Common syllabus not the way forward

Common syllabus not the way forward


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The Department of Higher Education in Karnataka has announced a series of measures that are intended to come into force shortly. The adoption of online modes of instruction and teaching as measures of continuing education while maintaining social distancing in the Covid crisis, is generating considerable debate and discussion.

These are around issues of suitability, level at which this mode of instruction is appropriate, etc.  Close on its heels is the proposal to adopt a common syllabus and pattern of instruction across all universities in Karnataka. 

This article’s intention is to examine this proposal in terms of its intent and the possible unfolding of consequences that such a move would bring about, if adopted. It is important to do so now before it is adopted and becomes irreversible. Also, other states may be planning to introduce similar measures, and therefore the debate is relevant for them as well.   

First of all, the intention of the higher education department is not clear. The response provided recently by the Higher Education Council to criticisms in the media and elsewhere against adopting uniform “model” syllabi in higher education, mainly highlights the need to adapt to the rapidly changing developments in the knowledge sector and cites Karnataka’s achievements in the IT sector.

The move is ostensibly to train our graduates and post-graduates to become job-worthy in current times.  But a cursory examination of this reveals that the motive does not stem out of academic concerns that would necessarily have been focused on the nature and content of syllabi or discussions on the flexibility and changes in response to developments in knowledge.

Rather, this appears to be a move that is aimed merely at cost-cutting in the higher education sector and is part of the ongoing process that seeks a rapid reducing of the higher education enterprise into a collegiate level government service.

Is there any purpose or advantage that the uniform syllabus proposal carries?  None whatsoever when it comes to higher education.  And the key word here is higher education. To be sure, standardisation measures at the primary and secondary education across the state can have merits in terms of enforcing certain minimum standards in learning that would benefit all school-going children.

It can also ensure that the “must-learns” of that phase of education in a young adolescent’s life happens, and happens for all school going children.  It takes no expert in education to realise, however, that this is hardly the case when it comes to higher education.

On the contrary, the watchword in designing course curricula or structure at the higher education stage ought to be diversity.  Even in the hard sciences where one could, arguably, establish the universal nature of knowledge in these areas, beyond the very basic learning, at the higher education stage, it is again all to do with specialised knowledge and areas of study.

And this knowledge generation and dissemination can only happen through academia specialised in these areas.  These are the departments that can provide trained personnel in a particular branch of knowledge and expertise when a situation demands it. 

This is exactly the reason why universities should be encouraged to grow by hiring those teaching and research scholars who can strengthen the particular sub-branches in different subjects. 

Diversity in content

In the arts and humanities, diversity in content is even more crucial. A particular specialisation, say in Dharwad, in the music or sociology department that documents and analyses the flowering of Hindustani classical musical traditions in that city, cannot find the same resonance or relevance as a subject of study in Mysore university. 

A particular university department may have, over the years, developed excellence in insect biology and therefore may offer a specialisation in this area. Innovation requires an emphasis on knowledge creation through trans-disciplinary activity and this requires the growth and nurture of expertise in diverse areas.

The need for knowledge and learning as a cultural requirement of a civilisation, and not to merely train workers for a knowledge economy, is another matter. Without invoking this aspect, even consideration of the demands of the “new economy” call for flexibility and diversity in knowledge.

The move towards implementing common syllabi across universities in the state can only mean one thing: getting rid of the need to develop and nurture specialisations.  One can have for teaching, some modules, of questionable content, developed by a committee that can now be used by all. 

Since anyway what is taught is the same across the state, transfers instead of hiring afresh can compensate for shortage of teaching faculty at any department. This proposal - inimical to imparting training to our graduates to face new challenges, and to the autonomy of the universities alike - should be immediately scrapped.

Universities are places where ideas are generated through ‘higher’ education and not merely training centres for job markets. And even on that front, the world over, it is acknowledged that those who are ‘better educated’ remain ‘more trainable’ all their lives, and therefore more suited to the needs to a fast-changing nature of the job market. 

(The writer Professor of Physics, Central University of Hyderabad)

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