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HindustanTimes Sun,20 Apr 2014

No course correction

Shobhit Mahajan, Hindustan Times   May 06, 2012
First Published: 22:10 IST(6/5/2012) | Last Updated: 22:15 IST(6/5/2012)

If there is one thing that the University of Delhi can't be faulted for, it is about showing any kind of diffidence in announcing new initiatives at a breathtaking pace. Hardly has the dust (and the mess) of a hasty, ill-thought out semesterisation settled, Vice-Chancellor (VC) Dinesh Singh announced a couple of new initiatives in quick succession: the formation of a Meta University, trans-disciplinary courses, a four-year undergraduate degree, a bachelors in innovation engineering and the latest oxymoron, a BTech in humanities.

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Theoretically, as compared to other structures, there is nothing good or bad about any of these schemes. For instance, it will be hard to argue for or against the virtues of a semester system as opposed to an annual one. Both are used effectively by universities across the world. Similarly, it would be difficult to argue against any freedom to take courses in various institutions, the crux of the Meta University plan, though what is particularly 'meta' about it is obscure; then what is so great about replacing the three-year undergraduate degree with a four-year one? After all, these are the hallmarks of the North American university system which, our education bosses are so enamoured of. Conversely, a three-year system works perfectly well in Britain. So for anyone to claim that one of these new models is theoretically and inherently superior to the existing ones is not only fallacious but downright dishonest.

However, when it comes to the implementation of these fancy plans, we notice an utter lack of thinking, an astonishing ignorance of reality and a foolhardy optimism regarding the capacity of the system to take these new pressures. That the existing university system is incapable of taking a massive change like the semesterisation, at the pace at which it was introduced, has by now become too obvious to bear repetition.

The inability of the education bureaucracy to handle the new system is evident. For instance, we have seen the recent confusion over the attendance regulations and the bizarre case of marks being decreased. Incidentally, the decrease and subsequent "rectification" of marks has an interesting sideshow: it is widely rumoured within the university that the examination bureaucracy goofed up by sending the actual (that is the "uninflated") marks to be uploaded on the website since it is common knowledge that marks in the semester examination were inflated hugely to demonstrate the superiority of the system.

Thus, at a practical level, the implementation of these new initiatives is likely to cause immense chaos since it would mean dealing with new systems and paradigms with ancient tools: both infrastructural and intellectual. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. For instance, would all courses at the designated 'meta' universities be eligible for transfer of credit? Or, would there be specified courses whose equivalence with other courses have been established? What about the system of ensuring things like attendance or transfer of credits from one bureaucracy to another? These are not imaginary or trivial issues - if the system has to work, questions like these need to be addressed and resolved.

An argument might be proffered that any change leads to some teething problems and these would be ironed out as it evolves. Unfortunately, the students who are bearing the brunt of these avoidable problems are not going to be there if and when things stabilise. And by then they would have lost their one-off opportunity of getting a good, well-rounded undergraduate education.

It is a truism that in most social systems, whether in business or politics, a buy-in of all stakeholders is an essential prerequisite for any fundamental and lasting change. And the buy-in occurs through a consultative, inclusive process whereby the stakeholders are consulted and persuaded. Unfortunately, none of this has been visible in DU in recent years.

The utter disdain with which the DU administration treats the views of the students and the faculty, and the manner in which it rides over statutory provisions is shocking.

The pattern is by now familiar: the VC announces to the media a new initiative. A coterie of teachers and administrators hurriedly fleshes out the proposals. These proposals are then rammed through the statutory bodies if needed, or implemented using the infamous emergency powers of the VC. The course on 'innovation engineering' is a good example. In its rush to prepare the blueprint, the VC's coterie plagiarised the course and other details from a foreign university website. So much for intellectual honesty and creativity!

A BTech in humanities or an MA in microbiology might amuse us. However, for the lakhs of students it won't be funny because they are the ones who will bear the brunt of such hasty, hare-brained and ill thought-out schemes. And worse, the academic reputation of the institution, built so carefully over decades will suffer a blow. Vice-chancellors will come and go, but the effects of these schemes will be there with us for a long time to come.

Shobhit Mahajan is Professor of Physics and Astrophysics, University of Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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