Reformers of higher education appear to be totally disconnected with the realities that surround teachers. This may be because many reformers perceive teachers as being unimportant or, rather, an impediment to change. Another common perception is that ideas and practices can be borrowed from Western — especially American — universities and straightaway implemented in India. Many of these recycled ideas have adorned the pages of government reports for decades. A concerted drive to enforce them gained momentum under UPA-II. Now, a torrent of such ideas has hit the higher education system. The institutional apparatus is groaning with chronic pains, but reformers are no more interested in old problems. They feel it is best to ignore old woes and move forward with new ideas. This is, of course, a guess. No one knows what policy is shaping current reforms. All we get is an overarching justification; namely, that in order to get into world rankings, Indian universities must quickly copy the American universities.
A few years ago when reservation was extended to the other backward classes (OBC), one assumed that universities would focus on enhancing systemic capacity and quality. It became clear quite soon that the term ‘quality’ didn’t necessarily mean higher standards of teaching. For many new-age administrators, quality had a physical connotation. It meant a glossier website, smart classes, CCTV cameras, and so on. Even as quality became the avowed goal, class size grew, libraries dwindled, and the teacher’s role and status changed. I remember being told by a senior officer that teaching would no more be a career. He clarified that the teacher’s role had changed and there was no need for long-term engagement. In a modular course structure, he said, different individuals can come in for short periods to ‘deliver the content’. Technology will provide the back-up for students to develop their knowledge and maintain continuity.
Is this the new policy the University Grants Commission (UGC) is following? It is hard to say. After the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) announced its vast recommendations, the UGC got somewhat sidelined. The NKC was a new-age enterprise. Its report(s) exuded a spirit no one had ever seen in government documents. The NKC’s fire and foam caused a general confusion. No one knew how much support it had in UPA-II. A parallel vision for rejuvenation of higher education was proposed by a committee chaired by Yash Pal, the scientist. His report took a more compassionate view of the existing system and suggested steps to strengthen it. One of the old weaknesses it chose for attention and advice was the disconnection between senior faculty and undergraduate students. Neither the UGC nor the HRD ministry gave Yash Pal’s holistic philosophy much thought. Ultimately, his remedial voice got submerged in the din of piecemeal radicalism.
One radical measure the UGC has pushed in recent years is a scoring device to quantify the credentials of a candidate for selection as a teacher. This system has given an unprecedented boost to fraudulent research publications and participation in conferences. Hundreds of journals that charge the writer for quick publication have cropped up. Certificates of participation in conferences have become valued pieces of paper. This kind of trivialisation of academic work parallels the corruption that recognition and accreditation procedures have promoted in professional education. The academic landscape has lost what little grace and integrity it had.
Courses on offer have multiplied, leaving young students confused and their temporary teachers clueless about any larger curriculum design or purpose. In any case, the manner in which Indian universities have implemented the semester system leaves little room for sustained engagement with knowledge. Unlike the West, where teachers devise their own method of assessment, the semester system has been enforced in India without touching the old exam system. The only change is that the stationery on which one submitted the confidential exam paper now includes a compact disc. Secrecy of names and marks continues to be symbolised by the lac seal that adorns official envelopes and sacks. Some universities now prefer to gather all the evaluators in a large-size room the way school boards do. There they sit and speed through hundreds of answer sheets. Instead of one annual exam, we now have two. The questions asked are of the same old type that the guidebook industry loves.
The semester system is now going to be followed up by a so-called choice-based credit system. One of its declared goals is to facilitate student mobility from one university to another. This is supposedly a priority in a country where guardians sigh with relief when their hunt for a tiny rented room for their ward ends. One is told that credit transfer and uniform syllabi will also facilitate faculty movement. These measures, reformers feel, will throw fresh energy into the tired veins of what a former HRD minister called ‘a sick child’, referring to the higher education system. The sickness now pervades every limb in the child’s body. Reformers seem determined to continue damaging the system. Their indifference to ground reality can only exacerbate the crisis. They will, of course, keep wondering with legitimate innocence why Indian universities don’t figure in world rankings.
Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and former director NCERT. The views expressed by the author are personal