Article written by Professor Kathleen Modrowski on "Pick a subject, any subject. Choice-based courses are finally here" - Hindustan Times

May 05, 2017 | Professor Kathleen Modrowski

What, really, is the point of doing an MA? Well, it depends on who you ask. For some people, it’s so they can say they have the degree. For others it’s about better prospects. And then there are those who want to deepen and widen the knowledge they gained as undergraduates.

Most MA programmes in India only check the first box. In order to check the second and third, they need to broaden their own scope. Allow students to study economics while dabbling in philosophy. Explore international affairs while doing a few modules in computer science.

That’s what Fauzia Nazneen, 25, was looking for when she decided to do a Masters in Development Studies in 2013. But the only options available to her were standard courses with tunnel vision, and exemplary courses that let her study law, economics, sociology and education all at the same time — but cost between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 12 lakh for two years. She opted to go private anyway, and signed up for an interdisciplinary course at the privately run Azim Premji University in Bangalore. “I decided this was the best option available to me in India,” she says. “Even with the price tag, it was worth it.”

A PUBLIC STALLING

In 2015, the University Grants Commission (UGC) — which oversees India’s government-run universities — did introduce a choice-based credits system (CBCS) that would ostensibly allow students to pick their own subject combinations. It never really took off. One significant stumbling block has been trying to run the two systems parallel to each other — traditional courses with their set subjects, and the multi-disciplinary option that offers each student a large bouquet. Most institutes and universities under the UGC don’t even have enough teachers to make this work.

“For now, it is difficult for colleges to implement the CBCS in its true sense. Some colleges don’t have all the streams of education and this would mean mobilising faculty from other colleges, which would strain their already burdened faculty,” says Ashok Wadia, principal of Jai Hind College, Churchgate. In time, these issues might be sorted out. “We are plagued with issues such as non-availability of teachers and infrastructure in several colleges,” says Suhas Pednekar, principal of Ramnarain Ruia College, Matunga. “But choice has to be given to the student.”

A PRIVATE BUFFET

Meanwhile, the fleet-footed, deeper-pocketed private universities set up over the past eight years are already racing along on this track. They’re not just offering multiple choice, they’re letting students pick subjects from across their various institutes. The O P Jindal University, for instance, has five schools — one each for law, business, international affairs, government and public policy, and the liberal arts and humanities.

Students can cross register across these schools, opting to explore, at the same time, environmental studies, a foreign language, communication and quantitative skills, economics, expressive arts, and even a course on ideas, among others. Similarly, at Ashoka University, you can choose from a range of undergraduate interdisciplinary majors that include computer science and entrepreneurship, economics and history, English and journalism, philosophy and economics.

In addition to majors, there are a pool of minors that include performing arts, visual arts, entrepreneurship, media studies and creative writing. There are co-curricular options such as art, filmmaking, photography and theatre, and the institution requires students to take at least two co-curricular subjects as part of their graduate course. The attempt, they say, is to prepare students for a changing world, by arming them with the ability to think, think laterally and look beyond the margins.

“If we’re going to tackle climate change, figure out how to create smart cities, we need minds that are trained in a wide range of disciplines and can think critically,” says Kathleen Modrowski, dean of the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. “To tackle climate change, for instance, we will need urban planners, scientists, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists who will understand each other and be able to work effectively together. That’s the real importance of interdisciplinary education.”

 

At Azim Premji University, critical thinking is even part of the undergraduate course. “Students from all disciplines are required to take some subjects, including critical thinking, reasoning and effective communication; creative expression (art, music, craft, theatre or sport); and an Understanding India course that includes study of the country’s history, language, culture and society,” says Rajagopal CV, admissions manager at Azim Premji University.

For postgraduate courses, the institute offers open courses that include fine arts, literature and poetry, music and film, science and sports. In your final year, regardless of the specialisation you choose, you must also pick from minors that include data sciences, development and sustainability, education and applied mathematics.

At Ashoka University, you take foundation courses in mathematical thinking, study of the Indian civilisation, literature and the world, mind and behaviour, principles of science, social and political formations and trends in history. “These are not superficial introductory courses; each subject is taught in considerable detail,” says Vineet Gupta, pro-vice chancellor and founder of Ashoka University. “We believe all students should have a primary knowledge of these areas if they are to further themselves in any field.”

While these private universities are recognised by UGC, they can fix their own fee, subject to certain norms and guidelines prescribed by the UGC.

STARTING EARLY

Gupta, rightly, feels the inter-disciplinary approach ought to begin soon, perhaps in school. On the understanding that it’s not just the syllabus that needs to be updated; how we study ought to mirror how the world works.

In India, unless you can spare about Rs 2 lakh a year, students are still forced to cobble together an interdisciplinary education themselves, as best they can. So they enroll for extra-mural courses, external modules.

“I teach Public Policy and my students come from all kinds of disciplines – architecture, statistics, engineering,” says Mrudul Nile, an associate professor in the department of civics and politics at the University of Mumbai. “This shows that students want to explore. And the fact is that the multiplicity of problems that we are facing today in our country needs a multidisciplinary approach if we are to find solutions. It is important to encourage critical thinking in students and that is only possible if they are exposed to all kinds of disciplines.”

Nazneen, despite the hefty price tag of her course, is glad she signed up for a different kind of education. “I took Sports as Education in the first semester, herpetology in second and Indian music in the fourth,” she says. “That may seem random, but each course linked back to the study of development. For instance, in the Sports course, we were asked to design a game that would analyse a behavioural aspect of a child playing it; herpetology explained how urbanisation will eventually affect world ecology; and Indian music was to give us a sense of how important it is to preserve traditions for the development of a community.”

However, experts say that for such a system to be more affordable and available at our government-run colleges, there has to be some modifications made to the current system. “We need to do proper mapping to come up with the right combination of subjects and courses to be offered, as well as start with a trial-run to analyse the problems in implementation,” says Wadia of Jai Hind College.

(The writer is a research fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai)