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Re-imagining undergraduate education 

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By Devender Singh Aswal

The report of the Dr Kasturi Rangan Committee on Draft National Higher Education Policy (DNEP 2019) covers a wide gamut, almost all aspects of an overarching national education policy that should be holistic. There can be no gainsaying that education is a critical contributor to sustainable livelihoods, economic development and plays a catalytic role in improving human well being, and developing the nation as a democratic, just, socially conscious, cultured, and humane society, with liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice for all. As India moves towards becoming a true knowledge society and with the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, even more young Indians are aspiring for higher education. Having regard to the requirements of the 21st century, the aim of a quality university or college education must be to develop good, well rounded, and creative individuals. It must enable an individual to study one or more specialised areas of interest at a deeper level, while at the same time building character, ethical and Constitutional values, intellectual curiosity, spirit of service, and 21st century capabilities across a range of disciplines including the sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities, as well as professional, technical, and vocational crafts.
In order for it to attain these goals, higher education must provide students with broad-based multidisciplinary education, while developing specialised knowledge with true disciplinary rigour. Instead of solely mechanistic rote learning – a scourge of students -colleges and universities must encourage active learners to develop the abilities of independent, logical, and scientific thinking, creativity and problem solving, and decision making.
The 10+2+3 structure in the extant NPE 1986/92 is in for a change in the DNEP 2019 which proposes a 5+3+3+4 structure at school level and 4 year flexible undergraduate programme. The lofty objective espoused in the DNEP 2019 is to move towards a more imaginative and broad-based liberal education as a foundation for holistic development of all students, with rigorous specialisation in chosen disciplines and fields.
Accordingly, it proposes that all undergraduate programmes will be characterised by a liberal education approach as the foundation for holistic development through imaginative and flexible curricular structures, creative combinations of disciplines of study, and multiple exit and entry points within integrated programmes, offering rigorous specialisation in chosen disciplines and fields. Liberal education with broad multi-disciplinary exposure, intended to develop Constitutional values, will be the basis of higher education. This will develop important life capacities, rigorous disciplinary understanding and an ethic of social-moral engagement. This will be the approach at the undergraduate level across all disciplines, programmes and fields, including professional and vocational fields. The Centre will set up, if the recommendation is accepted, ten Indian Institutes of Liberal Arts/ Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities on the model and standards of the Indian Institutes of Technology. Imaginative and flexible curricular structures will enable creative combinations of disciplines of study, and offer multiple useful exit and entry points for students, thus demolishing currently prevalent rigid boundaries and creating possibilities for life-long learning. Graduate (master’s and doctoral) level education will provide rigorous research-based specialisation.
A liberal education approach will be the basis of undergraduate education in all fields/disciplines, including professional education. The notion of ‘streaming’, where science, arts, and vocational students are separated, based on their academic performance, majors, interests, or any other such criteria, will end.
The existing Undergraduate programmes will be re-structured to a four-year Bachelor of Liberal Arts (BLA) or Bachelor of Liberal Education (BLE) degree (or BLA / BLE with Research) and can be offered by those institutions which are currently ready to run such programmes. However, since the existing higher education institutions are not ready both in infrastructural and academic terms, it has proposed that the traditional/existing three-year traditional BA, BSc, as well as BVoc degrees will continue for those institutions that wish to continue them. Over a period of time, it is expected that all Bachelor’s degrees will move towards a more comprehensive liberal education approach. The Undergraduate programmes shall be interdisciplinary with curricula designed to develop broadly useful capacities and important dispositions, while offering rigorous education in specialisations.
To enable this transformation of undergraduate education, the curriculum will have two parts. First, a common core curriculum for all students, to develop broad capacities and important dispositions, including critical thinking; communication skills; aesthetic sensibilities; scientific temper and the scientific method; and, an understanding of Indian context and challenges; Constitutional values and their practice; social and moral and ethical reasoning; an adequate exposure to multiple disciplines/fields including arts, humanities, sports; and science related to society and environment; and, second, one or two area(s) of specialisation.
The 4-year programme will provide for greater rigour in a full Liberal Arts Science Education (LASE) education and experience, and also conduct research optionally. Students will graduate with a 4-year LASE degree with Honours, or may graduate with a BSc, BA, BCom or BVoc after completing 3 years with a suitable subject credits. Students will graduate in an appropriate vocational subject after completing 2 years with a Diploma or a Certificate after completing 1 year.
In view of the change of structure at UG levels, the PG structure will also undergo changes. Accordingly, there will be three options for pursuing the Master’s Programme – first will be two years Master’s for those completing three years degree; second one-year Master’s for those completing 4 years degree and the third is five years integrated Masters Program. The eligibility for PhD shall be either a Master’s degree or a 4-year UG degree with Research. Another significant departure is that DNEP 2019 proposes that all professional education, including technical education and single-field institutions will develop into full-fledged liberal education programmes.
A National Higher Education Qualifications Framework (NHEQF) will be formulated by the new body called General Education Council (GEC) for outlining the learning outcomes associated with degree/diploma/certification for curricula across all disciplines and fields, which do not have their individual Professional Standard Setting Bodies (PSSBs). In vocational subjects, National Skills Qualifications Framework (NSQF) and the NHEQF shall be aligned for equivalence and mobility. NHEQF shall permit flexibility – a system of credit transfer shall be put in place, making student mobility possible in many ways: changes across streams of study (e.g. arts to science, vocational to science), choice across combinations of areas of study (e.g. music and chemistry), flexible entry into and exit from programmes, and transfers across institutions and programmes. Finally, awarding of specific degrees, diplomas, and certificates at each will require specific combinations and numbers of courses to be completed successfully which will be appropriately detailed within the NHEQF by each institution.
Such a radical transformation of the undergraduate education is expected to break the current stratification of qualifications, as that of preferred programmes, such as one is witnessing in engineering and medicine and giving a secondary status to all other programmes of study. This will break the shackles of hard silos among disciplines and pave the way for all students to experience the varied flavours of multiple knowledge domains for a more holistic learning. Let’s wait and watch whether the final policy retains such a holistic and liberal focus under Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank – the author scholar Union Human Resource Development Minister.

(The author is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and writes on constitutional, parliamentary and public policy matters.)