Educating India: The Challenges of Higher Education Reform at Delhi University
By Aneesh Rai
November 9, 2014
Every country’s college-admission process has its pros and cons. But when a girl from India who cracks a whole host of top colleges in America, including receiving a scholarship from Dartmouth, is unable to secure a spot in Delhi University, it might be worth reexamining the system. Aside from unrealistic admission requirements, there are other aspects of Delhi University’s (DU) internal system that contribute to its instability.
DU, one of India’s top colleges, receives hundreds of thousands of applications every year, of which it selects a meager few (exact numbers not found) on one basis – performance on a set of high-school exit exams in senior year. As performance on these exams increased, so did the seemingly arbitrary cutoffs, until they reached a limit in 2011 when certain DU departments mandated a 100% score across four subjects in order to gain college acceptance.
There are other flaws endemic to the system as well. Instead of applying to a college with the intention of studying for a year or two, deciding upon a major, and then declaring, students aspiring to attend DU must apply to specific courses within specific colleges. And, if accepted, they are required to study and concentrate in that course only. While there are workarounds, such as doing a double-degree or a minor, which allows some freedom of choice, for the most part this policy creates the ‘course vs. college’ dilemma many students face when deciding between higher education institutions – pick the best college you are accepted into, or the one where you get the course you want to study.
The real question is, why are students who just graduated high school expected to decide their academic discipline with no prior experience with the collegiate system? These are not decisions to be taken lightly – they may very well determine the trajectory of people’s lives. But Indian universities expect students to have it all figured out. Other countries, such as the UK and Singapore also practice the system of having incoming students commit to a major before being able to actually take any college courses.
To give them their due, the authorities have experimented with systemic changes aimed at increasing flexibility and providing students with more options. This, however, led to a debacle of unprecedented proportions causing university admissions to be delayed this summer, and required governmental intervention.
DU follows the 3-year undergraduate education system. In 2013, Dinesh Singh, the Vice-Chancellor of DU, instituted the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP). The emphasis of this, according to the website “is to tone down the classical mode of overburdening theory-based dissemination of knowledge within the confines of a lecture hall and thus redefine education. The out-of-the box new curriculum ensures simple concept-based learning with emphasis on examples from the real world, interactive analysis, group discussions, hands-on-training, visit to appropriate sites for a grasp of the realistic demands and project handling. The programme promises integral, all-round development of individuals and fulfillment of their needs, ambitions, aims and objectives.”
Within a year, protests started, and one can understand why. The FYUP system was rampant with inefficiencies and only exacerbated problems it was created to solve. There was no sense of organization; none of the teachers or even members of the administration actually knew how to implement the intricacies of the system, such as grading exams for newly-introduced Foundational courses, determining college attendance requirements for students, or even setting up a schedule so teachers knew which days they actually had to come in to teach. Students complained of having learned nothing in their first year since classes mostly consisted of Foundational Courses, a new system of compulsory classes taken over the first two years which were meant to promote an inter-disciplinary approach and expose students to different subjects. The 11 mandatory courses ranged from topics such as Information Technology, Science and Life, to Indian History and Culture, and Governance and Citizenship. However, due to lack of organization and poor implementation, students felt the classes were detracting from time that could be spent focusing on their ultimate area of study. Eventually, students started protesting, and their voices were heard.
A year after its inception, the University Grants Commission, a statutory body that disburses funds to recognized colleges and universities, announced that the FYUP violated the National Policy on Education, which advocates the ‘10+2+3’ years of education system. The University administration eventually cracked under the severe pressure imposed by the UGC, and the FYUP was rolled back. Which meant, of course, that the ‘experimental batch’ put through the short-lived four year programme, now had to condense the three-year syllabus into their two remaining years.
India’s higher education system is in shambles. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been lauded for his plans to set up more Indian Institutes of Technology, and Management, and an All India Institute of Medical Sciences in every state, he may do well to look past simply duplicating the elite centers of engineering, management, and medicine (all rampant with their own issues and controversies which could not be addressed here). With increasing amounts of Indian talent turning to foreign universities, brain drain poses a serious risk for the country unless the problems of the higher education system are addressed now. Before trying to implement new educational curricula that change the face of education, the existing problems in the system should be dealt with. The administration could consider a more flexible system when it comes to students deciding their areas of concentration, and the faculty could be trained to help facilitate learning under such a system. Student feedback could be taken into consideration, so that protesting is not their only way of being heard. And once enough progress is made, perhaps the four-year program might become a truly feasible option. AFP