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Students Or Lab Rats? DU Prof Abha D Habib Takes Apart The ‘Choice Based Credit System’

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By Abha Dev Habib:

Every summer since 2009, Delhi University has reeled under dust storms that have thrown its programs into chaos and left its students uncertain about their future. Summers provide a long period where students and teachers are busy with examinations and evaluations, allowing authorities to push quickly their “reform” agenda, without deliberations. This year’s dust storm, the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), is particularly intense; though its implementation in Delhi University is the key project of MHRD, it will take a toll of all central and state universities.

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The “reform” agenda of the global market, and hence governments, takes direct aim at the aspirations of the youth who rely on a meaningful, affordable education for upward mobility. What will be buried under the dust are the dreams of those leaders of our country who asserted education to be a public good and the means of integrating society, uplifting the down trodden, generating knowledge and instilling critical thinking necessary to pull the country onto the path of development.

The real face of “reforms” can only be unmasked by asking why restructuring education has entered the “100 day” agenda of governments. Why can these “reforms” only be smuggled through undemocratic means and by crushing dissenting voices? Why is the feedback of teachers and students on their harmful effects ignored? What are the crises before the education sector and do these changes offer any solutions?

CBCS: Agenda of UPA II carried forward by NDA
November 2014 onwards, universities received letters from the UGC and the MHRD asking them to implement CBCS and common grading system from the 2015-16 academic session. Then, in April 2015, the UGC issued Minimum Course Curriculum for Undergraduate Courses under Choice Based Credit System and released syllabi of courses. It stipulated a common structure and common minimum curriculum as fixed by the UGC, allowing universities a deviation of maximum 20% in syllabi.

Like many other “reforms”, CBCS is not a brain-child of this government. It was UPA II which first pushed the agenda of semester system, CBCS, Meta-University and Meta-College. Universities established under the Central Universities Act of 2009 found that teacher transferability, student mobility, signing MOUs with other institutions, semester system and CBCS were mandatory for them! In order to push the older universities into a similar regimentation the Central Universities Bill was proposed in which once again all these “reforms” are part of the Act itself.

Kapil Sibal, the then HRD Minister, with the help of Professor Dinesh Singh, Vice Chancellor, Delhi University successfully converted the University into a Reforms Laboratory. Academic autonomy was eroded, statutory bodies were converted into rubber stamps, democratic practices like holding general body meetings or seeking feedback from teachers on important restructuring were stopped, dissenting voices were targeted, CCTV cameras were installed at every nook and corner and the Campus barricaded to first implement semester system in all undergraduate courses in 2011, Meta University and Meta College programmes in 2012, and finally FYUP in 2013.

Academic restructuring is an integral part of the overhauling envisaged by governments in favour of private institutions, both domestic and foreign. And therefore, it forms an integral part of the Bills which were first tabled by UPA II and are now being pushed forward by NDA without wasting time. The fact that UPA II could not get a nod on Education Bills from Rajya Sabha and Kapil Sibal became a much hated minister, has not deterred the NDA Government.

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CBCS: Masquerading choice!
While public spending on education has been reduced, it is important that “reforms” are sold through a jingle – “more choice, right choice”, while there is none! Semester system, cafeteria approach and credit transfer are three basic components of CBCS. It proposes that students will be free to move between universities and earn their credits for degree-requirement from any institution. It is important to investigate these promised choices to bust this hype.

If education has to be sold as a commodity, it is important to modularize it into affordable packets. And therefore, semesterisation became an essential feature of “reforms”. Universities were forced to adopt semester system on the insistence of the UGC through numerous notifications starting in 2008. Universities were told that accreditation and funding shall depend on implementation of Semester System and CBCS.

Today, teachers and students are speaking against semesterisation due to their experiences. Universities and colleges of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam, Haryana, and Delhi University, have shared their experiences of semester system in the public domain. Semester system has reduced teaching time, over-burdened universities and colleges with examination work, reduced time for in-depth and self-study, and failed to provide a structure that caters to need of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and varied schooling.

Reforms Laboratory, the erstwhile Delhi University, has many more experiences to share. FYUP at Delhi University was basically a choice based credit system as it used both semester system and cafeteria approach. While because of constraints of limited infrastructure and cap on number of teachers, several colleges decided to limit the number of students for each elective; the experiences of colleges which decided to allot students their first choice revealed the implications of cafeteria approach. It couples the system greatly to the market. There was a huge shift of student population towards those courses which were marketable or were useful for entrance examinations. While the system geared to cater to choice of these students, courses in pure science, humanities, languages like MIL, Sanskrit and Hindi literature, opted by fewer students were finally not floated because of the restrictive UGC norms on the number of teachers in a college. The cafeteria approach will lead to marginalization of fundamental subjects and flourishing of short term marketable courses taught by a permanent pool of contractual teachers. The FYUP experience also shows that though the cafeteria approach may sound fancy, it may not result in meaningful degrees.

CBCS has been pegged on the catchy phrase – “seamless student-mobility”. Currently the inter university and intra university mobility of students depend on the availability of seats in a course. Over- burdened class rooms and lack of infrastructure development after the OBC expansion of 2007 has in fact deterred institutions from allowing any such mobility. Therefore, we are forced to conclude that the Government is not really concerned about this kind of mobility. The mobility of students between universities and institutions to earn credits for a programme can happen only as per the agreements signed. It is important to highlight that the UGC does not limit these exchange programmes to be established amongst the public funded universities only. Same is the case with the Central Universities Act 2009, which is in operation, and the Central Universities Bill, 2013. This provision basically aims at promoting PPP model. The UGC is completely silent on the questions of reservation policy and fee structure in such cases. The UGC has turned a blind eye to the fact that the affordability of education, not only tuition fee but also other expenses borne towards it like food/rent, decides mobility of students!

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Thus the “choice” before students and teachers is to gulp down this bitter pill, made in America, which sees a huge education market in India and will gear the system to run on student loans and adjunct teachers. There are no real choices for those who are in the system and for the many more who are forced to remain outside. It is important to mask the real issues of quality, equity, massification, lack of infrastructure and shortage of teachers through the jingle.

CBCS: A much deeper damage
A much deeper damage is the fact that the UGC has designed both structure and syllabi for courses. The very act erodes the academic freedom of the Universities to design courses and syllabi. Universities are now to act like franchisees of a company. It takes away from the Universities their premier role to debate and discuss issues of pedagogy, to synchronize course curriculum according to the needs of higher education while keeping in mind the needs of their students. This also begins a dangerous trend where education, its purpose and content, can be changed overnight by Government.

Teachers across the country are being told what to teach without their participation in policy making and designing courses. It will alienate teachers and educators who are crucial for any change to take shape in classrooms and labs. This refusal to use their expertise in deciding the structure and content is most damaging for the quality of education.

Central universities today have a common curriculum – but they do not have a common syllabus. While a curriculum lays down certain norms and requirements for a course, it does not specify details of each course taught. The proposal to impose uniform syllabi on all universities is against democratization of education and policy making. It completely ignores the diversity and special needs as well as the histories of different regions and student populations.

It horrifies academicians further to see that the UGC has not shared details of committees responsible for these syllabi and rightly so, as most of these are “cut and paste” of syllabi designed for the much debated and discredited FYUP. So the UGC in its exercise of defining common syllabi can neither boast of application of mind nor pan India consultation.

It is important to ask if the Government has any will to impose such a uniform structure and syllabi on the private universities, foreign and domestic. The answer is a big NO. The entire idea is to rob public funded colleges and universities from any creative ideas they can offer, to dumb them down, make education they offer irrelevant and force students to move out to private institutions to buy innovative, creative and tailor-made credit courses.

The only Choice before us
Recent students and teachers movements have shown that students, parents and teachers are exercised about these “reforms”. Continuous deliberate destruction of public funded school education and medical facilities in the country offer us an insight to what higher education is in for. While we can agree to parallel existence of public and private, the fact remains that in this poor developing nation, with a very limited population which has buying capacity, the private cannot flourish if the public funded services are not completely destroyed or made irrelevant. Though the have-nots, who are left to believe on karma theory for their deprived state, form the largest section, they have been pushed outside the realm of policy making and therefore, do not matter. From the farmers to the youth, the government seems to be ready to rob people of their aspirations. The only hope for the country is to educate people against karma theory, to run another freedom struggle. And in this, universities will have to once again play their vital role.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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