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Parallel education: Road beyond DU

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Parallel education: Road beyond DU

When Delhi University announces its first cut-off list for undergraduate courses, predictably thousands of students will be rejected. Where do they go now when the frontiers they aspire for a successful future lead them to a dead end, ask ANANYA BORGOHAIN and SHRADDHA SINGH

While Delhi University (DU) will release its first cut-off list for undergraduate courses on June 30, its St Stephen’s College had announced its own list last week on June 20. The cut-off required for admission into English Honours at Stephen’s was 99 per cent! As comedian Vir Das summed it up, “Stephen’s English cut-off is 99 per cent; which means to study English, you probably have to get 100 per cent in Physics, Chemistry, Economics, History, Maths etc.”

This time every year, it has consistently been the same farce that has dragged students by the reins of a ludicrous monopoly of marks, of quantity over quality that eventually finds thousands of students on the edges of despair and disillusionment. Not only do they battle the ordeal of getting into the university, appropriate alternative options that Humanities students have in this country are few and far between. India’s unhealthy obsession with medical and engineering sciences has clouded the vision of its finest students and has reduced academic integrity and intensive research to a state of doom.

At the same time, DU is not to be blamed either. With the unbelievably lenient and excessive marking patterns of CBSE, school students easily score over 80 and 90 per cent and apply to DU for undergraduate studies. With thousands vying for 50-100 seats in every classroom, the university has no option other than setting up sky-high percentages to ensure that only the fittest eventually survives. In fact, five days before the registrations to undergraduate courses in the university were closed, two lakh students had reportedly already applied for 60,000 seats. By the time the registration process was completed on June 19, the number of applicants must have substantially increased.

Established in 1922, DU has consistently showcased excellence in teaching and research and has been the epitome of academic superiority for other universities in the country. Its rich heritage and records of intellectual distinction are unparalleled. But where do these thousands of rejected students go when the frontiers they aspire for a successful future lead them to a dead end? Looks like the Delhi-NCR region now has a few answers to this poignant question.

While much cynicism has generated about private universities mushrooming particularly in the NCR, some of them seem to have genuinely assumed the mantle of furnishing a forum for aspiring undergraduates. The fully residential Ashoka University, set up in 2013, is one such option.

It is a private, non-profit university that seeks to offer its students a multidisciplinary liberal education; education that would substantially blur the boundaries between arts and sciences, while emphasising learning as a sacred responsibility. It offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across the humanities, social sciences and fundamental natural sciences. It claims that two third of its students are supported by scholarships and other forms of financial aid so that meritorious students can afford this expensive private education. With state-of-the-art amenities available on its huge, posh campus, students are exposed to the finest academic and extracurricular facilities, such as running its own newspaper, creative workshops, a 24x7 library, a gym, cricket pitch, football field with flood lights, a 10-m shooting range, swimming pool, tennis, running track, basketball, squash courts, and much more.

Its academic partners include University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; University of California, Berkeley; University of Michigan; Sciences Po, Paris; King’s College London; Trinity College, Dublin; and Yale University. These partnerships extend to the development of faculty exchanges, summer abroad programmes for students and research projects. Its academic council members include Kaushik Basu, Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist, World Bank; historian and author Ramachandra Guha; global scholar Christophe Jaffrelot; Sunil Khilnani, professor and director, King’s India institute, among many other such illustrious names. Its mentors are Basu; Robert Greenhill, CEO World Economic Forum; Narayan Murthy, co-founder, Infosys, and so on.

Stanford University’s professor and author Saikat Majumdar, who is also one of Ashoka’s visiting faculty members, says: “At Ashoka, my special focus is the development of English as a language of global literature. I also teach courses on literary modernism and interdisciplinary critical theory. The professors have full freedom in designing the courses. They are part of a larger curriculum for the respective majors as well as part of the general education requirements for the students, but individual texts and assignments are up to the discretion of individual professors. For instance, in my class on world literature in English, which I taught last monsoon semester, I chose a selection of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and criticism from different parts of the global British Empire which I taught through a combination of lectures, interactive discussion, multimedia presentation, as well as smaller discussion sections led by a teaching assistant once a week.”

Majumdar believes that the students at Ashoka are, in fact, even better than his students at Stanford, as in addition to intellectual excellence, these students brings a sense of history, a political sense of one’s position in the world, which he says he has not encountered often in American students, bright as they are. Though he does add, “It is very hard to compare Ashoka, only in its third year now, with Stanford, which is a major research university, now in its 125th year. As of now, Ashoka offers more of the environment and the culture of elite liberal arts and science college rather than a research university, though it is slated to open graduate and postgraduate divisions for individual disciplines soon and so will also develop its research resources more intensively. Presently, it probably compares better with colleges such as Williams, Kenyon, and Oberlin. The key thing is that Ashoka does not plan to offer professional education, such as in medicine, business and law, but emphasises fundamental liberal arts and sciences education, often in an interdisciplinary context, which is a foundation on which any career or further training can be based, as it offers more of a lifetime education rather than for a specific kind of job.”

Many universities that have evolved in the Delhi-NCR region in the past share the sentiment that they seek to revolutionise higher education in India. All and sundry are making the claim that they are substantially distanced from money-making schemes and will not propagate capitalist greed placing education in the dock. So what is it that makes Ashoka stand apart in the otherwise cutthroat money-making dissection of the culture of learning? Majumdar replies, “India, along with its other Asian neighbours such as China and Singapore, is now beginning to see a revival of liberal arts and sciences education.

Many employers in India are beginning to tire of employing monochromatic engineers of a single and linear kind of training, and are looking to employ those who can productively integrate humanistic, scientific, and interpersonal aptitudes. While public education is essential, India also needs a culture of elite private institutions which can offer this kind of education without the trappings of Governmental bureaucracy at every step. This is what private liberal arts colleges and Ivy League institutions have achieved in the US. Ashoka and other leading private, non-profit liberal arts and sciences institutions are a necessary step in this direction.

“They will serve and prepare some of the best students in India, who are now beginning to decide to stay back rather than leave for similar institutions in the West. The hope is that this reinvigorates the tradition of liberal arts and sciences education — which has existed in India since Nalanda and Takshashila — but was stifled by a British colonial university system. It will create a vibrant workforce for the new economy and an educated and conscientious citizenry.”

This line of thinking is inspiring but it also makes one wonder if higher education in India will tend to be exclusivist and overly elitist. While one is not sure where one can draw the line, the growing popularity of such universities is soon becoming inescapable. To cite another example, the Shiv Nadar University (SNU) was established in Greater Noida in 2011. Founded by Shiv Nadar, a renowned Indian industrialist and philanthropist, the university with a 286-acre, fully residential campus claims to share the objective of expanding similar higher education facilities.

It claims to be a multi-disciplinary, student-centric, research-focused university offering a range of academic programmes at the undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral levels. Sadaf Khan, its Public Relations Officer, says, “SNU offers an undergraduate curriculum that is unique in India. It is designed to allow students to major in a particular subject while also studying and experimenting with a range of other minor and elective subjects.

“As far as placements are concerned, the first two graduating classes have been placed in over 50 top-ranked Indian and global companies, including Dell, Edelweiss, Larsen & Toubro, Axis Bank, among others. Over 13 per cent of the graduating class of 2016 has secured admissions in Masters and Doctoral programmes in some of the top international universities including the University of Michigan, Duke University, University of Illinois, University of California, University of Massachusetts, University College London etc. In India, the university’s students have been selected by IIM Lucknow and ISB Hyderabad to pursue higher education.”

SNU is reportedly also building global partnerships with some of the best institutions around the world, including Carnegie Mellon University, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, and so on. Within the NCR region, it is a full-time residential university with hostel facilities separate for boys and girls. The campus also has a post office, a mini shopping complex, a bank, and a salon for the students as well as entailing tuck shops, a night café and a coffee shop.

It also boasts of a gym and sports facilities of high standards. It has synthetic basketball and lawn tennis courts with flood lights, volleyball courts, a football ground, cricket field, two fitness centres, badminton courts, a yoga room, and rooms for indoor sports.

About its admission procedure, Khan says, “SNU has a comprehensive, multi-dimensional selection process which consists of a basic eligibility score based on Class 12 board scores. Students fulfilling this eligibility criterion are encouraged to apply to the university where they are required to appear for a two-hour Shiv Nadar University Scholastic Aptitude Test (SNUSAT) and a one-hour Academic Proficiency Test (APT). Based on a comprehensive assessment of performance in all the stages, the best of the students are selected.”

SNU’s fees ranges between Rs6 lakh and Rs9.4 lakh for a period of four years depending on the programme the student wants to pursue. At the same time, it also offers scholarships to all the students enrolled in undergraduate programmes covering part/full expenses for the entire duration of the course. Almost 90 per cent of the students at SNU are on scholarships.

This year, it announced that Rs35 crore has been earmarked for scholarships alone.

Another such university sharing similar academic objectives is the Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), which was established by the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi through Dr B R Ambedkar Vishwavidyalaya Act, 2007, and notified on July 29, 2008.

Sarmistha Roy, its Deputy Registrar, says: “AUD’s aim is to reconceptualise social sciences and orient them to face new challenges posed by social, political and economic realities of our times. At present, we have seven UG programmes, 19 PG courses and 14 research programmes. We have 103 permanent faculty members and 1,757 students.”

About the ethics of the institution, she says, “The idea is to create professionals/practitioners who are self-reflective, methodologically trained, informed, skilled and sensitive to social and political realities. It strives to raise their consciousness above caste, class, religion, gender, environment, and other domains that engender marginalisation and discrimination.”

Soft skills development, Roy says, forms an integral part of education at AUD. The university has stipulated a norm of 25 per cent of curricular time to be assigned for field-based learning experiences acquired through internships, field attachments, field immersion, team-building exercises, and research projects. Students are guided to develop research proposals and tools, collect data and analyse it in the research courses, field-based projects and in the dissertation components.

Roy also mentions that several postgraduate programmes have components like a self-development workshop or a basic research skill training/writing workshop that facilitate and enhance personal and professional skills development. The MPhil Development Practice programme has a course on group processes in every semester.

Tuition Fees for Undergraduate Programmes (BA Hons) is Rs1,100 per credit (96 credits in three years), for Postgraduate and Research Programmes Rs1,380 per credit where PG credits range from 64 to 70 in two years. At the same time, the university extends full waiver of tuition fees to all students belonging to SC, ST, and PwD. A comprehensive fee-waiver policy is also adopted for meritorious but underprivileged students.

Roy mentions, “The university offers full and partial tuition fee waivers to students who are in need of support given their economic background. Students with an annual family income of less than Rs6 lakh will be considered for tuition fee waiver.”

For the differently-abled, scheduling classes on the ground floor and a provisional washroom are some measures undertaken. The university is in the process of putting in place some facilities at its campuses at Kashmere Gate and Karampura, including the hostel it shares with IGDTUW for physically disabled students and staff. These facilities include tactile guiding path, JAWS and dragon software (for blind students), ramps, handrails, height adjustable support arm, chest and support grabber in toilets (for physically disabled), lifts etc.

It’s high time we wandered into ways that do not lead to Delhi University alone. As in every year, many dreams will be shattered this year too when numerous students will not make it to the university after the first list is out; many of them will also be gifted and devoted youths. Hopefully they will realise that, as Tomas Transtromer had once said, in the middle of the forest there is an unexpected clearing, which can only be found by those who get lost.





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