[Editorial] UGC Directive on University Courses

What was the recent directive from UGC?

  • The UGC (University Grants Commission) recently wrote to central universities citing instructions from the Ministry of Education that courses should be taught based on students’ demand.
  • The Commission has requested the universities’ registrars to conduct courses based on demand from the students and the number of students attending the course. It has also called for a ‘rationalization of all Departments within the sanctioned number of students and teaching staff aligned with the number of students enrolled in such courses’.
  • In its communication, the UGC highlighted the Ministry’s observation that some departments have been established in the universities without assessing the students’ interest in the courses they offer.
  • It has also highlighted a May, 2020 note from the Higher Education Department in which the government had set norms regarding the number of departments that a central university can open in the 1st 5 years of its operation, while considering the number of students expected to opt for the courses.
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Why is it being criticized?

  • The letter has drawn criticism from teachers’ front (Delhi University Democratic Teachers’ Front) that the government shouldn’t be guided solely by employment prospects while deciding on such matters.
  • Following UGC’s advice may lead to job losses for teachers in certain fields such as language and social science departments. This in turn would impede the growth of research in such areas.
  • The fallout on such departments would even reach the school level and may have an implication for the objectives of the 2020 NEP.
  • The Front had also expressed concerns that rationalization move would disproportionately affect ad hoc teachers.

What is the way ahead?

  • The number of students queuing up for a course tends to reflect their employment prospects. Job prospect is an important metric for a university but it mustn’t be the only one determining the span of the university’s academic ambition.
  • A narrow instrumentalist approach cannot be used for generating knowledge, training students to think critically and pushing towards new frontiers– the very reasons why the society invest in the university ecosystem.
  • A university must make space for philosophy as much as for economics- even if there are few students going for the former. The UGC’s advice to teach or stop a course based on the enrolment strength is short-sighted.
  • This doesn’t mean that the universities mustn’t align their courses to ‘the marketplace of ideas’. For that, a degree of autonomy is needed with regards to designing courses and framing the syllabi.
  • Another issue plaguing the autonomy of university is the shrinking space for free thought. The governments’ desire to vet the subject of webinars and to sanitize classrooms of contentious issues under the guise of nationalism is a sign of growing hostility towards debates and dissent.
  • In addition to autonomy, the universities also need resources. The NEP’s ambitions for educating the masses is undercut by the slashing of funds for education.This needs to change.
  • The NEP’s vision for inter-disciplinary education can’t be realized by reducing the number of courses that are offered.
  • At the same time, low employability of graduates is a major challenge in our higher education system and the universities need to do more on this front. However, the decision of how the resources are put to use to hit the right balance between market pragmatism and academic ambition must be left to the teaching community.

Conclusion:

The UGC’s recent advice is, unfortunately, based on questionable academic logic. The answer to hitting the right balance between the various objectives of the education system must be found by each university on its own terms. UGC mustn’t impose top-down criteria for it would further shrink the space for experimentation and consequently, innovation in education.

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