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Look across the world, but don't imitate blindly


Sociologist Andre Beteille is one of the few scholars to have written on the state of higher education in India. A collection of his essays and lectures on higher education, Universities at the Crossroads (2010) examines the history of the Indian higher education system, the expansion universities have undergone, the issue of reservation, the state of research and the challenges ahead. He spoke to TOI-Crest about the Four-Year undergraduate programme being introduced in Delhi University where he taught for over five decades, the entry of private players in higher education and America-influenced reforms

Do we need a four-year undergraduate programme? 

It's complicated. Indian universities are adopting the four-year programme because that's what exits in America. But when we had a three-year degree, we did because Oxford and Cambridge did. Now American universities are in the forefront. Something new in the system of higher education are private universities. And they have decided to league themselves with the American system the way we had decided to league ourselves with the British one. They are here to stay. Private universities are smart in some matters. They don't have unions or government meddling and can move forward a little faster. There's also more flexibility and dynamism because they are not so large.

As for influences, why did V K R V Rao call the institution he set up "Delhi School of Economics" ? He'd say, "I want to build an institution which will be as good as the London School of Economics. " What is the harm in looking all across the world and finding places that seem to be worthy of learning from provided you take stock of resources and don't imitate blindly? I have, although with many reservations, a hopeful attitude to the reforms in DU.

It's very difficult for public universities. There are enormous political and social pressures. There's a second pressure, not easily recognised, of an enormous proliferation of disciplines. The idea that the university provides a common space for the pursuit of teaching and research in all branches of knowledge has now become obsolete.

The reason given for adding a year is that the extra time will allow for an interdisciplinary approach to higher education.

This has been a hobby-horse with every DU vice-chancellor. I'm a nice guy and every time a VC took office, he'd set up a committee for interdisciplinary studies and I would be on it. But you must have a strong foundation in one discipline before you reach out to others. Interdisciplinary work depends on the kind of research that is being done. It's bloody hard work.

I worked in the field of social stratification, social inequality and I found in DSE, economists who were writing on economic inequality. But for long we didn't know that literature;neither did they know the literature produced by sociologists. I had the idea of getting together six-seven persons from various disciplines to put together Equality and Inequality: Theory and Practice, a collection of essays. They were by experts from the fields of economics, sociology, political science, education and law. I told them they must write in a way so that I can read and understand it. We took three years. Suresh (Tendulkar) and I could design a course for students of economics and sociology. But you can't just call up a person and ask him to design a couple of interdisciplinary courses.

The speed at which changes are being made at Delhi University...

Two things must be kept in mind. First, Dinesh Singh's high-handedness. You cannot change the university or the way it actually works unless you carry the teachers along. You can do it in a school but not in a university. On the other hand, it is also true that university professors everywhere are very conservative, very resistant to change. We had opposed the 10+2+3 system. But it worked.
I am not in principle against moving from the three-year degree programme to a four-year one. How you will balance the different subjects can't be decided by a council but with the cooperation of the people who'll do the actual teaching. And that is what, I think, has been missing here. That's why the teacher's are incensed.

There are concerns about the course structure - it has three exits - and the quality of the new syllabus.

The syllabi are out-of-date and obsolete in all universities. But who will do the change? Teachers must themselves take the initiative. They must change without waiting for the authorities to issue a fatwa. But there is really little initiative shown by teachers to bring about changes in the syllabus.
As for the exits encourage people to leave, why should you want to keep students if they want to drop out? You leave the university but don't leave it emptyhanded.

How will the entry of private universities change things? What will be the impact on the public ones?

In the 1950s and '60s, when Rao set up DSE, they scoured the country and got good people. That wouldn't be possible in DU today. You can't make appointments like that in any university except the private ones. I haven't given up hope on the public institutions. We need a new type of institution that doesn't try to take everything on its plate. Universities should become more specialized. A viable institution would take on a range of 10-20 subjects. There are already public institutions that do this like the IITs, law universities, agricultural universities.

I am not opposed to private players entering. The same people who argue against commercialisation of higher education have no compunction about sending their own children to very expensive schools. Why should you object to people who are prepared to provide good education for high fees?

Will the American system work in an institution like DU? Or in any large public university?

I don't think we can model ourselves on the American university. The essence of that system is continuous internal assessment. I teach my students and I along with my colleagues decide what grade they get. But that is expensive, time-consuming. I don't think the costing for that has been done by DU. Plus, I don't see how a system of grading can be normalised across colleges.

Reader's opinion (1)

Baal AnandMay 14th, 2013 at 12:56 PM

Education must address the state of the nation-the higher category shd take into consideration the global developments
The advantage of English shd not be eroded
The blind market forces need be disciplined
Baal Anand

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