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University freshers could be in for CBCS shock

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:16 IST

The system

  • CBCS is a system with standardised syllabi, exams and grading.
  • It is set to be implemented across all central universities.
  • It will allow pan-India mobility of students, as well as greater choice in what the student wants to study.

The pitfalls

  • A standardised system will be difficult to implement across the board.
  • In countries with similar systems, like the US, common syllabus is discouraged because it can reduce quality of education.
  • It could lead to huge bureaucratic interference in education.
  • Students may be forced to study a syllabus different from what they signed up for.

The opposition

  • Teachers\' and students\' unions are resisting this move.
  • Their concerns include lack of infrastructure and a skewed teacher-student ratio.
  • Another big problem in a standardised system will be the language of instruction.
  • UGC itself admits that fluctuations in the teachers\' workload is a concern.

Delhi University is on the boil again. After the disastrous four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) rollback, which caused admissions to be delayed last year, this year's admissions have come in the wake of another controversial systemic overhaul - the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS).

The CBCS is set to be introduced in a few days from now, when the admission processes for various central and state universities are wrapped up and the new academic session commences.

Under the CBCS, the government has mandated that central universities adopt a common academic structure and syllabus - semester-based courses, standardised examination system and common grading practices, among other things - as a pre-requisite.

However, as of now, all the academic institutions in the country are not on the same page on these issues. Even when the vice-chancellors of central universities like Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia have formally adopted the system, teachers and students from these institutions are up in arms against it.

Moreover, students queuing up for admissions to prestigious universities might not be aware of what they're signing up for.

Here is a simple explanation of the origin of the CBCS and the problems it could potentially cause.

What is CBCS?

The UGC wants to ensure seamless mobility of students in higher education institutions in the country and abroad. It wants the credits earned by students to be transferred, in the event of their migrating from one institution to another.

The 'Credit System' is a way of accounting for the academic accomplishments of a student in a semester-based academic year.

CBCS is a system with standardised syllabi, exams and grading, which will allow pan-India mobility of students

'Choice' allows for separating the core course option of a student from non-core elective subjects that the student may want to study.

For instance, a student studying political science as her core subject from Delhi University may want to study theatre as her elective subject in Manipur University. The CBCS would not only allow her to do this, but also give her academic credit for the theatre course.

This seems to be a good idea. So, what's the noise all about?

The CBCS requires the unification of syllabi across all universities that are to follow the system. This means that the course structure and syllabus for all central universities will be centrally directed - by the UGC.

The government has allowed for a 30% deflection to introduce regional, contextual and other specific concerns of the universities, but teachers argue that there is no time for them to even discuss and deliberate upon these changes.

Moreover, the introduction of the CBCS also requires common patterns of question papers - to execute inter-university mobility, as well as standardised exams.

Will the CBCS impact the students from this academic year?

It would seem so. As part of the new education policy, the UGC has framed and issued guidelines for adoption of the CBCS.

As of now, it seems quite possible that the CBCS will be introduced as early as the academic session of 2015-16. This will impact all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes as well as the diploma and certificate programmes of all central, state and deemed universities.

Do other countries follow this system?

Yes. The system is prevalent in most academic institutions in the United States and Europe. There are also several technical and professional institutions of higher learning in India, like the IITs and IIMs and some state universities, which follow the CBCS.

Is the CBCS model different in India from that in the US?

While grade-based assessment and student mobility are common in the education systems of the US and most European countries, the demand for standardisation of syllabus is unique to India.

Teaching a common syllabus across all universities is by no means a mandate in these countries. In fact, such centralisation of education is frowned upon in these systems, known for their academic autonomy and quality of education.

Is the CBCS a stand-alone reform?

The CBCS is a part of larger higher-education reforms that have been proposed in the country since the UPA-2 regime. Critics argue that the first moves towards a credit-based, semesterised system of education were proposed as early as the Birla-Ambani Report of 2004.

Every successive government has been trying to push the reforms through. Various proposals - like the Central Universities Bill, the Foreign Universities Bill and the recommendations of Sam Pitroda's National Knowledge Commission - have all pushed towards standardisation, vocationalisation and increased privatisation of higher education in the country.

The CBCS is a part of the overarching Central Universities Bill, which would, in due course of time, make it mandatory for every central university to implement the credit-based system. In addition, it would also lay the foundations for centralised recruitment and provisions for faculty transfers across all central universities, along with partnerships with private and foreign universities.

Why are teachers opposing CBCS?

The Delhi University Teachers' Union (DUTA) has alleged that the Central Universities Bill has curtailed democratic representation of teachers from the statutory bodies of universities. Instead, they claim, it would create a centralised command structure led by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and a council of vice-chancellors. This, they say, would amount to unprecedented bureaucratic interference by the government.

"The CBCS was floated way back in 2008 in the UPA regime. The main principles were enunciated in the National Knowledge Commission report of 2009, which was followed by a host of bills introduced in Parliament that espoused a public-private partnership model, the entry of foreign universities, and semester-based curricula.

"The CBCS is a part of the larger package of education reforms that aims at consciously destroying public universities to make way for private and foreign universities," alleged Nandita Narain, president, DUTA.

Teachers' unions say CBCS would lead to unprecedented bureaucratic interference by the government

DUTA has appealed to the MHRD to engage in a dialogue with representative bodies of teachers and students on the nature of higher education reforms required.

Why is there a demand for balancing educational reforms?

Educationists claim that reforms in the university system in India will have to balance several key concerns.

One, the academic community's focus on diversity, autonomy, depth and quality of education.

Two, the pressing need for a burgeoning economy to produce skill-based labour.

And three, bridging the gap between freedom of choice in education and employability.

Who will benefit from the reforms?

Prof. Janaki Nair from the Jawaharlal Nehru University says: "The ranking system will serve students who are increasingly being looked at as 'consumers' of education.. The thrust of reforms towards centralisation, control and training for employment misses the whole point of quality."

Already, some state universities following the grading system in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, have spoken out against the CBCS.

The Prof. B. Hridayakumari Committee report assessing CBCS in Kerala clearly warns about the seriousness of the UGC and National Accreditation Council in pushing for these reforms.

The report says, "Any deviation from a national policy or trend may create serious problems for the universities and the state government, unless they are willing to take a pitched stand for the autonomy of universities."

The report, while giving its assent to CBCS, states that the system is highly unpopular with the public and the stakeholders and claims it has major faults that should be corrected.

Among the flaws listed are the lack of commensurate infrastructure, a skewed teacher-student ratio, problems pertaining to language of instruction, tweaking of the syllabus in social sciences and the humanities, among other things.

Is it feasible to implement the system as of now?

With the given infrastructure, it is nearly impossible to rationally implement any national-level standardisation.

The question being asked by academics and students alike is: why the haste?

As of now, 38-40% teachers in all state and central universities are ad-hoc, and thus paid lower salaries for longer hours for work that is unpredictable in nature. Even after strong unionisation and political noise, they ultimately have very little say in most statutory decisions of the university.

Delhi University itself faces a whopping crisis in teachers' appointments, relying on an ad-hoc base of over 4,000 teachers.

The UGC has admitted in its guidelines that one of the negative aspects of CBCS is fluctuations in the teachers' workload.

Moreover, there does not seem to be any centralisation and standardisation when it comes to the transferability of students - with fee-structure, infrastructure, faculty provisions and funding being highly unequal among all central universities.

"Instead of standardising and controlling the flow and content of knowledge down to what will be taught at the classroom level, if the policy makers could standardise and create global standards of infrastructure, that would be a welcome step," suggests Prof. Satish Deshpande, Delhi University.

How will hasty implementation affect universities?

Eminent historian Romila Thapar expressed deep concerns about preserving the autonomy and standard of education of public universities at a press conference held in the Capital.

"At the level of tertiary education, there has to be intellectual excitement and challenge in what is being taught. The better colleges in universities will have to lower their standards if everyone is to teach the same syllabus.

"When JNU began, we were rightly told not to copy the syllabus from any other university, and thank god for that. What we did think through was an intellectually exciting syllabus," she stated.

She felt that should these reforms be introduced hastily, "Our universities will not remain reasonably autonomous. It is absolutely necessary for any country that finds itself worth living in to have autonomous universities decide their own intellectual content and syllabi. With standardisation, one fears our universities would be reduced to teaching shops and coaching centres.

"If there is a centralised model of education, will there be a common language of instruction? If yes, which language will serve the purpose of standardisation in a largely diverse and plural country like ours?" she asks.

DUTA teachers allege that the UGC's response to this has been dismal. "The UGC has asked us to mind our own business. When we questioned them about preparedness in terms of language, they said we should be concerned about our own universities and not worry about the rest of the country. But the problem is larger than that. CBCS is a national concern" claimed Abha Dev Habib, DUTA secretary.

Moreover, some teachers are raising the question of freedom of choice, claiming that the move to limit teaching, learning and the flow of knowledge by the government "is a larger plot to kill diversity". If Tezpur University's concern is to work for the upliftment of the Assamese people, will the central university of Gujarat embrace this concern? And must it, they ask?

Are DU aspirants aware of what they have signed up for?

On 30 June, a press release by DUTA stated that the students taking admission in DU this year might have to study something quite different to what they signed up for.

"Students have been admitted without providing them any information that the courses they are taking admission to might be under CBCS. There is no mention of CBCS anywhere, not in the printed information handout, not in the online information bulletin, not in the accompanying list of frequently asked questions, and not in the open day presentation" reads the statement.

It would seem, then, that students have been admitted to the existing courses and not to the CBCS courses.

Habib adds that the hasty implementation of CBCS in DU is not only immoral but illegal.

"Since courses of study under CBCS have still not been brought to the Academic Council, the relevant amendments to these Ordinances have not been made under the Delhi University Act. Therefore, the admissions can only be made to existing courses as provided in the existing Ordinances and not the new ones as proposed in CBCS," she explains.

On 7 July, MHRD has called a crucial meeting of the vice-chancellors of all central universities to discuss the roll-out of the CBCS from the ensuing academic session.

DUTA, All India Federation of University and College Teachers' Associations, JNUTA and other unions are calling out to the ministry to let them be part of this critical meeting.

First published: 6 July 2015, 8:24 IST
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

A correspondent with Catch, Soumya covers politics, social issues, education, art, culture and cinema. A lamenter and celebrator of the human condition, she hopes to live long enough to witness the next big leap in human evolution or the ultimate alien takeover of the world.