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Course correction – Frontline

Teachers of Delhi University protest against the hasty implementation of the semester system for undergraduate courses.

ON behalf of the Science students, prepare a representation to your College Principal stating how a major portion of the syllabus for the semester examination could not be covered due to frequent strikes in the university. This is one of the questions in an English examination paper for undergraduate students in science at the Delhi University (D.U.). What is a seemingly innocuous question to most people is not so for teachers and students in the biggest central university in the country.

For almost two years now, teachers in the university have been protesting against the administration’s keenness to introduce the semester system in undergraduate courses. In the matter of implementation of the semester system, most teachers say they are out of the loop. They believe the current mode of annual examination has worked well for the past 89 years in the university, making it the most sought-after university in India for undergraduate courses.

Their argument is that the semester system will be too taxing for undergraduate students as education would perpetually be in examination mode. Apart from this, the teachers believe the semester system will lead to many technical problems that will dilute the standard of education. The staff associations of almost all Delhi University colleges some 75 of them have been unanimous in protesting against the introduction of the new system.

The administration, however, is of the view that the semester system will bring in quality and standardised education to the university. It wants all the colleges under the university to implement the semester system from the next academic year. The reason it puts forward in support of the semester system is that it is more flexible and will help students choose between major and minor courses, which will eventually lead to the scrapping of the Honours courses. Justifying the process, the Vice-Chancellor and the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) say that such systems are in place in the best universities in the West and this will help students transfer credits and pursue studies abroad. Yet another logic is that the new system will increase interdisciplinarity in courses. The administration has to its advantage a meeting of the Academic Council on June 5, 2009, which adopted a resolution to introduce the semester system. But teachers say this was adopted hurriedly, amid much confusion.

Despite the opposition, the semester system has been introduced in 13 science courses. The psychology and philosophy departments, too, have accepted the new regulation. Political science, commerce and economics courses are expected to follow suit despite resistance from the teachers of these departments.

Open and negative propaganda’

Many teachers are puzzled by the administration’s haste in imposing the system and the tactics employed by it. They believe the question paper is an open and negative propaganda against the teachers to draw the students in the administration’s favour.

Significantly, the introduction of the semester system in postgraduate courses was met with little resistance. So then, what is the problem in introducing it in undergraduate courses? Besides, the best universities in India such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) function very well with the semester system. The basic idea of the semester system is to have shorter terms of teaching and evaluation intended to lessen the pressure on students. Short-term exchange programmes with foreign universities are also easy if the semester system is in place.

Delhi University teachers say that while no one is ideologically opposed to the semester system, the way in which it is being implemented is unacceptable. The Joint Action Body (JAB) of the agitating teachers has a list of objections to introducing the system now. Firstly, there is no blueprint for the courses. There is not one concrete programme. The Vice-Chancellor [earlier Deepak Pental and now Dinesh Singh] has instructed the heads of departments to implement the semester system, but no discussions were carried out with the teachers of various colleges who will be teaching the new courses, said Abha Dev Habib, a faculty in the department of physics in Miranda House, the oldest women’s college in the university.

Second, most teachers point out that as students who enrol for undergraduate programmes are from different parts of the country they need time to cope with the system. The composition of the students varies drastically. They need time to settle. They come without any idea about specialised education. The present system gives them time to settle down in a new place before they can absorb their studies and write their exams. The semester system, as it is now, will push them into examination mode within two months of their joining a college. A proposed foundation course in the semester system is not even ready on paper, let alone teaching. How would they cope? said Aryama, a political science professor in SGTB Khalsa College.

He has reasons to believe so. The mathematics department in the university, which was one of the first departments to accept the semester system, had to guarantee the promotion of students to the next semester as 95 per cent of them had failed in the first semester. The teachers could not complete the syllabus on time and some of them had no proper idea of the new course. The fear is that if such is the system, the majority of underprivileged and reserved category students could have a tough time coping with the pressure. With the duration of teaching reduced by almost a month in a year, teachers get less time to work with such students.

The teachers themselves are under pressure to cover most of the syllabus in a short period. This would defeat the very purpose of affirmative action and principles of social inclusion in D.U. [This is] contrary to what the semester system claims to secure, said M.V. Shobhana Warrier, faculty of History in Kamala Nehru College.

On paper, the semester system seeks to introduce uniformity in various colleges and interdisciplinarity through a module structure. However, the JAB believes that interdisciplinarity is prevalent in the current system where a student has to do mandatory concurrent courses to complete his degree. Said Aryama: Uniformity, as it is there in the IITs and the JNU, is ensured by an open entrance examination. It succeeds in bringing some degree of homogeneity on those campuses with more or less equal capacities. However, in D.U., where students get in through the marks scored at the senior secondary level, the semester system is bound to fail. This would expand the already existing differences among the so-called elite and not-so-good colleges, making the system more elitist. In the present system, every student gets adequate time to prepare for the exams and increase his capacities in the subjects he has chosen. The present mode gives him space to start afresh even if he has not scored well in his senior secondary exams. With continuous examinations right from the initial months of first year in college, the weaker students would hardly get time to breathe and know his or her strengths. They would hardly get any time for extracurricular work, an aspect that helps shape an individual’s personality at that age.

While citing the example of foreign universities to implement the semester system, the administration fails to take into account the fact that in most places where the semester system is successful, the faculty has the power to frame its own courses in a particular time frame. It took seven years to formulate the syllabi and modules of the concurrent courses introduced in 2007 to encourage interdisciplinarity in the Honours courses in D.U. There is, however, apparently no transparency in formulating the semester system’s specialised courses.

Contrary to the semester system worldwide, in D.U. the restructured courses have been standardised. What most departments are doing now is to cut the courses into two halves spread over a year. It is like using scissors to divide the courses and not framing semester-wise courses. This amounts to having two semesters in a year, but the value of semesters would be lost somewhere in this structure, the brunt of which will have to be suffered by none other than the students, Aryama said.

Many teachers complain that they do not have with them the reading material for the new courses, and even when it is available there is no Hindi translation. Translating the texts can take a lot of time, yet the university is showing undue haste in implementing the new system. Most Hindi-medium students will not be able to cope with the new syllabus, said Aryama.

Innovative protests

The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) was at the forefront of the agitation from 2008, but in November last year, the Delhi High Court, responding to a public interest litigation petition, banned teachers from striking work. The JAB, which was since formed, has been protesting in innovative ways such as organising a candlelight vigil highlighting these issues. Recently, it organised an open teaching day in all colleges where teachers taught outside the classrooms.

Says a JAB press release: No General Body of Teachers of any department of the Humanities, Social Sciences or Sciences has passed the semester system. Teachers of various departments submitted detailed, considered and considerable critiques of the academic, pedagogical and logistical implications of the semester system. The university has not responded to any of these. In the face of continuing opposition and in order to by-pass it, the VC [Vice-Chancellor] has now asked the heads of departments to consult only the teachers-in-charge of college departments. The aim quite clearly is to isolate and mount pressure on individuals and to stymie the possibilities of debate and dialogue. This is in keeping with the systematic erosion and suspension of democratic norms and accountability. It further says that the Vice-Chancellor and the heads of departments have been creating the impression that the semester system is a done deal.

The DUTA had filed a petition in the High Court against the implementation of the semester system. Accepting it on February 8, the court noted that, if this court eventually finds fault or infirmity with the introduction of the semester system by the university, it shall pass appropriate equitable orders.

The press release further says: Even if the court were to order the implementation of the semester system, we still retain the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. This will also constitute one of the means by which the general body of teachers will legally assert their understanding that academic autonomy is a fundamental principle by which the university should function. Neither the courts nor the HRD Ministry has any jurisdiction in matters of academic content and structuring.

In fact, the university administration had formed an empowered committee to implement the semester system, but teachers point out that it does not have any statutory standing. The Academic Council or the Executive Council had never passed the empowered committee. However, the Vice-Chancellor used his emergency powers to pass academic matters in this case, something the teachers say they cannot understand as the current system is running perfectly well. Apart from this, they say, the report of the committee is still not in the public domain, and this has led to many questions about its intentions.

The semester system is focussed on resource production to complement India’s growth story. This is what Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh believes. Our universities should be attuned to the needs of the country. Our students should contribute to India’s growth, he told journalists at a press conference. But the teachers fear that both the intentions could be defeated if the system continues in this manner.

The university is in denial mode. Dinesh Singh told the press that the semester system would be in place from the next academic year and the teachers had stopped protesting and had understood the values of the semester system. But his observation is completely out of sync with reality as the teachers have been agitating in different ways almost every day on the campuses.

Left-oriented teachers see a larger design in the hasty implementation of the semester system. The Foreign Universities Bill is about to be passed. The University Grants Commission has minimised its funding to colleges. If a standardised system of semesters breaks down in D.U., it can be beneficial for the MHRD, which could then divide the D.U. into smaller fragments and grant them autonomy. Greater autonomy and lesser expenditure on public education would be in line with the MHRD to gradually privatise all central universities, said Abha Dev Habib of the JAB. After the foreign universities come to India, the central universities will face a bigger threat in improving their infrastructure. The government has completely backed out of funding the colleges. The fees would also increase so as to improve the infrastructure of the campuses, and the system of education would become more and more elitist.

This may not be way off the mark. To a question by this correspondent to Kapil Sibal, the Union Minister for HRD, after one of his talks, he replied that colleges should come up with innovative methods to generate funds rather than turning to the UGC every time. Our budgets for higher education are not limitless. And we cannot increase it as that could disrupt the balance of the economy. The colleges should go to the alumni, ask the trustees of the colleges to generate funds, he told Frontline.

It is another matter that education activists have been demanding an increase in the allocation of funds for education to 6 per cent of the GDP from what is at present.

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