New Delhi: When P.C. Jain, a professor of business organization and management, took over in November 2005 as principal of Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), which has turned out generations of commerce and economics graduates, he knew he wanted to leave a legacy, however small it may be.
Jain has achieved something that could be more than just small. Backed by politician and alumnus Arun Jaitley, Jain went on a fund-raising drive, reaching out to rich alumni for donations—a practice common in the West, but yet to catch on in Indian institutions.
They approached alumni such as Atul Punj, chairman of Punj Lloyd Ltd and a commerce graduate of the class of 1979, and Anshu Jain, an economics graduate of the 1983 batch tipped to be the next chief executive of Deutsche Bank AG, asking if they were willing to donate Rs6 lakh each for “upgradation of classrooms”. They were.
So this week, SRCC is holding end-of-term examinations in 20 rooms equipped with central air conditioning, modern lighting, a projector and new blackboards—bought with Rs2 crore collected from alumni. Teachers have been given Dell Inc. laptops and negotiations are on to get 1,500 students, most of them undergraduates, similarly equipped at less than market price.
The alumni touch: Principal of DU’s Shri Ram College of Commerce P.C. Jain with students in a newly air-conditioned classroom. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
SRCC is one of India’s first university colleges to get such amenities, which have existed only in top-rung business schools such as the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, the country’s most prestigious. Regular colleges have always survived on rudimentary infrastructure—air blowing in through open windows, tubelights, tables and chairs.
Principal Jain has set his heart on a “culture change” at the college. “I want the work culture of a business school,” said Jain, who teaches eight classes a week.
He then launches into a tirade against teachers who don’t go to class.
Teacher absenteeism is just one of the issues SRCC and other Delhi University colleges struggle with. Other areas of concern are the lack of autonomy to set their own syllabus, charge their own fees and conduct examinations.
All these are controlled by Delhi University—which has 80-odd colleges including medical and engineering schools, and 80,000 undergraduates, besides postgraduates and research scholars. The university itself is controlled by the University Grants Commission, which doles out government grants to universities and also sets all the rules.
SRCC right now gets a government grant of Rs5 crore a year, 98% of which is used to pay salaries, including those of non-teaching staff such as administrators and cleaners. Undergraduates pay a tuition fee of roughly Rs5,000 a year.
It is not that Delhi University has not changed, but change has been slow. Four years ago it moved to a system of greater weightages to internal assessment, or scoring on a student’s class participation, projects and assignments. Teachers say this has decreased student absenteeism and reliance on a high-stakes final written exam.
“There is no doubt that students are attending classes very regularly,” said Gopalji, who uses one name and has taught the undergraduate course in commerce at SRCC for nearly three decades. He is interrupted by a student with an assignment to be marked.
Some of the resistance to change comes from within. Jain recalls how teachers heckled Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental at a meeting of the academic council a fortnight ago, when he tried to get its consent to introduce a semester system. The council has elected teacher representatives and any reforms have to go through it.
Pental confirms the heckling, but is optimistic that he will be able to push through a semester system—in postgraduate courses this year and in undergraduate programmes in 2010. Semesters are more intense academically and will allow the university to move towards student credits.
Delhi University teachers have their own set of problems, mostly a lack of physical infrastructure such as their own rooms or even desks, computers to work on and Internet connections. A government committee recently raised their salary but only after a 10-year gap; an entry-level college teacher is now paid Rs35,000 a month.
Jain wants teachers to be more accountable and feels powerless in enforcing basic rules, such as making sure a teacher arrives on time and takes his class.
Vice-chancellor Pental says autonomy may help in enforcing rules. But he is sceptical whether the top colleges of Delhi University—he named St Stephen’s College, SRCC and Lady Shri Ram College among them—can exist independent of Delhi University.
“Their number (of students) is small. You need 10,000-12,000 students for a stand-alone institution,” said Pental, who is found in his office on a Sunday.
Experts are concerned that standardization of examinations and grades might suffer if autonomous colleges proliferate. Another issue could be fee structures, which are subsidized and controlled in government-run colleges.
Last year, dean Joy Mitra of the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), the Delhi University business school, called the fee hike at the autonomous Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad “irresponsible”. The Ahmedabad school’s board of directors announced another fee hike this week. It now charges Rs12.5 lakh for a two-year programme against Rs20,000 at FMS.
This toeing of the price line means funds available to a college are limited and earmarked for specific purposes, and a college cannot innovate unless it hits on fund-raising drives such as that in SRCC.
Alumni who have contributed say they are willing to give more. “(I) hope they ask us to do more,” said Punj, whose company has a fleet of planes to help him commute.
The alumni largesse has left students ecstatic.
Rishi Shah, a master’s student at the Delhi School of Economics, who recently graduated from SRCC, wishes he had enjoyed the luxury of an air-conditioned classroom. “I wanted it to happen while I was there,” said Shah, heading into his college.
The writer is an SRCC alumnus.