By: Shekhar Gupta,
Editor in Chief
The Indian Express
As published in The Indian Express issue on May 14th 2013.
In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh makes his case for the shift to four-year undergraduate courses and says there was “no railroading”
I am at Delhi University’s Vice-Chancellor’s office and my guest today is eminent mathematician Prof Dinesh Singh. It is one thing to teach mathematics, it’s quite another to balance all these complex equations of politics, policy and change.
I agree with you entirely. It’s almost impossible to do that but there is a mathematical theory called complexity theory. Maybe that will help me.
How does that help? Explain that to somebody who never got more than 33 in math and gave up from Class 10 on.
It’s not mathematics that works here in the university. It’s really about administering a large institution in which there are all kinds of pulls, pressures, needs, requirements and, really, balance. One needs to balance all of these so that the the university moves in the right direction. The symbol that represents this university is an elephant. And India also is often regarded as an elephant.
You are not getting into the beehive equation just now…
No… One of my predecessors used to say that (the university) is like the republic of India. And it is. But then the republic is also moving in some ways and so are we.
You have the advantage of being a mathematician. And mathematics has the beauty and elegance of logic. So use that power of logic and your mathematical training to explain the new four-year-degree course to me. Because that is the new sort of war that has broken out right now.
Unfortunately, it seems to appear that there is a war. It’s happening more outside the university, not as much inside. If you look at systems within the university, they are working in harmony. Our institutions—the academic council, the executive council, our faculty bodies—all of them are working in harmony to create this system. So there is not so much trouble here. But as luck would have it, many external forces seem to be interested in what is happening and there are some here also.
So how does your four-year course help? Let’s come to brass tacks.
So here is how it works. We assume that generally…students in school begin to get some idea of what they are interested in. So suppose you are a student in school about to leave and you are interested in history and you will seek some sort of major course in history to enable you further. Students would seek admission into the history Honours programme of the University of Delhi. A small number would get that. Others would be shunted into the BA Pass programme. And they are deprived of this major exposure to history. Now, in this four-year programme, every student has got a much larger chance of getting an Honours degree in the subject that she/he has displayed interest and ability in at the school level. Now that’s some harmony with your inner calling.
So you are banishing the distinction between Honours students and Pass students, which is a caste system in a way.
Yes, we have banished that. Now you have to perform and earn your Honours degree. Everyone has an even chance. Two, you have chosen history. But along the way, is it only history that will enable your inner calling to be manifested in the real world? So how do we ensure that? In addition to what you have chosen as your Honours discipline at the entry level, you will be exposed to a set of foundation courses.
Eleven of them…
Yes, but not all together. They kick in the first and second years. These foundation courses enable you in different ways. So there is a foundation course on philosophy, psychology, communication and life. This really enables any student. Who would not want to be a good communicator in life, whether you study mathematics or physics or history? There is a foundation course on mathematical ability. That’s not about proving mathematical theorems. It is about recognising the importance of data in our everyday life. And it has been tried and tested.
Elaborate that a little bit.
If you have read this Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure Of the Dancing Men, there is this person who consults Sherlock Holmes. He says every morning I wake up and I find a bunch of handwritten pieces of paper on which there are dancing figures inscribed and I can’t make head or tail of it. So what does Holmes do? He figures these are encrypted. So how does he crack them? I read this story in the ninth grade and that’s when I understood what data means. That’s when I learnt that the letter ‘e’ in the English language is the most frequently used letter for words. So Holmes looks at that dancing figure which occurs most often in the messages and puts that down as ‘e’. Then he looks for two-letter words and three-letter words…and decrypts the whole message. Now that’s called understanding data. About a 100 years ago, there was an Englishman by the name of Grierson. He came to India and he surveyed large tracts of land in north India. And he recognised how language changes. The data he produced was amazing. He said after every 10 kos—a unit of measurement a little more than a mile—the language changes. That is an enormously interesting piece of data. And I am told that no one has ever constituted a similar survey after that. What’s missing in our daily life is this importance of handling data and using it to our benefit in many ways.
But tell me, why the foundation courses? Are you aiming at employability? Are you aiming at the discovery of the inner self which, I suspect, is not going to cut much ice with people who are in the debate?
It may or may not cut ice, but it will work for sure. These are means of enabling students. There is a foundation course on business and entrepreneurship. These are short courses, one-semester-long courses.
Do you have teachers to teach these courses?
Yes, we have teachers. We have identified teachers in every college. And they are beginning to face orientation courses, starting May 20. So all these teachers will go through rigorous orientation programmes for two months running. So they will be better enabled to teach.
This is the finest university in the country. Why should it need drastic change? Isn’t the DU degree itself a ticket to jobs and recognition?
For a bunch of students from elite institutions, and not all from the elite as well, it’s okay. Life is hunky dory for all kinds of reasons. You could put them in a well and they would still do well. But if you look at the ground reality… Just four to five weeks ago, I called a major corporate institution from Mumbai. They flew an entire team down here and that means they were dead serious about it…It was a major multinational finance institution, India-based. They wanted to hire and they had lots of openings. And I arranged for a blind interview with 1,100 potential graduates of this university whose names and data for marks were supplied. No college and no social background was given. And they spent much effort and time. Out of these 1,100, they chose only three. That’s a telling comment. We are sitting on a time bomb.
So they found only three students employable out of the 1,100?
Absolutely. They said that we don’t think we will come back again, it was quite a waste of time for us. They said that off the record, but they said it. That’s very disturbing. So that was a problem.
What about your elite colleges? St Stephen’s, SRCC, LSR?
I have looked at some of these elite colleges. They do hire and campus placements take place. They hit the headlines (when they say) we got so many people with the pay packet…
Rs 10 lakh, 12 lakh…
Yes, but that’s for a handful. The rest are not even picked up by the institutions. So they are left unemployed.
The college that gets talked about all the time is SRCC. Do you have any data there? It is your college with the highest employability.
This is not hard data but data that you get in conversations—I am very sure that about half the graduates from Shri Ram College of Commerce are not picked up in the campus placement.
So you are trying to get employability.
Absolutely. That’s one of the games here. To get our students to be employable.
You don’t mind if it takes a year longer?
Oh no, I don’t mind at all. Because then it makes the student’s life a little better.
Let me put forward some points of criticism. One, that you have not done adequate preparation. It’s a good idea but you don’t have teachers, you are carrying thousands of vacancies. Estimates vary between 3,000 and 5,000. Second, you don’t have physical infrastructure. Three, there is not sufficient choice. Four, you are allowing too many exits. It’s like a train that stops at 10 stations on the way. So you can get off anywhere, so you don’t get to any real destination. Like a hop-on, hop-off or a ‘Ho-Ho’ bus.
When it comes to infrastructure, we have been working hard at this. We have been talking to every college principal and almost all of them have clearly mentioned to us in writing that they can handle this issue. Teaching positions: certainly, some more positions will be needed. But colleges are well prepared to start the programme and we have enough positions now. We have begun to allocate them college by college. Not many of these positions will be needed immediately. They will kick in after a year or so and by then, we will make the appointments. Our orientation programmes are kicking in, plus our faculty are fairly good. These are knowledge-based courses. They have been brought about by the faculty themselves. It isn’t the vice-chancellor who drives the effort. It comes from the ground upwards. A very conservative estimate tells me that more than 2,500 faculty have participated in creating these courses from January till today. So, that’s a large number.
And physical infrastructure?
In terms of space etc, the colleges are ready. Just one thing that’s going to happen—generally, colleges tend to finish their teaching in most of the courses, except science, by about 1 or so. Now, colleges will have to more or less have teaching organised from 9 to 5. This doesn’t mean every student sits everyday from 9 to 5 and not every teacher sits everyday from 9 to 5. But different times have to be utilised for different teaching.
But this will definitely increase teachers’ workload…
The workload will be exactly as per UGC norms. The workload doesn’t increase. That has to work exactly the way we have worked this out.
But how do you manage if you don’t increase your faculty? You don’t increase your workload, you increase your teaching time, you increase your degree duration—I mean this is magic…
It’s almost that.
At least for a mathematician, it doesn’t work. Because in math, the numbers have to add up.
I have information from all colleges. Typically, a college says that in the course of the four-year programme, we will have 16 new positions and the others are already in place. They have worked out their time-tables. Each teacher has to teach, if I remember correctly, 16 hours a week. So we have 16-20 positions and so many hours get added up and that’s the extra teaching load that kicks in. Otherwise, all these positions are in place.
Aren’t you getting into esoterica sometimes when you talk about Sanskrit and math etc? This is a time when people do BBA, MBA, MCA—all these degrees that pay lots of money. Parents sell their homes just so that children can get jobs. And you are saying Sanskrit, math, foundation level…
They will all help them get jobs. Let me explain. Sanskrit students can work in many ways. I learnt, incidentally, that there is a significant demand in some European nations for teachers of Sanskrit. And these students want to go. You can be a student of Sanskrit, but you can work in the area of linguistics. That’s a huge area. And, when you do that, you need exposure to some other subjects. Now, a Sanskrit student in the earlier system had no option. He was straight-jacketed. Now, if he wants, he can pick up a minor in mathematics, he can pick up a minor in computer science, all of these will increase your employability, not just in Sanskrit, but with a minor, you could take a masters in mathematics if you want it.
Because many global scholars in many disciplines have also studied Sanskrit…
Oh yes. I read Frits Staal’s work on the Vedas and he writes that when he attended (Noam) Chomsky’s lectures at MIT, it became immediately apparent to him that the reason why Chomsky brought about this revolution in linguistics was because he knew the Paninian system of grammar and he knew mathematics. So he understood the grammatical principles, put it into a mathematical framework and created a revolution. Our Sanskrit students have never been exposed to mathematics. I have no idea how many Chomskys we have lost.
But why are so many followers of Chomsky against your change? There is a strong Left opposition to this change.
I seem to think so.
And they are all decent people.
Some of them are the best teachers in the university.
I respect them. But change has never been easy. I understand it. It’s also good to be resistant to change. You cannot immediately allow everything to happen. It can be dangerous.
But this change is being called dangerous and hasty. You are going from three to four years, you have not given more than one year of consultation. Of course, we are a country that loves committees and endless deliberation.
We have done more than one year of consultation. When I became V-C, I consulted about 4,000 students. I called all 4,000 into a single auditorium and we took written feedback from them. I stayed with them for eight hours. And I talked to so many of them to figure out what they felt was wrong with the system, what would they like. The next day, I met 800 teachers. And this process has continued over two years. It wasn’t just me, my colleagues too.
You don’t see any merit in a one-year postponement now?
Oh no. It won’t bring any more benefits. Everyone recognises, I most of all, that there will always be some teething troubles. But that will happen whether we do it this year or next. All preparations that we feel need to be taken care of seem to have been taken care of.
Nandan Nilekani once said that the challenge of working in Delhi was how to carry out big change in a minimally invasive manner. Have you been minimally invasive or could you have handled it better? Minimally invasive versus railroading?
Rest assured, there was no railroading. We followed all processes.
There was resistance even to the semester system…
Yes, there was a huge resistance at that point in time. And the semester system has benefited students like anything.
And in the end, a one-year postponement was demanded…
Yes, it was. And they didn’t do anything for a year when they were given a year’s time, no major changes came about in the framing of the syllabi. Eventually, at the last moment, these departments just bifurcated the annual syllabi and converted to semester mode. That was a huge let down.
The fact is that IITs already have a four-year undergraduate degree with semester system.
Why just IITs? I looked at a list of universities. Ambedkar University has a four-year programme. The Indian Institute of Science has one, the University of Allahabad has. There are many universities with a four-year programme.
Tell me this, this two-year drop off, three-year drop off, four-year drop off…
I looked at the figures. Each year, about 25,000 students drop out of the university without a piece of paper that recognises that.
Out of about 2 lakh? More than 12 per cent drop out? That’s a lot.
Yes. From the numbers that are admitted, about 30 per cent drop out. And they don’t get a piece of paper that says they spent so much time in the university. I am encouraging them to stay on by offering them a chance to get an Honours degree. That’s a huge incentive. But, suppose they do drop out after two years, what do we do? In two years’ time, we also give them some knowledge-based skills, at least their employability goes up.
So they get a diploma in two years?
Yes. And they can come back within a 10-year period and complete a degree. So that option is there.
And they get yet another one if they do three years?
If they stay for three years, they get a Bachelor’s degree with a major subject. So it says Bachelors with Major in history.
So, it’s not as if the three-year degree course has disappeared.
No, it hasn’t. It’s better than the BA Pass.
Except for Honours, which you have to get in four years.
Also, the three years is better than the BA Pass degree. Now there is a Bachelors with a subject major, which the past degree didn’t allow.
So what is it that you wish you had told your critics in time or something that you would tell them now? Because this die is cast.
Yes, this die is cast. And, I would tell them to recognise that there is a little wisdom on this side as well. It isn’t just one person alone. Look, there are 51 of my finest faculty. These are people who got Bhatnagar prizes, there are Humboldt Fellows, there are Fellows of our academies. All our deans, almost all our heads, they have jointly written a statement saying that all of us have worked in this system, all of us have participated, we recognise the merits of the system, it’s a good system. They also mention that there will be pitfalls. But which system will not have pitfalls?
So you understand the sense of responsibility. Because if you botch up, then it’s a botch, nobody changes anything for a very long time.
God forbid that this will be a botch-up. Now here it is what I call project management work. Based on our own estimates, our review system, there will be no botch-up. There will be some glitches.
This is the city of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. Don’t go forward and come back.
Hopefully, that’s not going to happen.
What’s next for you? Will you start focusing on your Masters programmes and PhDs now?
What we will do now is once this programme kicks in and has stabilised, we will work with our faculty to relook the Masters programme. It will be largely credit-based. So if you come from this system after a four-year degree, you will need about a year’s credit to get the Masters degree. If you come with a three-year degree, roughly two years’ credit will have to kick in before you get it.
So the number of years studied will remain the same.
And your parting words to those teachers who think that with this additional load, they will not have time for research?
On the other hand, every college teacher now will have time to do more research because research is part of the undergraduate curriculum. So he will have a chance to mentor and guide these really bright students.
…she will have a chance.
I agree with you. Again, we are trying to get data recorded, but I think lady teachers are in a majority in this university.
As time passes, so will the students be.
Oh, yes. They are certainly more than half now in our university, the lady students. They will all have a chance to do research. All the undergraduates who get into the Honours programme and all our faculty in the colleges.
I am not sure if they will all be convinced listening to you, but you have made a very good case. And since you have embarked on change now, good luck to you…But you are a brave man to do this.
Transcribed by Ritwika Mitra
For The Indian Express
Picture Credits: India Today
Courtesy: The Indian Express
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