The controversial Central Universities Bill, 2013 is likely to be passed by the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) soon. The Bill was formulated by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government in 2009 and amended four years later. Interestingly, the NDA government, which has taken a stand different from the UPA on most policy-related issues, plans to table the Bill in its original form.
Experts believe that the Bill was framed to favour private players and foreign universities keen to enter India. The purpose of the Bill is to bring all central universities under a common umbrella. While the Bill is still to be tabled in Parliament, the Centre has initiated the process of ‘standardisation’ of universities through the UGC’s (University Grants Commission’s) proposed Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS), which aims to replace the current marking structure with grades.
During the Central Universities’ Vice-Chancellor’s retreat organised in November 2014, the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) pushed for the CBCS. After the introduction of the semester system, the CBCS will be the first major shift in the country’s higher education policy.
The proposed reforms are targeted at standardisation of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) for which the UGC has proposed common syllabi and common entrances tests for all HEIs. The UGC also proposes to offer “seamless mobility” to students. In a letter issued to 40 central universities on 8 January 2015, including the Delhi University (DU), the UGC asked them to introduce the CBCS. In another letter written to by the UGC to the DU, which was accessed by Tehelka, the latter was asked to implement the CBCS from the next (2015-16) session.
Interestingly, after the UGC letter to the DU, the MHRD had asked it to do a “reality check” before implementing the CBCS. The MHRD questioned whether the DU had the infrastructure to implement the new reforms. It also wanted the DU to take teachers, students and other stakeholders into confidence before introducing the CBCS. However, barely a few weeks later, the MHRD did a u-turn and shot another letter to the universities asking them to go ahead with the CBCS from the next academic session.
Surprisingly, the NDA government has not learnt from the mistakes of the previous UPA regime, which implemented the much controversial four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) in the DU without consulting the stakeholders. The FYUP had to be rolled back one year after it was introduced amid widespread protests by the students and teachers. Similarly, on 3 March 2015, a protest rally was organised by the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the DU against the CBSC and the Central Universities Bill ,2013.
The new reforms could turn out to be a major embarrassment for the government, if the CBCS is implemented in an authoritarian manner like the FYUP. Teachers and students fear that the CBCS is a backdoor entry for the FYUP in a three-year format.
What is CBCS?
In the guidelines issued to the universities, the UGC defines CBCS as “a system which provides choice to students to select from the prescribed courses (core, elective or minor or soft skill courses).” Every paper will carry specific credits and students would be required to achieve a minimum number of credits in order to get a degree.
The UGC says that the “grading system is considered to be better than the conventional marks system” as it will facilitate student mobility across institutions within and across countries and also enable potential employers to assess the performance of students. It also states that the CBCS provides a “cafeteria” type approach in which students can take courses of their choice, learn at their own pace, undergo additional courses and acquire more than the required credits. “It is desirable that the HEIs move to CBCS and implement the grading system,” says the UGC.
The Banaras Hindu University (BHU), which shifted to the CBCS in 2010-11 in many of its departments, says it is a “wonderful” idea.
The BHU vice-chancellor, Prof Girish Chandra Tripathi, tells Tehelka: “In principle, the CBCS is a wonderful idea which will develop the all-round personality of students. But the infrastructure required for implementing it should be there. It should not be implemented in haste.”
A report submitted to the Kerala State Higher Education Council (KSHEC) on the working of the CBCS in the colleges affiliated to state universities recommended undoing of the system in 2012 itself. The report says the reforms “overburden” universities.
“The reforms are not suitable for Indian universities as they are over-crowded. For instance, in Cambridge University the number of students studying English is 150,” says the report. But in India, a single class of any college in Kerala or the DU crosses that figure. Also, the CBCS, in principle, carries several issues such as lack of infrastructure to sustain these reforms.
No Choice in ‘Choice based system’
The proposed reforms seek to enhance the soft skills of students by including credit-based courses. Under the new system, students will have to study a core course every semester, which would be compulsory to get the degree of the said discipline. In addition to this, the students will be required to study a foundation course, common across disciplines, while the electives can be vary.
What it essentially means is that the students will not be exercise their choice since the core- and foundation courses will be compulsory. Interestingly, most of the UK universities which have done away with this system, found that the foundation courses “stand in the way of in-depth knowledge,” reads the report submitted to the KSHEC.
All central universities in India enjoy a fair degree of autonomy. The basic syllabi are decided under the framework laid down by the UGC but selection of textbooks, recruitment of teachers, etc, are the prerogative of the varsities. Also, issues concerning the academic and executive functions of the university are taken by their democratic bodies. Attempts to discredit or surpass these layers have often proved disastrous.
Experts believe that a common syllabus across universities could aid politicisation of the course content and threaten the autonomous status of the universities. “Every university sets its own syllabi [but] such reforms will take away the autonomy of the universities,” says Nandita Narain, the president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA).
The All India Students Association (AISA), which played an instrumental role in the rollback of the FYUP, has already started a campaign against the proposed reforms. The president of the AISA’s DU unit Aman Nawaz says, “We feel that a uniform syllabus can be used by the BJP to push its agenda.”
Furthermore, the reforms could lead to homogenisation, negatively affecting the character of the universities. “These universities were established in different historical milieus. For instance, the JNU was established to meet different goals of higher education which necessarily cannot be the same for Mizoram University. The JNU teachers’ association has already rejected the Central Universities Bill ,2013. These reforms will kill the cultural diversity of the universities,” says Arun Kumar, a professor of economics and a former president of the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA). The teachers have also raised their concerns over the transferability clause in the Bill, under which the faculty can be transferred across HEIs. They fear that this clause could be misused for political gains.
The Central Universities Bill, 2013 proposes to
• Create a council of vice-chancellors to coordinate the activities of the central universities;
• create the offices of chancellor and pro-chancellor and fix the number of pro-vice chancellors and executive council members;
• bring in ‘uniformity’ in all central universities under the purview of the UGC;
• set up a teacher recruitment board that will set the standards for appointment of assistant professors;
• appoint an ombudsman, whose decision cannot be challenged in a court of law, for redressal of grievances; and
• allow external review of the institutions and periodic assessment of teachers’ performance
“The teachers who would raise their voice against discrepancies by the university will be moved out in the name of transfer, as happens in other government departments. A case in point is the Presidency College, Kolkata where political transfers by the government in the 1980s dismantled the departments forever,” says Prof Kumar.
Lack of Infrastructure for CBCS
A total of 6,251 teachers posts are lying vacant in the 39 central universities under the purview of the UGC, HRD Minister Smriti Irani informed Parliament in July 2014. As per DUTA sources, the DU itself is short of over 4,000 faculties. Moreover, the universities lack classrooms and hostels, which put the idea of ‘seamless mobility’ for students in doubt.
Under the CBCS, the students will have the option of doing a specific credit course from any other university without the problem of migration or exchange. “Where will the students be accommodated? Without the necessary infrastructure, the universities will be overloaded. This credit transfer is only going to help private players from where students might buy their credits,” says Abha Dev Habib, a member of the DU executive council. The CBCS also proposes checking of answer scripts by external examiners. BL Biju, an assistant professor at Hyderabad University says, “There is already a problem with evaluation and marking of external exams. If the government wants answer sheets to be evaluated by external faculties, they must recruit the faculty first. But it is unlikely to happen. The government’s objective is to take control of all central universities in the guise of introducing the CBCS.” Despite repeated attempts by Tehelka, neither the MHRD nor the UGC were willing to comment.
What the CBCS will mean for students
• Universities to have common syllabus;
• a shift from numerical marking scheme to grades;
• students to get credits for each course cleared by them;
• students need to study core courses, foundation courses of compulsory and elective nature and elective courses;
• external examiners to check answer scripts;
• seamless mobility i.e. a student of X university can earn a credit from Y university.
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The state universities have unanimously agreed to shift to the CBCS but not all central universities have followed suit.
Out of 44 central universities, 40 are under the purview of the UGC. The UGC has asked these universities to adopt the CBCS. The University of Kashmir and the BHU have already adopted it.
Curious case of Delhi University
In the past few years, the DU has become a laboratory of sorts for experimenting with new ideas. For instance, the UGC and the MHRD introduced the semester system in the DU in the year 2010. It was followed by the much-hyped FYUP in 2013. And now it is toying with the idea of introducing the CBCS.
“The whole idea of bulldozing of reforms by the government is disheartening and it will prove disastrous for the country in the future. The question is: Why are the MHRD and the UGC pushing for these reforms without consulting the stakeholders?” asks Habib.