Was Delhi University fiasco avoidable?

The high drama over FYUP (Four Year Undergraduate Programme) rollback at Delhi University has raised many pertinent questions. Delhi University has become a case study that educators and policymakers must understand before any other educational institution follows the same trajectory knowingly or unknowingly.

Two lessons which are very evident are: (1) Not all changes qualify as reforms; (2) The pace and frequency of reforms are crucial. However, the full answer to the question – “Was this fiasco avoidable?” – lies in the study of what went wrong on the campus in recent years.

Dinesh Singh became Vice Chancellor of Delhi University Oct 29, 2010, amidst chaos and a teachers’ movement opposing semesterization at the undergraduate level – a “reform” hurriedly pushed by his predecessor, Deepak Pental. Teachers had hoped that the new head would initiate a dialogue and a more reasoned approach.

But only two days later, the university announced that salaries of teachers refusing to teach in the semester system would be withheld. This was the first peep into the mind of the new vice chancellor and his ways of tackling issues.

Further, from the comments of Kapil Sibal (former HRD minister) at the felicitation programme for Dinesh Singh, one could sense that both changes and the tactics had government support.

The start of 2011 saw the completion of semesterization through coercion. Memos were issued to dissenting teachers in the English department. Heads of departments were ordered to record names of dissenters and not to convene the General Body of teachers to decide on restructuring. Much more was said and done at meetings and on phone of which no record can be produced.

Thus, in the summer of 2011, Dinesh Singh forced semesterization of all undergraduate programmes. The manner in which Dinesh Singh handled the semester agitation made it clear that dialogue was not his cup of tea. That path was too lengthy and he was short of time. He was to undertake a specific task fixed by UPA II.

There was reluctance even on small things he could have handled better.

For example, the first exam results after semesterization was complete were announced in January 2012. Their analysis showed that marks were inflated.

Students admitted they got more marks than they even attempted, and DUTA raised the issue of devaluation of Delhi University degrees. In response, Dinesh Singh didn’t review the moderation criteria.

His solution was straightforward – block accessibility to the data! His failure to respond to the genuine concerns of students and teachers decided the fate of Delhi University.

Implementation of semesterization and FYUP cannot be mistaken as academic restructuring alone. A new form of governance was put in place – and these “reforms” were pushed through a new route.

Decision making was confined to the Viceregal Lodge (VC office). Without any in-house debate, all changes were first announced to the media. Statutory processes and norms, which allow participation of teachers in policy making, were subverted.

There was an assault on democratic space and rights. DUTA and other teachers’ and students’ groups were refused venues for meetings. CCTVs were installed, the campus was barricaded, the path to the Viceregal Lodge was sealed for the public, and the number of security personnel ballooned.

The UGC Code of Ethics, a set of loose recommendations, was passed as a Code of Conduct. Dinesh Singh empowered himself to take action directly against defaulters without going through the Executive Council or governing bodies of colleges.

Despite hundreds of representations and appeals, he refused to meet the representatives of DUTA (Delhi University Teachers Association), DUCKU (Delhi University College and Karamcharis Union) and DUSU (Delhi University Students Union). Even Deans, Heads and faculty members found it difficult to meet Dinesh Singh. Those who succeeded were told: “Remember who you are talking to.”

All key players of this “reform” game – Kapil Sibal, Montek Singh Ahluwalia (former Planning Commission deputy chairman), Shashi Tharoor (former junior HRD minister), Ashok Thakur (secretary in HRD ministry looking after higher education) and Dinesh Singh – are Stephanians.

The number of Deans and Deputy Deans increased exponentially and innovation projects were given to college teachers without any robust criteria of selection. Later, OBC grants were diverted and over Rs.170 crore were spent on distributing laptops to FYUP students.

Consequences for the university and its academic environment were dire. The silencing of teachers through carrot and stick tactics led to academic scams. Statutory bodies, meant to safeguard the interest of students by weighing proposals for their worth, looked at Dinesh Singh to decide which way to nod.

Applied Courses including Psychology were offered as B.Tech degrees! The National Education Policy of 10+2+3, which ensures parity in terms of opportunities across the country, was thrown in the bin.

Dinesh Singh refused to hear the outcry of the first batch of FYUP students against the faulty system. It was thought that their silence can be bought by distributing laptops and free trips across the country. Thankfully, democratic processes in India do not allow fiefdoms to last forever.