Large numbers of teachers, students and non-teaching staff have been complaining over the past few years about over-crowded class rooms, libraries and laboratories, rapidly worsening employment and working conditions, declining student-teacher interactions and falling academic standards. Anxieties regarding inordinately high CBSE marks, inadequate state funding, and the uneven spread of quality higher education across the country and at Delhi University have been repeatedly voiced.
Calls have gone out to college and university administrations to secure and expand employment and infrastructure, including hostels, especially for women, so that problems stemming from admission procedures and 'over admissions' may start getting addressed without closing all doors to increasing numbers of admission seekers and ensuring that the ratio of reserved to general seats is maintained. Currently, 'over admissions' take place mainly in the general category, mocking the proportions between reserved and general seats. Teachers have demanded thoroughly debated course revisions and re-appraisal of the existing internal assessment scheme.
Sensitisation campaigns by students and teachers against rampant violence, sexual harassment and gender, class, caste, abilities, community and race-based discrimination on campus, have demanded intervention by the administration to create an enabling environment where everyone benefits from the educational opportunities.
Unfortunately, the silence of the administration on these concerns, their refusal to listen to and encourage debate so that academic reform could come to the university organically, have meant the steady impoverishment of intellectual life.
The crippling blow to DU's academic standing has come over the last two years, from the arbitrary decision of the administration, at the behest of the ministry of human resource development, to rapidly impose the semester system. Out of the blue, anti-academic 'reform' blows have been inflicted upon the university. All energies are now directed at tearing apart a sound though not perfect annual system of Honours teaching. A massive structural change with major implications for the quality of university life is being rammed from above as a decision already taken, instead of being discussed by members of the academic community in a democratic and open-minded manner. Neither the questions raised internationally regarding the assumed superiority of semestered education, nor the academic, pedagogic and functional concerns articulated by teachers and students regarding the semester system at DU have even been acknowledged.
Irresponsible and thoughtless adhocism is substituting preparatory groundwork and defined structures. Nobody knows, for instance, how semester-based timetables are to be prepared or how two university-wide examinations are to be conducted in a year for 400,000 students spread over 75 colleges along with the School of Open Learning. Sound decisions questioning the semester system taken at general body meetings of teachers from across colleges and the patient brainstorming to create a meaningful syllabi are being rubbished, and teachers forced to improvise course structures, or cobble together new ones overnight.
If the experience of the forced semester system in the 13 science courses is anything to go by, the prospect of a university-wide debasement of the substance of teaching and learning, a huge spike in alienation and anxiety among students and teachers, the exclusion of the most vulnerable students and unimaginable administrative chaos at DU stares us in the face.
The semester system has also blown a hole through democratic practices. The exclusion of the university community from the processes of 'academic reform', the contempt for debate, the intimidation of teachers, and the substantive violation of democratic procedures by the administration augur ill for the future. Shockingly, even the Delhi high court, reserving judgement on the issue, has, through partisan orders, allowed the DU administration to introduce the semester system while increasingly curbing teachers' rights to dissent and protest. With 'dons' armed with emergency powers on the rampage, courts and cops in tow, DU stands on the brink of academic catastrophe.
The only sliver of hope lies in that the current silence among teachers, reflecting largely a reluctant complicity with the unconscionable, may end and spark another 'springtime of the people'. One hopes that the dissonant opening notes to 2011-12 may yet reveal symphonic harmonies.
Mukul Mangalik is an associate professor in history at Ramjas College, Delhi.The views expressed by the author are personal.