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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Four Year Undergraduate Program

The FYUP experiment in Delhi University is over. And it makes clear that autonomy of the university system in India is only in the namesake.

UGC first agrees to the FYUP. Then the government changes, and it suddenly realizes that the under-graduate program should be of 3 years' duration. That a 4-year UG program is against the national policy. The Delhi University says that this is a 3-year UG program. Students can get a Bachelor's degree in 3 years. They need to spend 4th year only if they want an honors degree. UGC says no, you need to go back to earlier system where even an honors degree can be had in 3 years. Why can a university not offer a program which gives something extra and asks students to do extra credits. Should UGC decide the curriculum, credits, what exactly the degree say, and all that. Or should UGC be only concerned with quality and national policy. If UGC was truly concerned about the quality, our state of universities wouldn't be what it is right now.

When UGC can not force Delhi University to do anything, it starts hitting below the belt. It starts threatening affiliated colleges. They should start admission in the 3-year program. Do people in UGC not know that affiliated colleges have no authority to start programs on their own. But who cares for the rules. It was a political match and no rules are sacrosanct. The idea was that colleges should put pressure on the university and of course, UGC was playing to the gallery - the poor students who are waiting for the admission process to start.

Is it illegal in this country to have a four year undergraduate program (other than professional degrees). One of the UGC members is Prof. Sanjay Govind Dhande, who during his term as Director, IIT Kanpur, gave approval to FYUP in IIT Kanpur (that was before DU started FYUP). I wonder whether he considers DU to have violated the law or IIT Kanpur to have violated the law, or has he written his dissent notes in the commission meetings.

Those who are happy with the UGC stance claim that this blatant violation of autonomy was justified in this particular case because the VC of DU had also not followed the proper process in implementing the FYUP. And hence external pressure is justified. I am quite scared by this argument. It is essentially saying that the rule of law is not important. The process is not important. Whoever is more powerful at any point in time gets to decide everything. Why could FYUP be not challenged in a court of law if it was started without a proper process or if it was illegal. The regulator (UGC) could have initiated a probe in whether the internal processes were followed or not. They had more than one year to do all this.

I recall the saga about change of admission process to engineering colleges in 2012. I have been pretty critical of the way IITs conduct their JEE and the entire admission process, and yet I have always maintained that an external agency (even the funding agency like MHRD) should not interfere in the admission process. If they were to decide the process, it is likely to be worse than the current system. And if you read the original proposals for IIT admissions, they were as stupid as any.

So finally the DU backed down and is starting admission this week to the same original programs as they had in 2012. But what are the lessons to be learnt from this.

To me, there are two lessons. One, there has to be a proper system of checks and balances in university governance. The VC is simply too powerful in a typical university and has pretty much unlimited emergency powers. The checks are all outside the system, which should not be there. So one could force his hands by stopping funding (like UGC can do), or could force him through agitations, non-cooperation, strikes, and so on. There are alternative governance structures like that in IITs where the roles of different authorities have been defined very carefully and no single authority can take arbitrary decisions in an autocratic way. Unfortunately, UGC is encouraging this concentration of power even in Deemed universities where many had a different, more balanced governance system. (Though I am glad that recently Karnataka High Court has struck down the UGC regulations in this regard.)

The second lesson is that we should move towards dismantling this system of affiliated colleges. An affiliated college has no autonomy at all and is vulnerable to pressures from all sides. In any case, having a system where the teacher has very little role in evaluation (because we assume all teachers to be corrupt) can not result in high quality of education. The world has moved to unitary universities. Even UGC is on record saying that affiliating universities should have only a few affiliated colleges. If Delhi University was a smaller university, it would be easier for it to start new experiments.

I remember the words of Prof. P K Kelkar who started a lot of innovation in engineering education in India when he became the founding director of IIT Kanpur. One of those innovations was that the instructor will be fully responsible for all evaluations and the final grade of each student. The Directors of other institutions were horrified and warned him that a single case of corruption (in grading) would lead to his removal, and he was committing professional suicide. And he replied. If the experiments that he had launched succeeded, India will succeed, and if they failed, only one person will fail. And if educational institutions will not experiment, who else will.

We need more experiments in education, not less. But they can succeed only when they are decided in an open, transparent system with proper checks and balances and in relatively smaller systems. Till then, I will support autocracy of the VC over interference in the autonomy of the university.

Added on 30th June, 2014

The success of IITs is not only because of funding (as is commonly believed) but in significant part because of its governance structure. If IIT Kanpur could withstand political interference in its admission process to a large extent, it was because the Director did not have any emergency powers, and it had to seek approval from Senate. So political interference can be reduced though not eliminated by having a proper governance structure.

The power of VC in Indian universities are unlimited because of historical reasons. The VCs of the first few universities were all British and the British gave them unlimited powers to keep Indian faculty and employees under check. And we still keep copying the Calcutta University Act whenever a new university is to be created.


rohitj said...

"In any case, having a system where the teacher has very little role in evaluation (because we assume all teachers to be corrupt) can not result in high quality of education"

This reminded me of Finland's education system where the teachers are given a lot of autonomy on how they teach and evaluate their students.

iitmsriram said...

Dheeraj, what's your take on the non-AICTE-approved B.Tech. that was part of this FYUP?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sriram, AICTE has no role in approving BTech programs any more as per the Supreme Court decision. Universities are autonomous to not just start BTech programs in their constituent colleges, but a last year judgment has said that they are autonomous to even approve BTech programs in affiliated colleges.

iitmsriram said...

Dheeraj, that has been overruled last month. I am not able to find out for sure, but it appears UGC has not approved the BTech program either.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sriram, can you send me the link of the latest SC judgment.

iitmsriram said...

Dheeraj, there is no judgement yet, there are a couple of interim rulings. Googling for aicte supreme court throws up several press reportings, but some detail can also be found at the aicte web site at

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sriram, thanks. I went through them. These are interim orders issued because no body contested them. Sort of ex-parte orders. I believe that the programs started after April 2013 ruling cannot be now challenged on the basis that they were started without AICTE's prior approval. In July, 2013, when these courses were started, the effective law of the land was that Universities could recognize engineering programs started by its affiliated colleges.