Sunday, June 02, 2013

Left not right to fight DU change

By Swapan Dasgupta

Call it prejudice or even evidence of a closed mind, but the mere presence of individuals such as Sitaram Yechuri and Arundhati Roy on the same platform to protest against the newly-introduced Four-year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP for short) has got me all worked up. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I don’t consider Yechuri or the Maoist-loving Booker Prize winner worthy enough to intervene in a debate on higher education. Both are extremely erudite individuals and Ms Roy in particular has become an international celebrity—a pamphleteer whose reputation is on par with the grand old man for all causes, Noam Chomsky.

The problem lies in separating Yechuri the individual from Yechuri the CPI(M) apparatchik who championed the destruction of higher education in West Bengal; and detaching the delectable prose of Arundhati from her sanctimonious extremism and her profound contempt for the aspirations of the Indian middle classes. When such individuals join hands and team up with teachers who have made a virtue of ideological regimentation and staff room intrigues, it is time to despair.

The despondency is all the more because there is merit in one particular aspect of the Left’s relentless assault on Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh: the charge that the new curriculum was rushed through and without a wider debate on the conceptual underpinnings of the changes. This isn’t because the VC is temperamentally autocratic, undemocratic and is slavishly pursuing the interests of corporate interests—one of the more colourful charges levelled at the meeting at the India International Centre last Friday. The plain truth is that those entrusted with modifying the curriculum were unenthusiastic about having to depart from their set ways, dragged their feet endlessly and were finally coerced into submitting their proposals at the very last minute which left almost no time for wider consultations. Singh was chasing a deadline and the organised (mainly Left-dominated) teachers’ bodies were hell-bent on preventing the changes. The result was an almighty muddle and a fierce controversy that is bound to affect the new undergraduate programme.

There is also another backdrop to the academic war that has spilled into the public arena. During his tenure, Singh was insistent on one basic point: that the primary job of the university teachers—who are today much better paid than they were in the past—is to teach. His unannounced inspection of colleges and his censure of teachers who were lax about taking classes, evaluating students’ work and even attending college made him thoroughly unpopular and cast him in the role of a policeman.

Yet, what the VC did was necessary. Many of the students I have spoken to have complained endlessly about the indifference of their teachers to taking classes and motivating students to pursue the subjects independently. And a chairman of a college told me in no uncertain terms that the real problem lies in getting teachers to attend classes and teach. All the ideological misgivings over the FYUP apart, the fundamental resistance came from teachers who were loath to shoulder the extra work burden.

Yet, some fundamental conceptual issues remain. The idea of a university pursuing knowledge for its own sake has long been abandoned in India. Those who are truly interested in their subjects (and have the necessary parental support) are inclined to buy one-way tickets to foreign universities. Some two decades ago, studying abroad was essentially a post-graduate option; today, many students find it preferable to escape from the clutches of Indian higher education altogether.

The problem is seemingly intractable. The over-emphasis on foundation courses—some of which sound totally gobbledegook—are aimed at producing a better and more aware class of citizens who will contribute to that elusive exercise of ‘nation-building’. It may well achieve that objective but in the process it is also likely to create a body of bored students resentful of having to repeat what they should have learnt in school, including the so-called life skills.

Yet, the fact remains that Delhi University doesn’t mere comprise St Stephen’s, Sri Ram College, Lady Sri Ram College and Hindu College. They also include colleges where the quality of the intake isn’t on par. The challenge of evolving a curriculum that caters to students who have entered college with vastly differentiated levels of schooling and diverse social backgrounds and those who are worthy of Oxbridge and Ivy League is daunting. My fear is that in striking an aggregate balance, the system will compromise excellence.

There is an additional complication. The spirited intervention of the Left—what the hell was NDA convenor Sharad Yadav doing in such a gathering?—is partially against the way the FYUP was rushed through the various councils and partly against some of the exasperated utterances of the VC. But an equally important part of their resistance stems from the dilution of what one academic confessed was the insufficiency of “progressive” (a euphemism for Left doctrinaire) themes in subjects that were earlier classed as the liberal arts and now go by the name of social sciences. If the Academic Council has indeed managed to reduce the quantum of ideological bias, it is to be complimented. What has to be tested is whether the alternative is academically exacting or is tailor-made for mediocrity.

The FYUP is now a reality. There is little point in confusing students further by making it a one-year experiment. What is necessary is a little open-mindedness and flexibility to undertake periodic exercises in fine-tuning the curriculum. That’s the least the system can do in the face of a significant exodus of school-leavers to foreign universities. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 2, 2012

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Swapanda, as someone who teaches in a western university, let me assure you that I admire my counterparts in the Indian university system. I do not know HOW they teach. They grade far more than I have to, their responsibilities are onerous - the liberal arts profs all seem to be marking 300 papers every term! And besides, unlike me, they have NO administrative support. No willing assistants to take on routine tasks, no support, and often no books in the libraries to which they send their students. Any surprise that no research happens? Or that the profs have to compile notes and read them out to students? First, give them the First World institutional support they need before demanding that "they teach" like their First World counterparts