‘Institutions will last only when we’ve maturity to let them be. That’s missing’

By: | Published: November 1, 2015 12:16 AM

Dinesh Singh, whose tenure as vice-chancellor of Delhi University ended last week, says he never heard an academic argument against the now scrapped four-year undergraduate programme, laments the interference of governments in institutions, and explains the use of OBC funds to distribute laptops

Why Dinesh Singh

Dinesh Singh’s five-year term as the Delhi University vice-chancellor ended on October 28. His has been a controversial tenure, especially with regard to the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP), which he was accused of implementing undemocratically. The new government in 2014 rolled back the FYUP, and served Singh a showcause notice— he remains the only VC in DU’s 93-year-old history to be issued such a notice. More recently, he was criticised for nominating former ISRO chief K Kasturirangan to the selection panel for the next VC, despite the latter being an honorary professor at DU.

Ritika Chopra: You recently said that no DU vice-chancellor has had a cakewalk. But would you agree that your term was bumpier than that of your predecessors?

I had a tough time from the word go. I landed in the middle of a major battle between the teachers and the university, which had decided from my predecessor’s time to convert to the semester system. When I joined, the sciences were teaching in the semester mode, while the humanities and the social sciences were teaching in the annual mode. When I spoke to science students, they were very happy with the semester mode. Studying in smaller doses, they said, gave them respite. For a whole year, I had to persuade social sciences and humanities to convert to the semester system. The university could not survive in this dual mode. I was also asked, ‘Why don’t you revert sciences to the annual mode?’. That would mean running in three modes — the old annual, the new annual and the middle semester.

The academic council decided (to implement the semester system) with an overwhelming majority from my predecessor’s time. Then the departments have to create courses for that. We had to work for a year, but we got each department to vote with large majorities to create the courses of study. It wasn’t easy, but they all did it the way it’s supposed to be done.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How do you look at the influence of politics on education? Is there any difference between the UPA and the NDA governments in this regard?

I had no inkling I was going to be vice-chancellor. No one asked me if I wanted to be one. I had, in fact, announced I was taking up an assignment in the US. No one asked me, ‘What are your ideas, what do you propose to do in a university system, will you do this or that?’. No government gave me instructions. As I said, when I landed in the middle of that war, my choices were limited. I had to go ahead and ensure the smooth implementation of the semester system.

I don’t think the government ever thought much about it. But individuals within the government always have their views and speak to you about it. That may just be good. Governments should only think at a larger policy level and leave institutions to devise their own ways and means. Institutions should also help make policy. It has to be a two-way process.

Fundamental changes in higher education have always happened over a long period of time. The one time DU really moved into a mode that gave it lasting benefits was during the time of Maurice Gwyer, who served for 12 uninterrupted years. He could carry forward, sustain, and stabilise his ideas, which have stood the test of time. When Robert Goheen took over as president of Princeton University, he was a 25- or 26-year-old temporary faculty.

Trustees took a leap of faith, and he served for 26 or 27 years, converting Princeton into what it is today. I remember the time of Allahabad University when my father was a student. Amarnath Jha was VC for 16 years. He had the autonomy to give the university stability and direction. It rose to great heights. On the university rolls then was distinguished physicist Meghnad Saha. When Saha left, Jha said he would replace him with a better man. Without seeking anybody’s permission in those British times, he appointed Nobel laureate Erwin Schrodinger. He couldn’t join because of the war. That is the freedom you need to give institutions.

Ritika Chopra: Do you feel you could have made more fundamental changes without the interventions you faced in your term?

I don’t know whether they were fundamental or not. This (four-year undergraduate programme, or FYUP) was an experiment, nobody knows. But this was a well-thought-out experiment, based on people’s perspectives, experiences, learnings and a fair amount of deliberations.

Ritika Chopra: So why do you think it was rolled back?

I honestly don’t know. If you have followed the debates, have you come across a single academic argument which says this is a faulty system? I went to this TV channel, where some of our most vociferous critics were present. I was grilled for over an hour but I couldn’t come across a single academic argument.

Shalini Langer: The cut-off marks for DU admissions are now almost 100 per cent. What is the value of such cut-off marks? Do you think entrance exams are a better option?

No matter which way you try, it is going to torture students. If you try an entrance exam, it is one more exam for students. The issue is not about cut-offs. We have had a limited number of seats — 55,000 to 60,000 — for long, because that’s all we can handle. But the number of applicants, particularly, after I introduced the FYUP, shot up exponentially. And you have the exact same number of seats. What do you do? You have to devise supposedly a fair and transparent system.

If you ask me, that’s not the way. And I don’t want to judge students on the basis of one exam. That disables them.

That was one of the merits of the FYUP. You could get into Philosophy Honours —everybody was into an Honours system—but you didn’t have to take an Honours degree. You could get out in two, three or four years. But while you are pursuing Philosophy, you had the freedom to do a Chemistry minor. And that minor was strong enough to get you into the Masters programme.

Abhishek Angad: Do you think FYUP’s concept was not understood by those who got it rolled back?

That may be a small number and maybe they didn’t want it. I never asked them. But those who were connected with it had a fairly reasonable grasp of it. It’s fairly simple stuff — a major and a minor. Or a little bit of practical knowledge, skills and knowledge together.

I’ll give an example. I spoke to more than 2,000 students of Sanskrit over two years. I asked them what besides Sanskrit would they like to study. Roughly a third each said maths, computer science and political science. (Noam) Chomsky put the principles of Paninian grammar into the context of a mathematical structure—that’s how he described his linguistics programme. See how many Chomskys we have lost because our Sanskrit students are not exposed to maths or computer science or political science?

Aranya Shankar: In hindsight, would you tweak the compulsory but controversial foundation courses that were part of the FYUP?

See the written, anonymous feedback of 8,000-9,000 students, which we took at the end of one year from different colleges. You would realise there wasn’t the kind of opposition you think there was.

When the opposition started during the new government’s time, the then student union office-bearers met me in private. A senior office-bearer, in the presence of other office-bearers, told me she was instructed to put up on Facebook that she would oppose the FYUP. And she said, ‘The moment I put that up, I was bombarded with hits protesting what I was doing, so I took it off.’ So the truth lay somewhere else… Let that be my fate.

Ritika Chopra: The HRD minister has said the FYUP did not have the approval of the visitor, which would mean that thousands of students would graduate with illegal degrees.

When you create a new programme of study, you create ordinances—that is a prescribed statutory provision. And there is clear-cut court ruling, so that there should be no ambiguity in understanding this. This court ruling came in the context of the semester system, where a segment of teachers took the university to court during my time, that the semester was illegal because the ordinances did not have the approval of the President.

And a division bench of the high court gave a clear-cut ruling, that an ordinance comes into force the moment the Executive Council approves it. And it is communicated to the President not for his approval but for his information.
Ritika Chopra. In your reply to the show-cause notice from the government, you obviously don’t agree with the grounds on which you were issued the notice. Why do you think you were at the receiving end of such action?

I honestly don’t know. Maybe that is part of the job. When you try and bring about some change, some people may not agree, some may get rubbed the wrong way. I tried my best to do an honest job. There’s nothing I believe that I did which was wrong. But that’s my view. I can’t answer for people who served the notice.

Aranya Shankar: During your tenure, the academic council decided to do away with 300 Ramayanas essay by AK Ramanujan. What is your personal view on that decision?

We were directed by the Supreme Court to place it before the academic council. The council deliberated for eight-nine hours on the matter, and by an overwhelming vote, disapproved of it. It wasn’t my decision. I just chaired the meeting. I have read the essay. It’s entertaining, but there isn’t much scholarship in it.

Uma Vishnu: While making your arguments for the FYUP, you spoke about the lack of employability among students. Is the university level a bit too late to fix the problem? Should it start at primary education?

In many ways, we are a little late, a little behind things. But it’s never too late to try and fix any situation. Do you know how many students take Sanskrit? The number is in thousands. There are no jobs in Sanskrit to fit these students. Hindi again has thousands of takers. Where will you take them? We teach them only Hindi literature. We mould them in our images as professors. But how many professors do you have countrywide? 500? These are thousands of students each year. Do we have any data on where they go and what they do? No. I was speaking to a large gathering at a hotel on the FYUP. When I was leaving, two waiters came up to me and touched my feet, saying they wished we had done that while they were students at the university. A public institution is funded by the taxpayer’s money. It is our responsibility to connect with the needs of the society and the nation.

I created a cluster innovation centre at the university. Its mandate is to drive innovation in industrial clusters, education clusters, slum clusters and village clusters. We run programmes like Bachelor’s of Technology in innovation, mathematics and IT. You should see the number of research papers the undergraduates are writing, the number of patents and the number of startups. I started a Bachelor’s of Technology in Humanities and I was pilloried by various agencies, questioning what technology has to do with humanities. I had just one argument. It’s about changing the mind. A PhD in chemistry stands for Doctor of Philosophy in chemistry. Does anyone ask, how is this a philosophy? What we do with the content is more important.

Shyamlal Yadav: You’ve been accused of using R170 crore from the OBC fund to buy laptops for students. What’s your version?

Do you know what we did with that money? We ensured that every single college could provide laptops for first-year students each year. We enabled the WiFi system. This is not a misuse. This is the way forward. One of the largest universities, DU takes in 55,000-60,000 students, of whom 10,000-15,000 are from UP, Bihar alone. Any idea where they are going and what they are doing? We need to radically alter our approach to education and that would include use of technology. A survey conducted in the US about two years ago asked people what they thought about technology-based education; 90% felt it’s going to be bad and nothing like face-to-face interaction. A year later, the same cohort was asked the reason and was told it would be kept confidential. Over 80% said they feared losing their jobs. So the reasons will always be somewhere else and India just cannot handle these numbers. How many DUs will you create? Even if you create a hundred, can you handle? But technology is a powerful medium. We also need to come out of the box. We need to grant credit to systems in society connected to technology. Take Bombay’s dabbawallahs. There is maths there. Their delivery system is as accurate as DHL or FedEx. Has any mathematician studied that? No.

Harish Damodaran: Have the standards of maths fallen? Cutoffs and marks are increasing, but what about quality, especially in pure sciences? Secondly, in the US, research is undertaken by universities, corporations and Nasa. In India, it’s the reverse. Most research seems to be coming from the CSIR, department of space, etc, while companies and universities are doing badly.

It started long ago. Somewhere India changed course and we decided not to place our faith in university systems. We created research institutes because we thought universities were not doing research; a fundamental error. Research is really the domain of the young. You need to engage undergraduates in research programmes. In France, America, the UK, all research comes out of universities, that’s why they are younger, and that’s why there are so many disciplines. Research also has to be trans-disciplinary. I’ve been an adjunct professor at the University of Houston for over 20 years. I have seen almost 80 per cent of its maths department comes from a medical centre, the Nasa and a petroleum centre. The department is full of people and you can’t tell if they are engineers, mathematicians or medical persons, as there is enormous fluidity between disciplines.

As for maths standards, I don’t think they are falling. It’s just that the young are not being exposed in the right way. In school, they’re not being trained the way they should be. We’re just burdening them too much and not giving them time to think on their own. We teach more than is necessary. The Class XI maths I studied in 1972 is still sufficient today to gain entry into any education system in the world. But see what they are teaching schoolchildren today in the name of maths. They start teaching them from lower class itself. They’re killing their minds.

Maneesh Chhibber: Why couldn’t you communicate your point of view to Smriti Irani? Did you try to do so?

I did in my own way, I tried, but that doesn’t mean that I succeeded. I can’t answer for why people did not understand what I was trying to say.

Maneesh Chhibber: Did you get any reason? Did she give any reason?

No, I didn’t ask for any reason… They didn’t agree, it was so obvious. We were ordered to take it back.

Shikha Sharma: Do you think you should have resigned when the FYUP was rolled back, as it was your baby?

I have no idea. My father was also a VC. He faced enormous pressure from a rusticated student, a son of a major politician. He refused to withdraw that and he was overruled by the chancellor. And my father resigned. Maybe I didn’t live up to my father’s expectations.

Shikha Sharma: You spoke about linking education to technology. How much of that have you achieved?

The distribution of laptops came from a desire to use technology for open learning. About 70 per cent of our students come from Hindi medium. All our teaching, and books of learning, is in English. A high court ruling says that if there is a reasonable number asking to be taught in Hindi, then it must be taught in Hindi. But we are not doing that. There is only so much I can do. So, one of my first efforts was to try and translate at least some of the books into Hindi. We bought copyrights and translated 60-70 books from English to Hindi and put them up on the web.

Ritika Chopra: After IIT-Delhi head RK Shevgaonkar resigned last December, several academicians wrote about academic autonomy being under threat. Do you agree?

This is one of India’s big tragedies. Many years ago, when I was a student, the governor of one of our northern states dismissed 12 VCs in one go. I have been appointed by the so-called Congress government of the time, but I’m a professional trying to do a reasonable job. Institutions will survive the test of time only when we attain this level of maturity that these are institutions, let them be. That has not happened in a long, long time in India.

Transcribed by Shruti Yadav & Adithya Ram

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