Four-year degree: Boon or bane

By H. Srikanth

“In a state like Meghalaya, where the majority are tribal people with a humble economic background, the students hardly opt for online courses through MOOCS and SWAYAM platforms, as taking the online courses involves additional expenditure.”

In Meghalaya, higher education has witnessed some cosmetic changes in the last decade. Earlier the colleges used to offer Honours degree and Pass courses. The dual degree system was given up and Honours degree was made compulsory in all affiliated colleges. The yearly exam pattern was replaced by the semester system. No serious attempts were made to update the UG syllabi; the then existing yearly syllabi were divided into two equal halves and serviced in different semesters. For namesake, the CBCS pattern and continuous assessment system were proposed. But everyone in academics knows that implementation of the CBCS would be a failure when the student-teacher ratio is very high. Neither the government nor the university – has undertaken any study to examine whether the reforms initiated have ushered in any positive change in the quality of higher education in the state. It is necessary to examine whether the same process is going to be repeated when the colleges will be forced to restructure the UG program and introduce Four-Year degree courses.
Initiating structural changes in the degree program is one of the main agenda of NEP 2020. The NEP proposes to introduce a Four-Year Degree Program with options for entry and exit. It advocates multidisciplinary teaching and offers the students opportunities to study non-allied and vocational courses. The curricula will be designed in such a way that a student can exit with a certificate after one year, or with a diploma after two years, or with a degree after three years, or a ’degree with research’ after four years. The students can study in more than one institution and accumulate the required number of credits. Above policy gives the option for the students to take online courses up to 40 percent of the total credits to be accumulated. Advocates of NEP 2020 consider it as a game changer, as it aims to impart quality education; increase enrolment, facilitate mobility, and improve the student employment opportunities.
The model that NEP 2020 is recommending for degree programs is in tune with the US education model. It is already in operation in some of the elite private universities in India, like Ashoka University, Azim Premji University, etc. The students studying in these universities splurge lakhs of rupees to complete a degree program. Their curriculum and syllabi are useful for rich Indians and NRIs aspiring to study outside India, or to make careers in the corporate sector. But one is not sure whether the model could be replicated to all parts of India, ignoring the stark class and regional differences.
An effective implementation of the four-year degree courses on the lines proposed by NEP 2020 requires good infrastructure and qualified personnel. Multidisciplinary teaching using the CBCS and cafeteria approach make sense only when the UG colleges offer courses in sciences, commerce, arts and humanities. The colleges need to have the resources and capabilities to offer meaningful vocational courses. The students need to be rich enough to bear the additional expenses to offer online courses, or to study in multiple institutions to earn the credits. To be able to guide the research in the fourth year, it is essential that all UG teachers have a M Phil or a PhD. degree. But on the ground, over ninety percent of the teachers employed in the UG colleges have only a PG degree. They do not have any research degree and research experience to guide research at degree level. Further, most colleges in both urban and semi-urban areas only have temporary affiliation and lack resources. The college management mostly prefers to run UG courses in humanities and social sciences, and can’t afford to run degree courses in sciences and commerce. They have little resources and cannot afford to provide computer and internet facilities to the students. Digital infrastructure and internet access in the remote areas are highly inadequate. With such constraints, is it possible to introduce a Four-Year degree course in the state?
Now let us examine the Exit and Entry approach that the NEP offers. What do the students gain by opting out of the degree course after one year with a certificate, or with a diploma after two years? Would these dropouts be able to secure a job anywhere with the certificate and diploma? In countries like India, the students’ dropout is mainly because of economic reasons. With the ongoing privatization and commercialization of education, it is becoming difficult even for middle-class families to send their wards to good colleges. The proposed restructuring of degree courses will impose additional financial burden on the poor and middle-class parents, and compel many students to quit in the middle of their studies with certificates and diplomas which have no market value. Not sure whether the students who drop out in the middle will ever enter colleges again to complete their degree. If the government really intends to increase and retain the enrolment in higher education, then it should provide subsidized education and offer scholarships to the needy students. Multiple exit and entry options are no real options. Further, in a state like Meghalaya, where the majority are tribal people with a humble economic background, the students hardly opt for online courses through MOOCS and SWAYAM platforms, as taking the online courses involves additional expenditure. Most online courses are offered for six months and their schedule does not match with NEHU’s semester calendar. Even at the PG level, there are hardly any takers for these online courses. The students find it more comfortable to pursue offline courses within the campus. The students here don’t find it attractive to accumulate credits from different sources and to look towards the Academic Bank of Credits (ABC) to calculate the total credits.
The NEP gives a false hope as if doing vocational courses as part of the degree will boost the students’ employment opportunities. In a country where even those who have done Polytechnic, B Tech and other technical and management courses are unemployed, or under-employed, it is an illusion to hope that by doing an additional vocational course at degree level, one could have secure and sustainable jobs. Most UG colleges in the state do not have means or expertise to provide training in vocational courses. Even the courses offered by Skill Development departments of the state have little market value. There are no major industries or institutions in the state to get hands-on vocational training for the students. Too much of an emphasis on vocational courses and non-allied subjects deviates the students’ attention from the main course in which they seek to master and excel. As the saying goes, the Jack of all trades is a master of none.
True, all is not fine with higher education. Higher education in the state needs reforms. But the reforms should be such that they benefit not only the privileged elite but also the students with little means. Educational policies should be made keeping in view the needs and capabilities of the stakeholders. But the problem in India is that the policies are conceived and imposed from above. The central government enforces their will on the state governments. The UGC and Ministry of Education dictate their decisions on the universities, and the universities impose them on the UG colleges. We surrender the responsibility of decision making to the wisdom of our superiors and learn to implement mechanically the policies thrust upon us. When issues like pay, promotions, positions, etc., become priority, who has any time for critical and rational thinking on issues related to quality of education? One only hopes the university, colleges and government take cognizance of the state of higher education in Meghalaya before they roll out the Four-Year degree model in the UG colleges.
(H Srikanth teaches Political Science in NEHU. He can be reached at [email protected])

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