Thursday, 7 July, 2022
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India’s education system looks to Ivy League but regulatory bodies like UGC get in the way

Delhi University’s BTech Humanities programme tells a story about regulatory bodies’ restrictive hold on India’s higher education system.

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As the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University a few years ago, I had succeeded in creating a new “hands-on” learning programme in the realm of the humanities that had some truly novel features. What happened to it is also a story about the state of Indian education’s regulatory bodies.

It was essentially a four-year degree programme that allowed half the credits to accumulate via projects connected to the real world through a digital lens that combined humanities and other disciplines creatively. (This was different from the larger four-year degree programme we had simultaneously introduced in the University).

This humanities-based programme – crafted for a small number of students at the Cluster Innovation Centre that we had created – had begun to draw a great deal of appreciation and attention at the global level. Students from Denmark had started attending the course within a year of its launch. We had very appropriately christened the degree as BTech Humanities – Design Your Degree.

Unfortunately, India’s education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission, reversed its initial, hearty approval to this novel programme after a couple of years. Amid threat of de-recognition, we were forced to convert the programme into a BA degree with a three-year duration that stripped away many of its essential features. Our defence for retaining the BTech label was not heeded. The powers-that-be refused to acknowledge that technology has a wider and more enlightened interpretation than just a classical straight-jacketed image as practised in our Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). I am willing to wager that the University Grants Commission (UGC) shall suffer an apoplectic fit when it learns that the Cambridge University awards engineering degree under the BA label.

Also read: IIT mania is costing students quality time at schools. But CBSE, other bodies still sleeping

Emulate, not regulate

The point that I am trying to make here is that mandating the creation of regulatory bodies carries with it the danger of empowering them with a very narrow outlook that could do more harm than good. Of course, we need mechanisms to ensure quality but these should encourage educational institutions rather than act as impediments in their growth.

In this context, I wish to draw attention to the draft document on the new National Education Policy. On the one hand, it recommends the setting up of regulatory bodies, but on the other hand, it very aptly and repeatedly cites the practices and standards of the Ivy League universities of the United States.

Indeed, there are several aspects of their institutional persona that are worthy of respect and emulation. Yet, ironically, we have never paused to consider that these institutions did not gain eminence by following the recommendations of a centrally devised education policy nor through the overriding powers of a regulatory watchdog. Perhaps the very absence of such thinking may have benefitted them to a very large extent.

For instance, it is worth noting that the Harvard University began to truly evolve when the local government relinquished control over it in 1870. Consequently, the University began to be managed by its alumni and by civil society. There is a lesson here for all of us.

An excess of prescription and control through devices and mechanisms that can sometimes resemble authoritative decrees can be highly counterproductive. They tend to restrict innovation and hamper academic freedom. We must not forget that the essence of a good academic institution lies in its freedom to innovate and even experiment.

Also read: Liberal arts universities on par with IITs, IIMs are next on Modi govt’s education plan

Regulation stymies innovation

I am often reminded of my mathematics teacher from my early years of schooling. His very stern and forbidding nature did nothing but impede any genuine and creative mathematical thinking on the part of us quivering pupils. This happened particularly when he would oversee our individual efforts by looming over our desks in a big brotherly fashion; ready to rebuke and reprimand but rarely to encourage or generate confidence. Tragically, what this worthy teacher did to us is exactly what several of the regulatory bodies, like the UGC, AICTE, NCTE, PCI are doing to our educational institutions today.

There are some very disturbing aspects of the regulatory and overly prescriptive environment that we have managed to create over decades. For instance, the UGC mandates an essentially common curriculum for all universities in India across all disciplines. This decree dictates that all universities in India shall have to teach first-year calculus to all mathematics students in more or less identical fashion with a largely common syllabus. Perhaps they are unaware that Harvard and MIT, in spite of existing in physical proximity, teach freshman calculus in ways that not just differ from each other but also vary in manners and content from year to year.

The malaise is not just confined to the UGC. The National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) prescribes an identical curriculum for the BEd degree across India. This effectively stymies any innovation on the ground. In exactly the same manner, the Pharmacy Council of India dictates that all institutions in India shall teach the exact same thing in the exact same manner under various pharmacy-related degrees with little or no room to innovate or experiment at the local level. This violates the evolutionary principle of academic diversity and breeds mediocrity at all levels causing great harm to India.

The author is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.

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  1. About Dinesh Singh and his ‘experiments’ the less said the better. His FYUP was the most clumsily conceived scheme – with inputs only from his henchmen in each department. Full papers were divided into half without any consideration of how they would work in the mind of students not familiar with concepts they were dealing with, elementary teaching of the lowest kind was introduced in the first year where even the brightest students were asked to write essays like ‘my journey on the metro today’ and so on. Teaching was directed at the lowest possible common denominator so as to avoid
    unpopularity with students. There were innumerable examples of mediocrity and sloppiness in the conception of the scheme and this man has the gall to claim he was promoting higher academics. He was thrown out by a party he was cosying up to – the BJP – even though the maximum support he got was from his college friends like Shashi Tharoor and Kapil Sibal of the Congress. He is a fraud posing as an academic.

  2. We need deregulation. Why is Modi not doing it? About time to stop blaming Congress, who I agree did an abysmal job. BJP is in their 2nd term in power and keep the same policies. An absolute abdication of responsibilities.

  3. Root of all ailments:
    The “system” doesn’t Trust the very people who runs it, nor who comes under it.
    – that’s the pivotal criterion of any Law/Act ever made in independent India; not just Education, every sector that comes under Govt perview.

    Why – (it’s well known) Corruption control, untrustworthyness of people, culture of taking advantage of anything by gaming all “system”

    Origin – Colonial culture under Foreign rule

    Reason for Continuation – Bone less pillars of “democracy”

    Intent to Correct – just imagine, the outcome of Demo exercise: a street smart 60+ yr old PM got fooled so bad in broad daylight!

  4. I commented and gave the example of doings of Dr. Dinesh Singh during his vice-chancellorship, when I read a news that the UGC wants to introduce 4-year bachelor degree course. It was published in the Mint. Dr. Singh had already introduced during his tenure in DU. But it was abandoned. Now the UGC wants to replicate it throughout India. Some of his brainchild have been practicing at the Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi.

  5. The autonomy of education system without establishing decentralization in Indian Education System. The institution like UGC and NAAC needs to be restricted fro the purpose of grants. Their regulatory framework in country like ours is highly undesired.

  6. Exactly, I agree on most of the opinion. But again please look at the lower level of our HEI’s (like state universities/private universities/colleges etc). Do you think that these organizations can function without regulations. These “deregulation” would lead them into a chaotic situation. Degrees would be bought and sold…….or favors would be given and taken…………..In my opinion what UGC have done by way of regulation is that it have restored some degree of “sense and stability” in the education system …….
    There is no guarantee that freedom given by the regulator would not be exploited. e.g our IITs would have gone down the drain like our universities if it were not for the “special law” that protect them…….these could have been easily occupied by a class of “non performing people” or NPA……reducing these institutes to “white elephants”……………………
    Are we ready for such kind of deregulation? I do not think so. look at our banks… frauds/NPA etc. . can we think of copying the private banking system of USA. On the contrary RBI’s regulations and strict control have helped it from going bust.

  7. ‘Leftist Congressi Academicians’ of the university wanted MHRD and UGC to regulate the universities at that time are now showcasing their opposition to the same regulatory mechanism for opposing the current government. At now point, they wanted Indian Education System to undergo reform that can cater the needs of the nation and the society. For them politics to survive in corridors of power begins from controlling the education systems in the name of ‘liberalization’.

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