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A four-year degree could transform higher education

Photo: Hindustan Times (Photo: HT)

When Calcutta University was established in 1857 as the first public university in India, it was created on the Oxbridge model, with affiliated colleges. The three-year undergraduate degree it offers with specialization in particular academic disciplines has been the paradigm for Indian higher education till date. It is important to be mindful of this historical context to understand the level of change that the NEP proposes through a four-year undergraduate programme.

The philosophy behind higher education worldwide has been the belief that at its best, higher education must enable an individual’s full potential to be realized. Cardinal Newman’s classic words in the preface to The Idea of a University (1852) that a liberal education “brings the mind into form—for the mind is like the body" reflect this transformative and enabling power of higher education. The envisioning of a four-year undergraduate programme in the country’s latest NEP is rooted in this belief.

What are the key changes that the new four-year programme seeks to achieve? First, in a country as vast and diverse as India, it brings into higher education the facility of a structured continuum. Students in Indian higher education will now have the mobility to transfer from one institution to another carrying their credits with them through the validation process of the Academic Bank of Credit (ABC).

Access and employability are both important for the young generation. With that in mind, the policy pays attention to vocational needs and the availability of multiple entry and exit options. A student might exit early—not only to move to another institution, but also with the option of moving out of the higher education space altogether and into available career options. At each exit point, students will not only carry their credits, but also recognition through a certificate, diploma or a degree. For those whose inclination is to proceed further in the world of academia, there would be the option of a final fourth year exit with a degree in research.

This wealth of opportunities for the young student entails challenges for universities. The DNA of each university is different. Each will have its own identity, both in terms of its research agenda and in the pedagogical way it nurtures its students.

For a country to achieve excellence in higher education, it is essential that the best universities evolve in just this manner and acquire their own identity. At the entry points into the second, third and fourth year of the programme, there will be the difficult task of balancing justice towards mobility and being true to the university’s unique priorities and vision.

A second fundamental change that is proposed is the privileging of multi-disciplinarity. To enable young minds to realize their full potential, the NEP envisages higher education as holistic and multidisciplinary. In place of the current rigid disciplinary boundaries in Indian higher education, it proposes “creative combination of disciplines for study", while also acknowledging the importance of strength in a chosen core discipline. This is an important change.

The young student entering a university needs to have windows open on all sides into the countries of the mind. With access to the opportunities available in the world of knowledge, the young mind can choose where to travel. This access will encourage the student to make the most of synergies and differences, and also develop the student’s critical thinking. Ashoka University’s Foundation Courses, for example, are designed to provide this holistic and multidisdiplinary basis.

While this holistic multi-disciplinary mobility-driven higher education in a 4-year format can be a game changer for young Indian students, what will be its impact on industry? In my view, there will be a significant difference in the human resources that Indian universities create in this new format. Higher education will produce students with a more flexible and innovative mindset and sharper critical thinking skills. This should be a distinctive advantage that can work to the benefit of employers.

At this stage, there is only one caveat that I would urge policymakers to consider with regard to the new four- year model’s implementation. While guidelines would be welcome to help higher education institutions transition to this model, these need to be generous and indicative. The actual design of the four-year programme in its details should be left to the best judgement of that institution. Prescriptive formats to be followed each year would take away the very essence of creativity that is embedded in the new policy.

This moment in time, as universities and institutions plan and implement the four-year undergraduate programme, needs to be recognized as a turning point in the history of Indian higher education. Note that all forward- looking movements in history have prioritized individuals over systems. This is what the student-centric four-year programme seeks to do for the good of the community, society, nation and the world.

Malabika Sarkar is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University

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