In the last two articles (Nov 2 and Nov 19), I briefly discussed the largely dysfunctional classrooms and the relative popularity of coaching classes among college students in Mumbai. Here, I shall discuss the lack of a quality-oriented ecosystem — the network of building blocks that together nurture and sustain quality — in higher education in the city.
Let me illustrate. I studied in Delhi during the mid-1960s and ’70s. I went to a CBSE school in Delhi. Then, I went to college in the University of Delhi. It was a full-day college where students and teachers normally spent at least 6-7 hours. Lectures began around 8am and went on till about 2pm.The average class size was 35 to 40 students and a tutorial had about 5-6 students. Thus, a teacher could generally monitor the performance of their students in some ways in regular classes. No student thought class notes were enough for examination and we were encouraged to visit the library regularly. Most teachers gave references for further reading.
The library was well-stocked, open for long hours and offered open access. Besides, the library did not stock only the textbooks (we were often discouraged from relying only on one textbook even though the average quality of these textbooks was very good; some were excellent) but also numerous books on literature, philosophy, films and of course a large number of quality reference books. Also, because most students passed from the same, deservedly reputed CBSE board, the courses in the college built upon that academic base.
Most teachers were competent and academically serious. Quite a few of them spent time in the library after lectures. Some of them had their own cabins in the library. A few exceptional teachers were up to date in their subjects to a frightening degree.
Examinations tried to seriously assess what we learnt during the course. If one did not study seriously enough, one was unlikely to score well. All examinations were conducted by the university.The University of Delhi had around 50 colleges affiliated to it, ensuring a high degree of coherence between learning, examination and assessment. In other words, within constraints, different components of a meaningful, serious learning process were largely in place and worked in tandem. Thus, the degree also had meaning and academic value. Though many things have changed over the years, some drastically, in good colleges (and universities) in the country, by and large, this ecosystem has not altogether disappeared — as yet.
Sadly, in most colleges in Mumbai — except for a few islands of excellence — many ingredients of the above ecosystem simply don’t exist. The regular degree college begins too early, at 6.45am or 7am. It means that many teachers and students leave home by 6am; some have to leave even earlier. Thus, when the first lecture begins, half the class is actually fighting sleep or half-asleep, and often hungry. No student is expected to be in college beyond four hours because the second shift of junior college — a Mumbai peculiarity — has to begin in the same premises. The space crunch is frightening and demotivating. Even the teachers have to fight for space all the time. The very notion that a teacher should have additional facilities in the college premises to study on a regular basis is laughable.
The average class size of 120-150 students and the average size of a tutorial/practical class of 30-35 students, whenever they exist, ensure that teachers are in no position to monitor the performance of their students in any meaningful way in regular classes.
Further, students in a college come from different school boards with drastically different levels of learning (CBSE/ICSE vs SSC, for example). There is a visible divide among students in their relative ease with the language of instruction in colleges: English. Then, in most subjects, summary notes are all that one needs to learn for exams and many popular teachers are those who dictate self-contained notes.A college library increasingly, primarily stocks local textbooks written largely by local college teachers and published locally. By and large, these textbooks are also a compilation of brief notes, with simply no reference for any further reading. In fact, it is not uncommon for a textbook of about 200-250 pages to be co-authored by 5-6 teachers from different colleges to facilitate its marketing!
The University of Mumbai has more than 800 affiliated colleges spread over a large geographical area. There is a huge variation across colleges in almost all parameters of learning, infrastructure and facilities. Thus, conducting a common examination for any course becomes a hazardous task — as a result, question papers are reduced to the lowest common denominator, and are routine and relatively easy to answer. The focus of the assessment is on pass percentage, and yet many students struggle to pass.
(While in most courses, first and second-year examinations are conducted at the college level — and, therefore, easier to manage in many ways — the third-year question papers are common across colleges and the assessment is centralised at the university level. It is here that one suddenly becomes aware of frighteningly different levels of learning across colleges.)
This, then, is the central serious symptom of the crisis in higher education: the absence of a coherent ecosystem to ensure a minimum level of quality in education in colleges.
Vrijendra taught in a Mumbai college for more than 30 years, and has been associated with democratic rights groups in the city
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