To be initiated into higher education through uncertainty and confusion created by an administrative stand-off between conflicting authorities is unlikely to be an inspiring experience for the many young people starting, or a year into, their undergraduate careers with the University of Delhi. But this is what is turning out to be the fate of the many applicants and first-year students as the university and the University Grants Commission are locked in battle over the duration of undergraduate courses in the various colleges affiliated to the university. After having been allowed to go ahead with a four-year undergraduate programme last year, the UGC has now threatened to cut off funding and deny the recognition of degrees if the university does not switch back to a three-year programme, claiming that the four-year programme violates the national education policy. The resistance to changing from three to four years originated in the university’s teachers’ and students’ unions, ruled by the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party respectively. So, this pressure through intimidation to comply, mediated through the UGC, is essentially political in nature with the Union human resource development ministry — in favour of switching back to three years — closely monitoring the outcome.
There are two levels at which the situation needs to be thought through with clarity — the political and the academic. Politically, the independence and autonomy of institutions of higher education with regard to the ministry and its regulatory bodies (especially the UGC) are of paramount importance. Decisions regarding the content, method and structure of teaching should be made internally by the institutions. Any attempt at controlling these internal matters through a centralized and politicized bureaucracy, shifting its policies according to the interests of the government of the day is ultimately inimical to principles of academic excellence. Academically speaking, if the four-year system has been introduced to bring the university on a par with the rest of the world, then how the extra year is to be utilized, and how the duration of the undergraduate course affects the nature and duration of post-graduate courses and degrees, should be reconceptualized radically, with nothing but academic and professional parameters in mind. Politics should remain out of this as far as possible.