Dr Anju Srivastava, principal of Hindu College, and Dr Bijayalaxmi Nanda, acting principal of Miranda House, on the challenges of addressing a diverse classroom, matching up to private universities, and the syllabus controversy in under-graduate courses
ANJU SRIVASTAVA: In Hindu College, and Delhi University (DU), there has been a shift in the pattern of admissions. Earlier the applicants were mostly from states such as Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh etc. In the past two-three years, we have seen an influx of students from the South. They are 100 percenters, who come with great ambition and enthusiasm. Not just that, they are also very willing to get groomed and participate in co-curricular activities. They feel it will help them in their careers in the future. The online portal of the university has also brought a marked change in the overall scenario of admissions. It has become very transparent and helped students in remote areas apply.
BIJAYALAXMI NANDA: At DU, especially Miranda House, which is a girls’ college, the diversity has truly increased. It’s from all over the country but the diversity from the South is marked today. Students are coming from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana. There is also a whole lot of work that goes on in these regions to help students prepare for DU. It’s like a Stanford or Princeton for them. That preparation has resulted in most of these young people seeing (DU) as their goal. The larger part of this aspiration is also linked to opportunities. So, like Dr Srivastava said, there is focus on being groomed, being part of this urbane, cosmopolitan culture. This diversity makes the campus very vibrant, the classrooms become a microcosm of the country. It is interesting, but it also comes with challenges such as language. In what way do you pitch to the class? A way of learning, where the diversity can be reflected in our teaching pedagogy, could be one of the things that we need to work on at this point. The students are prepared for DU, but is DU prepared for these young people? We should put our energies into preparing DU to address this diversity.
MALLICA JOSHI: Both your colleges are at the top of the admissions pyramid. What is your assessment of the high cut-offs in DU? And once they get admission, do these students with high percentages manage to cope with the pressures of college?
SRIVASTAVA: Most of them are from state boards. The college curriculum is very different from school and students have to adapt to it. There are challenges. It does become difficult at times, but there are mechanisms such as tutorials, the mentor-mentee system… The large numbers that we deal with, it is also a challenge for the teachers. It’s about the student’s self-motivation and also the environment they get in college.
NANDA: We tell them that whatever you have learnt at school, you have to unlearn now. It is very important to explain to them (students with high marks), right at the orientation, that they cannot expect to get a 100% in college. Students who come from state boards with 100% marks, they take about six months for acclimatisation. Many of them walk the extra mile and they are the ones excelling. When the first semester marks come in, it’s a wake-up call. They realise they are no longer there (getting high marks like in school). That is the time they really need counselling. But (by this time) it is not just about academics anymore. They are looking at ways of entering the job market, joining student politics etc. If one comes with a 100% (in school) and gets a B+ (in college), it can be terrifying and heart-breaking. But I think they are more resilient by that time. On its part, the college provides them with career counselling, counselling during exam time, there is a psycho-social counsellor around. We also have a lot of peer mentors in the college, so that seniors can talk to the new students. They listen to them more than they listen to us.
MALLICA JOSHI: In your experience, how many students are interested in placements after graduation compared to post-graduation, and students of which stream are the most sought after by companies?
SRIVASTAVA: The companies are mostly looking for students from economics or commerce backgrounds. Now there is also an interest in students from maths and statistics. There is a little bit of interest in political science and history. So our internship and placement cells have been working hard to rope in industries where there can be a collaboration — where the students can first be trained and then be given an offer. That is the need of the hour in order to motivate students from the science stream. Having said that, science stream students mostly opt for higher studies. They prefer internships in places such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, where they can also take up further studies and a PhD later on. Many also go for UPSC, IIMs etc. So not many science students are interested in direct employment. Also, many students are going abroad. That number has also increased.
NANDA: Are all young people interested in entering the job market after under-graduation? Some of them are definitely interested. Also, there is another trend of taking a year’s break, like in the West. In this period they want to take up internships to understand the job market. It is very common now. We have also had a few students who have set up their own start-ups.
MALLICA JOSHI: Universities are spaces for ideas, but like we saw after the controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016, there is a lot of pressure on institutions now. How do you navigate these?
NANDA: The new education policy talks about critical thinking at the school level. It is linked to liberal education at the college level. Based on that understanding, I think college education is about liberal spaces, about being able to speak your mind. In Miranda House, we have had absolutely no issues. We have been open and there has never been a backlash.
RAHUL SABHARWAL: There has often been politics over the issue of whether Delhi University should only be for Delhiites. How do you perceive this debate?
SRIVASTAVA: It is a problem if political parties don’t understand that it’s a Central university, and that we cannot use the state domicile for admissions. We have to abide by this. We get funds and grants accordingly.
UMA VISHNU: Over the years, DU cut-offs have gone up. How much of that is reflected in the quality of students that you get? How different is the average first-year student of today compared to 15 years ago?
SRIVASTAVA: About 15-20 years ago, the syllabus and the depth of teaching was very different. By the end of three years, they were better prepared for competitive exams, for further learning, and other avenues. The first-year students now are definitely very aware, well-read, but on the internet, and so in that way also a bit superficial.
NANDA: Qualitatively, 26 years ago, when I started teaching, there was a particular kind of student body in the room, it was homogeneous… There is more diversity now. The learning is now more on the Internet. But there is a zeal, an enthusiasm to pick up things. So the responsibility is on the college now. This particular group was not with us earlier. How do I make them read the kind of texts I was exposed to? I see that as lead-and-lag. We have to work on it.
ARANYA SHANKAR: There has been a controversy over the syllabus of four under-graduate courses. What is your position on it?
NANDA: The session has started and we don’t know what the syllabus is. It should have been resolved earlier… Those who have objections should be stakeholders. So is it the stakeholders or someone else, that should be asked. If they are not stakeholders, we have every reason to have access to who is saying no and to what. And the stakeholders should be students… There should also be teachers and administrators.
SRIVASTAVA: I would like to compliment the system for at least thinking of changing the curriculum, but it can’t be overhauled because there is a shortage of time and other limitations. The team, however, has worked against all odds and has come up with some kind of a change which is very important and it should be respected. But overall the scenario is sad that a prestigious institution like DU has started its academic session and the first years are yet to be told what their curriculum would be.
SUKRITA BARUAH: What is your assessment of the private universities that have come up, which may provide a certain flexibility in teaching, better infrastructure to students?
SRIVASTAVA: Yes, these universities are coming up very fast and doing very well. We have a little superiority complex but we should look at the good points of their system. They are doing very well in terms of versatility of courses that are on offer, the combinations… We should be able to provide that. We do devise methods for giving our students that extra edge — through add-on courses, certificate programmes in languages etc.
NANDA: Institutions such as Ashoka University do bring in certain kind of opportunities. But having said that, the most important thing for me is that public institutions thrive. It must be protected. We can bring add-on courses and maybe we need to look at how we can make the course more flexible. The choice-based credit system does work towards that. Within all the challenges that we have, this (public institutions) is an opportunity for a young person, who is a first-generation learner, whose father is a rickshaw-puller, to come to college. I do not think private universities can match that. It’s good to have both of them.
I think education has to work in a collaborative way. Ashoka University also provides a certain kind of critical independence which a Central university cannot have. So they can link with us. I think we are under pressure to stick to a particular curriculum, to maintain uniformity, and over it we try and add some new things… We could think of ways of expanding that by connecting with private universities. There is space for both. We should not see it as this or that.
RAVISH TIWARI: The Indian higher education system is a replica of the Oxbridge model. So there is a university and there are colleges. The quality of affiliate colleges sometimes lags. Can this system withstand the demographic pressures, or do you think a centralised examination system is a better answer?
SRIVASTAVA: When one of the cut-offs of our college was 99%, I remember, I was opposing it tooth and nail. I said are you crazy? But I was totally wrong because even then we admitted more students than required on the first day itself. This methodology will have to be changed… There can be an interview, like in Stephen’s College, but there is a chance of favouritism or prejudice there. Entrance exams, at least on the face of it, look more plausible. They have done it in post-graduation, they can do it for under-graduate programmes also. We had it for English (Hons). We really need a rethink there.
NANDA: Being part of the affiliate system brings a sense of uniformity in terms of rules and regulations. There is that support and I think we look for that support. I don’t see it as a stranglehold of the university. In terms of faculty too, there is a uniformity. The teachers are more or less similarly equipped. The quality of the teacher is not necessarily linked to the quality of the college, if I may say so. The colleges which are struggling, it’s not just because of infrastructure, it’s because of legacy. It’s not the faculty that is letting them down, it is the student pool that they are looking at. If a college has a student pool of, let’s say, those who have scored 80% — which I would say is the new 60%, which is very sad — and say they are able to get a score of 7 in the CGPA, then I think that should be the parameter of studying the progress of these colleges. You cannot use the same yardstick that you use for colleges like us which take in students with a 100% score. That is also something that we need to look at.
SHALINI LANGER: Do marks really reflect the merit of a student? Most schools have now learnt the trick of getting their students to score the maximum marks. Has there been any consultation with schools and the boards regarding this?
SRIVASTAVA: We do not have consultations with boards and have to abide by the guidelines of the university. As for cut-offs, we really have no choice, even if we know that it is not really reflecting the ability or the actual calibre of students… Marks of all boards are taken at face value. Probably the school boards should look into it more, the Education Ministry should look into it. It’s very unfortunate that we cannot take students below 97% marks.
SOMYA LAKHANI: Following the #MeToo movement, how equipped are DU colleges to deal with complaints of sexual harassment?
NANDA: The Forum Against Sexual Harassment started in DU much before the #MeToo movement. There is the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). In Miranda House, we hold awareness
programmes… On the orientation day, DU has made it mandatory to introduce students to the ICC. This time students have been elected to the committee.
SRIVASTAVA: The work of the ICC is done religiously. The guidelines are stringently followed. Also the representation of students is extremely well done. We have representation from each of the three years through elections. What is important is that the students are opening up. They have complete faith in the system. Also we have to report sexual harassment cases to the Ministry of Human Resource Development on an annual basis.
MALLICA JOSHI: What are the two things that you would want to change about your respective colleges?
NANDA: I want that every student who is admitted to the college and wants housing and scholarship (should get it)… that is the need of the hour. We need safe housing for students. And, scholarships for all the students who are here. Even with minimal fees, there are students who cannot make it to the next year, who don’t have the resources for it.
Also, there should a link to employability, not so much employment. But employability. I want all students to be made employable.
SRIVASTAVA: I think I would like to have more Hindu Colleges. If there is high demand, we should be able to cater to it. We should be able to take more students in and not disappoint them because the premier colleges are
closing admissions in the first or second cut-off list. Also, residential facilities. We are a 120-year-old college, but we got a girls’ hostel only three years ago. We never had a girls’ hostel and nobody voiced this. It is imperative to have more safe residential facilities for both genders, which is becoming like a far-fetched dream because we don’t get funds from the government. This needs to be revamped because some students end up spending more on their stay than on their education.