Sourav Roy Barman: One key criticism against the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for central universities is that you are making board exams irrelevant in a country where so much attention is given to it… You say the CUET draws from the same syllabus. That argument was also offered in the case of JEE but we have seen how the coaching industry has mushroomed.
First of all, we need to see what is the purpose of education. Is it to get high scores of 99 per cent or is it to become a well-rounded person and a good learner? For too long, we have unnecessarily driven our children to achieve high scores rather than encourage them to be good learners. If the student gets admission in a top college of his or her choice, what would he/she like to be? The student has to continue to be a good learner. And if you want to be a good learner in your college, you must have been a good learner even in your school. So, if I neglect my board exams, just because I have to focus on my entrance examination, then that is going to defeat the very purpose of my entire education. As parents and educators, it is very important for us to emphasise that your primary goal is to be good learners, to become a well-rounded human being. Your goal is not scoring high percentages. I think we need to drive this into the minds of both parents and students.
Why would Class XII board exams become redundant? The universities will still use these marks as a qualifying mark for admission. For example, some universities may set this benchmark at 60% of Class XII results. Some universities may set 70% as the qualifying mark or to be eligible to apply for admission in a university. So, once you have crossed 65 or 70%, whatever be the threshold set by the university, you don’t have to be stressed to get 98%. Even if you get 70%, if that is the qualifying mark, then your actual admission will depend on the CUET score. The Class XII education will not become redundant.
Will it lead to a huge coaching industry training our students for CUET? Look at the IIT, for example. The entire IIT system has about 16,000 seats and nearly a million students compete for them. But if you look at the 45 central universities — take, for example, Delhi University alone — it has 70,000 seats. And if you look at all the central universities, there will be a couple of lakhs of seats in the undergraduate programmes. And the same one million students are competing for these seats. So, it’s a kind of 1:5 as compared to 1:50 or 1:60 kind of competition. Therefore, my belief is that CUET won’t fuel any coaching industry.
Ritika Chopra: How and why was the decision taken to not accord any weightage to the board marks?
The five pillars on which the NEP is built are access, equity, quality, affordability and accountability. For us, access and equity to high-quality education is of primary importance. If you look at students from rural backgrounds or remote areas, they don’t have access to high-quality public education. I come from a village and I know the ecosystem there has a lot of disturbance and the students may not be able to focus on their studies. As a result, they may not get 98 or 99%. But they are really talented people. With the introduction of CUET, without the cut-throat competition to get 98-99%, we are providing a level-playing ground for students who come from different economic backgrounds and are geographically distributed across the country.
The other reason is that we have seen non-uniformity in awarding marks for the Class XII across boards. For students of some boards, where evaluation is really tough, even getting 80 per cent is difficult, while in others, it is easy to get even 95 per cent. So, this diversity leads to a lot of inconvenience to students and is not a level-playing ground.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Many state boards don’t necessarily follow the NCERT syllabus. How difficult will it be for them to take CUET? Will it lead to an IIT kind of system where students in rural areas, studying for board exams, will now have to take coaching for NCERT?
The NCERT syllabus is widely accepted across the country. We’re aware that there are some differences between the state syllabus and the NCERT. Now, I’m sure when our experts set the question papers, some of these issues will be taken into account. These exams are not going to be like the IIT exams, which are supposed to be among the toughest in the world. I’m sure our experts will moderate the difficulty level. And the questions will be confined to the Class XII NCERT syllabus alone, not some advanced version. So, whether you’re coming from a rural or urban background, it should not make much difference.
Some people have also said, children from rural background are not much familiar with a computer-based test. I come from a village and I interact with children there. They are very smart. Those who are saying that they cannot use computers, do not have the ground reality in the villages. In a computer-based test, all you need to use is the mouse. On the screen, you choose from the multiple-choice questions, work out the solutions on a piece of paper and choose using a mouse. That’s going to be an easy task. The CUET will be conducted in 13 languages: English and 12 Indian languages. So, if a student has studied in the local language or in their mother tongue, they can opt to write this exam in their mother tongue. NTA (National Testing Agency) will take special measures to ensure that exam centres are accessible to the students. Our goal is to see that a large number of students, who are not necessarily from the urban areas but from rural areas, take the CUET test.
Sourav Roy Barman: The higher education sector is also grappling with other major challenges: vacant teaching posts, swelling enrollment and too few good colleges and universities. How are you going to address these?
One of the solutions suggested in the NEP is the introduction of digital technology in higher education. If you continue to construct physical campuses, at this rate, we will not be able to meet the needs of the millions of students who will be coming into higher education. So, what the UGC has done is to focus on offering online education to the students who could not join a physical university. There are two things that we are doing — one is the establishment of a digital university. We are also amending the current online regulations.
Sourav Roy Barman: What exactly is a digital university? As a student, can I apply for a digital university? Will it have a name? Can I pursue undergraduate or postgraduate degrees from that digital university?
It’s available on the portal. This portal will provide you with information on all kinds of undergraduate programmes that are available. You will have technical experts who will source the best of the courses that are available from educational institutes within the country and also from abroad. The IITs and the best central universities, which are going to offer some of these courses, will be the spokes of this digital university. The edtech companies will provide the technological support for conducting the online assessments for providing the students information on career development, career growth, and also bringing the employers face to face with the students so that a matchmaking happens. Our goal is that in the next six to eight months, we should have a complete picture of this digital university. And our goal is that by the academic session of 2023, the digital university should be in place to offer the courses.
Aakash Joshi: During the pandemic, there was a huge boom in online learning. But campus life plays a huge role, too. Is digital the only way you see that future being addressed? Or is there going to be a genuine old-fashioned infrastructure expansion as well?
One is the social aspect. You are saying that if I don’t go to a physical university, I miss out on meeting my own peers and developing networking. That is true.
But imagine the other side. I come from a village. At the age of 10, I left my family to go to a nearby town to live away with my parents and study. From there, I went to a city. I stayed away from my parents for long. Now imagine if I didn’t have to go out of my village, and if I could access this online education, I would have stayed with my parents. Socially, I would have bonded much more with my own place, with my own people. Therefore, it’s a question of, from which side you see, is it half full, or half empty?
The other factor is that the focus will be more on online education, to the extent that we will neglect physical education. Please remember that online education cannot be given in all disciplines. In many disciplines, you need a lab, you need real experiential learning. I’m sure if I do an online MBBS degree, you will not come to me, right? So, there are going to be a lot of other disciplines for which we need to continue to develop the physical infrastructure. But even there, digital technology will play a much larger role. Physical universities will continue to be built. But there are emerging areas like data science, data analytics, financial management, and fintech. These are areas in which a large number of jobs are going to be generated. And if you don’t have physical infrastructure to train our aspirational youth, and if you are simply waiting for years for them to be built, what will happen to their future? This is where digital technology, the digital university will play a major role.
Vandita Mishra: In the film, The Kashmir Files, the action is set in a university which is a thinly veiled caricature of JNU. In the movie, it is the place for very villainous, anti-national academics and students. You’ve been the Vice-Chancellor of JNU, and you are also now heading the UGC. Does it worry you that a premier university should be demonised like that?
Did anyone from JNU object to this? Did anyone who might have thought that those characters are actually representing me, object? I have not seen anybody objecting to that. So let us leave it there. You’re saying that this film targets JNU, but in JNU itself, those people who are apparently represented in this movie have no problem with that. Let people watch it and then make sense of whatever they want to make of it.
Unni Rajen Shanker: A classroom in Delhi University can take 100 students for one subject but they are forced to take 300, sometimes 350. CUET doesn’t address that…
The competition for admission in some of the best higher educational institutions will continue to be there. Globally, don’t we see people aspiring to get admission into some of the well-known universities? But with the introduction of CUET, even if I get, let’s say, only 70%, I don’t have to think that it’s the end of my life, my career. I still have an opportunity to attempt CUET and check out if I can get admission. So, this entire focus on getting only high scores will now go away.
Raj Kamal Jha: Looking back to your days as V-C, what was your learning from JNU?
At JNU, we train our students to question the status quo, which is very important. If we can create that kind of openness in the classroom, and in the educational institute, students will become fearless in asking questions and it will lead to creativity and innovation. One of the unfortunate things in Indian society is that we look at failures with repugnance. But what we need to emphasise in our classroom is that failing is a natural phenomenon and that every failure can actually be used as a lesson to improve yourself further.
And this is what happens in JNU. We don’t look at failures as something bad. In fact, unlike in many other universities, we have a system known as the zero semester system. If a student feels they don’t want to study the next semester because they have a health problem or something else, in any other university, perhaps, he will be out of the system.
But in JNU, we have created a facility for the students to take off and come back to study. In JNU, the education is highly affordable; the tuition fee in JNU is just `300 per annum and this has enabled a lot of students from economically weaker sections to study at JNU. By the time they pass out of JNU, they are a completely transformed bunch. Only the kind of ecosystem that JNU has can create this transformation.
Ritika Chopra: During your time as JNU V-C, one of the fiercest student protests was over the fact that you were trying to raise hostel fees. Students felt you were trying to change the very character of JNU. How would you respond to that?
I think there was some misunderstanding. It was not raising the hostel fees, it was about paying the establishment charges such as electricity and water charges. So, you only pay for what you consume. There was an increasing electricity bill burden on the university. But having said that, we also gave heavy concessions to the students from lower-economic backgrounds. By charging only lightly to the reserved-category students and weaker sections, and by charging the general students who are anyway getting scholarship, our calculation was that we could offset some of the expenditure and use that spend for improving our lab facilities, our research facilities. But ultimately, we withdrew those and then continued with whatever the existing charges were.
Sukrita Baruah: You have introduced FYUP (four-year undergraduate programme)…Is there anything in the works about supplying additional resources to institutes to be able to accommodate all these students?
Infrastructure will continue to be a challenge and we cannot create it overnight. Can we also look at the possibility of optimum utilisation of our existing resources? I think efficiently using our existing infrastructure also needs to be looked into, while we continuously try to expand the infrastructure. Expansion and introduction of new programmes will stretch the existing capabilities of the universities. But that’s how we need to go forward. You can’t wait until all the buildings come up and start only then, that will be too late.
Harikishan Sharma: The unemployment rate across the cities in the country is around 23% for the youth, in the age group of 18 to 29 years. Does this pose a challenge to you, how do you factor this in your plans?
If you ask experts, what are the major challenges that human societies are facing today, they will identify three. One is growing inequality. The other is the failing economic systems. And the third one is deteriorating environment. So, the rise in unemployment, perhaps, is a fallout of the failing economic systems. And growing inequality is another major issue. So, as an educator, my challenge will be how to enable my students to acquire appropriate skills, so that they match the requirements of the job sector, which is growing.
Shashank Bhargava: You said CUET will be set in a way that the difficulty level is moderate. But is there a worry this will also lead to high cut-offs based on those CUET scores?
This is a multiple-choice-question-based test and it will also have negative marking. There will be a certain weightage for correct marks and certain weightage for wrong answers and so on. Therefore, we expect that there will be enough granularity in order to distinguish students…these are all issues we internally discuss and will introduce measures to overcome any challenges that may pop up.
Sourav Roy Barman: What was your most challenging time at JNU and your biggest achievement?
My challenge was to make sure that the research facilities are expanded in the university. When I joined, there was no R&D cell in the university, we established one. Many people don’t understand the importance of integrating social sciences with mainstream science and technology education. Our School of Engineering is unique in the entire country, where our engineering students also have the opportunity to do a master’s degree in social sciences, languages, humanities, and in other areas.
I will always stand by all the students and teachers. They have every right to protest. However, you may have a right to protest but others have a right to carry out their academic programmes and research. As long as you do not disturb them, do not do anything unlawful, it is perfectly all right for you to go on with your protest.