The Delhi University mess

Last year the St Stephen’s College physics department wrote a very clear-minded note on what was wrong with DU’s 4-year undergraduate programme as implemented (even assuming one agreed with the desirability of the programme in principle).  I reproduced that letter on this blog, together with my own impressions.   Many other highly respected people spoke up against the hasty imposition of the programme.   Not one reputable person defended it, as far as I can recall, other than the vice chancellor, Dinesh Singh, himself.   Unfortunately Singh was convinced that no discussion or internal support was needed and his political support was enough.  Now his political support is gone, and he has antagonised almost the entire university.  And the future of tens of thousands of students is unclear.

I’m sure there is a moral in this somewhere.  Everything has a moral, if only one can find it.  Oh right, the moral is don’t politicise universities. 

As for the UGC, the less said the better.  Why did they not take this exact same stand against the programme last year?  What has changed?  We all know the answer. 

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  1. Gautam Menon

     /  June 27, 2014

    I was – and continue to be – supportive both of the 4-year degree program (FYUP) as well as the way it had structured exit choices post second and third year.

    From all I’ve read and learnt, Dinesh Singh was abrasive and did not bother to take other ‘stake-holders’ in this process along with him. Worse, he doesn’t even seem to have tried sincerely to. However, having said that, the Delhi University faculty association is not an organization I would normally associate with a reasoned and intellectually rigorous approach to much apart from the narrow interests of its own faculty. (I have heard informally of a number of instances in which was might have been ‘good’ reforms of the university system were scuppered at an early stage for worries that Delhi university teachers would rise up in arms against it, some indication of the disproportionate power that is wielded by the Delhi-based universities.)

    So its not clear to me at all whether Dinesh Singh could have – even if one argued that he should have tried to – convinced DUTA to be supportive of what he had in mind, irrespective of whether the long-term interests of students were better served by the FYUP.

    My view – I think, long-term, we should (and will) move to a 4-year bachelors, likely structured quite similarly to what Dinesh Singh’s idea was. (Barring some of the fluffy first-year courses.) This will probably be led by the private institutions first, and then perhaps the more enlightened south-based central universities. IISc has already done so. Perhaps a more persuasive and acceptable Vice Chancellor of DU will lead this, although I don’t see this happening soon.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  June 27, 2014

      Gautam, I am not even convinced that a 4-year programme is a good idea for its own sake. In fact the only advantage I see is that it wastes less time in getting the student to a US university.

      But the important thing is not 4 year vs 3 year, but the content of the courses. It was inexcusable to ram through the framing of an entire year’s worth of “foundation courses” in a matter of weeks. The syllabuses are here; take a look. They are a joke. The promise of flexibility in choice of courses and major is totally bogus, too.

      I don’t agree about DU faculty being obstructionist either. Some are, some aren’t. Changes have happened over the years — eg, in 1992 (the batch below mine) they got rid of the “subsidiary subjects” and included other sciences as part of the main subjects, a sort of precursor to the interdisciplinary approach of the IISERs, and also introduced elective subjects in the third year (including economics for physics students!) Even Dinesh Singh’s ill-considered and ill-fated push to a semester system did not meet with the sort of opposition that the FYUP did.

      With the FYUP, a lot of very serious and respected faculty — Shobhit Mahajan, Satish Deshpande, Apoorvanand, ex-DU people and DU well-wishers like Ram Guha, and many others have spoken against it. I know of nobody of similar stature who supported it. Even someone like Andre Beteille, who favours a four-year programme and thinks universities are excessively conservative, criticised the haste and high-handedness of how it was done: “It can’t be decided by a council but with the cooperation of the people who’ll do the actual teaching. And that is what, I think, has been missing here…” He also says interdisciplinarity is a function of research, not teaching. “[Suresh Tendulkar] and I could design a course for students of economics and sociology. But you can’t just call a person and ask them to design a couple of interdisciplinary courses.”

      As for DUTA, Nandita Narain is a very upright and principled person (and it is highly unusual for DUTA to be headed by someone from St Stephen’s!) Here is what Nandini Sundar wrote a few days ago in a very balanced piece:

      It is true that the DU administration has violated so many academic conventions and laws in its haste to push through the FYUP that claims to academic autonomy sound sour in its name. Faculty have discovered major changes only through the media, been ordered to frame syllabi within weeks, the administration refuses to meet professors with alternative points of view and dissenting departments are punished in myriad ways. Faculty appointments have been unpardonably delayed, and even those appointments that have been made have been hostage to the vice-chancellor’s grand plan. The right to critical thinking and expression by faculty is the basic bloc of a university’s autonomy.

      When basically everyone that I have ever heard of in DU is speaking out against this programme, I find it hard to support it or even to believe in Dinesh Singh’s good intentions.

      • Gautam Menon

         /  June 27, 2014

        My view is that there are two separate issues. One is Dinesh Singh’s ham-handed, abrasive and ill-considered approach to introducing the FYUP, which Nandini Sunder’s piece covers well. The second is the advisability of the FYUP itself. Here, to concentrate my argument, I think the ability to exit after year 2 or year 3 without loss and with a diploma-type qualification is an important one. One can then concentrate on making those first two or three years meaningful and useful in a broad sense. With an additional year of teaching for those so inclined, one begins to intersect research-level topics, again something to be encouraged.

        Indeed, one substantial employer of students from degree programs in the south of India, the IT sector (or at least its heavy weights), takes the point of view that it doesn’t really care what degree an incoming hire had taken. They will re-train them anyway, over a 4-6 month period, in what they consider to be the useful skills of programming, while hiring them essentially based on an assessment of their problem solving skills and basic intelligence.

        I think of the cohort with which I studied. A good number of them should have gone down the 2-year or 3-year exit route – many of them were interested in marking time till they went on to other, unrelated things – for some an MBA, the civil services, philosophy for one, biology for another, working in a fathers factory for a third. The default 3-year honours option gave them none of the skills they might have needed for any of this, apart from a general mathematical facility. What might have been more useful to them? Maybe a course in economics, a course in writing and some computer use, in addition to the usual first and second year physics courses, reconfigured to make their syllabi more modern and relevant. The ‘old’ system had none of that flexibility.

        So I’m overall in favour of a FYUP, if for no more reason than that it gives an increased flexibility of exit choices, allows the first few years to be more broad-based and might potentially shift some research to high-quality undergraduate departments.

        The ‘nay-sayers’, as far as I could understand, raised issues which were administrative (coordinating examinations, getting faculty to teach unusual courses, ..) as well as those having to do with democratic norms of discussion (getting – and listening to – input from DU faculty into the design of courses, modalities etc.). But these I see as being different from the central question of whether a FYUP is ultimately a good idea or not.

        Regarding Dinesh Singh’s ‘good intentions’, I don’t know. I don’t think I have ever met him and can understand that – in DU – there are few people left who might trust him. But on this issue, at least philosophically, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  June 27, 2014

          The ‘nay-sayers’, as far as I could understand, raised issues which were administrative (coordinating examinations, getting faculty to teach unusual courses, ..) as well as those having to do with democratic norms of discussion (getting – and listening to – input from DU faculty into the design of courses, modalities etc.).

          And the most important thing — the course content. The foundation courses were a joke, the “major” courses were no different from the 3 year programme and sometimes inferior, there was no choice or flexibility. Students take 4 years to do what they could have done in 3. While, if they exit after 3 years, their training is vastly inferior to the existing “BSc programme” students. This is the main complaint of the people whom I cited above.

          As for 2 year exit — the concern was expressed, what is the market value of such students, especially as they would only have had one year of “real” coursework? Will it be an excuse to throw out students from underprivileged backgrounds, rather than take the effort to get them up to speed? These concerns were all expressed and never answered.

  2. suresh

     /  July 1, 2014

    The structure of many of our universities corresponds to that of Oxford and Cambridge. It is not realised that even in the UK, no other university has the Oxbridge structure, characterized by autonomous colleges which more-or-less run the undergraduate programs, and university departments at the postgraduate level. At the undergraduate level, the “university” merely sets the exams and awards the degrees. We seem to have adopted that structure as the norm.

    Unfortunately, this structure makes it very difficult to implement changes in the university. If nothing else, because there are so many stakeholders, any large-scale change will almost surely be opposed by one or the other interested party. The structure also makes it difficult to implement changes which will give more flexibility to students in their choice of courses. In the absence of flexibility, a major plus point of the FYUP is lost, as has been pointed out.

    At any rate, implementing change of this magnitude requires much more planning because you can’t simply change the undergraduate programs and leave the rest untouched. What is the plan regarding Masters programs? Will the four-year program serve as a direct entry to the PhD? There appears little or no thought given to these issues.

    Dinesh Singh can take refuge in the argument that all formalities were observed, but at the end of the day, he must bear responsibility for the mess. It appears that the stakeholders were not consulted, the program itself appears half-baked, and there has been little or no planning to ensure proper implementation.

    The whole issue raises one point in my mind. Why is it that our VCs are largely on deputation from other universities – or even from the same university – appointed for a fixed term like 5 years? At the end of the term, most go back to their “home” university.

    I find this stupid because it makes long-term planning for a university difficult. If a VC is going to be in the job for 5 years only, why would he/she bother with long-term plans for the university? And why would the next VC bother ensuring the continuance of a scheme started by a previous VC? It would be much more attractive starting a new one and taking credit for it. (This happens with many government schemes – many are abandoned when a new minister/government takes over.) It is worth noting that even the UK from which we inherited many idiocies does not have this particular idiocy.

    I think there is a long way to go to restore the health of our universities. I am not hopeful that the current dispensation will do much but perhaps miracles do happen.


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