The University of Delhi (DU) is at the centre of a storm. At the core is its decision to go ahead with its four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP).
Though a section of academia has been consistent in its opposition, it is interesting to note that, having failed to prove the inadequacies of the programme, attempts are being made to point at non-adherence to institutional procedures. What stands out is the near unanimity on all sides for the necessity of reforms, both at institutional and curricular levels.
India needs to enhance its gross enrolment ratio (GER) in order to protect and enhance its economic and national interests. However, compared to the GER of developed countries, countries in transition and developing countries, which stand at almost 55, 36.5 and 23% respectively, India's GER remains abysmally low ranging from 15-17%.
The Planning Commission acknowledged the task ahead when it set a 12th Plan target of enabling 10 million students access to higher education, including at least a third who need to be imparted vocational skills. This is intended to be done both by establishing as well as refurbishing existing institutions to make them more research-intensive and vocational. Expansion in technology-enabled distance education is also being looked at.
To achieve the targets, the private sector would have to also be associated. The private sector would have to be co-opted by making a national policy on private education that could then translate into legislation and a regulatory mechanism. However, the state will have to be the major player in the expansion of higher education to provide equitable access, ensure quality and also to create space for private players who are made to adhere to these values and national goals.
It is against this background that the proposed changes at the DU should be viewed. As a large, public-funded and leading university in India, it is its moral duty to take the lead in transforming the model and structure of higher education. The FYUP is a significant move towards combining the traditional practices of vertical mobility with the contemporary ideal of plural and lateral learning.
To be taught over a period of two years, foundation courses such as citizenship and governance, IT, science and life, history, culture and civilisation, business entrepreneurship, communication and life skills, geographic and socio-economic diversity, environment, and public health constitute the building blocks of this new design aimed at the widening of a student's knowledge horizon.
The applied courses come not a day too soon. Since as long as the Wood's Despatch, the two consistent deficiencies of India's higher education have been that it is too theoretical and has little to do with application to real-life situations, and that it is based on a mechanical examination system based on rote learning.
As a country with almost 50% of its population below the age of 25, India faces the challenge of capping the issue of unemployment. According to a NASSCOM report, India churns out almost three million graduates and post-graduates each year. Of these, only 25% from the technical stream and 10-15% from regular streams are employable.
The lack of institutional and curriculum-level reforms and the outdated evaluation system coupled with unplanned expansion in the higher education sector are often cited as reasons for this. The introduction of a wide range of skill-based application courses at DU appears to be a reassuring attempt towards filling the chasm between the skills required and the skills currently acquired by students.
A huge issue has been made out of the additional (fourth) year. As per the new format, the fourth year would introduce a student to research methodologies and designs. The strength of a university lies not only in the knowledge it disseminates but also in the knowledge it creates. Universities the world over enter the top league when they are known not only for their teaching but also for their research and innovative practices. It is heartening indeed to see the DU introduce these threads at its undergraduate level. The spirit of enquiry and innovation must begin early.
Kavita Sharma is a former principal of Hindu College and Chandrachur Singh is an assistant professor of political science at Hindu college. Views expressed by the authors are personal.