Nestor’s Semester

By Oeendrila Lahiri

The Union Minister for Education, Mr Kapil Sibal, has been pushing for the ‘semester system’ in India. Earlier, the Delhi University, like all other undergraduate universities in the country, had three annual exams to assess the progress of students under a structure divided into Part I, Part II, and Part III. After much talk and resistance, Delhi University finally implemented the semester system in 2011. The then Vice Chancellor, Deepal Pantel, wrote in a notification on 12th May, 2009, that the country must be in step with the rest of the world and so should welcome semester exams instead of annual ones.

Reasons cited for the move were: 1) it would enable a regular assessment of students’ progress and involvement, (2) the increased variety of courses would encourage interdisciplinarity, (3) it would facilitate an easy shift to the postgraduate level, (4) there would be an increased mobility between students with the same system at the international and national level, and (5) the fact that the University Grants Commission of India had already directed all central universities to adopt the semester system in 2009.

Resistance to semesterisation was not against semesters per se but rather the fact that no groundwork or infrastructural readjustments were undertaken by the institution or ministry. The traditional way of teaching and examination were simply written off with an agreement on paper. Courses were unscientifically drawn up and expected to be covered in the two semesters of the year; teachers were not given a free hand to design courses, a system of setting papers and the standardisation of tests were not undertaken, and arbitrary attendance requirements impinged on students’ extracurricular activities. The humanities, in this general chaos, have suffered the most.

It is impossible for those of us who are in the humanities to clinically dice up the syllabi and squarely round off the lessons at the end of each class. It is a subject that requires time and thought to teach as well as to learn and process. Students at the end of the first year of this new structure have complained about the inorganic and slapdash way in which literature was taught (see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-05-15/delhi/31710762_1_semester-system-students-vinita-chandra).

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this drive to internationalise higher education has been the gross inflation of marks in all subjects. Teachers were instructed first to set lenient papers and to leave out difficult questions. If that were not enough, teachers were also asked to give full marks in some subjects and pass all students. In India, most universities since their inception award a maximum of 65 per cent in the humanities and 70 per cent in the social sciences as high first class. It has left educationists astounded that this time around Delhi University students have scored 99% in the humanities, marks inexplicable by any standard (see http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/delhi-university-teachers-oppose-semester-system/1/166720.html).

The end result has compromised the quality of the education imparted by the university and the ethics of the ministry. An organised protest has been doing the rounds since the beginning of this year by the Delhi University Teachers Association against the high-handedness of the administration and of politicians. It is sad that in an effort to prove that semesters are the way to move forward, the ministry has not only bullied a leading central university of the country into corrupting the entire process but also blatantly rendered the marksheets of this batch of students worthless.

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