A critical note on the Semester System

Prepared by a group of undergraduate economics teachers.

A large number of colleges through their Staff Council / Staff Associations / departments had earlier expressed serious apprehensions about the desirability and feasibility of the semester system in the undergraduate programme of the University. Without repeating those, the present note has the limited purpose of commenting on the proposed modalities put up on the University Website.

The proposed structure has serious shortcomings both on academic as well as logistical grounds and has serious implications for workload of our departments.

Academic Grounds

  1. The present B.A. (Hons) Economics course overall contains 13 papers, each taught over a full year’s time. Many of these courses are such that even 50 marks papers need 4 lectures per week and all the 100 marks ones have 5 lectures per week. If these are to be reduced to 14 or 15 papers overall (with 4 lectures each), which are to be taught in a semester (half yearly) span, we are effectively to cut almost 50 per cent of the current course both in content and scope. Such a drastic reduction in terms of the Economics content in our Honours programme is unacceptable to us. This will dilute and devalue our Honours degree, keep crucial areas untaught and will also hardly prepare the students to face the rigours of the postgraduate programme later. Even large numbers of students for whom this is a terminal degree will be ill prepared because both the depth and width of the course have to be curtailed drastically.
  2. The idea of another subject being the minor subject of the student, particularly the structure worked out there, is even more problematic. If our students are supposed to take 6 papers from another honours course, the student is in effect doing about 40% papers from the total of that other honours course. It will be very difficult to find courses and papers for most students where they can adjust to the rigours of another Honours programme. Conversely, we cannot visualise students from other social sciences who can handle the complexities of six papers from Economics Honours. Most students of other social sciences will be unable to cope with the mathematical and technical rigour necessary for an Economics paper at the honours level. This is feasible only by substantially diluting the contents in all honours programmes to make it accessible to students from another honours course. So once again the proposals are ending up in seriously diluting the content of the honours programme. At the end, the students are neither going to be competent in their main discipline, nor will they be sufficiently enabled in their second choice subject. Further, by forcing students to choose their minor courses from a few prefixed disciplines, no effective choice is actually being offered to them.
  3. The rigid homogeneity that is being proposed across all honours courses in the University does not have academic merit and has been probably designed to fit the number of papers for a tight examination schedule. This is a peculiar exercise where academic content and span of a programme are being compromised and forced to fit examination modalities, rather than being the other way round. This is also severely delimiting the choices available to the students. For example it will be difficult to have a range of optional papers as in our current course structure and allow students to choose freely from those. This will increase the span of the examination period because the examinations for each of these papers have to be conducted on different dates, which is not possible under the proposed scheme. In fact in the name of more choice and interdisciplinarity, the proposed semester modalities are in effect severely reducing existing choices in the main discipline as well as eliminating the entire range of interdisciplinary concurrent ones, which were instituted just a few years ago.
  4. Even more astonishing is the fact that such fundamental changes in the Honours programme are being suggested without any meaningful consultation with the undergraduate faculty and completely against their opinions and feelings. Further such drastic changes in the course structure are to be done with only a few months of preparation, which quite apart from their undesirability makes it completely infeasible to put up even a minimum workable structure. To put things in perspective, it must be remembered that major course revisions in this University, without any alteration of the basic structure have in the past taken several years in most disciplines.

Logistical Grounds

  1. We have serious apprehensions about the University being able to conduct the evaluation and declaration of results in one month’s time, that too twice a year. This will also put severe strain on teachers who will have to spend almost their entire vacation in correction of scripts, once again twice a year, leaving no time for research or other academic engagement.
  2. If students are to do substantial number of courses across different subjects, then the time tables of different departments have to be coordinated in a manner that these courses across subjects cannot run at the same time. Anybody familiar with college timetables will know how infeasible this is going to be.

Workload Issues

  1. A hurried drastic alteration of the number and nature of papers to be taught will have uncertain implications for workload for entire departments as well as semesterwise teaching load of individual teachers, which is a matter of serious concern. Almost a 50% reduction in the Honours course content and correspondingly overall hours of teaching will severely reduce our workload. This will hardly be compensated through teaching students who take the subjects as their minor discipline, because it will the same papers that we teach our honours students they will now credit. Only in case the number of such students is high enough will the case for creating an additional section come up. Even in this case, since there are only 6 papers in the minor subject, it will not be able to compensate the loss in Honours teaching which is equivalent to a loss of 12 papers.  This may lead to substantial reduction in the number of teaching posts in the colleges.
  2. A shift to semester system would also require a modification in current workload requirement of 18 periods per week for undergraduate teachers. Since all papers are not simultaneously taught in a semester, not allowing the workload of a teacher to vary as per his/her area of specialization would lead to a drastic fall in academic standards, resulting from teaching of subjects outside one’s area of specialization or interest.

We therefore feel that the proposed structure should be rejected altogether because with such fundamental deficiencies and problems both in terms of its intent and content, no tinkering around it can find any feasible solution. We also stand by our earlier resolve that the semester system is unsuitable in a large University where the undergraduate programme is spread across so many colleges and with great amount of inter and intra college heterogeneity in the nature of students.

In the meeting to be called by the Department of Economics, DSE for our feedback to the Vice Chancellor we should communicate our rejection of the semester system and its modalities on strong academic and related grounds. We should also make it clear that we stand with the DUTA’s call not to take part in any syllabus revision exercise and see to it that a total boycott of any such steps is ensured.

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