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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Whose University, Whose Rights? Revisiting the FYUP Debate



Over the last week, the University of Delhi, India's largest public university and the one in which I am currently enrolled, saw the culmination of a very shrill debate that had been going on for the past year and a half over the switching of undergraduate programmes from a three year to a four year scheme. While several critics lashed out at the university administration for their hurry in implementing a half-baked Four Year Undergraduate Programme (henceforth FYUP) full of drawbacks, others pointed out at the several benefits of the scheme and the need to kick-start the long-pending 'reforms' in the education sector of the country.

The new government which assumed charge at the center in May had promised to roll back the FYUP in its election manifesto. As the admission season approached, the cacophony of voices advocating or criticizing the FYUP got louder and it seemed that even this time the university administration would succeed in admitting students under the FYUP. However, a last minute intervention by the University Grants Commission (UGC), the country's university watchdog, which had stood by in the past as the DU administration implemented the four year scheme, compelled the Vice Chancellor to roll back the programme and revert back to the three year scheme.

Now that the admissions have started and dust has settled on the whole issue, it would be pertinent to revisit the main arguments for and against the programme to sift the wheat from the chaff and to impartially interrogate the merits and demerits of the infamous FYUP.

Uncharacteristic Haste 

Writing in The Hindu on 29th April, 2013, Mrs. Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University questioned the haste with which the FYUP was pushed through.
“There was little in the form of discussion before introducing the programme. No concept papers were circulated by the administration and no feedback was formally sought from any segment of the university...The scheme of the programme was passed by both the Academic Council and the Executive Council in extraordinary haste without any substantial debate.”
Such speed and lack of real discussion, she wrote, seriously undermines even the most minimal academic standards. Similarly, Apoorvanand, a Professor of Hindi in the University, writing on the popular opinion blog Kafila said:
“The FYUP can be used to pilot test the XIIth five year plan strategy for 're-crafting undergraduate education' but its reckless speed of implementation threatens to wreck all positive potential and derail the national reforms process....The enhancement of DU infrastructure promised earlier is yet to materialize, especially classroom space. Around 3,000 UGC sanctioned teaching posts have remained vacant for three years. On this already overstretched infrastructure, the FYUP will inevitably impose an additional burden of 33%.”
He added that a major reform like FYUP has been initiated without the backing of a national policy statement or white paper explaining its rationale. The good reasons why the nation must bear the additional cost of a year, he said, must be spelt out and publicly debated.

The Need for Reforms

However, defenders of the FYUP rebutted the charges of haste in the implementation of the program. Mr. Chandrachur Singh, an assistant professor of Political Science in the University, writing in The Hindu, explained why the FYUP was a good idea.

Rubbishing allegations that the programme had been implemented in a hurry, he said
“The VC Mr. Dinesh Singh has created new channels of communication where none existed, aside from the politically fragmented Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA), for communicating with students and teachers of this vast university which has between 4-5 lakh students on its rolls....In their eagerness to trash the FYUP for its alleged haste in implementation, critics tend to ignore the massive transformation in communication styles. Assembly based discussions and deliberations have made way for cyber discussions where conclusions and consensus are much easier to reach.”
One of the main features of the FYUP, he said, was that the students who were earlier dropping out of the university at the rate of 40-45%, would be able to leave with some sort of formal award – thus increasing their employability, instead of leaving with nothing. Alleging that the critics of FYUP were ideologically biased, Mr Singh added that the scheme enjoyed support from the younger members of the academia and their participation in large numbers in the Academic Congress as well as in the framing of the syllabi proves it. 

Writing in the Op-Ed column of the same newspaper, Mr. Shashi Tharoor, the former Minister of State for Human Resources and Development, under whose watch the programme was implemented, made a strong case for the four year scheme. He wrote:
“The economic reforms of the last 20 odd years have unleashed our economic potential, and the governance reforms of the last 10 years have raised our civic awareness. Education as a sector remains the last frontier largely untouched by reforms and we need to completely overhaul our educational systems and processes if we are to realize the full potential of the demographic potential that awaits us in the coming decades of the 21st century.”
“Relative to the national per capita income, our teachers enjoy a salary structure that is one of the most favorable in the world. And yet, by any measure of performance, as repeatedly shown in a number of professional surveys and global rankings of universities, we are languishing at modest to mediocre levels of educational achievement.”
FYUP: Disadvantage Dalits?

What in Mr. Chandrachur Singh's view was one of the strong points of FYUP, was turned on its head by a powerful critique offered by Mr. Udit Raj and Mr. Hany Babu, members of Joint Action Front for Democratic Education. Questioning the rationale behind multiple exit points offered by the new scheme, the authors, writing in The Hindu, said:
“Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes/ Other Backward Classes (SC/ST/OBC) groups have advocated caution on the potential of the new programme to make the reservation policy mandated by the constitution nugatory, as a large number of students of SC/ST/OBC groups may not be able to complete 4 years of education. The multiple exit points may become death traps for these students. They will exit with unequal degrees, the equalizing force of education will be lost and the social stratification will be further hardened”
“The question is not about the autonomy of the university, but whether the government of India can turn its face the other way when the mandate of the constitution is made a mockery by the university...The government cannot shy away from its responsibility when the national education policy of the 10+2+3 system is replaced by another system without a national debate, especially when it threatens the fundamental policies of social affirmative action mandated by the constitution.”
The Purpose of Liberal Education

However, in midst of these quibbles over procedures and merits/demerits, the larger questions about the purpose of a liberal education eventually sought to be achieved were raised by Mrs. Nandini Sundar, a professor of Sociology in the University and Mr. Gautam Bhan, Professor at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. 

Mrs. Sundar, writing on her blog, advocated for an 'Indian education for Indian students' and said:
“Instead of enabling a few elite students to merge seamlessly into the US like higher education system, the MHRD should think of the ways to improve what passes by the name of higher education in the country as a whole....An education policy that confines itself to less than 10% of employment that the formal sector constitutes, is bound to shortchange the remaining the 90%.”
Mr. Bhan, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, quoted Martha Nussbaum and said that liberal education is related not just to particular ends such as employability and skills, but also to a project of building and sustaining the quality of human personhood, democratic societies and everyday life.
“Teaching techniques at the cost of analytical skills may answer an immediate market demand, but it creates a generation of university graduates unable to evolve with the inevitable changes in technique...India today is marked by a deeply contested trajectory of growth and development, a growing trend of intolerant and un-democratic impulses, as well as persistent social, political and economic inequality. Any curriculum must face this moment and prepare its graduates to live and work within it.”
Attacking the FYUP, he added that “students taking the course will learn a set of facts that will be outdated nearly as soon as they leave the classroom. But more importantly, they will lack that deepest promise of a liberal education: the ability to seek and assess knowledge independently because they have been given the conceptual tools to do so.”

Conclusion

The tussle over FYUP has seen numerous protests throughout the last year. It is true that the higher education scenario in India is in urgent need of reforms. Yet, such reforms have to be publicly debated and a consensus has to be formed around any proposed measures.

The failure of FYUP is a tale of the failure of the university administration to properly consult all stakeholders and clearly spell out its vision for the university. By pushing through the FYUP without any substantial debate or discussion in a mere 10 months, the Vice Chancellor Mr. Dinesh Singh sought to introduce overnight change in the university. However, instead of having his cake, he has ended up with burnt fingers.