CBCS will erode higher education standards in India

  • Shobhit Mahajan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 02, 2015 20:38 IST

Once again, it is the time of the year when admissions to the University of Delhi dominate front pages of newspapers in the Capital. Pictures of teenagers sweating it out for admissions are standard. This is also the time of the year when revolutionary changes are proposed in the way the university functions—whether it is moving on to semester system, four year undergraduate programme (FYUP), meta-universities, BTech in humanities—every new session brings forth new innovations. This year’s flavour is the Choice Cased Credit System (CBCS), approved by DU’s decision making bodies recently.

A hallmark of all such changes is the undemocratic way in which they are introduced. There is no discussion or debate among stakeholders, or even an effort to take them on board.

Fundamentally, the CBCS proposes to overhaul higher education system in the country in one stroke. The university grants commission (UGC), which is a unique example in the world of a regulator and a funding agency rolled into one, proposed that every university (central, state, private, deemed-to-be etc.) move to this system immediately. Of course, given that the UGC funds most of these universities, the proposal should be read as a diktat.

CBCS links two key concepts in the dynamics of higher education—choice and assessment. The cafeteria approach, a feature of the now abandoned FYUP, is being reincarnated. Courses are to be sliced and diced into categories like foundation, core and elective and a student can opt for courses of her choice from a bouquet of courses.

It is hard to argue against the desirability of more choice for students though one could nit-pick about the actual criteria for clubbing particular courses. Unfortunately, the theoretical attractiveness of this scheme is at odds with its practical limitations.

Infrastructure—both physical and human—even in a well-funded institution like the University of Delhi, is woefully inadequate. Cramped classrooms, shortage of faculty, inadequate library and laboratory facilities etc. will make the scheme unworkable in its spirit. It speaks volumes on how mandarins of higher education are far-removed from realities on ground.

Planners of this scheme also seem to be conflating choice with uniformity. The scheme envisages a uniform curriculum, provided on the UGC website, for all universities. The arrogance evident in this riding rough shod over all concepts of academic autonomy is astonishing. Once again, leaving aside the in-principle objections, the practical implications are mind boggling.

Standardising curriculum, such that an undergraduate course is taught in the same way at a small state university with scarce resources and infrastructure as the Delhi University will have disastrous consequences. The differentials in the infrastructure and institutional culture will make any such attempt farcical.

This is not to argue against high academic standards in all institutions of higher education. But for that, we need to empower and equip the faculty in those institutions to formulate and implement those standards.

Finally, the issue of assessment: the UGC claims that “grading system is considered better than conventional marks system and hence is followed by top institutions in India and abroad”. Here, the CBCS seems to be confusing categories. It seems to imply that a simple semantic shift to grades and CGPA is inherently better than the existing system of giving marks. In a system of assessment of absolute performance, grades or marks essentially communicate the same information. It is only when grading is relative, as is the norm in the “top institutions” which the UGC desires to emulate, that grades communicate something more than marks. It is noteworthy that the UGC is not demanding a shift to relative grading.

Systemic changes need to be well thought, discussed and debated among all the stakeholders for them to be efficacious. And what is more, the American adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, needs to be followed in any large and complex system. Unfortunately, policy makers in education in India seem too enamoured by novelty especially of readymade solutions instead of thinking out of the box. They don’t realise the unintended consequence of such a drastic, top-down, hurriedly implemented change will be to erode the standards of higher education in the country. And the price will be paid by poor teenagers who are currently braving the scorching heat to queue up for admission to DU.

(The author is professor of Physics & Astrophysics, University of Delhi)

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