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Degrees of desperation

By converting a three-year bachelor's degree into a four-year programme, Delhi's premier centre of learning will only compromise a reputation that has taken generations to build. Ramachandra Guha writes.

columns Updated: May 05, 2013 22:22 IST

Among public universities in India, the University of Delhi stands out, and for at least seven reasons:

First, it has an integrated campus, with undergraduate colleges and graduate faculties in the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, law, and even fine arts;

Second, it has an all-India catchment, with students coming in large numbers from Bihar and Orissa, from the south, and from the North-east;

Third, it has consistently had some of the best colleges and postgraduate faculties in India and even Asia;

Fourth, the campus has always been hospitable to all political tendencies. Unlike some other Indian universities, it has not been a Marxist or Hindutva stronghold;

Fifth, this pluralism is intellectual as well as ideological. In the departments I myself know best, such as history and economics, students are not force-fed a single way of studying the subject (as they would in some other universities), but acquainted with diverse theories and approaches;

Sixth, although women students and faculty are still not fully free or equal, compared to other universities in India DU has more consistently encouraged women to excel in scholarly pursuits;

Seventh, although it is a residential university, it is closely integrated with the city, since it has a large number of day scholars. Unlike the IITs and IIMs, here students can get a good education without being distanced from Indian society as a whole.

It is for these reasons that the proposal to radically restructure Delhi University has met with such alarm. In an arbitrary, authoritarian manner, the administration has sought to push through the conversion of the standard three-year bachelor's degree into a four-year programme. Rather than closely consulting all stakeholders within and outside the university, the scheme has been presented as a fait accompli to students, parents, college principals, departmental heads, teachers and staff.

The logic of converting an established three-year degree programme into one of four years has not been carefully examined. When all other public universities in India have a three-year programme, how can one university alone stand out? The argument that the change will help students get admission into American universities is extremely elitist, since that possibility is open to (at most) 1% of DU students.

The change in duration has not been seriously debated, nor, more dangerously, have changes in the syllabi. Thus the new BA programme has a mandatory course on geographical and social diversity. While this is not in itself a bad idea, the committee constituted to design the course was chaired by a business economist. Another mandatory course, on history and civilisation, was drafted without much input from the DU's own history department. (These examples could be multiplied.)

Strangest of all is the name adopted for the new scheme. Students will get a 'Baccalaureate', used in France for high school graduates, and in no country that I know of for university graduates.

For some time now, the finest scholars in the university have urged the vice-chancellor to be more consultative. Their counsel has been disregarded. Sadly, there is a tendency among people in authority to become even more arrogant when confronted with criticism. This happened to Indira Gandhi, and more recently, to Narendra Modi. Still, that a scholar of distinction would be so closed-minded, bodes ill for the future of higher education in India.

I write this in some anguish, for the vice-chancellor and I were once undergraduates together. But write it I must, for I owe almost everything to our shared alma mater. Like countless other Indians, my mind was quickened and shaped by my years at the University of Delhi. It was there that I learnt to read with discrimination and to conduct serious research. It was there that I came to appreciate the virtues of liberalism and pluralism. It was there that I came to love our great traditions of classical music (the violin maestro TN Krishnan was a professor at the university at the time).

In the three decades since I graduated, I have gone back often, half-a-dozen times a year on the average. I know and admire scholars in many colleges and most departments (including the sciences). For all the pressures of growing student numbers and scarce funds, there remains, among a significant number of DU teachers, a real commitment to opening young minds, doing original research and building institutions. All this has now been put at risk by a scheme carelessly conceived and hastily pushed through.

The scheme proposed by the vice-chancellor must be postponed by at least a year. A proper process of consultation must begin, with changes discussed with care and in detail with faculty and staff councils, as well as with the best scientists and social scientists from other universities. If the reforms are then carried out, they will be more solid in spirit and in substance and be able to enlist the cooperation of all stakeholders.

In the meantime, admissions for the coming academic year (2013-14) can be conducted on the basis of the existing system of a three-year degree. This, after all, is the system that has produced Amitav Ghosh, Radhika Roy, Naina Lal Kidwai, PN Dhar, Arun Jaitley and hundreds of other top scholars, professionals, public servants and entrepreneurs. Allowing it to continue for another year, while the most sustainable model of reform is worked out, is in the interests of students, parents, and faculty alike.

Institutions of quality take generations to build. But they can be destroyed by one thoughtless act or by one authoritarian individual. The University of Delhi, one of our few remaining genuinely public treasures, must be saved from this eventuality.

Ramachandra Guha's books include India after Gandhi. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan for services to education
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 05, 2013 22:15 IST