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The 'Semesterisation' Impasse at Delhi University

The arbitrary and authoritarian imposition of the semester system in the undergraduate courses of Delhi University is nothing but the current manifestation of a market-driven "vision" for Indian higher education. It is part of a move to standardise university education in ways which will make it more elitist and less open to critical thought. The present struggle against "semesterisation" is part of the larger struggle against the surrender of our universities to the logic of the market.

COMMENTARY

colleges, which are running in semester

The ‘Semesterisation’ Impasse mode for many years. There are hardly any sectional vested interests in this oppo

at Delhi University

sition; it is the pedagogical issues which are at the heart of the current resistance. The university has 77 federated but Saumyajit Bhattacharya non-autonomous colleges enrolling more

The arbitrary and authoritarian imposition of the semester system in the undergraduate courses of Delhi University is nothing but the current manifestation of a market-driven “vision” for Indian higher education. It is part of a move to standardise university education in ways which will make it more elitist and less open to critical thought. The present struggle against “semesterisation” is part of the larger struggle against the surrender of our universities to the logic of the market.

Saumyajit Bhattacharya (saumyajitb@gmail. com) teaches Economics in a college of Delhi University.

T
he two-year long stand-off between the teachers and authorities of Delhi University (DU) over the introduction of the semester system in the undergraduate courses has perplexed many. The EPW editorial (23 April) is a case in hand. While being highly critical of the authoritarian ways in which the semester system is being introduced in the university, it wonders why the teachers are fighting for such “non-issues” when much larger issues that ail higher education in the country are at stake. Are semesters not the modern system of education – short, concise, flexible with choices? The obvious conclusions which follow are that teachers have a static mindframe and refuse to change.

Why Resist Semesters

The resistance to “semesterisation” has not only been widespread but has involved some of the best minds in the university, articulated through detailed academic arguments in several written communications. Many such exercises were not personal whims, but were carried out through statutory bodies such as staff councils of a large number of colleges and departmental general body meetings. The teachers of the university expressed their anguish and apprehensions, were and remain eager for debate but it is the authorities who have shut the door on any consultative process. The university authorities have shown complete disdain towards the representations of the teachers, made empty placatory statements and imposed their unilateral decisions through manipulation, coercive means, blatant violation of rules and the inappropriate use of “emergency power” of the vice chancellor (vc).

But why this resistance in the first place? It is pertinent to point out that it is not a resistance against semester systems at large. The teachers did not resist introduction of semesters in postgraduate courses and not even in some technical undergraduate courses taught in a few

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than a hundred thousand students in the undergraduate programme. They follow decentralised teaching with a uniform syllabus and students face centralised examinations with anonymous evaluation. There is hardly any example of a semester system in the world where decentralised teaching and centralised examinations are done across so many colleges with a uniform syllabus. This gigantic collegiate structure as in DU cannot be dealt within the pedagogical peculiarities of a semester system. The semester system essentially runs well in institutions with a small student size, where teaching, examination and evaluation are done by the same faculty members. Given the short time that is available in a semester, the faculty needs to be in full control of the specifics of the course covered, so that there are no hindrances in the examination process. A course being taught in so many different colleges will necessarily have a lot of variation in coverage in a short span of time, which can reasonably be ironed out in the course of a year, as in the present annual system, but will be difficult to do in a semester time span.

The Question of Size

A good semester system has modes of evaluation which are often not examination-based. The oft-quoted example of Jawaharlal Nehru University is relevant here, where the final examinations in most social science and liberal arts courses involve only about half of the total assessment; the rest of the assessment is often through term papers which students write based on wide-ranging reading material with sufficient time in hand. Such semester systems, which do not rely largely on examination-based performance, have been a result of careful thought and understanding. They allow the students to read a wide range of material and be evaluated through methods that allow greater creativity by de-emphasising end-semester examinations. However, this essentially needs

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small batches of students with evaluation being done by the teacher herself.

In a system like DU it is impossible to conceive of any significant proportion of marks coming from non-exam mode of assessment because of the need to maintain the standardisation and anonymity of the evaluation process dealing with so many colleges and such a large number of heterogeneous students. The internal assessment scheme was introduced in DU eight years ago where 25% marks in each course come from in-house performance in the college and even here the university feels the need to do a mechanical moderation of these marks, not trusting the colleges.

It is almost taken as a gospel truth that semesters are harbingers of flexibility and an antidote to rote learning. It is however never made clear how it is supposed to be so. It will only be so if such flexibilities are offered to the students and innovations are introduced in the examination system. But what DU is instituting is just the opposite of that. It has no vision of how semesters are supposed to achieve these. The semester system, however disastrously introduced, has become an end in itself. In fact it has cut down choices, has paid almost no heed to interdisciplinary courses and its obsession is to somehow conduct an examination and evaluation of a hundred thousand students in the shortest possible time twice a year in the most mechanical manner.

Merits of the Annual System

But is size the essential problem then? Should the solution be to fragment the university which is now being suggested? Once again one is attempting a solution without assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the present structure. DU, in spite of its mammoth size, is one of the best universities in the country. Its undergraduate programme draws students from all corners and from diverse backgrounds. Courses are revised quite regularly and in many subjects they are comparable to the very best in the world. A large number of its undergraduate students get admission to prestigious universities across the world every year. If all were so horribly wrong in the system this clearly would not have been the state.

One should recognise the merits of the annual system in such a diverse university.

In fact students in undergraduate programme of DU come with different abilities and they often take considerable time to get used to the system. Most students are used to rote learning and they consider what is written in the texts as the final word. In humanities and social sciences in particular, students fresh out of school need a period of “academic thawing” before they settle down into what is a drastically new approach of analysis and critique of the given text. It is also rather unfair to make students face examinations within a short time span before they develop some critical ability, particularly the mode of writing long and analytical answers. It is often our experience that it takes considerable time to groom such students through close supervision in tutorial classes and through repeated assignment writing.

The need for a relaxed calendar is even more crucial for students who are weaker or have come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of them face difficulties in pursuing courses in English. They often take time to comprehend the system and particularly to absorb, revise and practise the study material. An annual system is much more conducive to such students, as a semester will give them very little time to find their footing. A semester system assumes a certain uniformity and focus, which such a varied university with its extremely heterogeneous student population, both within and across institutions, does not offer. As a result this will essentially create an elitist bias in our higher education system, which large open-door universities like ours have hitherto tried to mitigate, at least in the undergraduate programme.

The annual system is also more conducive to students who are not in an academic straitjacket. The interested and sensitive students have time to read outside their course and textbooks as they are not forced to confront examinations in short time spans. The semester system will accentuate the already existing attitude in large number of students to only study what is relevant for an exam. Many are also involved in serious cultural or sporting activities and the colleges have often been a launching pad for them. Annual system gives them the flexibility to allot time differentially through the year which the semesters with their rigid scheduling will preclude.

The Reformist ‘Vision’

In spite of all these points and several others about concrete feasibility issues being repeatedly made, why do the authorities pay no heed to them? Why is there no attempt to reason out and engage in a serious debate? And why is there such haste to introduce such a major transformation in such an unstructured, ill-thought out and authoritarian manner? It seems that the shocking manner of the implementation of the semester system cannot be divorced from the lacklustre content and, in fact, is at the heart of the design. The roots of this may be located in the “new age vision” of the educational planners of the country. There are four main components of such a “vision”.

One, it views education as a huge field of commerce and profit both as a base and an appendage of the country’s service economy. The Economic Survey 2010 lamented that it took so many years to realise that India can be a knowledge hub for foreign students. Private universities have mushroomed all over the country with hardly any heed for quality. In the same vein foreign universities are being invited to set up campuses in India, to ostensibly save billions of dollars spent by Indian students studying abroad. The possi bilities of earning/saving foreign exchange and quick profiteering are amply clear. Teaching shops have long made deep inroads in the educational field; the irony is that the mantra is now to flatten all and turn universities into teaching shops. All high-sounding academic concerns are mere hogwash, meant only to cover this base drive.

Two, such a “ vision” wants to turn universities into spaces of instrumental knowledge transaction, devoid of their critical social role as spaces of freedom, ideation, discourse and dissent. At the heart of it is the debasement of the meaning of a “university” itself. Any institution, irrespective of its scope and size, can be turned into a university in the new dispensation of policy thinking. Earlier we used to have autonomous colleges only, now a college or a solitary institution is

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being turned into a “university”. The composite holistic institution that a university ought to signify is systematically dismantled in this fragmented instrumental

vision. The flattening of universities, each teaching standardised courses with interuniversity credit transfer offers students wide “choices” of knowledge capsules without any necessary coherence. This is a perfect instrumental image of “productive” knowledge. Fragmented knowledge capsules are thrown as choices to students akin to “choice” in a fast food counter with multi-priced combos and a variety of addons. Particularly under attack are the “honours” programmes that have been the hallmark of universities like DU, which provide students with an opportunity for in-depth study in a particular discipline.

Quality and rigour need to be sacrificed in the panacea of choice. The deeper motives lie somewhere else. Critical analysis has the potential to be subversive and it is also not easily amenable to standardised modules of productive knowledge. Anything that dislocates or deconstructs was always dangerous, but in the new thinking even a coherent analytical

vision is problematic. Further, dissemination of knowledge must be quantified and measured in fragments and administered in an encapsulated timescale. The message is clear – do not sit and ponder, we need to cut down leisure and “idle thinking”. Chew, write an exam and move on to another fragment, and all this at breakneck speed. Ironically, this is supposed to be an antidote to rote learning.

Bologna Process

Those who are familiar with the one year master’s courses in many European universities, introduced through the Bologna process know this philosophy of education. It is not surprising that the erstwhile vice chancellor of DU mentioned the Bologna process in his vision document on “semesterisation”. The Bologna process has been one of the most resented changes in Europe and several reputed universities across the countries have seen high-pitched teacher and student turmoil spread over years. With much stronger civil society in Europe, strikes and protests could not be banned or wished away, which has been achieved through judicial intervention here. The third part of the “vision” is to jettison concerns of accessibility for millions

for whom public-funded university education has often been the only instrument to break through the glass ceiling preserved by the upper elite. There is doublespeak here. In its projection of widening education and creating a thousand universities, what is being lost is that often this is not any addition; it is merely fragmenting existing universities. But more than that, access will certainly be more costly and the concerns of good quality mass education which universities like DU provide will entirely be lost.

Four, this new “vision” forces us to see education not only as a huge field for commerce but also to run educational institutions as corporate structures, where administrators run their writ. The following quotes from the Knowledge Commission report make this clear: “The size and composition of university courts, academic councils, and executive councils slows down decision-making processes and sometimes constitutes an impediment to change”.And “The vice-chancellor should, then, function as a chief executive officer who has the authority and the flexibility to govern …”.

Fast-track reforms cannot be blindly pushed through if people are allowed to

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think and question. In fact the implication extends one step further. Old universities have democratic structures which cannot be easily sidestepped. But if new universities can be set up by fragmenting the old ones, then such new models of corporate administration can be instituted easily. However, where such structures still exist it becomes imperative to systematically undermine them and to make authoritarian practices and arbitrary impositions a regular process in themselves. Only through such tactics can such metamorphosis of the universities be rammed

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down. Regular and mindless use of “emergency powers”, manufacturing “authorisation” to undermine democratic bodies, “passing” ill-prepared courses without the involvement of the teachers, bypassing statutory structures and adopting arbitrary structure-less “reforms” that are being imposed in DU are not mere aberrations and impatient practice of men in hurry, they are indeed the core of the reform doctrine. Otherwise this manner of the implementation does not make any sense.

With the threat of fragmentation of the university (through the autonomy route)

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-and dismantling the honours system, both articulated by the VC in media interviews, the concerns of DU teachers go much beyond the “semesters” but currently semesteristion is the most important manifest implication of the “reforms” in our university. Terry Eagleton recently lamented the “death of universities” in Britain. Many may say that most universities are already dead in India. The Delhi University is not exactly in the pink of its health but the current struggle is to keep it alive and not let it disintegrate in the gale of shock and awe reforms.

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