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A Needless And Useless Debate

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Another needless – and totally useless – controversy has erupted on the education front. The University Grants Commission (UGC) and Delhi University (DU) are locked in a bitter fight over the desirability of the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) vs the original three-year degree course. Delhi University is defending its right to continue with the (FYUP). The UGC is equally determined to force the university to go back to the three-year course that was the norm till last year. The Modi government has made some politically correct statements to the effect that it is a neutral party to the dispute and that it is for the UGC and DU to sit together and resolve the matter. The problem is that it is no secret where the government’s sympathies lie. Before the controversy erupted, the BJP, and its HRD Minister Smriti Irani, had spoken out in favour of the three year course several times. So in the UGC vs DU battle, it is very likely that UGC will come out the winner. It holds the purse strings (most DU colleges survive on UGC grants), and it has the tacit support of the government of the day. Just as Dinesh Singh, DU vice-chancellor had the support of the UPA government when he decided to implement the four year course despite much opposition from within DU itself.

I remember discussing with a colleague last year when the FYUP was being rolled out that the whole four vs three year course debate was useless. I had told her then that yes, the Indian higher education (and for that matter, the primary and secondary education) system was broken. But adding a year of foundation courses would do nothing to fix it.

At the end of the day, the real problem was the teaching methodology at each successive level which ended up boring even the best and brightest of students instead of instilling in them a love for different subjects or helping them develop a curious mind. The current Indian education system was designed to reward students who had good memories and could devote enormous hours. It penalised students who were more creative but perhaps not as good at learning by rote.

And the foundation course through which Dinesh Singh was trying to give DU students a glimpse into different subjects was actually something that should have been taught to them in the 10 + 2 years of schooling.

Also, implementing a four-year programme without actually retraining the teachers to impart lessons in a very different fashion was going to be an experiment that was bound to fail. (In an interview last month with BW, Dinesh Singh admitted as much. (See The Dinesh Singh Interview)

Does that mean that I support the UGC move to force DU to go back to the three year programme? Not really. If anything, the UGC move is even more misguided than what Dinesh Singh did last year. Sure, I still hold the view that the four-year programme at DU does not educate a student any better than its predecessor, the three=year course. But it does no worse either. And UGC, by waking up suddenly and trying to turn the clock back is wreaking havoc in the lives of students.

When DU went from the three-year degree to the four-year undergraduate programme, at least the students who were already enrolled in the three year course did not suffer. Only new entrants would go on to join the FYUP. And if they did not like the four year programme, all the other universities and colleges in the country were following the three year degree course anyway.

On the other hand, what UGC has not thought about is what will happen to the first batch of FYUP that enrolled last year. If DU starts offering only the three year course from this year, will it mean that all students who joined last year and have completed the foundation course will graduate at the same time as a three year programme student joining this year? In essence, would they have lost a year while getting essentially the same degree?

The problem is that while the Indian education system is broken, the three vs four year debate is not the main issue. If the new government really wants to fix the education problem, the debate should be focused on the word “education” and not “degree”. And that would mean in terms of changing the teacher profile, the systems of teaching etc. Essentially, most Indian students who stick around the complete their courses do get a degree – what they often fail to get is a proper education.