As public attention focuses on the Jawaharlal Nehru University fee hike stir, there has been an extremely violent protest going on at the University of Delhi spearheaded by the Delhi University Teachers’ Association. For the sixth day running, the university teachers have camped on the lawns outside the vice-chancellor’s office in large numbers protesting the unfilled teaching vacancies in the several dozen colleges of Delhi University.
Hundreds of these vacancies are distributed across Delhi University (DU) colleges and are highly coveted. They offer stability and carry the high pay and secure service conditions accorded to teachers of central universities. Instead, the university hires thousands of ‘ad hoc’ teachers who teach for years on end without any assurance of employment.
But the problem is deeper than just the mode of hiring. In the teachers’ protests, what remains unacknowledged is the attendant and long-term neglect and damage that is being caused to the quality of undergraduate teaching at Delhi University.
Value of UG students
A university cannot achieve any sustainable excellence unless it has a strong undergraduate programme. In fact, even a cursory glance at any of the leading universities around the world shall convince anyone that each one of them realises that its intake of talented students for research and innovation programmes is heavily reliant on its own undergraduates. It is well known that freshman students carry energy and enthusiasm and are easily inspired. So, most leading universities pay extraordinary attention to nurturing undergraduate talent. For instance, Rice University, Imperial College London and Princeton University pay a great deal of attention to the quality of teaching they provide to their undergraduates, who are often taught by Nobel laureates or professors of similar stature at these institutions.
Fortunately, the colleges of Delhi University attract some of India’s brightest students who come straight after high school. And let there be no doubt that these students are comparable, in terms of ability, with the best students found in any university across the globe. Ordinarily, it should have led Delhi University to take great advantage of such a large intake of talented students. I can readily attest through personal experience on how this can happen in one of several possible ways. A very highly cited mathematical research paper of mine centres around an idea that occurred to me during the course of a teaching interaction with undergraduates at St. Stephen’s College.
It would seem like a no brainer for Delhi University to have grasped this universal truth of the value of undergraduate students. Unfortunately, for as long as I can recall, except for one episode in recent times, nothing much has been done about this at Delhi University.
How does this neglect of bright undergraduates happen at Delhi University? To truly nurture these students, an academically strong and active body of teachers is an essential and first prerequisite. Only then will they rise to the task. This creates a two-way process where the student stimulates the teacher and in turn, the teacher renews herself by taking part actively in research activities. Her mind is then better equipped for her own good and for the good of her students. Simultaneously, these teachers must be provided with a healthy work environment where they have access to office space, library facilities with online journals, decent laboratories and exposure to trends and advances in subject areas through seminars and conferences. Unfortunately, this does not happen at the colleges of Delhi University.
In reality, a few thousand teachers have been hired, for years on end as, what are termed, ‘ad hoc’ teachers. This means their appointments get renewed every four months. This results in unsettled and uneven teaching simply because such teachers are highly insecure and even subject to exploitation. Quite often their appointments are not renewed for various reasons and they have to go through the torturous process of seeking a fresh ad hoc appointment from college to college. Such insecurity and instability can be hardly conducive to good teaching.
There are other problems as well. Facilities for research and innovative activities are almost non-existent at most colleges. When such a situation is coupled with a heavy teaching load, the resultant effect can be easily imagined. This situation with most of its disabling features was on the verge of being sorted out about five years ago at Delhi University. This was when it had introduced a reform with far-reaching implications under what has come to be known as the Four Year Undergraduate Programme or the FYUP. The measure was overturned through processes not entirely proper and engineered by immature thinking and actions on the part of the University Grants Commission egged on by misinformed individuals.
The result has been that a large body of teachers has been left in the lurch for an inordinately long period through this uncalled-for dismantling of a programme that was hailed in many parts of the world. So, currently, the situation is essentially back to where it was, and Delhi University has not helped by neglecting to fill up these positions on a regular and permanent basis. The resultant violence on the part of young teachers cannot be condoned but its causes require urgent remedial action.
A deeper rot
To my mind, great damage has also been inflicted upon generations of undergraduate students by the perpetual inability of Delhi University to integrate-even in straightforward mechanical fashion, its undergraduate programmes with relevant postgraduate programmes over a very long period of time. Such a system can cause harm to the average college teacher. The segregation of undergraduate teaching from research and postgraduate programmes results in a college teacher being deprived of enriching higher-end academic exposure. It then often tends to stunt the academic growth of teachers.
Also, college students of Delhi University remain largely unaware of the quality of the postgraduate programmes of Delhi University. This happens since they judge the entire system on the basis of their limited college experiences having been kept away from the higher end research activities that are located away from all colleges. This causes many talented undergraduates to move away from Delhi University after acquiring their first degrees. To a significant extent, Delhi University is not the only culprit in this neglect of undergraduate programmes. This happens in many universities across India.
Up until a few years ago, the Indian Institute of Science did not have any undergraduate programmes but at last, wisdom prevailed. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) does not have undergraduate programmes for many important disciplines.
Indian universities and research institutions have failed to realise that they shall not be able to sustain high academic standards unless they also pay attention in meaningful ways to undergraduate programmes. India is paying a heavy price for such neglect.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.