Semester System Semantics At DU: The Real Story

Posted on September 27, 2010 in Education

By Shruthi Venukumar:

I trudged into college like a wounded soldier. Dismayed at having been falsely informed of a Delhi University strike, the joy recalled at the last minute, I dragged my feet across the college halls. A swarm of students thronged the bulletin board area.

12:10 p.m 14th September, 2010: Students are requested to assemble in the college hall for a talk on the semester system standoff.

As if the newspapers weren’t delivering enough on it already. I mumbled. What happened in the hall further widened the chasm between my beliefs and the working of traditional media. As senior lecturers took the stage in an order, the mist clouding the picture cleared up. Some of the faces, I had never seen in undergraduate classrooms. With a Vice-Chancellor overstaying his welcome and the constitution of the university violated in a never seen before manner, a feeling of insecurity has set into the minds of the faculty transcending grade, irrespective of whether they took undergraduate classes (for which is proposed the semester system) or not. Unconstitutional chucking out or sidelining of staff in the face of lawless occupation of office by the head is at the epicenter of this anxiety. While the past few weeks saw permanent teachers fighting it out head on, the ad hoc staff avoided coming into the fray (a choice that is deemed necessary to keep their jobs safe). But according to the readers at the University, the systemic breakdown resulting from the impasse is bound to affect ordinances and appointments directly distressing the interests of fresh recruits who are to be the future of the institution.

To put it simply, all activities of the University, from recruitments to teaching methods and syllabi is set to be watered down. This is just the sluice to the sea of worries. An issue that warrants worried creased foreheads is the exclusive authority imposed on the ex-VC by himself even in matters of setting the syllabus. Dean of faculties and committees of teachers have been superceded while rustling up new course structures. If sources from the teaching community are to be believed, refusal by a select committee to set the course line without consultation is met by callous threats from the ex-VC to get it done from external authorities. Meetings (between teachers and the management) were left hanging in the air and suspended with an unlawful and stubborn hand by the then VC. Decisions were declared “passed” without requisite quorum or unanimity from the teaching community.

Such drastic rapid changes have spelt dramatic deleterious debacles in the near past. A case in point is the changed syllabus of Mathematics Honours.  Apparent “revamps” in the syllabus in a span of two years led to the opposite of the purported intention. Instead of students gaining from the change, the resulting confusion in terms of what course to follow caused a disproportionate number of students failing to clear their papers. Another illustration of rapid unthinking change leading to unthought-of catastrophe occurred with the students of B.El.Ed. The earlier rule permitted first year-failed students to attend second year in continuation giving them a chance to write first year papers alongside those of the second year. It helped save them a year. Ever since this rule was dropped, the future of students who clear first year papers in the second attempt has been found in a limbo as their admission to the second year was subject to availability of seats. The B.El.Ed course sees a large part of its popularity and patronage drawn from girls from lesser privileged backgrounds. Bagging a job right after the four-year course is, for many of them, a matter of making both ends meet at home. Long painful hours are invested by teachers to build up confidence in them and acquaint them with the English language. The efforts put into the foundation year are washed white if the student is not given a chance to correct her mistakes. Confidence crumbles. Also, course involves putting long hours into practical teaching experience. This is where the social stigma creeps in. Traditionally suspicious neighbourhoods question the character of a girl who fails examinations, despite having been seen immersed in long hours outside the house. The gravity of the situation can be imagined from the recent suicide of a girl studying the course after viewing her results online. Cruelly enough, it was later found that the online results had erred and that she had actually passed her exams.

The merits of the semester system are undoubted. It is a world-widely accepted structure which sees to greater student-teacher interaction. But such an arrangement is only possible if the student-teacher ratio is small and where the settings are such that the teacher has some discretion in designing courses and methodologies of teaching those (like it happens in most colleges following the system in the world). DU promises neither. The current teacher:student ratio in some colleges (the five fingers can never be equal) is an alarming1:50 or even 1:60. Add to this the problem of colleges facing an acute shortage of permanent faculty, and the picture hazes up. Discretion of course design is unheard of in DU. Cutting a year into halves with frivolous syllabus structures in such a scenario is unadvisable. It is a recipe for mismanagement wherein the University’s workload involving timely correction of answer sheets and publication of results will fall out of order. As it is, DU seems to have a cough of a time declaring results on time. Imagine going through the grind two times a year, understaffed. And hopes of revaluation can be, have no illusions, kissed goodbye.

Teachers might not, if given a thought, be lobbying for a lighter workload. The fact that the semester system comes with the lure of more holidays than what we have at present drives the last nail in the coffin of the “lazy teachers” contention.

DU stands for inclusiveness. The aim is to bring at par a student born with a silver spoon in his mouth and someone born with farmyard mud on his face. As common experience suggests, it takes a while even for an urbanite to settle into the environs of DU. Imagine what it would be like for someone from uncared-for lands entering DU as a student. Under the semester system, he would be in the chokehold of first semester exams much before he is at peace and in step with the city and its ways. Then there is the issue of disabled students. Blind students will benefit from the system only if the average two-month delay in the procurement of Braille script study material is done away with before the semester system comes into force. Else, they will be left staring into a dismal future. The stand that the semester system will benefit inter-University transfer does not hold because only a micro percentage of the multitude of DU students opts for such transfers.

The popular contention floating around holds the lethargy and unwillingness of teachers to the prospect of correcting two loads of answer papers a year responsible for the standoff between the University (ex)-VC and the teachers. This does not have much steam as even in the current system of annual examinations, an average teacher ends up correcting exam papers twice a year — the half yearly exam papers in addition to the annuals. Internal correction can be adjudged more difficult that external correction as the former is succeeded by a process of intense discussions between teachers and students to right wrong answering techniques while the latter is just dispensing and disposal of the service of paper correction. Keeping in mind the unfavorable teacher-student ratio, internal testing and correction of students’ academic mistakes will be a task akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

Quotidian squabbles mask a hidden agenda, a devious plan. It is somewhat perplexing to think that a person of the ex-VC’s experience would suggest such a system that is headed for disaster. The asleep can be woken up, not those pretending to be asleep. The shrouded plan seems to be aimed at cashing in on the almost definite breakdown and dilution of the education system and privatizing higher education at DU (quoting unmanageability). That will be doomsday for education; the day a DU degree loses its sheen and international standing. The future of lakhs of students should not be sacrificed at the altar of the selfish interests of a few heads working collectively for short term financial gains. Privatization of education will have the same repercussions spoken about at length in case of the Foreign Education Bill. Exorbitant fees and a host of other problems will leave the grassroot levels bleeding white. For a country proud of its subsidized higher education, it would be a matter of big shame. The fact that the education ministry seems to take no major notice of the ex-VC’s hardliners and the teachers’ agitation smacks of a nexus between the University ex-head and the HRD ministry. While the traditional media is busy filling newsprint inches with quotes from the ex-VC and other heavyweights, their blissful blind-eyeing of the teachers’ side of the story throws its weight behind the conspiracy theory.

Over time, dilution has crept into the field of teaching. Not so long ago, it was the students who donned the proudest of academicals who took up the mantle of academicians. The arrival of the corporate sector saw a steep fall in this enrollment. At a time when India should be focusing on making teaching a lucrative career for bright students, the field is embroiled in controversies depicting the shabby treatment of those in the vocation. The future intake and quality of academicians and educationists might just take a fatal debasement blow, if this reel continues to roll. And then we blame coaching institutes for making bucketloads of moolah trading sacred education broken down to some catchwords and “fundas” in dingy rooms.

We must, as children of an intellectual climate of not so long ago, realize and understand that it is not the semester system that is being protested against. It is the form and the way in which it is being implemented that is a matter of concern. Playing to the gallery is as dangerous as rebelling without a cause. DU has seen successful implementation of the semester system in the past years in some of its courses like Journalism Honours. The point to note here is that structuring semester-style courses incorporating a few hundreds or thousands of students is a world apart from trying to host it with lakhs of students in absurd proportions as mentioned above. It will be a sad and sorry state of affairs if interests of students is made the scrapegoat falling to the ego hassles of the ex-VC who insists on not caving in to the demands of teachers and ushering in the semester system this session itself. With a term already on the verge of a close and the peculiar problems of conveyance and disease infestation wafting around finding roots in the impending Commonwealth Games, the Delhi University stalemate is all that is needed to divert academic interest and concentration from its rightful direction.

The writer is a Senior Editor at Youth Ki Awaaz.