How not to modernise a university: Dinesh Singh’s ham-handed efforts at reform

Below is a note from the St Stephen’s College Physics Department, that I’m sharing with permission.

(posted by Abhinav Gupta, Physics Department, St Stephen’s College, on Facebook; reproduced with permission)

The Four Year Programme – a Physics Department’s perspective

Delhi University’s proposed four-year undergraduate programme – to begin in July 2013– has been much in the news. It has been opposed by members of the teaching community for various reasons – need, procedure, infrastructure, cost, inadequacy, etc –, many of which are indeed good enough to give one pause. But suppose that one accepts, for the sake of argument, that a four-year undergraduate programme is desirable. One might then ask: Is this the kind of four-year programme we want? Is it even the four-year programme that its fond founders wanted? The answers appear to be: no and no.

The advertised reasons for introducing a four-year undergraduate programme were that it would be more flexible, more inter-disciplinary, and more in tune with undergraduate programmes across the world. The programme that is now being pushed through is in fact extraordinarily inflexible, inter-disciplinary in a rather strange way, and quite out of tune with four-year programmes anywhere in the world.

Flexibility and Inter-disciplinarity

The inflexibility of programme appears at various stages. A student enters the programme having already chosen his major discipline (DC1) and does not have the option to change at any stage. The four-year bachelor’s-degree programmes in the US – presumably the inspiration for Delhi University – allow students to make an informed choice of major after appropriate sampling. The same principle is followed in a more limited sense in the four-year BS at IISc-Bangalore and the integrated five-year BSc-MSc at the various IISERs, where students take common courses over a broad spectrum of disciplines – all in science – in the first two years, and then choose a major. (There exists no comparable programmes in the arts in India.) In DU’s programme, students will indeed get a broad exposure in the first two years, since all students will do the same 11 mandatory foundation courses (FCs); however, they will not be able to use this exposure to make an informed choice of major (DC1), since this choice will already have been made at the time of entry. Furthermore, the FCs Delhi University has decided upon are not exactly the kind of courses that would help a student to discover his abilities and inclinations effectively enough to make a choice of discipline. Given that the second discipline (DC2) and the Applied Courses (ACs) offer the only real flexibility available in the four-year programme, it would have made sense to design the FCs in a manner that permitted intelligent choice. Even if we take it as given that the core discipline is chosen at the time of admission, the sheer volume of the Foundation Courses overwhelms the core courses in the first year.

An even stranger and more incomprehensible inflexibility appears later in the programme: all students who have chosen physics, for example, as DC1, must do exactly the same courses for all four years. At no time are there any optional courses available – at least there are none in the proposed physics syllabus. To appreciate how strange this is, one must understand that a student will generally discover after two years of college-level physics whether his inclinations and abilities lie in experimental or theoretical physics, whether he is interested in astrophysics or biophysics. Any sensible programme – especially one that advertises itself as flexible – will therefore have a range of optional courses available to its students in the later years. This is something that could have been fairly easily implemented even within the present scheme, and in fact the first draft of the physics syllabus assumed that such choices would be available in the fourth year – but apparently the University shot down all options.

Abolishing the Pass Degree Programmes

Delhi University at the moment offers two kinds of degrees: pass (called BSc Programme and BA Programme) and honours. The vast majority of students are enrolled in the pass degree programmes, which are designed to give their students exposure to a range of subjects without specialization in any one. The honours programmes on the other hand, require students to specialize in one subject, and are designed for academic pursuits. In the four-year programme, even those who leave after three years with a non-honours degree will essentially follow an honours-like track, in that they will specialize in one course (DC1).With the merging of the honours and pass tracks it may be very difficult for Delhi University to maintain the standard of the syllabi and examinations. (There is a recent precedent for this. A few years ago, when BSc General was changed to BSc Programme, the syllabus proposed for the new Programme was such that a very large number of students failed the examinations in the first year. With a couple of years the standard was substantially lowered to allow students to pass.). There is real apprehension that the University will eventually dumb down the the syllabus to simply pass more students.

The number of students who benefit from a high-level programme may be very small in number, but it is on their training and success that the reputation of a university depends. Delhi University would be very much the poorer if these students decided to go elsewhere. At the same time, the interests of those who want a broad but adequate exposure to several areas will also not be served in the four-year degree programme (even if exited after three years).

Exit Options

The four-degree programme will allow a student to exit after two years with an Associate Baccalaureate degree, after three years with a Baccalaureate degree, and after four years with a Baccalaureate with Honours or a BTech. The first option is a rather strange one. A student who leaves after two years will evidently not be considered a “graduate” for the purposes of employment or admission to any Master’s (or MBA!) programme. In the Indian context it is not clear what the purpose of the two-year “degree” is.

The same lack of clarity is evident in the status of a student who graduates with a four-year honours degree. Will there be a one-year MSc degree available for such students? – and not just at Delhi University but all over the country? (And will there also be a two-year MSc available for students from other universities, and for those who exit the four-year programme after three years?) If most MSc programmes in India (e.g. the much-sought-after MSc programmes at the IITs) continue to be two years long, what incentive will the best DU students have to stay on for the fourth year? Will students seeking admission into research institutes like TIFR and IISc be admitted to the integrated MSc-PhD programme meant for graduates, or directly into the PhD programme meant for Master’s degree holders? At the moment, the status of the Delhi University M.Sc program itself is not clear. With the best Masters and Integrated PhD programmes in India not requiring an Honours degree as a prerequisite (just a three year science degree), the best students will try to get admission to these places after three years.

The point really is not the details but this – when India’s biggest and most important public university makes as large a change as the one proposed, it cannot do so in isolation. Delhi University is part of a country-wide system, within which it must be accommodated. A change from a three-year to a four-year degree is not in itself unthinkable, intrinsically unacceptable, or necessarily inferior to a three-year programme. But such an enormous change requires time – time for the university concerned to carefully study pre-existing programmes of this kind and ask how they might be adapted to its needs; time to work out how the programme fits into the larger Indian academic scene; time to work out the ramifications for students and faculty; and time, also, to consult all interested parties and carry them along. The manic haste with which the change is being effected and the abandonment of all protocol and thoughtfulness are deeply distressing to all those of us who must ultimately make real what has been dreamt up.

The views expressed here are the personal views of all permanent faculty members of The Physics Department, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. These do not necessarily represent the views of St. Stephen’s College.

Now, my thoughts.

I studied in Delhi University, and, in fact, grew up on its campus. I have an attachment to the place (though I haven’t visited for years), a respect for its history and its continuing achievements, and, I believe, a realistic opinion of where it stands in India and in the world. Recently the university has been in the news for its drastic overhaul of the undergraduate programme, across all disciplines, converting it to an allegedly more flexible 4-year programme with a choice of courses and exit options at years 2, 3 and 4. It sounds very good on paper, and got a lot of positive media coverage at the time, but it is clear that many of those who are in charge of implementing it — the teachers — were not happy.

Early criticisms focused on the haste and the authoritarian way in which the changes were implemented. It was easy to see these criticisms as obstructionist, put forward by people unwilling to change. But many of the critics are highly respected and committed teachers and researchers. Now that the new syllabus has been finalised, with minimal interaction, it seems clear just how bad it really is.

Let me focus on science here since that is my area. Contrary to some earlier claims, the 4-year bachelor’s programme is not the first of its kind in India: as the St Stephen’s note observes, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, started one two years ago. And the idea of making a programme flexible and providing a “foundation” across disciplines was already pioneered by the IISERs, in their integrated B.Sc./M.Sc programme. What Dinesh Singh, the vice chancellor of Delhi University, has done is to reject all this experience from other institutions to design an utterly rigid programme, with no flexibility in choosing majors or even in taking optional courses, that seems to be in no way an improvement on what exists currently.

Disclosure: I knew Dinesh Singh when I was a student at St Stephen’s. I was directed to him when I had a question about measures and uncountability (he pointed out where I was wrong, but I now realise that there are deeper issues here that have caused controversy since the early 20th century). He seemed an enthusiastic pedagogue committed to the cause of undergraduate education. A little later, he started an outfit called the Mathematical Sciences Foundation, which was a good idea and generated much enthusiasm, but did not stay free of controversy. What I was disappointed by was that he made no effort to tie up with any Indian institution, but had a partnership with the University of Houston instead whereby students, after studying one year at his Foundation, would go to Houston for a degree programme. There were several corporate supporters, such as ICICI Bank and NASSCOM, but the one Indian academic interaction the foundation had, with St Stephen’s College (which originally housed the Foundation), collapsed acrimoniously.(*) Singh’s position, as I understood it (I may be wrong), seemed to be that all Indian institutions are irredeemably bureaucratic and inflexible. It is strange that such a man chose to become vice-chancellor of one of the largest Indian universities (he earlier headed the south campus of Delhi University). But, having taken up that job, it appears that he did not develop any new respect for his academic colleagues at the University. Worse, he did not learn from the best practices at universities elsewhere in the world. The result, as the document from St Stephen’s describes, is a disaster in the making. The result fails to take account of the needs of Delhi University students, who come from very diverse backgrounds; it fails to learn from international experience or make use of best international practices; it completely ignores prior Indian experience in flexible teaching; it has alienated the majority of the teachers, who are the ones meant to implement the programme; and, despite taking a year longer than the current honours programmes, it does not provide any additional educational value. (It does, however, make it easier to apply for master’s programmes in the USA, which require four years of undergraduate education.)

All I can say is, I am glad I am not looking to do an undergraduate degree in Delhi today.

(*)I can’t help contrasting the Mathematical Sciences Foundation with another institution that started around the same time with the same goal of fostering undergraduate mathematical education, with private-sector support. Started in 1989 as part of the SPIC Science Foundation, and autonomous since 1996, the Chennai Mathematical Institute has successfully run its own degree programme, originally in association with Bhoj Open University, and now independently as a deemed university. It maintains active links with several Indian academic institutions including mine. But the key point, it seems to me, is that CMI did not start with the assumption that existing institutions in India were atrociously bad and to be steered clear from. A man who is vice-chancellor of a university as large, diverse, prestigious and historically important as Delhi University needs to have a proven record of being able to work with others respectfully. Dinesh Singh’s record was quite the opposite.

UPDATE 04/05/13: Added a disclaimer to the physics department note, on request.

Leave a comment


  1. Meena

     /  May 3, 2013

    Lessons to learn are not being learnt, alas.

    One comment on this line from the St Stephen’s letter, in the
    “Flexibility and Inter-disciplinarity” paragraph:
    There exists no comparable programmes in the arts in India.

    At IIT-M, the Humanities dept
    offers an integrated 5-year MA program with 2 streams.
    The first two years are common, then students are placed in Development Studies or English Studies, based on their performances in the first three semesters. Comes close.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  May 3, 2013

      Indeed, we tend to forget the IITs have humanities programmes too :) But it is true there are no 4-year programmes in the arts (and only IISc in science).

  2. Rohini Muthuswami

     /  May 3, 2013

    I am so glad you raised this issue.

    I am a DU product too and I remember the rigour of our courses. It is so sad to see a university of DU’s caliber being systematically destroyed. But this a small part of what is happening across the country to the universities. They are being delibrately destroyed. The MHRD hopes to bring in foriegn universities and to encourage private universities. I have no problems with that as I firmly believe that we need more universities, of all sorts, as long as they provide good education. There is niche for a every sort. The public universities are needed for the vast majority of our people. These universities proviude good affordable education and also take care of social justice. Destroying these public universities is not going solve our education related problems but the MHRD is not in a mood to listen. They have messed up with our promotions (it takes 12 years to become as assocaite professor from an assistant professor), given us a pay scale that is less than that of insitutes, and are destroying us in myriad other ways.

    That said, the origin of this mess is MHRD. Dinesh Singh is merely carrying out the instructions in a very ham-handed way.
    The introduction of FYUP in DU raises many issues:
    1. Is this going to be implemented in all the universities eventually?
    2. If the FYUP was supposed to ease American universities entry into India, which is what MHRD wants, the system put in place defeats the purpose because it is not what the American system is. And also given the fact that the one venture Duke University had in Singapore failed, I do not believe any American University wants to invest in India to provide basic science/humanities/arts program. They are and will focus on money making courses like MBA which also does not require much investment. The same is true for private universities.
    3. The introduction of FYUP cannot happen in vacuum because ultimately, in four years time we have to decide what are these students going to. All of them will not end up in US/Europe pursuing their Ph.Ds. So are we going to introduce one-year Master’s program or are we going to allow these students to join for Ph.D directly as it happens in the US?

    Strangely enough, there has been no dialogue on this issue. In JNU, we are as silent as tomb as though it is not even going to affect us. So it is a very scary scenario. It is like we are sitting and watching a monument collapse and crumble down slowly from a front row seat.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  May 5, 2013

      You raise a good point and it is not really tangential: the new syllabuses are not available, even to the teachers in most cases. And they are due to be taught two months from now. A serious course-overhaul effort would have taken a year to do precisely the analysis of basics in each course that you point out. BTW, though the math and physics courses are good, the undergraduate syllabus in these has not changed in decades. In subjects like CS, biology, economics, it is much more important to stay up-to-date. DU, like most universities, has a mixed record in this, and the new programme would have been a great opportunity to modernise everything, but that cannot be done in 3-6 weeks as they demanded.

  3. PS: On an unrelated note, if I am not intruding too much, I’d really like to know what the “question about measures and uncountability” was. :)

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  May 5, 2013

      Oh, that was the proof that the rational numbers have measure zero. I.e. since they are enumerable, cover the first with a strip of length e, the second with a strip e/2, the third with e/4, etc. So you can cover all the rationals with a total length 2e, where e is arbitrarily small. My question was, what is left of the real line after this process — i.e. which real number is not covered? (Arbitrarily close to any real number you can find a rational, that is covered by a strip of finite length — so you have to believe that no matter how close to the real number you get, the rational number you are looking at is covered with a strip too small to cover that real number, and indeed this is true of “almost all” real numbers.) Dinesh Singh convinced me that this is indeed what happens and there is no paradox. However, I feel that there are paradoxes at a deeper level, and the whole notion of uncountable reals is a bit dubious. But that is seriously off-topic here :)

  1. The Four Year Transform | A central Central University
  2. How not to modernise a university: Dinesh Singh’s ham-handed efforts at reform | Note from the St Stephen’s College Physics Department | 4 year graduation at DU
  3. The Delhi University mess | E's flat, ah's flat too

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