(In light of Delhi University’s proposal to introduce a four-year undergraduate programme under NEP, The Quint debates whether the move will benefit students. This is the view. You may read the counterview by Dr Leena Wadia here.)
Both three-year and four-year undergraduate degree programmes are common across the world. They have flourished both as general norms in different ecosystems of higher education, and as niche programmes in specialised fields or institutional settings.
There is thus, no point in debating the inherent merits of the two versions.
In its ideal form, the fabled liberal education model based on a four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) perfected in the USA in the early twentieth century has much to offer.
But the New Education Policy (NEP) of July 2020 is not about abstract ideals – it announces a concrete policy decision to shift the largest higher education system in the world from the three-year to the four-year format.
The Many Questions Around FYUP
Such a big decision – arguably the most momentous change since the introduction of the modern university system in the 1860s − does need to be debated. Proponents of this transformation must provide credible answers to three questions:
- Why is this change needed – which specific shortcomings of the current system will it overcome?
- How will the preconditions it presupposes be created – in particular, how will its infrastructural and logistical requirements be met?
- And finally, who (and how many) will benefit or be worse off under the new system?
No one will question the assertion that much is wrong with Indian higher education today. But which specific problems arise solely (or mainly) because most undergraduate courses are of three rather than four years’ duration? This is where advocates of the FYUP tend to slip and slide.
The NEP document shares this evasiveness: neither the problems in the higher education ecosystem listed in para 9.2, nor the major heads of proposed reform listed in para 9.3 are directly relatable to the FYUP.
The first explicit mention of duration in para 11.9 begins ambivalently, saying that the “[t]he undergraduate degree will be of either 3 or 4-year duration”. However, the next sentence is firmer, indicating that the FYUP “shall be the preferred option since it allows the opportunity to experience the full range of holistic and multidisciplinary education…”
Dangers of an ‘Omnibus Curriculum’
Reading between the lines, the overall justification for the FYUP in the NEP hinges on the repeated emphasis on “range” of skills and the “multiple exit points” that it offers space for.
The intention seems to be to combine the distinct (and often conflicting) needs of vocational education, general education, and advanced training into a single omnibus curriculum.
To take the best possible interpretation, the FYUP will offer the same course to everyone (equal access), while at the same time allowing for different kinds and levels of attainment (employability).
However well-intentioned it might be, the decisive argument against such a scheme is that it is impossible to design a single curriculum such that (for example) the first and second years fulfil vocational requirements, the third addresses general education needs, and the fourth year takes care of those headed for further studies.
These different educational needs and constituencies exist everywhere, but in no country in the world are they all addressed through a single curriculum. In the USA, for example, there is a separate institution called the community college which offers one- and two-year degrees, while universities offer four-year courses.
There are formats that include a fourth year as an “honours” or higher studies-oriented option, but none that also combine a vocational component, because a catch-all curriculum of that sort would be incoherent.
Will NEP Worsen the Infra Crunch?
Coming to the second question, implementation has always been the bane of Indian higher education, where the state’s habit of doing the right things in wrong and self-defeating ways has often been highlighted.
The expansion to accommodate the reservations for Other Backward Classes was supposed to happen a decade ago, but remains incomplete, and in some instances, has not even begun.
Further expansion is mandated – but not yet sanctioned – by the newest quota for the Economically Weaker Sections.
It is hardly likely, therefore, that the resources required for the one-third expansion to accommodate a fourth year within institutions designed for a three-year format will be released given the massive resource crunch today. There simply aren’t enough rooms, or enough teachers, or the supporting infrastructure necessary to take this huge leap.
To be fair, the NEP envisages a decade-long transition period, but the demands of the four-year political cycle (the fifth year being election-year) will prevail and impose an impossible time-table, as shown by past experience.
Coming finally to the question that is ultimately the most important – who will benefit, and who will suffer, and what are their likely numbers?
The answers here are more speculative, but the overall context supports the hunch that we may be at a momentous turning point in the history of state-supported higher education in India.
To put it simply, the 2010s and the 2020s may be the decisive decades when what happened to school education in the 1970s and 1980s will happen in higher education.
Half a century ago, the affluent class seceded from the government school, enabling the meteoric rise of private schools. This pushed government schooling into a downward spiral from which it has never recovered.
A similar shift has begun in higher education, but even today the better state institutions are still the most sought after, including by the elite.
Privatisation & Erosion of Academic Autonomy
There are several proverbial elephants in this room that will hasten the increasingly imminent decline of public higher education. Privatisation is one, including the privatisation of state institutions via euphemisms like “autonomy” and “self-financing”.
While it has no necessary link to quality either way, privatisation guarantees higher fees, and thus the exclusion of everyone but the affluent.
Another is the erosion of academic autonomy and the conversion (now almost complete) of universities into government departments subject to the direct and detailed control of the ruling party.
A third is the diversionary obsession with terms like “employability” when the shrinking of employment is the real issue.
Net net, while it is likely that – in the best of possible worlds – a FYUP may bring blessings, in the world that we really live in, it will surely aggravate existing frustrations and deepen our already dire inequalities. Far greater uncertainties are attached to its eventual benefits, while its costs seem more immediate and certain.
(Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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