Delhi University (DU
) is in turmoil. Vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh
wants to scrap the existing three-year undergraduate degree course and replace it with a four-year undergraduate programme from the academic year
starting July 2013.
A large number of faculty members and students are opposed
to the very idea of converting to a four-year system. An even larger number are upset by the haste and secrecy with which the vice-chancellor is pushing through far-reaching changes in the curriculum.
It would be misleading, however, to see the proposed change as a manifestation of one man’s hubris. Singh’s endeavour is an important but still minor sub-plot in a larger narrative of transition, both within and outside the university. The central theme of this narrative is privatization.
Traditionally, in higher education, there has always been a clear demarcation between the two kinds of higher education: vocational training, which equips you with skills for the job market, and a broad liberal arts education that equips you with competencies so you can function as a politically mature citizen in a functioning democracy.
What the Delhi University vice-chancellor’s mutant baby, the four-year programme, will do is to jumble up the two and spit out quarter-graduates, half-graduates and almost-graduates who will have no option but to join some private institution or the other to skill themselves up into employability. Unless, that is, they are happy to be the bottom feeders of the labour pool.
As a DU lecturer pointed out (he did not want to come on record for fear of reprisals from the academic henchmen of the friendly neighbourhood vice-chancellor), the biggest impact of the proposed system would be a two-fold stratification—within academia and without—along class lines.
The internal stratification will be achieved through the “exit points”, which many DU academics
have termed “social apartheid”. Basically, a student can opt out of the four-year programme after two years with an Associate Baccalaureate, or after three years with a Baccalaureate (the equivalent of a pass course). To get an Honours degree, you will have to spend a fourth year in college—one more than at present—which will obviously cost more money. In other words, the most important determinant of an Honours degree is your paying power and not merit.
The DU lecturer explains this with an example. “Let’s take two students, A and B. A is poor but brilliant. B is rich but academically weak. In the current system, A can get admission into a three-year Honours course on merit. If she can rustle up the tuition fee, at the end of three years, she will be an Honours graduate
. B, given her low percentage, will simply not get admission into a DU Honours course. If she wants to do an Honours course, her only option is to do it in one of the expensive private universities
by paying a few lakhs.
“But in the proposed FYUP (four-year undergraduate programme), both A and B will get in. Given her financial and other vulnerabilities, it is very likely that A will opt out after three years with an inferior degree, while B will emerge with an Honours after four years, thanks to her financial staying power.”
The new model will thus stratify society even more effectively than the current system, which is already a stratifying tool, heaping more privileges on the privileged, which universities generally tend to do (a phenomena well documented by sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu). That was internal stratification.
Once these pseudo-drop-outs (or drop-outs-with-certificates) go out into the real world, they would obviously not be able to compete for opportunities with those who completed the four-year course. They would thus become the next lot of subalterns in the knowledge economy. And the elite would enjoy the benefit of a legitimizing ideology—university-certified merit—to justify the widening economic disparity and their own entrenched privileges.
All said and done, education is the most powerful tool for social mobility available to a citizen today. It is therefore the responsibility of any nation that believes in the ideal of an equitable society to make this tool available to every citizen. It was this vision of education as a social good that inspired independent India’s first National Education Policy, based on the Kothari Commission Report of 1966. But contemporary India’s ruling elite seems less interested in social equity than in securing its privileges for succeeding generations.
So there is a simple reason for the haste and secrecy, not to mention the climate of fear that has marked the preparations for the DU vice-chancellor’s introduction of the four-year programme: it will not survive a process of democratic debate and pedagogic scrutiny.
DU is probably one of the few public universities left in the country today that can give private universities a run for their money. It represents the best of the old regime. Its continuing pre-eminence lends credence to the argument that a state institution can deliver quality education on par with global standards of excellence. Therefore, as was done with Air India, it is necessary to destroy it in order to make a watertight case for handing over higher education to private capital. Why else would you add an entire year to an undergraduate course, increase the workload on teachers, overburden the exam infrastructure to breaking point, and yet refuse to fill the 3,000 odd vacant teaching posts, or invest even a wee bit on university infrastructure?
The vacant teaching posts will be filled, if at all, and infrastructure will be improved, if at all, when DU welcomes private investment, if at all – not before. In the meantime, as the four-year programme unleashes chaos and confusion, as it will, the best of the faculty and students will abandon DU and migrate to other alternatives, which will be—no points for guessing—private universities.
Recently, I was surprised to discover that two eminent sociologists who I was used to identifying as DU academics are now faculty at OP Jindal Global University and Shiv Nadar University, respectively. I’m sure there are sound reasons—and academic ones—why they found DU less attractive than these private universities. But it should surprise nobody if, over the coming months and years, the best of DU’s remaining academics—including all the Marxists—follow suit, and end up at one or the other of the private universities.
Of course, all this makes eminent sense from the perspective of the market. After all, how can DU get away with charging Rs.16,000 or less for a course that a private university might sell for Rs.2 lakh, and that too with faculty far less distinguished than DU’s?
Once DU is taken care of, it would be much easier to replicate the academic mutation in the rest of the state universities. DU’s agitating teachers are battling not a misguided, authoritarian vice-chancellor, but the larger agenda of privatization, of which he has made himself a convenient tool. As things stand, the odds are in favour of the vice-chancellor and against the survival of DU as we know it.