Letter to VC on Semester System, 25.5.09

Detailed response from DTF members on the AC and EC

Prof. Deepak Pental,
Vice Chancellor,
University of Delhi,
Delhi

25 May 2009

Dear Prof. Pental,

The following is a response to your letter dated May 12, 2009 to the AC and EC members regarding the introduction of the semester system in the undergraduate programme of the University.

At the outset one must point out that the way you have drafted your response and summarised the positions of the teaching community, in particular the official responses of the Staff Councils and Staff Associations of different colleges, exposes your bias with predetermined intensions to somehow or the other push the semester system in the undergraduate programme of the University. It must be noted that an overwhelming majority of the official responses of the colleges have been either to reject outright or to express very serious apprehensions to the proposal to introduce the semester system. To summarise this as mixed responses, as you have done, is an attempt to camouflage the truth. Further, it should be noted that in rejecting or expressing grave apprehensions to this move, the colleges have shown great responsibility in drafting detailed responses on a host of issues. It shows their serious engagement to the pedagogic process and their deep concern about the fallout of such hasty moves on the academic environment in the undergraduate courses and particularly its implication for the students. It should be noted that some of the best institutions of the University have reacted very sharply to such a changeover. The depth of the deliberations should convince the rational and open-minded reader that such a move could be quite ill fitted and inimical to the essential parameters and character of our undergraduate programme. Such strong concerns and detailed objections cannot and should not be wished away by wishful thinking and empty placatory references. It should be noted that a large number of reasons for rejection of these proposals stems from the very undesirability or unsuitability of the semester system to our specificities i.e. the objections do not merely deal with feasibility issues, though there are a host of serious and almost insurmountable feasibility problems as well.

In the light of all this, any move for ‘the way ahead’ as you have referred to it is once again a reflection of your predetermined bias. It should be pointed out here that there is no sanction whatsoever to move forward in this direction by any mandate of the Academic Council. The official responses of the colleges further strengthen the case for rejection of this move. Thus any attempt to form a committee to create a detailed blueprint for implementation of the semester system will be undemocratic and against the considered opinion of the teaching community at large. Without the fundamental agreement for the desirability of a semester system in the undergraduate programme specific to the characteristics of our university and the prior sanction of the AC in this regard, any committee to study the details of the implementation process is ultra vires, even if such a committee is constituted by the AC, because a committee to look into the blueprint will have to necessarily assume that the move to the semester system is desirable and has the mandate of the academic community.

Some of the major objections and apprehensions that have emerged through these considered opinions along with further points that emerge as a response to your current communication are being discussed below.

On the Rationale

1) The semester system essentially runs well in institutions with a small student size, where teaching, examination and evaluation are done by the same faculty members. Given the short time that is available in a semester, the faculty needs to be in full control of the specifics of the course covered, so that there are no hindrances in the examination process. A course being taught in so many different colleges will necessarily have a lot of variation in coverage in a short span of time, which can be reasonably ironed out in the course of a year, as in the present annual system, but will be difficult to do in a semester time span.

One urgent concern in this context is how a course gets to be completed in the event of a teacher going on leave even for 2 or 3 weeks (for attending refresher course or short medical leave for example). Substitution by ad-hoc/guest teaching for such short periods is neither desirable nor often feasible. In fact in many subjects it is difficult to find teachers in short notice. In an annual system such eventualities are taken care by the longer availability of time, where teachers may take extra classes to compensate for the absence. In a short semester period such adjustments often become impossible. In institutions where the semester system is in place, such eventualities are ultimately taken care by the fact that the teacher who teaches determines the syllabus and content for the examination and subsequently does her own evaluation. It is almost impossible to resolve such a problem in a University with courses spread over so many colleges. The example of the semester system in the BBS course taught in the University is a case in hand. It is run in only three institutions with small number of students where internal coordination is possible. Similarly the BA (Hons) Journalism course is offered only in five colleges. To the best of our knowledge there is no example of any semester system in the world where teaching is done across so many colleges with a standardised syllabus. An enormous decentralised and non-autonomous collegiate structure as in Delhi University cannot be dealt within the pedagogical peculiarities of a semester system. An annual system is the only feasible structure for most of the popular and populated undergraduate courses in the University.

2) One of the reasons in advocacy of the semester system that you had put forward in your earlier communication is to iron out periods of “leisure and hyperactivity” with uniform academic pressure on students. The responses from many colleges have pointed out the necessity of ‘leisure’ in academic pursuits of students. The conceptualisation of leisure as non-productive time is misplaced. The semester system may introduce greater discipline but also harsher regimentation among students. In fact students in undergraduate programme of the University come from very diverse backgrounds and with different abilities and they often take considerable time to get used to the system. The college atmosphere and challenges that it throws are very different from that in the schools. Most students are used to rote learning and they consider what is written in the texts as the final word. In humanities and social sciences in particular, students fresh out of school need a period of ‘academic thawing’ before they settle down into what is a drastically new approach of analysis and critique of the given text. It is also rather unfair to make students face examinations within a short time span before they develop some critical ability, particularly the mode of writing long and analytical answers. It is often our experience that it takes considerable time to groom such students through close supervision in tutorial classes and through repeated assignment writing.

3) The need for a more relaxed calendar is even more crucial for students who are weaker or have come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of them face difficulties in pursuing courses and study material in English. They often take time to comprehend the system and particularly to absorb, revise and practice the study material. This problem is likely to be felt even more acutely with the extension of reservation. An annual system is much more conducive to such students, as a semester will give them very little time to find their footing. A semester system assumes a certain uniformity and focus, which such a varied university with its extremely heterogeneous student population, both within and across institutions, does not offer. As a result this will essentially create an elitist bias in our higher education system, which large open-door universities like ours have hitherto tried to mitigate, at least in the undergraduate programme. It should be realised that the undergraduate programme in our country is a basic necessity for any decent employment and while continuously striving to enhance its standards, its essential character and role in transforming people’s lives, in a country ridden with inequality, should not be forgotten.

4) The annual system is also more conducive to students who are not in an academic straightjacket. The interested and sensitive students have time to read outside their course and textbooks as they are not forced to confront examinations in short time spans. The semester system will accentuate the already existing attitude in large number of students to only study what is relevant for an exam. One can encourage students now to diversify their interests and readings, which will get curtailed when students are forced to deal with ‘focussed’ course material in limited time with ‘uniform’ pressure of examinations and evaluations all the time.

5) Further a good semester system has modes of evaluation, which are often not examination based. The oft-quoted example of JNU is relevant here, where in most social science and liberal arts courses the examinations only carry about 50% of total assessment; the rest of the assessment is often based on term papers which students write based on wide ranging reading material with sufficient time in hand. Such semester based systems, which do not rely largely on examination-based performance, have been a result of careful thought and understanding about the need allow the students to be able read wide ranging material and be evaluated through methods that allow greater expression and creativity by de-emphasising end-semester examinations. However, this essentially needs small batches of students with evaluation being done by the teacher herself. In a system like DU it is impossible to conceive of any significant proportion of marks coming from non-exam mode of assessment because of the need to maintain the standardisation and anonymity of the evaluation process dealing with so many colleges and such a large number of heterogeneous students. The internal assessment scheme which was introduced in our University has only 10% marks coming from non-examination mode (assignments/projects) and even here the University feels the need to do a mechanical moderation of these marks.

6) In your correspondence you put forward the facility of “continuous learning and assessment/feedback” and “a continuous engagement between students and teachers” as key advantages of the semester system.  It is not at all clear how a semester system enables one to do so more than an annual one. This exposes your lack of understanding of the pedagogic processes in the undergraduate institutions and once again demonstrates your unreasonable bias against the present system. A continuous engagement of the teachers with the students takes place in the present system in the general class room, in tutorial and contact periods and often also outside the formal pedagogic space in the sphere of extracurricular activities or through personal informal interactions.  How does the semester system create any more scope for this interaction? Neither is the tutorial component going to increase nor the student-teacher ratio going to decrease so as to allow us to handle smaller batches for even greater interaction and close supervision. In fact as we discuss later, the much reduced scope of extra-curricular activities for students will diminish an important sphere of informal interaction and involvement of many teachers with the students. The present internal assessment system has already introduced continuous assessment through termwise assignments and projects. In your own admission that component of the internal assessment structure is not going to change. So how does the semester system make any difference here? If conducting examinations twice enables one to have more regular evaluation, then it is pertinent to remind you that the mid-term examinations are already in place in the current internal assessment scheme. The only change that will happen is that an internal examination is going to be replaced by a more elaborate external examination schedule (whose feasibility implications we discuss later) without any substantial change in periodicity of the assessment that you seem to hail.

Extra-Curricular Activities

7) A serious concern was raised by many colleges regarding the negative impact that the tight semester system will have on cultural and sports activities. Your response has been that adequate time will be allotted to them within the University calendar. This shows your complete lack of understanding of the problem. Perhaps what you have in mind are college festivals, which could be allocated within the calendar. What needs to be recognised is that many students make serious time commitment on a regular basis to sports or cultural activities like theatre, music and such others, which will be significantly curtailed when the very purpose, as in your earlier claim, is to cut down leisure. Such ‘leisure’ gives many students opportunity to widen their horizons, flower and rediscover themselves. The University across colleges produces very high quality theatre for example, which requires a substantial time commitment and periods of ‘leisure’. The problem is extremely acute for sports where inter-university tournaments and National camps run throughout the year, where these sportsmen participate. It will just be impossible for them to pursue serious sports and an academic degree together if the semester system is introduced. Considering that sports and cultural admissions are an integrated feature of the University’s admission policy, this will be gross injustice to students who are particularly admitted on this basis.

Interdisciplinarity

8) One of the merits of the semester system, you seem to indicate, is the possibility for greater interdisciplinarity. However, there is no a priori reason why a semester system is superior to an annual one with regard to this. Interdisciplinary courses have already been introduced in this university in several programmes and are running successfully. Their scope and variety can be increased within the existing system itself if such a need is perceived. It is relevant to keep in mind here that genuine interdisciplinarity requires designing courses that assimilate from different disciplines but at the same time it needs a student to be well grounded in her own discipline to understand the nuances and variation that come from another discipline.

There is a confusion being created about interdisciplinarity, that this means enabling the student to take courses across disciplines. Taking courses from other disciplines has always been an option that has been available to students in the university in the subsidiary and integrated courses for a long time and therefore there is nothing in an annual system that poses a hindrance to this. Allowing students the option to choose interdisciplinary options or those from other disciplines does not depend on the option of credit transfer. What has hindered the full success of such possibilities, however laudable the idea, have been the limitations that colleges face in introducing a large number of optionals whether across or even within an Honours discipline. While the Academic Council has approved a wide array of such courses, many are taught in very few colleges and each college actually offers a very restricted choice. As a result, students have been actually given only a small variety of options to choose from. As is well known, colleges have faced acute shortage of space and faculty to offer desirable optional courses. Further, the huge size, geographical spread and the sheer number of students have prevented such choices from being exercised across colleges. Difficulties in timetable co-ordination between institutions and even between departments in an institution create serious feasibility problems. Once again, it should be kept in mind that the experience of interdepartmental credit transfer is based on geographically compact university structures with small numbers of students, where genuine exchange can take place between its different units. Intercollegiate exchange of students for availing a variety of options becomes almost impossible, given the geographical spread of the University and neither are the University’s present regulations conducive for such inter-college co-operation. Rather than assuming that introduction of a semester system will be a panacea for all this, the University should attempt to mitigate these concrete constraints to allow students genuine choice which already exist in our existing system. Your opinion that the current injection of funds for significant addition to infrastructure and faculty strength will mitigate the existing constraints is largely misplaced. It is pertinent to remind you that the injection of funds is to meet the challenges of a more than 50% addition to student strength in the University following the introduction of OBC reservations. They are in fact funds to maintain the status quo in this changed situation of such enlarged student strength all over the university. They are not going to create surplus spaces or hands to experiment with more lavish choices.

Inter University Credit Transfer and Global standards

9) One of the advantages of the semester system as advocated by you is that it will enable students to transfer credits across national and international universities. The prime undergraduate programme of our University is the Honours programme. This allows students to study a subject at reasonable depth and is in fact one of the significant factors behind the academic superiority of the University. Most universities across the country do not have the Honours system. How and what meaning will it have to transfer credits of particular courses across universities? It will not be too far-fetched to draw a conclusion that this move is a prescription to ultimately jettison the specialised Honours programme and move towards a standardised curriculum and syllabus across the country, a move which was suggested in a UGC white paper few years back.  Is a countrywide standardisation of higher education in a mechanical fashion a desirable feature and that too by jettisoning the sphere of academic excellence? Shouldn’t the University of Delhi maintain its autonomy and guard its position of excellence from such encroachments and attacks? Even in countries like the USA where credit transfer is possible, it is done rarely and mostly in elementary courses between similarly ranked Universities. No reputed international University will on its own allow such random credit transfer from Delhi University, unless there is a specific memorandum of understanding. International exchanges are taking place already in some colleges, but they are hardly a serious exercise in academic exchange. Further such arrangements will benefit only a miniscule number of students and that too probably for only those who can financially afford them. Generations of DU students have been getting admission to reputed foreign institutes for pursuing their higher studies and research. These are necessarily fresh admissions and the question of credit transfer is not even relevant in such cases. The annual system has prepared the meritorious students quite adequately to take up such challenges. It seems that the plea to inter-institution transfer of credit may have a hidden implication. Is this to facilitate such credit transfers from a few private universities in India and provide legitimacy to their courses and earn money in return?

10) You have mentioned harmonization of academic calendar through a uniform semester system across the European Union under the Bologna Process as an ideal global example to be emulated here. It is pertinent to point out here that the imposition of the Bologna Process has faced strong opposition from the academic community in many of the EU member countries. The long unrest among the students and teachers all over France including those in their most reputed universities for almost two years and the periodic unrests in many other European countries including Germany, Italy, Spain and Croatia against the mechanical implementation of the Bologna Process is a testimony to that. Following from the larger ideology and issues thrown up by the Bologna Process strong protests, in the form of paralysing State institutions and occupying public places, took place in at least thirty countries across five continents. It is unfortunate that such unpopular impositions become ideal examples for education planners in India and you want to lead us to such uncritical emulation in the name of ‘global’ or EU standards.

11) A final comment about “global standards”. It has been pointed out in the responses of many colleges that global standards cannot be built without global infrastructure and workload norms. The sixteen and half hours work norm (18 periods a week) is much higher than any international norm. Teachers who are expected to do research do not teach more than 6 to 8 hours a week in any reputed university across the world. Even in the primarily teaching colleges of the USA (that is colleges with only undergraduate programme, where the emphasis on research for its teachers is secondary) the workload is about 10 hours a week. You very conveniently confuse the issue by drawing a comparison with 1:18 teacher-student ratio, which according to you is comparable to international standards. It should be noted here that in the first place the teacher-student ratio is not the best indicator of load on a teacher as far lecturing is concerned. It takes almost the same effort and preparation to lecture to a larger class, though it may make a major difference for the students, where individual or more particular attention may become impossible. In major universities in the US, often basic courses at the undergraduate level are taught to batches of 500 plus students over a microphone in a large hall. But in such cases the teacher does not evaluate these students, that job is primarily done by research students, who are appointed as teaching assistants. Such an arrangement with large number of teaching assistants cannot even be dreamt of in our situation. In our case the teacher herself has to conduct the tutorial/practical for all the students in the class.  Therefore rather than the teacher-student ratio, what is relevant for a teacher here is the workload of hours of teaching engagement per week, which we have already mentioned is extremely high and completely out of sync with the international experience. With the semester system including two-times correction of scripts, in addition to the existing assignment correction load in each term, there will hardly be any scope for teachers to do any research, which is already rather difficult in the prevailing circumstances.

Course Design and Examination related issues

12) If the current syllabi are to be transformed to the semester mould, we can either have the same number of papers as are being currently taught in a year and roughly divide each of their content in half and cover them in two semesters or we can have roughly half the current number of papers in each semester.

In the first case, this is hardly any meaningful implementation of a semester system. Teaching will remain annual whereas the number of examinations conducted in a year will almost double. This will mean the University will take almost twice the current time to conduct the examinations. The University now takes almost two months just to conduct the ‘Category A’ exams (excluding evaluation and publication of results). Four months of examination span in a year itself will render any semester system infeasible and additionally one must count at least one month each term for evaluation and publication of results.

Apart from these feasibility problems, there are serious pedagogical issues.  A mechanical break in a course often jeopardises the holistic compact of a paper designed for an annual system. In the current curricula teaching often involves linking various fragments of a course. It takes time to develop an overall perspective and deal with the linkages and examine students on these. Cutting up courses will force teachers to desist from such mode of intensive teaching and examination.

In case the second option is followed, that is, roughly half the number of courses are taught compared to the current level in each semester, the only advantage this creates is shortening the time of the examinations, which will still need at least one month per term, just to be conducted. But in this option, unless we thoroughly change the nature and content of our existing papers, we will land up in a situation of teaching a paper that we teach for a whole year in one semester term. This can be mechanically achieved by doubling the lecture time in each such paper. This implies that the current 100 marks papers will have 10 lectures per week. Such a pace of teaching will hardly leave students any time to grasp the concepts and teachers the flexibility to explain these. It should be pointed out that teaching proceeds at quite an uneven pace in most of the current 100 marks paper, with a disproportionate amount of time is often taken to develop the analytical framework and the basic structure. This happens because of the desirability of teaching a paper at depth, particularly often to a batch of students whose absorption capacities are quite uneven.  Forcing the entire material otherwise covered annually in one semester term goes against the basic objective to have shorter well-managed courses, for which the semester system is designed in the first place.

13) As we can see, both the options in trying to fit in the existing curriculum and syllabi in the semester mode have serious obstacles and consequences. Any semester system needs a thorough overhaul of courses tailored to suit the system, particularly the need for fragmented, shorter but packed courses. This, however, doesn’t shorten the overall duration of examinations in a year, as the number of papers will invariably increase. The current curricula have been a product of recent revision in most Honours courses, a process that has taken several years to complete with long debates and deliberation. The system of internal assessment, the introduction of concurrent courses in BA (Honours) programme, the foundation and application courses in BA programme are only a few years old and settling down. There is little justification to change all this and the time needed for any feasible and meaningful revision will anyway be several years. Moreover, syllabus revision through empowered committees where either college teachers did not have adequate say or where things were hurried up have resulted in ill-designed and overburdened courses such as in BSc programme. Increased course work has overburdened students twice over. We should learn from this experience and not rush into making hurried changes, which disturb the basic fabric of our teaching-learning process.

14) A serious concern that has been expressed in most of the responses of the colleges is to do with the span of the examination process twice in a year. Your solution to this seems to be centralised evaluation by a larger number of teachers. The centralised evaluation this year has created widespread resentment and is a separate subject for review in itself. The University currently has ridiculous norms such as checking of 40 scripts per day per teacher in 50 marks courses in the Honours programme and 100 marks courses in non-honours programme and 25 scripts per day for 100 marks Honours courses. Any rough calculation will show how absurd and unjust such norms are. If a teacher is in the examination centre for 8 hours, the effective time she can spend on reading scripts is not more than 6 hours (considering lunch and tea breaks, tabulation of marks, fatigue from continuous reading etc.). This means correcting around 7 scripts in an hour i.e. about 8 minutes per script for the 40-scripts norm and about 4 scripts in an hour i.e. about 15 minutes per script for the 25-scripts norm. This effectively means that a teacher gets less than two minutes in a non-honours programme (5 answers in a script) and around three minutes in Honours to evaluate each answer, which a student would have written for about 40 minutes. Can there be a greater injustice to the students?   What needs to be understood is that any system of evaluation in each term will require at least three weeks to a month, if it is to be done with any sensitivity for a just evaluation process. The problem is even more acute when we consider that a teacher often does evaluation in more than one course. That means about one and a half to two months of intense time will be spent on evaluation of external examination scripts for each teacher in a year. This will also leave no effective vacation for the teachers. The lure of a longer vacation for teachers that you mention in your response is therefore based completely on false premises and is entirely misleading. The so-called longer December break for example will now almost entirely be spent on evaluation work and that too in a regimented fashion. Not only will teachers not have any effective break, the students will also hardly have any semester break, as their examinations will run well into December (if not longer), if they start from middle/end of November. Or else examinations must start from end October and the effective teaching time will just be three months in the semester.

Late admission related problems

16) The admission process in the first year often goes on till September in many colleges particularly in the Science courses. Students leave these courses as they get admission to medical and engineering courses across the country. Colleges often lower cut offs to make more admissions to deal with such contingencies. Such a situation will be difficult to handle in a semester programme, where admissions must be completed at least by July end. This means many seats will go vacant and serious imbalances will show up in many courses and colleges and precious seats will be wasted. Once again this is a problem of a large University with varied courses.


We hope that in the light of all the above points you will understand the serious implications of a move to implement the semester system in the undergraduate programme of the University. There is no system, whether annual or semester, which is per se more effective than the other. The context and peculiarities of the ground situation should determine the desirability of one or the other system. As we have pointed out, there are substantial academic and pedagogic grounds on which the annual system is far more desirable than the semester system in the undergraduate programme of the University of Delhi. Further serious issues of feasibility also render such a move even more unsuitable to our case. We should once again remind you that there is a very broad based consensus on this in the teaching community, which has found expression in the detailed responses sent to you by several colleges. Such a common feeling that the semester system is unsuitable is not based on any mechanical resistance to change, but it is borne out of serious engagement with the pedagogic process, which you will appreciate, is a rather challenging task given the heterogeneity and diversities in our system. The University of Delhi occupies a prime position among the universities in India and we should strive to maintain its unique characteristics and autonomy. Let us not fall victim to any external pressure from UGC or whosoever and drastically alter its time-tested structure under the illusion of change and attaining global standards.

Signed

Rajib Ray
Abha Dev Habib
Sheo Dutt
Rakesh Kumar
Vijaya Venkataraman

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