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

Posted on May 18, 2015

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.


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.


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!


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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