Even Rajnikanth couldn't get an appointment with the VC; even Rajnikanth couldn't finish the syllabus on time.
— A protest poster outside the Vice-Chancellor's office, University of Delhi.
Welcome to the Wild West. Not quite gunslingers and bar saloons, but certainly the centre of a serious battle: Delhi University. Under the regime of the last Human Resource Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, a number of measures were introduced to change university education in India quite substantively. But many on the most-affected campuses argue that the changes were pushed through hurriedly, and this has resulted in a time of uncertainty, where you need to score 100% to get into a premium college of your choice, where teachers at a university in the capital have been continually seeking redressal of unresolved issues for years, where setting up new universities has been reduced to real estate investment—and where, as of last week's reshuffle, Minister Sibal had to make way for the reportedly less-combative Pallam Raju.
To begin with, let us focus our attention on Delhi University alone. Every year, thousands of students arrive from all over the country and abroad, seeking admission. Until 2010, all colleges followed an annual system of examination. House exams were held in December; a percentage of marks went on to constitute the final score. Other components were awarded on the basis of year-round internal assessment, and attendance. The major chunk of the final score was to be earned from the annual exams held in May-June.
In 2007, the UGC introduced the idea of semester-ising all courses in universities at a national conference of Vice-Chancellors. Following this, it directed all universities to shift to the semester mode. Kapil Sibal, then HRD minister, made no bones about his belief in the semesterisation directive, making statement after statement in public in support, and criticising college institutions and unions for being too mired in their own ways to respond positively. What followed is a chequered line of events which pushed faculty and students into uncertainty, along with impositions deemed unfair by those entrusted with actioning them.
Stroll through the corridors of any college in Delhi University today and you'll see that the court directive struck a precarious compromise: discontent is rife. "It seems like someone took a pair of scissors and blindly cut the annual syllabus into two. The courses have not been re-designed to fit into the new time frame. The VC took only some people into confidence and did not take into account all the feedback from teachers. For example I taught the Renaissance paper in the second year in the annual system earlier. Now, in semester mode, what they have done to this paper is that the plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe have been shifted to the second semester, while the background information, which students need to know first before studying the plays, has been shifted to the third semester! This is absurd. The semester system is successful only if the student-teacher ratio is small, such as is found in JNU, where I studied in the semester mode. Here we are dealing with anything between 40 and 80 students per class. Also, the effective teaching time in a semester is only about three and a half months, due to holidays and exams coming in between. Ever since this system has come about, my students have stopped going to the library to consult books because they just don't have the time! Finally, it's the weaker students who suffer the most - those from less affluent families who don't have much exposure, who don't have an academic environment at home. The one-year format allowed us to help them but now we don't have time to pay them extra attention", said Saikat Ghosh, who teaches English in SGTB Khalsa College. Ghosh is not alone: his refrain is heard throughout the university.
Many despair of the impact that this unplanned endeavour bears on the learning process. "I either have a choice between holding classes on Sundays or holding extra classes everyday to finish the syllabus. In Maths, the basics have to be taught at great length in the first year because students have never encountered the concepts in school before. In the annual mode, the paper called Analysis, one of the most difficult papers in Maths, had 120 lectures devoted to it. In the semester system, only 60 lectures have been assigned to it. I have taught in this university for 30 years, and only under this system have I seen such easy question papers being set. This shows that the level of education has drastically fallen. And yet, students are struggling. Last year, I corrected 200 answer scripts of first year students, out of which I was forced to grant 0-9 marks to about 50 students. Yet, when the results came out, not one student got less than 10 marks! This shows that the marks have been artificially inflated. This is academic corruption. Not just me, other teachers have also had the same experience. What does the VC have to say to this?" asks Nandita Narain, who teaches Mathematics in St. Stephen's College. Another teacher spoke of everyday humiliation, arguing that the space for registering dissent has shrunk.
But where does this leave the students? Most complain of the inability to cope with the new workload. A Chemistry student said that their class was forced to mug up scientific concepts as the course had been so thoughtlessly divided that the explanations were included in the next semester syllabus. An economics student complained of how heavy subjects like Econometrics or Economic History of India, which earlier were taught over a year, have now been confined to three months. As one teacher put it, there has been a "managerial failure" in the implementation of the semester system. The push for semesterisation was to enable students to have a greater choice in pursuing courses of their choice from different colleges and different universities across India. Not a bad idea, given that there are actually very few good colleges, depriving a vast majority of students from quality education. However, as the pundits say, the test of any policy lies in its implementation. Hurried, half-baked reforms seem to have only jeopardised students' careers, and alienated teachers.
Outside the VC's office, DUTA members have been holding a relay hunger strike for almost a month now, under the shared gaze of the media, and the police. Now students and non-teaching staff have begun to express their solidarity with the teachers, joining the protest against the administration. The place is festooned with posters against Dinesh Singh and Kapil Sibal. Many accuse Sibal of colluding with the private sector to commodify higher education, thereby depriving the poorer section of students.
But now with Sibal's regime at an end, will there be a change in government policies? One high-placed bureaucrat at the Ministry of Higher Education replied in the negative. "We want to make universities in India self-sustained centres of research and innovation," he said. "There need to be industry tie-ups in order to facilitate research and develop skills". But there remains a lack of clarity on how this self-sustainability or research potential is to be achieved. Hiking fees? Asking corporate houses to fund chairs? "We can only float ideas, but universities being autonomous institutions, need to take a call on how they want to go about it. Perhaps they can offer courses to working people who can pay more and want to brush up their skills?" offered another.
There are currently six ambitious bills relating to higher education pending in Parliament. Political support for these bills has been difficult to garner for a variety of reasons. Some parties want reservation for SC/ST, OBCs, and minorities in new educational institutions. "With regard to the bills that seek to regulate capitation fees and unfair practices, some of the opposition comes also because the political class itself is entrenched in the system. If a politician-businessman sets up a university after investing Rs 200-400 crore, then they also want their returns. Under the law of the land, education is a not-for-profit sector, but clearly today's developments say otherwise", a Ministry official said.
What should perhaps populate the debate is the fundamental question of making higher education in India not only qualitatively and quantitatively better, but also more affordable and accessible; but in its present avatar, there is a complete absence of any focus on need-based funding for poor students. Such are the ironies of development in a country, where a little less than half the population lives under the poverty line, and where higher education still remains a prime source of mobility for most. Sources at the ministry said that the government can only offer limited funding as it cannot afford the accompanying subsidy burden. "Universities abroad can offer scholarships because they get huge alumni endowments or have built quality institutions which attract fee-paying foreign students. For-profit private universities in India will not offer scholarships because they have to make money", an MHRD official explained.
Delhi University serves as a perfect case from where the government can learn how not to introduce reforms. One needs to have a BPL or APL card to avail of the VC's special fund for needy students; and what's the concession on offer? A meagre Rs 3000 per year. One doesn't need to perform complicated calculations to figure that this is grossly inadequate for one who survives on less than Rs 50 a day. The students union bears the fee of really needy students, but they cannot afford to provide for more than 20 students a year.
Fundamentally, there seems to be a massive trust deficit, with policy makers and university administration on one side, and teachers and students on another. It is difficult to believe that reforms can be successful in such a confrontationist climate. The MHRD website states at the outset "University word is derived from the Latin word 'Universitas,' which means 'specialised associations between students and teachers." Perhaps there is a need to revisit this definition.