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Delhi University is set to achieve a unique feat of sorts in the coming academic session. Each batch of its current undergraduate programme students would have experienced a different kind of course structure. Those who enter the third year were four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) students when they took admission. The annulment of FYUP was one of the first policy decisions of the Narendra Modi government. Last year’s admissions were under the usual three-year semester system-based undergraduate programme. After the vice-chancellor’s bulldozing of all dissent against the choice-based credit system (CBCS) last month, the forthcoming batch of students will be under a different course structure.

The CBCS is being sold in the name of offering more choices to students, as they can select from a multitude of courses across educational institutions. However, what is being pushed in the name of CBCS is the imposition of a uniform syllabus across all central universities. Anybody with common sense can understand that such homogenization will do grave injustice to India’s vast diversity, curb the autonomy of universities and kill specialization across different fields, as everybody would follow the same beaten track. Such a policy points towards an authoritarian and unimaginative bent of mind. However, to attribute this to one particular regime would be missing the forest for the trees. The present government’s script to force CBCS is a carbon copy of the last government’s FYUP push.

These purported structural reforms in education to seek “world-class" standards overnight are actually an apology for the ideological and material deprivation that mires India’s higher education system. Barring a few exceptions, most universities, whether public or private, have abysmal infrastructure, be it material or human resources. The situation is only getting worse as more and more private institutions mushroom to bridge the growing demand-supply gap, and successive governments have done little to increase spending on education.

One issue which has been crying for attention in higher education is the need to regulate private educational institutions to safeguard the interests of students and staff working there. The challenge has increased manifold, as private players are venturing outside their erstwhile areas of technical and vocational education. Nobody has bothered to pay attention.

Whether or not one is fit to teach in a university in India is judged by an examination called the National Eligibility Test. The exam itself is a telling commentary on the state of education policy. The following question from Paper I (qualifying paper across all subjects) in the June 2014 examination speaks volumes:

Which one of the following is the best method of teaching?

Options: lecture, discussion, demonstration, narration.

It is unlikely that even years of research would help an applicant zero in on a unique answer to the question. There are coaching centres to help our prospective university teachers crack the exam! Once again, nobody cares.

There is an urgent need to reform India’s higher education system. Higher education should build a bridge between vast opportunities of learning in today’s information technology-driven world and India’s huge demographic pool of young people. Pushing perfunctory reforms like CBCS through diktats is not how this can be done. Patronizing fictitious claims, like aviation technology existing in ancient India, to assuage nationalism is another example of what not to do. Universities should encourage a free and fearless exchange of ideas.

Provisional spending figures for 2014-15 indicate that the government has only spent 80% of its budgetary allocation to the human resource development ministry, which looks after education. Last month, the ministry issued an order which led to action against a group of students by the name of Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Chennai for speaking against the prime minister. Cutting resources and curbing freedom of critical voices are definite examples of how not to reform education.

Roshan Kishore is a staff writer at Mint.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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