that the BJP had committed to rolling back the FYUP in its manifesto. It is an explicit political commitment that the HRD ministry is now carrying out, as made evident by the UGC’s own flip flops.

It tacitly endorsed the FYUP during the UPA years, citing an Education Commission report of 1964-66 to assure DU that the duration of academic programmes may vary between universities or within them, and even between disciplines. Now, with a change in the political regime, it issued an advisory to DU, which soon became an order after directions from the Centre.
What transpired between the UGC and DU had everything to do with, at the very least, the UGC’s conviction that it was obliged to jump to the HRD ministry’s wishes. This is the most grim lesson from this incident, and it does not augur well for academic freedom.

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