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The DU mess

Delhi University has been thrown into chaos by the University Grants Commission, or UGC, which has the mandate to “maintain standards” in higher education. In the middle of the admission season at India’s most competitive arts and sciences university, the UGC has ordered it to end its four-year undergraduate programme, or FYUP, and return to the earlier three-year-degree system. As a consequence, hours before a set of admission cut-offs were to be announced, the process was deferred by many colleges. Meanwhile, chaotic scenes were seen on the campus, as student groups demonstrated and clashed with each other. There was also confusion as to whether the vice-chancellor had resigned. Moreover, the Supreme Court declined to issue a stay order, and said it would not take up the case this month.

The FYUP was introduced haphazardly and without sufficient planning. But its withdrawal seems primed to create even more trouble. The question arises, once again, as to why precisely the UGC has decided this is a matter of such urgency that it has sent a total of seven notices and releases in the past few days demanding immediate compliance from Delhi University and its constituent colleges. Given that many students have already enrolled in the FYUP – and many more have applied for it – its withdrawal should not be done in haste. It is also an open question as to whether the withdrawal is necessary at all. There are many good questions to be asked about the nature of the programme. For example, asking students to choose their honours subject at the time of admission seems to defeat the purpose of opening up different avenues of academic discovery. The promised technical degree is not certified by the All India Council for Technical Education. The additional cost on poorer students is also a consideration. But the basic element of the FYUP philosophy is important: that undergraduates should receive a wider exposure to subjects beyond their chosen honours course. Too many Indian college students receive a one-dimensional education and do not as a result live up to their potential as employees, as citizens and as human beings. Those blindly opposing FYUP – particularly teachers’ unions protecting their privileges – do not seem to take this into consideration.

The deeper institutional problem, however, is the degree to which the UGC and the Union government, through the human resource development (HRD) ministry, have undermined university autonomy through this hasty and ill-considered move. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi manifesto promised to roll back the FYUP. But its national manifesto promised instead to “provide autonomy” and restructure the UGC. These aims, clearly, are being ignored by the government. HRD Minister Smriti Irani is being disingenuous in claiming that the government cannot interfere; the official notice from the UGC to Delhi University says, in black and white, that the Centre “further directed the Commission to issue [this] necessary directive to the University of Delhi”. University autonomy should be a pillar of higher education reform, but the new government in its first major act in the education sector has acted to undermine that autonomy.

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