Delhi University is in its 100th year and tributes are surely in order. My experience has made me sense a recognisable “DU model”, outlining the salient features which might help in identifying what went into making of this. This presentation of memory is also meant to point to how the university might be on the path of its unmaking. Thus a tribute, at the same time, also becomes a cautionary tale.
I joined St Stephen’s College in 2010 and found its tutorial system remarkable. The syllabi for courses came from the university. In the tutorials, the class was divided into smaller groups of eight or nine for weekly meetings. The readings/activities for the tutorials were designed by the course tutor. Each week, students did their assigned work and voiced their impressions and questions in small little rooms with a certain connectedness and comfort.
In tutorials, the teacher could customise the centralised university syllabus, adding more materials, while the students got to interact academically freely with the tutor and fellow students. These conversations had a foundational impact on formulating the student’s ability to think with the discipline and cultivate the skills required.
The university had a well-defined calendar, which ensured that students in all three years attended classes, went for exams (while exams went on, teachers evaluated answer scripts and through well-conceived computerisation, the results were out within a week), and had their vacations. All the students had the same year-round schedule. Given there isn’t much unpredictability in a university, other than pandemics, natural disasters or wars, it shouldn’t look like such an achievement. But most of the universities with affiliated colleges don’t manage this fundamental balance, while DU had always succeeded till Covid had its way.
DU’s rich extra-curricular culture, built over decades on the shared campus space and time is another feature. Student interpersonal skills were built in these spaces where they explored their cultural and social interests, learned from their seniors, juniors and friends in other colleges, and found mentors who inspired them in these fields, challenged them out of their comfort zones and warned them against misadventures.
The fourth aspect was the absence of financial corruption in admissions or appointments. Having known many places where millions paid as bribe for faculty appointments in privately-managed, government-aided colleges is naturalised and lakhs getting exchanged for “management quota” seats is proclaimed shamelessly, abandoning basic ethical concerns and legal questions, I did find this appreciable.
I don’t want to miss DU’s infamous social elitism, in gender, caste and class terms, and this has, some have maintained, rightly, also paved the way to nepotism. Though a serious Dalit or lower class student movement is yet to come from the university, female students have been both the conscience keepers and vanguard of the university’s political action in the last decade. Strong institutions, with institutional integrity and professional accountability, can act as a place that evolves ethically over time, bringing students together, as Ted Gitlin observed, like a magnifying glass that brings rays of the sun together.
The space and time accounted for student-student, student-teacher conversations, an administrative system that believed in making the university an enabling space, integrity of academic processes and a work culture that created conscientious mentors. The ability to reflect social changes have all been constitutive of Delhi University becoming one that got looked up to in the higher education landscape of the republic.
But this DU Model is also getting undone: Just as much as one has been a happy witness and a grateful participant, alterations, abandonments and erasures piling up on the other side couldn’t also be missed.
The most lethal rupture was the losing of the academic calendar and that is primarily on Covid, aided later by the logistically dragged out and academically ill-conceived Central University Entrance Test (CUET). The result is, within two weeks of first year admission, the third years had to go for semester exams and by the time they came back, the second years had to leave for exams. Students won’t have seniors or juniors — and that empties out a lot of possibilities of collective growth that is so central to campuses. Teachers have to invigilate and grade exam scripts while teaching, often missing classes — the colleges are forever in a state of flux. Looking at many other universities where this has been the norm decades before Covid, one is not sure if this is the new norm.
Courses such as “Swachh Bharat” and “Fit India” have made their entry to the syllabus and these are courses for any department as, apparently, they do not require any kind of specialisation. Where could such schoolisation take a university? If anyone can teach a course and everyone already knows it, why offer these in the first place?
The university has been changing its undergraduate scheme quite a lot of times: The four year undergraduate programme was launched in 2014 and withdrawn, only to be reintroduced through the National Educational Policy this year. Schemes change every year, making teachers lost in the maze of courses and syllabi without any sense of coherence or continuity.
Another step that could mark a paradigm shift has come in the form of a circular increasing the tutorial strength to 30. This tripling will mean the end of tutorial conversations and also necessitate the collapse of many a wall within the college buildings as the small tutorial rooms are going to be pointless. DU will not look the same from the inside after that.
The writer teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi