Our higher education system in dire need of reforms

Delhi University’s controversial four year undergraduate programme introduced in 2013-14 has been called off.

It was introduced by a determined administration against much opposition from the teaching community and at least some sections of the students.

The opponents felt at that time that the change was ill-conceived, insufficiently debated and its social and academic implications poorly understood. The opposition was to no avail. The administration was unmoved. The UGC seemed to stand solidly behind the vice chancellor, dismissing dissent from its own members.

What a difference a year makes! The UGC has discovered that the programme violates current norms after all. And the welfare of the students has now been declared to be paramount. The vice chancellor and the administration, humbled by powerful political opposition and the regulator’s volte face, have retreated.

Does the Indian higher education system need reform? On this, there seems to be little disagreement. Most people, academics, students and policy makers alike will agree that the system is broken. This is true not just of under-resourced colleges in some distant backwaters, but even of the elite colleges that boast of admission cut-offs close to a hundred per cent.

The symptoms of dysfunction are all too familiar – rigid and ancient curricula, uninspiring teaching, bemused students perhaps driven to distraction by monotony. The examination treadmill liberally rewards rote and punishes imagination. Organisationally, public universities and their constituent colleges have slowly morphed into bewildering masses of red tape and even corruption.

Regulatory systems are less than effective and often overcome by a bureaucratic penchant for procedural control and enforcing conformity rather than for support and facilitation. One may protest, using the familiar mantras that India has many world class research institutions, has one of the largest population of scientists and engineers on the planet and our graduates are in demand all over the world. These stories of success are often true but misleading.

It is clear to any unbiased observer that the higher education system short-changes the majority of its students and produces conformity and mediocrity; above all, the impressive numbers of scientists and engineers have not translated into excellence in research and teaching. Far too many good students are driven to emigrate to better universities abroad. Far too many of the disadvantaged are left with near worthless degrees, poor skills and even poorer prospects.

The consensus on the need for reform breaks down quickly when specific measures are discussed. Therefore, without advocating any specific reform as a silver bullet, it suffices to suggest that reform is required in all the three crucial areas alluded to above – curricular, organisational and regulatory. There is sufficient understanding of the principles of good educational practice that lead to learning and empowerment.

Critical, independent thinkers

Students should be prepared as critical and independent thinkers and self-directed learners. Our colleges should contribute to students’ growth and maturation, not just in academic learning but in their sensibilities as citizens and human beings capable of facing global, local and personal challenges.

Translating this into a curricular vision, particularly by dismantling the existing morass of examination driven rote, has been more difficult. It is here that a renewed organisational vision for higher education may help. Universities and colleges, new and old ones alike, have continued to replicate the structure of the centralised colonial hierarchy. Power vests in a few individuals who are often distinguished only by length of service and strength of political connections and by little else.

Collegial dialogue and democratic functioning is conspicuously absent. Organisational and curricular reform therefore need to proceed in parallel, mutually supporting each other. This change has to happen with due respect to the diversity of social and cultural contexts in which education takes place. No single curricular initiative can claim to be the key.

Unless political and regulatory regimes enable and catalyse this change, very little progress is possible. Our universities like many other institutions that produce crucial public goods are often captives of political and economic vested interests. Change of the kind I have advocated, we are assured, is a pipe dream. But the consequences of not reforming are far too serious.

The fruits of economic growth in the last two decades have devolved largely to a smaller segment of the population than hoped for. The ranks of this growing middle class clamour for and receive new choices in education through the market – be they in foreign lands or in a rapidly expanding private sector in our country. The public education sector faces the dim prospect of being reduced to a provider for those without any other recourse.

This trend is clearly visible in school education and is gathering momentum in higher education. The implications for social justice and cohesion are obvious. India has long been an unequal society. The hope that modernity and its rewards will lead to greater dignity and opportunity for the millions who live in penury, if belied, is a recipe for social upheaval and chaos.

It would be unfortunate if the Delhi University fiasco gives four-year undergraduate programmes a bad name. Many private and public Universities in India already offer or are on the road to offering such programmes as standard fare. They view the nature of education more broadly, are more flexible, and have curricula that emphasise not just job readiness but a deeper initiation into citizenship and ethical living.

These programmes and innovating institutions need to be supported. The least that a well-known public central university could have done is to demonstrate the capacity for well-articulated and executed change. Delhi University has faltered at this crucial step. The government and the regulator have not helped matters either. It is all the more important that it does not vitiate the debate and diminish the appetite for reform.

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