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.
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.
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.