THE extraordinary zeal and undue haste with which a semester system for undergraduate courses in Delhi University is being pushed through by Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental defies explanation. All in the name of reforms in higher education, the need for which the government has suddenly woken up to after having ignored calls for the same for several years in the past. With just two months to go before the expiry of his term, the Vice-Chancellor seems anxious to demonstrate to the powers that be that he has succeeded in implementing the directives of the government.
That this is at the cost of bypassing the university’s statutory norms and shows scant respect for the widespread opposition from the university faculty and teachers of the 83 affiliated colleges does not seem to matter. It was similar haste in the Vice-Chancellor’s bid to create space in the university’s chemistry department that led to the callous disposal of equipment containing a strong cobalt-60 radioactive source to metal scrap dealers, which caused death and grievous injury.
On May 25, the university’s registrar sent a letter to the principals of all the colleges informing them that at a special meeting held on May 13 the Academic Council (AC) had approved the syllabi for 12 semester-based UG science courses to be implemented from the academic year 2010-11. The letter was issued though 19 of the 26 elected representatives of the council (nearly all present at the meeting) had submitted a dissent note condemning the manner in which the Vice-Chancellor conducted the meeting. He had disallowed any discussion on the desirability and feasibility of the semester system and declared the syllabi passed, ignoring the objections raised by many members that due process had not been followed in framing these.
VC’s contempt, the dissent note said, for the Act, Statutes and Ordinances of the university and his refusal to answer objections raised about the violation of laid down procedures [see box] for making the syllabi is deplorable. Six of the representatives issued a public statement expressing their deep concern and dismay at the manner in which the council meeting was closed. According to us, they said, no courses were passed at the meeting which was abruptly closed at 00.10 a.m. on May 14. A press statement issued by the elected members said: Twelve syllabi were declared passed’ in as many minutes without discussion and amidst protest. We wish to put on record that this haste cannot bring about any qualitative improvement.
A number of elected members refused to vacate the council hall and they staged a sit-in. On May 15, in a letter pleading with them to call off the dharna, the Vice-Chancellor said: I am aware that we have major differences on the implementation of the semester system and that I have been unable so far to convince you that it is feasible. The members responded by saying that since he accepted that there were differences he should take a fresh look at the issues raised by them. This situation created by you, they said in a letter, would have disastrous consequences for the students, teachers and academic standards of the university.
In a letter on May 16, the Vice-Chancellor alleged that the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) and 20 or 30 other activists had been disrupting meetings of the Committee of Courses (COC) and the faculty engaged in revising courses for the semester system and were adopting tactics of intimidation and insult. He, however, offered to discuss the issue on May 18 if they called off their dharna. However, the Vice-Chancellor, it is said, continued to be adamant and unwilling to listen to their arguments.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury appealed to President Pratibha Patil, who is also the Visitor of the university, to intervene in the matter. He also forwarded a letter from Abha Dev Habib, a physics professor from Miranda House and an elected member of the Academic Council, detailing the concerns of the teachers.
Yechury’s letter did result in a meeting of the President with a six-member delegation that included the DUTA president and secretary, besides the CPI(M) leader, on June 3. At the meeting Yechury reportedly pointed out that the arbitrary actions of the Vice-Chancellor over the last year and a half in pushing through major structural changes without proper discussions were in gross violation of the authority and powers vested in the various bodies of the university provided under the Delhi University Act. It was also pointed out that the apparent use of emergency powers by the Vice-Chancellor in approving the 12 courses was at variance with the Office Memorandum of the Ministry of Human Resource Development dated June 11, 2001, issued with the approval of the Visitor, which forbade the use of emergency powers in routine as well as policy matters and to marginalise statutory bodies. The delegation pleaded that the Vice-Chancellor’s directives be stayed and due democratic process be initiated. According to the DUTA, the President/Visitor assured the delegation that the issues raised would be looked into and appropriate actions taken.
The letter of May 25 from the registrar drew another round of protests by teachers. On May 26, a general body meeting (GBM) of science teachers unanimously resolved to reject the semester system and semester-based courses assembled illegally and undemocratically by the VC, not to participate in any way in the teaching of any [of these] courses and the VC’s unilateral and illegal act of scrapping two B.Sc (Applied Physical Sciences) courses in electronics and computer science and merging them with the general B.Sc (Physical Sciences) course. It also called for a full-fledged opposition by the DUTA, including boycott of the admission process for 2010-11.
The DUTA executive committee, on May 29, decided to appeal to all teachers to dissociate themselves from admissions. It also appealed to all staff councils to prepare timetables on the basis of the existing annual system for all the subjects. On June 4, another GBM of science teachers was held with a good representation of teachers from all streams and all colleges. An important decision taken at the GBM was to hold an open house (tentatively fixed for June 18) to explain to the new entrants and parents the reasons for the teachers’ agitation and their arguments against the semester system.
The evident thrust by the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry to introduce the semester system in Indian universities has its basis in the reforms agenda outlined in Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12) document on Education, which included universalising the semester system, continuous internal evaluation and assessment to eventually replace annual examinations and introducing Credit System to provide students with the possibility of spatial and temporal flexibility/mobility. These were also stated to have been endorsed by the National Conference of Vice-Chancellors organised by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in October 2007.
The present Minister, Kapil Sibal, appears determined to implement these recommendations under the arguably fundamentalist belief that these will boost the quality of higher education. While these features have been made mandatory for all new universities, others are expected to adopt them within the Plan period. There is also the added carrot of more funds for the universities that put in place the proposed reforms.
More importantly, the Minister’s commensurate zeal for pushing through the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill should not be lost sight of in this context. Since chiefly American universities, which run on the semester mode, are expected to set up campuses here, the timing of the move to introduce the semester system would also appear to facilitate their arrival.
On January 31, 2008, the UGC asked the university to initiate the process of implementing academic reforms as per the Eleventh Plan. This letter, however, was shared with the Academic Council only in May 2009. But, significantly, the letter said: Universities are autonomous institutions. Thus, while reforms be initiated on priority basis, the university may also combine with other best practices which the university has evolved over a period of time and found useful in [the] promotion of relevance, quality, excellence and equal access in higher education. The UGC had also set up a committee under A. Gnanam to evolve an Action Plan for the implementation of reforms.
Following the submission of the report by the Gnanam Committee, the UGC wrote again on March 21, 2009, asking universities and institutions to consider and adopt the main steps outlined in the Action Plan. The letter asked the universities, colleges and institutions to draw up a road map and an action plan for reforms in a time-bound manner, subject to a maximum of two years, that is, by the academic year 2011-12. The idea of the two-year transition period came from the Gnanam Committee’s recommendations, which gave two years for Central universities and three years for State universities. But, most importantly, its recommendations for the introduction of the semester system included the following: Deliberation and resolution on the semester system in appropriate academic bodies of the institution at various levels to develop a time-line (emphasis added). In Delhi University’s case, it is in this respect that gross violation of norms and bypassing of procedures are evident.
The rush to implement the semester system in the current academic year, when both the Action Plan and the UGC suggested a transition period of two years, and especially when teachers have serious concerns, seems highly irrational. This inexplicable enthusiasm perhaps stems from the following in the UGC’s letter: [T]he new grant making policy developed by UGC involves linking of grant making process with adoption of academic and administrative reforms. Therefore, educational institutions are expected to initiate this academic reform at the earliest (emphasis added).
The first communication from the Vice-Chancellor to the Delhi University faculty, college teachers and students on the proposal to introduce a semester system for UG courses seems to have been on October 16, 2008, nearly 10 months after the UGC’s first letter. It stated that a special Academic Council meeting had discussed the issue and sought feedback from the different stakeholders. It said that while there was overwhelming support, the need for extended consultations was also expressed as there could be difficulties in implementing the system. Following the UGC’s letter of March 2009, the Vice-Chancellor sent another communication on May 12, 2009, outlining the rationale for the proposal as well as the positive and negative feedback received in response to the earlier communication. While the communication also spelt out some of the concerns, there is no evidence of the Vice-Chancellor having subsequently initiated any dialogue or given a road map to address them.
It is also interesting to note that the communications from the Ministry, the UGC and the Vice-Chancellor all seem to cite examples of American and European Universities for implementing the semester system. As S.C. Panda, former head of Economics at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), has pointed out in his letter to the Vice-Chancellor, none of these universities is like Delhi University, which has 83 affiliated colleges with an archaic system of centralised paper setting and evaluation handled by a grossly inefficient examination branch. The structure and functioning of European universities is so much different from DU.
The frequently cited comparison with the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University, where the semester system is operative, is also not valid. The IITs are isolated, self-contained institutions that are much smaller than Delhi University. JNU has no undergraduate programme and Hyderabad University does not have such a large number of affiliated colleges as Delhi University, as Amitabha Mukherjee of the physics department pointed out.
In a remark that could be considered insulting, with obvious disregard for the teachers’ genuine concerns, Sibal recently said that the semester system was being opposed because teachers did not want to put in the necessary hard work. Sitting in the plush office of his Ministry outside the university, what does he know of the hard work that we put in? asked Vijay Singh, a history professor and an elected member of the A.C.
Panda also cited the example of Cambridge and Oxford Universities and the London School of Economics (LSE), which do not follow a semester system and yet achieve excellence. So, he said in his letter, it is fallacious to argue that excellence can only be attained if we adopt the semester system. Instead of addressing the systemic problems and correcting those to make a semester system work, you seem to be interested in introducing the system somehow. We are scared to think that this may lead to chaos and probably you may not be there to redress it!
Semester system, he added, is beneficial only if it is implemented in a proper environment where admissions are completed on time, examinations are held and results declared on time, continuous evaluation done by teachers is trusted and students have the option of choosing a number of smaller courses within the discipline. None of these things seems to be happening. Therefore, what one is objecting to is the way the semester system is being bulldozed through in a short span without modifying some of the current practices. Given the complex structure of this university and its enormous size, one is also not clear what exactly can be done.
It is wrong to say, as is being made out, that DU teachers are against the semester system or reforms per se, pointed out Shobit Mahajan, a physics professor. The issue is one of, given the infrastructure and the support system, what seems feasible and infeasible. The Delhi University physics department has had, for example, a semester-based PG course for 40 years now, perhaps the first in any Indian university. PG courses take place within the department and are not widely distributed among colleges as in UG courses, and therefore it is feasible, said Mukherjee. Similarly, during the 1990s, the department, along with the university’s Centre for Science Education and Communication (CSEC), developed an improved curriculum for undergraduate science courses ( Frontline, March 15, 2002). This reformed syllabus was sent to the then Vice-Chancellor as well as the UGC. Both just sat on the proposal for years with no response whatsoever. Similar is the case with the DSE as well, points out Panda.
The Vice-Chancellor had also cited the Bologna Process of reforms in Europe, under which a universal semester system has been proposed. But it must be emphasised that this is still in the stage of being implemented, especially in Germany. But even this transition is happening after years of consultation and discussion across institutions. Even as recently as May 17, following a students’ strike in Germany, the German Education Minister, Annette Schavan (said to be a great friend of Kapil Sibal), called for a National Bologna Conference of all the stakeholders to discuss the problems in implementing the reforms. It is precisely this process of debate and deliberation that is evidently absent in the Ministry’s eagerness to implement the reforms, and as a result, the semester system is being imposed from above even in the face of stiff opposition.
The Vice-Chancellor seems interested only in changing the examination cycle, from annual to biannual. If the rapid manner in which the revised syllabi has been generated by circumventing the statutory procedures, what will be taught, who will be taught and who will teach are clearly unimportant. In a meeting of the AC on June 5, 2009, where there was no blueprint for the introduction of the semester system, a decision to introduce the system at the UG level from 2010-11 was deemed to have been taken, disregarding the demands of the elected members for a discussion in the AC on the feasibility of the proposal in a large university with the prevalent external examination system.
Without responding to the various concerns expressed by teachers individually and collectively in their feedback to the Vice-Chancellor’s letter of October 2008, the Vice-Chancellor set up a 22-member Empowered Committee (EC), which included six elected members of the AC, to work out the modalities for implementation on October 5, 2009. It met on October 28, 2009. A model ostensibly developed by the EC was circulated on November 4, 2009, inviting feedback by November 20, 2009!
According to B.L. Pandit, head of Economics, DSE, as a member of the EC as well as an elected member of the AC, he had raised issues as to who had prepared a semester system with only 24 papers across all subjects taught at the UG level and who had authorised the replacement of the Honours courses with the proposed major-minor package, which would imply a substantial dilution of the former and implied a structural change needing a thorough discussion and prior approval of the AC. He had also asked whether the opinions of the UG faculty were taken on board and why decisions were being taken behind the back of the college teaching community.
Let the university allow enough time for syllabus revision and allow variation across subjects in respect of the number of courses to be offered and also address the logistical problems. Once these issues are taken up and discussed transparently, semesterisation of UG courses can be seen in proper perspective. In the absence of it, it appears that the scheme is being pushed through without weighing the pros and cons, he said.
A revised structure was, however, put up on the website on December 18, 2009, for comments and suggestions. But there was neither a subsequent meeting of the EC nor was any final document deliberated upon or adopted by the AC. In response to the model put up on November 4, 2009, the science teachers requisitioned a GBM on November 12, 2009, to discuss its repercussions on science teaching in the colleges. Failing to receive a response, the teachers prepared a critique of the proposed structure and sent it to four science departments physics, chemistry, zoology and botany and to the Vice-Chancellor.
According to the university regulations, the task of framing any new course syllabus is that of the departmental COCs. A syllabus discussed and approved by the COC is examined by progressively higher statutory bodies first (in case of science courses) by the Faculty of Science (FOS), then by the Standing Committee (Academic Affairs) and finally by the AC. Members of the different bodies have alleged that at every stage the revised syllabi were irregularly passed despite objections and protests. Most pertinently, the basic departmental body, the COC, which would be the most competent one to examine critically a new course or syllabus since it comprises people teaching a given discipline, seems to have been bypassed.
Clearly, if the COCs have been bypassed, somehow syllabi have to be produced at the departmental level to be considered by the FOS. This can only happen if heads of the 12 departments have colluded with the authorities to come up with syllabi that now stand approved according to the May 25 letter (see box). It is precisely for this reason that all the humanities departments, whose heads refused to compromise, have been able to withstand the pressures and reject the semesterisation that is being thrust upon them without following the procedures. Many faculty members of the science departments have alleged that because the Vice-Chancellor is a man of science, he has managed to influence the heads of the science courses that have been passed illegally and covertly.
Rapidly drawn-up courses, and that too not by any properly constituted competent body, will have serious shortcomings. Such a disastrous result has already happened with the revised syllabus for the PG semester course in physics, with 90 per cent of the students failing to get pass marks in one of the core papers! The case of the new syllabus in the UG semester course in physics is similar. As Patrick Dasgupta, a physics professor in the university department, noted in his dissent submitted to the FOS, the syllabus drawn up by the head makes explicit mention of the private software MATLAB. If the document goes out as it is, there can be a court case against us on this point, he said.
Apparently, the syllabus also initially had 60 hours of lectures per semester for every subject. The norm, including in the system in the IITs that is being touted, is 35-40 hours, points out Mukherjee. This was changed after repeated intervention at the FOS meeting to 48 hours of lectures and 12 hours of tutorials. But even this is considerably more than what we have in M.Sc, said Dasgupta. Such badly drawn-up courses will only harm the students instead of improving the learning process.
It is also in the interest of students’ careers that we need to oppose the unduly hasty introduction of the semester system without discussion and debate, said Abha Dev Habib. But if the Vice-Chancellor continues to ignore the misgivings of the teaching community, and the HRD does not respond effectively to this continuing impasse, the confusing picture that the university will end up presenting to the fresh entrants to the university will only prove detrimental to students and to the university’s reputation.