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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 27, June 22, 2013

DU’s Four Year Undergraduate Programme — The Politics of Exclusive Education

Saturday 22 June 2013

by V.P. Jain

Teachers and students in Delhi University are fiercely engaged in a wide-ranging debate over the rationale of the proposed four-year under-graduate course, to be introduced from the next academic session. The decision has ignited an intense national controversy by bringing the debate into the public sphere. Many teachers are vehemently opposed to the four year undergraduate programme (FYUP), charging the VC that the university has been brought to such a pass by the very forces opposing which modern universities came into being, that is, ignorance, irrationality and, most of all, intimidation. Their resentment is that the VC has not considered it fit to circulate any White Paper explaining the academic rationale of the new course and he is promoting the politically ascendant agenda of the moment. Shashi Tharoor, the Minister of State for HRD, ruled out the Ministry’s intervention and observed that the American norm of 12+4 had become popular. Then came the Freudian slip to set the record straight: “Indian students with 10+2+3 were made to do an extra year in the US. It was frustrating for many.”

The VC has expressed his anguish at the dismal condition of the drop-out rate which is as high as 30 per cent in the very first year itself. The new course structure, with multiple exit options, would enable these drop-outs to earn a degree, albeit a lousy one, a better option to find a job in the market—what a consolation! The VC laments that these students drop out in such large numbers because they do not come up to the mark. This approach often masks disturbing realities and is an evasion, a “sweet” concept to cover the system’s failure. The real problem is not that our college system is failing. The problem is that it is succeeding all too well—at ranking and sorting students on the basis of standardised tests. The students don’t actually leave, they are expelled. We fail them but never never talk about our failings.

When a university accepts a student for admission, implicit commitment constitutes an unwritten agreement between them. By admitting a student, any college or university is duty-bound to provide maximal opportunities for intellectual and creative development. Most of the drop-outs are from the poor and disad-vantaged sections of society. Affirmative action is not just fixing quota for the reserved categories as a constitutional necessity. It is imperative that these students be given all the support to catch up with the academic level of the general category students and provide a level playing field.

The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has recommended that universities should be required to revise or restructure curricula at least once in three years. These revisions must be subjected to outside peer review before implementation, something which has not been adhered to in the case of the FYUP by the VC. One may appreciate the endeavour of the departments and faculties to constantly improve their academic programmes by adding new courses and creating new majors. But this will remain an empty promise unless the university faculties and administrators engage in searching for more effective methods of instruction, improving the quality of feedbacks to students, giving adequate help to those who face special problems in their studies, or monitor the students’ progress by continuous evaluation to help them stay on course.

The UGC has stipulated that all efforts in this direction are mandatory. They provide the necessary funding for the extra efforts like arranging tutoring and remedial work and such other support systems to ensure social mobility by removing their infirmities: what is needed is to surround every student with so much of care and attention that he can overcome his handicap. Instead, the VC is not only abdicating his academic and social responsibility, but pushing ‘reforms’—by re-engineering the under-graduate course which seeks to institutionalise failure by legitimising the segmenting of students into the “cognitive elites”, separated from those, ostensibly, of average and below-average intelligence a la the racist Bell Curve hypothesis.

Any structure which does not ensure hundred per cent success for all the students is, to say the least, sub-optimal and if bulldozed, a sham.

In Academically Adrift, a study of undergraduate learning in the US, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find “that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal. For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.” However, the findings would apply as much to three-year courses in other countries like India where students enroll themselves in prestigious institutions more for the price tag it carries, and not so much for the fancy for scholarship.The substantive issue is not the duration of the course and whether it is three years or four years: different countries follow different formats which are rooted in their tradition and it would be naive to rank one over the other. Replacing one one-dimensional system by another cannot be construed as reform.

We need to learn a lot from the Japanese mind-set and the way their educational system is structured. In fact all Asian teachers perceive mistakes not as a failure but as an index of what still needs to be learnt, and they believe that with the right efforts, all students will succeed. The universities are not rigorous; almost every-one who gets in, graduates. With a meagre 10 to 12 per cent of the relevant age cohort (18-23) who are enrolled in the institutions of higher learning in India, the universities cannot be expected to celebrate failure. The task of education is not to select freshmen who already have most of the characteristics desired of seniors, but to make everyone who is admitted successful. Moreover, supporting a single image of excellence, the current ‘educational reform’ threatens the very assumption on which a pluralistic, egalitarian society is based. We need to expand the concept of academic excellence to cover a broad range of abilities and human traits. We might begin orienting education to the needs of society by cultivating individual talents to social needs: students may be ‘rank-ordered’ on the basis of humanism, for instance, as we grade them on the basis of scholastic tests. In any case, given the knowledge explosion, conveying and testing information in the academic disciplines is becoming untenable as a core function of education. Given the current turmoil in society, the greatest need is to restore rationality, honesty and humanity which cannot be achieved by merely designing new courses if we continue to push Social Darwinism, rewarding killer instincts by engaging students in cut-throat competition, for success like the gladiators.

With the admission process on, launching of the FYUP in the Delhi University is a foregone con-clusion. The high-powered committee appointed by the UGC to monitor the roll-out of the programme may not mean anything more than applying heart balm to the bruised sentiments of the dissenters. Without going into the academic merit of the programme which has been hotly debated, let us examine the ‘flag-ship reform’ in a wider perspective of equity and social justice. The university is divided into two mutually exclusive streams of students: the formal face-to-face classroom teaching mode and the so-called non-formal stream, namely, the distance mode. The DU has on its rolls over five lakh students. The share of eighty odd colleges representing the formal sector accounts for one-and-a-half lakh students, a fourth of the student community. The School of Open Learning, on the other hand, has on its rolls around four lakh students, squeezed into a college structure which was designed to accommodate a maximum of only ten thousand students. In addition to this, the Non-Collegiate Women’s Education Board (NCWB) accommo-dates ten thousand girl students.

In a recent interview, the VC declared that the School Open Learning (SOL) was a big racket. Everybody concurs with the VC that the institution is in the news for all the wrong reasons and is embroiled in all kinds of scams. But then the pertinent question is: whose baby is it, and why, as an underbelly of the university, has it been tolerated? The School is a university maintained institution and thus under the direct supervision of the Executive Council. The Governing Body, which decides all the adminis-trative and academic policies of the School, is constituted by the nominated members of the VC. Expediency demands that the university must continue to patronise the School since it is a boon as a buffer to absorb every year the pressure of lakhs of admission-seekers who cannot be admitted in the regular stream given the limited number of seats in the colleges. The government views the enrolment goals as an end in themselves to enhance the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), which is projected as a statistically impressive, but misleading, figure of planned achievement, as a proxy for inclusive education. The university has not added a single college in the new millennium to accommodate the ever increasing number of school-leavers every year. In a society where the government is committed to directing only limited resources into higher education, huddling the bulk of the students in the non-formal sector requiring minimal of educational infrastructure services is sound economics.

The formal stream, consisting of colleges and departments, has a faculty strength of eight thousand teachers to cater to one-and-a-half lakh students. In sharp contrast to this scenario, the SOL, which subscribes to the cult of productivity, has a faculty of thirty (down from hundred a decade back) for four lakh students on the rolls. Sounds incredible, but true. No systematic study has ever been made to examine the staffing pattern in the School. It resembles a huge impersonal factory: personal contact between students and teachers is rare and the students are left to flounder without any personal attention. Yet the university imposes a development ‘cess’ on all the students of the School (as a colonial hangover) and collects a neat sixty crores of rupees every year for the step-motherly treatment. And mind you, the School gets no financial grant from the UGC. In the year 2002, the university had signed an MOU with the UGC to make the institution self- financing. It is astounding that the students of an institution, which caters to the poor and disadvantaged sections of society, are forced to buy their ‘education’, while the elite students in the departments and colleges continue to receive thousands of crores of rupees as subsidy from the government.

If the resources available for higher education are limited, then it is unethical that only an ‘intellectual elite’ be provided with the means of raising further their status and earnings, thus widening the gap between them and the less fortunate members of society. With swarms of students, and no worthwhile academic package and virtually no online educational infrastructure, the institution has earned the dubious distinction of being termed as an ‘academic slum’. The SOL is located in the main campus of the university, and now stands before two grand stadia, which were built to host three-day sport events as part of the Commonwealth Games, guzzling hundred crores of rupees; these continue to stare at the poor students of the School for which the government has no money. All slums have to be eventually shifted out from prime locations to the outskirts to accommodate the sprawling ‘High Rise’ and the university administrators have been at their persuasive best while being quite close to issuing the marching orders.

Coming out in support of the Delhi University’s decision to introduce the four-year undergraduate programme, Minister Shashi Tharoor said: “It would be wrong for politicians to oppose the decisions of a university, when all they are doing is what they are meant to do: bringing in academic reforms.” Tharoor’s reply reiterated what the DU has been claiming about the FYUP. The Minister said the FYUP aims at imparting holistic knowledge, which cuts across the domains of traditional courses, as well as including skills and value addition. It requires students of all disciplines to undertake certain mandatory courses to meet the needs and challenges of the modern society and nation. What a pity, it is not considered necessary for the students of the non-formal stream to acquire holistic knowledge, whatever it means, and they are thus forced to remain excluded from the task of nation-building. Why is this wider pool of ability not also tapped in the interest of the nation? The three-year degree model is subsumed in the FYUP with the option to a student to quit at the end of three years and earn a degree. Then why continue with the antiquated course. If the FYUP is so promising as the VC would have us believe, then what is the rationale behind not implementing it across-the-board to cover the students of the non-formal stream (SOL plus NCWB) also and at the same time reduce the educational Gini coefficient to make it more equitable? Equal access to education is among the basic human rights to which everyone is entitled. Since the days of Adam Smith, education has been linked to equitable social and economic progress.

What a splendid display of the model of inclusive education and inclusive growth! The lopsided manner in which the FYUP is being implemented will give rise to all kinds of dualities in the system that we can now speak of: two Delhi universities, one for the elite and the other for the ‘cattle class’, a euphemism for the aam admi, that has gained currency, courtesy the Minister himself. As observed by the NEC, “The lack of convergence between programmes run by open universities and correspondence courses offered by the distance education wings of conventional educational institutions is a cause of great concern. Universities must also ensure that their distance education programmes are not stand-alone, but should benefit from regular interaction with university departments in concerned disciplines. The aim of such convergence is to eventually enable learners to move freely from one system to the other.” Limiting the implementation of the FYUP only to the formal stream is a betrayal of this policy directive since migration is not permitted from one course to another, and the Education Minister Shashi Tharoor is glorifying this divergence as reform.

In the year 2003, the then VC, vide a White Paper entitled, “Towards Operationalising the Campus of Open Learning” (COL), had reite-rated the basic philosophy that the University of Delhi is a unitary structure and all sections of the students enjoy complete academic parity. To quote from his White Paper: “The academic homes of the courses on offer at the SCCCE (like in the formal stream) remains the various departments and faculties of the university.” “As of now, almost two-thirds of the students enrolled are through the non-formal stream. Instituting quality assurance mechanisms in the non-formal stream is therefore, of great social significance. With the recent initiative of the DU to introduce broadband networking and internet connectivity, it has now become possible for us to explore ways in which technology can be used to make education available to a large number of students while enhancing its quality.” Denying the FYUP to the students of the non-formal stream will introduce academic apartheid by declaring these students persona non grata, disturbing the parity that the students of the non-formal stream have so far enjoyed with the formal sector as underlined in the White Paper, in total defiance of the directive of the NEC.

Education reform, to be meaningful, must transcend class distinctions by initiating a process of integration as was to be achieved by the new paradigm of the COL as an all-embracing phenomenon. It took half-a-dozen committees constituted by a number of Vice-Chancellors spread over a period of two decades to crystallise the new structure. It was debated endlessly in all the statutory bodies of the university before embedding itself in the law book. But why did the reform not work out in spite of the extended debate as the lamentation is with regard to the quick-fix approach adopted in regard to the FYUP if that is all that matters? The much-advertised conversion of the School of Correspondence Courses as the Campus of Open Learning was an initiative essentially in the direction of social re-engineering. Most of the students of the non-formal stream come from the marginalised and socially disadvantaged sections of society, the poorest social strata accounting for the bulk of the enrolment.

The objective of the COL was to draw the marginalised students of the distance mode into the mainstream education of the university by associating the then seven thousand strong teaching faculty in the university as a ‘resource-pool’ and the task of teaching lakhs of distance education students was entrusted to this collectivity, to operate in a devolved way through the study centres in the colleges. It was to foster new methods of teaching and learning which were more flexible that would allow students, both in the formal and non-formal stream, more freedom to choose an appropriate mixed mode of study based on their needs and fancies shaping the university of the 21st century.

As it is the students of the School are discriminated against with respect to the range of courses and subject options. Distance education students, who are not required to come to the campus as a routine, need access to academic advising services which do not exist. If the university administrators were to implement the stipulated reforms created under the statutes, thousands of eminently qualified candidates desperately looking for jobs would have been appointed as tutors in the study centres to help and nurture the students. Both the Open Learning Development Centre for the preparation of study material for the students of the non-formal stream and the Department of Distance and Continuing Education, created under the statutes of the university, remain dormant and non-functional. No study centre has been opened. The study material, which is central to the distance education pedagogy, is not prepared professionally in the self-instructional mode. Consequently, all kinds of pavement bookshops have mushroomed around the School premises, doing brisk business selling ‘champion guides’, a euphemism for ‘kunjis’, to fill the gap. Paradoxically, the university has set up a centre, the ILLL, to prepare supplementary on-line course material for the students of the traditional classroom teaching mode and the same has been in operation for a number of years.

The COL was to be developed as an on-line education infrastructure and it is naïve to misconstrue it as an institution as the official perception is. It is not surprising that the authorities totally failed to capitalise on the broad-band network facility in the university (as mentioned in the White Paper) to launch the crucial e-learning platform for distance education in the university. The home page of the COL on the DU website is a testimony to an honest confession to this failure: “The Campus of Open Learning through its School of Open Learning (SOL) at the University of Delhi currently offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a limited number of subjects in the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. These courses are taught via traditional ‘correspondence teaching’ techniques involving the use of print media and some limited tutorial teaching. However, the graduation degree does not empower the students to get a job instantly. Most Indian graduates do not match the employment profile required by industry in a competitive global environment. Academic achievements notwithstanding, graduates have no means to acquire technical, language and presentation skills.”

Contrary to the repeated refrain to refurbish the system and maintain parity on the above mentioned principles, the overall dimensions of the brutal exclusion of the students of the distance mode from the mainstream education in the university are quite staggering and the schism continues to widen with time. All the much-hyped reforms, which have been initiated in the recent past, for example, the semester system, internal evaluation as part of the examination reforms, have systematically and unscrupulously kept the students of the non-formal stream (SOL and NCWB) out of bounds. Significantly, they have so far studied the same courses and been awarded the same degrees as their more privileged brethren in the formal system. The difference was only in the mode of instruction. The FYUP is another step in the series of ‘reforms’ to not only demean the students of the non-formal stream but also to extend the academic divide in the formal stream as well. The FYUP is a radical departure, albeit a regressive one, from the equity principle enjoined in the Constitution and will segregate students into distinct categories, creating a caste divide. The FYUP will not be available to the non-formal sector and four lakh students will have to remain content with the old antiquated three-year format and that too by a fiat in a brazen manner, fostering the much-maligned ‘varna system’ in the university.

Instead of integrating the two streams as envisaged in the COL paradigm, these students, like the untouchable epic character Eklavya, not only must remain ostracised from mainstream education, but would also have to fend for themselves, finance their endeavour and even pay access to the university for using their brand name. Moreover, thanks to the Supreme Court judgment regarding OBC reservation in the colleges, not only has the new clientele of higher education significantly increased but is also a more diverse group of students today. Earlier the university had managed this intrusion by pushing the ‘wretched of the earth’ to the non-formal sector. But now the open access to colleges opening a broad funnel to admit diversity, which has been the exclusive preserve of the more privileged, must necessitate narrowing the neck so that only the preferred few pass through. Hence the multiple exit option format.

The administrators of the university have diluted and debased the blueprint of the COL to such an extent that its original intent and purpose are totally lost and they have implemented it in its grotesque form. The story is no different from the fate of the social sector reforms initiated in the county earlier. Ironically, the DUTA had a very condescending attitude, if not outright complicity, to scuttling the reforms. The School of Open Learning was known to be a bastion of Left politics: as many as three DUTA Presidents were associated with the institution in various capacities. The OSD, who had signed the MOU on behalf of the university with the UGC declaring it a self-financing institution, was a regular member of a Left outfit, their vociferous rhetoric against privatisation notwithstanding. One of the senior DUTA activists had, in a letter to the then President as the Visitor of the university, raised a technical snag to successfully stall the approval to the statutes of the COL for several years.

The DUTA has never addressed the issue of the divide in the university and even the current debate does not find even a modicum of concern for the exclusion of the four lakh students of the non-formal stream who will become second-class citizens by remaining outside the ambit of the new course. In a report prepared by the DUTA recently, entitled ‘Major Reforms’—Promises Verses Reality’, the plight of the students of the non-formal stream does not figure even in the footnotes.

For two terms as an elected member of the AC, I had rarely witnessed any serious discussion on any academic issue. Invariably all Vice-Chancellors extended the zero hour, which had a slot of one hour, to several hours to exhaust the members by prolix narratives of the upstarts. The substantive agenda was always placed at the fag-end of the meeting to be cleared without any discussion just like the way Parliament passed the current Financial Bill. Not surprisingly, statutory bodies like the AC and EC in the university and Managing Committees in the colleges have acquired a retiring disposition to be roused only to ratify some pressing agenda of the powers that be. These bodies have, for all practical purposes, become captive bodies of the VC. The Deans and Professors and even Principals who share power in the university hierarchy and comprise two-thirds majority perceive themselves as part of the Treasury Benches. So the VC exudes confidence to stifle any dissent since he has the numbers on his side.

The merit of any policy, including the policy of education, has to be judged by the ‘Rawlsian Difference Principle’ or the Gandhian dictum that requires maximising the advantage of the worst off, and not the already privileged. The NKC has strongly recommended the use of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to further the new education policy. Thousands of crors of rupees have been spent on the flag-ship project NMEICT of the HRD Ministry. The ILLL, Delhi University has also been awarded projects worth crores of rupees with no consequence. If lakhs of students of the non-formal stream had the choice to be educated in the colleges, which would have been their first order choice any way, twenty thousand bright students who have been squeezed out in the streets to fend for themselves after the completion of their higher studies, would have been accommodated in the teaching profession. Countrywide such a policy would have generated millions of jobs in the colleges and universities, imparting quality education. And mind you, the ‘accounting cost’ (opportunity cost) of employing these aspirants would have been zero to the nation. The ICT is welcome as a teaching aid but to push it to replace teachers would be disastrous. If we continue to peddle the model of jobless growth, very soon the government may have to launch a scheme on the lines of the MGNREGA for the urban youth also.

The egalitarian conception, that everyone has a right to an education appropriate to one’s potential, and that every institution must offer students, from rich and poor families alike, the chance to realise it fully, is the only democratic standard. If, however, the distance education technology is to be used only as a pretence to let thousands of marginalised students to merely exercise their democratic rights to higher education, whatever it may mean, as is evident from the manner of implementation of the FYUP in the Delhi University, one has to seriously ponder over its legitimacy. The stakeholders then must exercise their right to block or even to turn aside such an exclusionist policy.

This is not the first time that the university has initiated ‘reforms’. In the eighties twenty vocational courses were introduced to make students ‘job-worthy’. In the beginning of the millennium undergraduate courses were restruc-tured by redesigning job-oriented courses to the dictates of the market. In addition, foundation courses were added to sensitise students to environmental, gender and issues of social justice. The COL is offering more than twenty skill-based programmes. And now the FYUP is projected as a mother of all reforms, and like other changes earlier, will remain an empty promise.

“As an institution, the university is incorporated in the existing social structure.... remains bound with the golden chains to the power of the ruling class. Without a radical transformation of society itself the university cannot undergo any lasting transformation.” (Ernest Mandel)

References

1. Jain, V.P., “Campus of Open Learning-A New Education Paradigm”, Mainstream, Vol XXXIX No 9, pp. 13-17, 2001.

2. Geoff Peters and Patrick Guiton, A Report on the Opportunities for Open Learning Provision in The University of Delhi, 2002.

3. Jain, V.P., “Distance Education in Delhi University: The Great Academic Divide”,Mainstream, Vol XLII, No 31, pp. 15-19, 2004.

4. NKC Compilation of Recommendations on Education, 2007.

5. Major Academic Reforms—Promises Versus Reality, DUTA Report, 2012.

The author is an Associate Professor (retd), School of Open Learning, University of Delhi. He can be contacted at vpjain28@rediffmail.com

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