25 Jul

Not in students’ larger interests

Thursday, 13 June 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Delhi University has been truly callous in building support systems for the monumental change that it proposes in the under-graduate programmes 

Imagine what the person who scored less than the cutoff must be feeling”… It was a flippant comment on university ‘cutoff’ marks. Delhi University’s premier colleges admit students who have scored in their high 90s, and each decimal point matters. Even in a year of big changes. These marks, just under the bar, are not an indictment of the individuals who did not manage to make the grade, condemned as they are to not being able to work their dreams this time. It is an indictment of the capacity constraints in higher education in India. The race of Delhi University exists because it is amongst the best in India — which does not necessarily imply that it is good in absolute terms. It may conceivably offer low-quality learning opportunities, and, indeed has been accused of that often. There are just not enough good quality higher education places on offer.

This, in a year when the very same university is under fire from its own teachers for introducing a new structure to its degrees. It has moved from a three-year degree to a four-year undergraduate programme that allows exit at various levels. The first year — a foundation year — has basic courses across a spectrum of subjects, clearly an attempt to rectify some of the wrongs identified in the system. The foundation year helps those who suffered mediocre schooling and were not really ready for University. This was a complaint voiced loudly in previous years. It is sadly true that the fall-out of this design is those who did not need this extra support will waste the year rehashing what they already knew. Or seek universities abroad where there is more rigour (and planning).

The intent, as it often is, is noble. To offer a range of mature learning opportunities that will allow students more freedom in their pathways into working lives has to be a good thing. Unless implemented badly. The choices, say teachers, are severely limited. Worse, the time lines allowed are not enough to design and plan courses well enough for students to gain from it.. teachers have asked for more time to consider the case of the FYUP, or time to plan the changes better.

The real tragedy here is not the change, which may even be a good idea in the long term. The real tragedy here is that students have little choice but to be subject to a change that seems ad hoc to them. The ones who join this year will justifiably fear being guinea pigs in a large scale experiment. If the teachers are not prepared to deliver to the new model, it is not they who suffer, it is students who will bear the consequences of this unpreparedness. And if teachers are unwilling to accept this change because they do not believe it is a good thing, then the onus squarely falls on the university to resolve this stand-off.

One way to do it is what is happening right now: The university juggernaut moves on; 90,000 application forms have been purchased by prospective students, the year starts with the new format, and we all evolve within the new system, finding the true path through trial and error. Not very dissimilar to the route taken for the Right to Education Act too, if one is to think about it. An Act that was drafted with more gaps than guidance has evolved over three years to broadly find acceptance, even if grudging, amongst those affected. There have been furious negotiations over the years, each State has found its way of dealing with the Act, and the loudest voices have shaped the Act. Action legislation, to coin a term, is doing well here.

 

Is that what we expect in Delhi University? This is the first case of sweeping reform in higher education, and it is more significant than those that will follow it. Lessons will be learnt here by all — policy-makers, vice chancellors, teachers and students. Change is never an easy process, and more often than not it faces resistance. But the best and most successful change management programmes lean heavily on good internal communications. The challenge is to built internal support, find champions for change and lead with good news. Delhi University’s callousness in this process is only feeding the resistance, futile as it seems today. There may be good reasons to push forward in this manner, and the costs may be too dire to share with those who will suffer. But in the long run, the change is going to be less than successful unless it is shared by those who must incorporate it in their lives.

 

 

This was published in the Daily Pioneer on June 13, 2013 and is linked here: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/not-in-students-larger-interests.html

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