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Science plus the veena? Make it possible

It’s a hot summer morning and the Delhi University campus is buzzing with activity. The queue for admission forms seems to stretch for a mile. On the lawns, students fresh out of school sit with pens poised and brows furrowed.They know the decisions they make today will determine much of the rest of their professional lives.And the options available are restrictive in the extreme, having remained largely unchanged since the first modern university was set up in India by the British in 1857.

delhi Updated: Jul 29, 2009 23:02 IST
Swaha Sahoo

It’s a hot summer morning and the Delhi University campus is buzzing with activity. The queue for admission forms seems to stretch for a mile. On the lawns, students fresh out of school sit with pens poised and brows furrowed.

They know the decisions they make today will determine much of the rest of their professional lives.

And the options available are restrictive in the extreme, having remained largely unchanged since the first modern university was set up in India by the British in 1857.

In an e-age where versatility is key, 2.46 million students are still forced each year to pick a stream — Arts, Science or Commerce — and then choose from set groups of subjects, leaving little flexibility even within streams.

Once you’ve put your name down for a particular stream, it is nearly impossible to switch.

And, though you may long to study anthropology while you get your degree in Science, or dabble in biotechnology while doing Arts, the best your university can offer you is its free library.

Meanwhile, the only guidance available to these minors — who are still too young to vote, drink or legally be married — are informal aptitude tests and career counsellors.

Neither is available on campus.

“I want to study psychology… I have always been intrigued by the workings of the mind,” says Aditi Singh, a DU aspirant from Jammu. “But I know that it is Commerce that will lead to a good job. I just don’t know which to choose.”

Singh would have loved to do her B.Com, with Psychology as one of her subjects, maybe English literature too.

But across the 431 universities in India, millions like Singh are denied the freedom to choose.

Here’s what we suggest: Introduce a mandatory, choice-based credit system and allow students to gain admission to colleges, not streams. Leave them free to pick their subjects at will, without the existing restrictions between streams and even within streams.

Under such a choice-based credit system, each subject would have a certain number of credits attached to it, depending on the level of difficulty.

And each student would be expected to earn a certain number of credits by the end of the year to make it through—and an increasing number of credits to earn the various ascending grades.

This system would mean recruiting more teachers, since students would be distributed in a large number of small groups. And a shortage of faculty is the most oft-cited objection to introducing the credit system.

This staff shortage, however, could be addressed if the University Grants Commission merely filled the 20 per cent to 40 per cent vacancies which exist, by it’s own account, in universities and affiliated colleges across the country.

And since these are posts that should have been filled anyway, notionally, it would come at no additional cost to the Centre.

Setting it up

In Tamil Nadu, the state government has embraced this ‘academic liberalisation’.

Following a model initially adopted by autonomous colleges like Loyola and Women’s Christian College, the state in 2008 introduced a mandatory choice-based credit system that has come into effect this academic year.

This means a Math student can now take up classical music and earn credits; or a Commerce student, astronomy.


At Loyola College in Chennai, arguably one of the best in the country, students have already been picking their subjects at will for eight years. The college even offers social service as a subject, with the outreach department helping students get in touch with organisations to volunteer time.

At Women’s Christian College, Chennai, 20-year-old Nazia Jassim, a Zoology student, is also learning about curating museums. This institute introduced choice-based credits about a decade ago.

It wasn’t easy, though.

“First, both the teaching and non-teaching staff had to be convinced about the merits of a choice based credit system,” says Loyola College principal Albert Muthumalais. “Everyone knew the work load would increase.”

It took the college three years of debate and reassurances to get the staff on board. And then there was the matter of funding. The University Grants Commission, which funds staff salary, had not sanctioned the additional two teachers that the college now needed, so Loyola had to work out how to raise the additional funds.

The administration took the parents and students into confidence.

“It was mutually agreed that the governing body would pay part of the salary and the rest of the financial burden would be shared by the parents,” says Muthumalais. “It translated into a nominal fee hike and we have never had any complaints.”

Average, Good, Excellent?

To keep teaching standards high, most autonomous colleges in Tamil Nadu have also put in place a feedback system for students.

At the end of each semester, students of Loyola are asked to rate their teachers on parameters that include punctuality, communication skills, grasp of their subject, methods of teaching and accessibility outside class.

At Stella Maris College, students and teachers innovate together to make courses more interesting.

“We give inputs on whether we find certain teaching techniques and course material useful or not. We also talk about teacher performance. The good part is that the feedback is anonymous and it is taken seriously by the administration,” says Roshni Ramachandran, a final-year chemistry student.

The 152-year-old colonial Madras University also introduced an academic audit last year, which examines how up-to-date and relevant the syllabus and teaching methodology are.

The audit includes sending random question and answer sheets to external experts to ensure that they are being checked thoroughly and correctly.

“This ensures that the questions are in conformity with the syllabus and the marks given are just,” says Dean (Academics) M.R. Srinivasan. “Critical comments from the experts are discussed freely and openly.”

The Tamil Nadu Education Department plans to make such audits compulsory across colleges and universities from the academic year 2010-11.

“If we want to match up to international standards of education and give students flexibility, reforms such as a credit system and academic audits need to become the norm rather than the exception,” says state Education Secretary Thiru K. Ganesan.

For Kirti Bhola (21), a final-year student at Delhi University, it sounds like a dream come true. “I wish the government would implement a credit-based system,” she says. “I would love to mix and match my subjects according to my aptitude rather than university rules.”

The problem

Teenagers fresh out of school are currently forced to make decisions that will determine the course of their careers, with little flexibility in terms of subjects across streams — or even within the same stream.

HT's fix

Make a choice-based credit system compulsory across colleges and universities. Allow students to pick subjects according to their interests and aptitudes, rather than from rigid, pre-set groups.

Make annual academic audits compulsory, to ensure that the options available remain up-to-date and relevant and the level of instruction consistently high.

Student feedback could be a part of the annual audit, with pupils invited to comment on teaching methods and curriculum.