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Straight Talk: The needless war on 4-year undergraduate programmes

Pushkar discusses the issues underlying the debate over India's four-year undergraduate program.
BY Pushkar |   29-09-2014
Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well...

Ever since the Narendra Modi government took charge, India’s higher education news has been dominated by one and only one issue – the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) war on four-year undergraduate programmes (FYUPs). In fact, so much has the FYUP issue been in the news that some of us may have actually started to believe that it is the single-most important higher education problem before the nation!

The trouble started with Delhi University (DU) where vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh had imposed the FYUP last year on a reluctant faculty. Given the manner in which the FYUP was introduced (and that too at a highly politicized institution), DU’s version of the FYUP was always on shaky ground. Soon after the change of government at the centre, the UGC reversed its support for FYUP and forced DU to go back to the old three-year programme.

Whatever the merits of FYUP, few people would have shed tears over its demise. Some may have even noticed the irony; last year, the same UGC had fully supported the very same FYUP. It is obvious that the push to abort came from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD).

The FYUP matter should have been buried there but it was not. Instead, the UGC declared war on all four-year undergraduate programmes, with the exception of those in engineering.

The next targets were a mix of public and private institutions such as Ambedkar University, Ashoka University, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Shiv Nadar University and Symbiosis University. Some of them, it should be noted, have been running four-year programmes for the past few years. The UGC had either approved their FYUPs or looked the other way (unless, of course, these institutions ran their programmes in a clandestine manner, remaining undetected!). However, once the UGC took aim at them, rather than waste time and sleep by taking on the UGC/MHRD behemoth, most institutions wisely chose to fall in line.

The FYUP matter should have been buried there but it was not.

The UGC then took aim at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), some of which run four-year programmes in non-engineering disciplines. Given the sacrosanct status of the IITs in this country, what this has effectively done is make the FYUP issue more about the IITs – particularly with respect to their autonomy and whether or not the UGC can dictate terms to a set of institutions which are governed by the IIT Act and the IIT Council – and less about the FYUPs.

The real issue is the logic and wisdom of three- versus four-year undergraduate programmes, whether in humanities, social sciences, engineering, sciences etc or some combination of them. The real issue is the worth of undergraduate degrees, whether of three- or four-years, because, as we all know, a majority of our universities hand out worthless degrees to students, leaving  them unemployed or underemployed. The real issue, perhaps the only real issue, is to find ways to improve the quality of education on offer at the majority of India’s higher education institutions.

The war on FYUPs simply sidelines real issues in India’s higher education.

It is odd that the UGC took on the task of disciplining the more credible and respected higher education institutions in the country when, during the same period, there was no attempt to discipline the hundreds of junk colleges and universities.

The UGC’s war on FYUPs, most likely on behalf of the MHRD, sends a discouraging message to everyone who has a stake in higher education: so what if our higher education is in the dumps; we will still pick on issues that are irrelevant to improving the quality of education. It sends another clear message: like it or not, higher education will remain as politicized as it has been in the past.
 

Pushkar is a contributor on India’s higher education for Asian Scientist (Singapore). He previously taught at Goa University, McGill University, Concordia University, and the University of Ottawa. He is currently with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa. You can follow him on twitter at: @PushHigherEd

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