Some people are talking about moving towards a four-year undergraduate programme in India. And, as every proposed change should, it has led to a debate among parents and teachers regarding its ultimate benefits. Let me, at the outset, make my position clear. I strongly feel that a four-year undergraduate programme is better than the three-year one we now have. Let me also make it clear that, according to me, the four-year programme should not be viewed as an additional year to enable students to learn more about what they want to specialise in, or more about what their teachers think they should know. To me, the additional year makes sense only because this allows students more time to decide what they want to do. For me, therefore, the proper question to ask is: will this additional year make it easier for students to become productive members of the society they will live in and contribute to?
There are two major reasons for students entering into a particular specialisation: (a) peer pressure and parental suggestions or commands; and (b) inability to get into what their peers and parents wanted them to do. I say this because I think it is impossible for a child of 16 to decide what her or his career will be. This young girl, or boy, will have to decide in Class 11 whether she wants to study commerce or science. If she does science, she could finish with a philosophy PhD; but if she does commerce, it is highly unlikely that she will be able to do so unless she leaves the country and takes up higher education elsewhere. Similarly, it will be impossible for someone opting for the humanities in Classes 11 and 12 to do physics later. I refuse to believe that a 16-year-old knows whether philosophy or physics is the right choice for her. If we think that she can take a decision that will guide her entire adult life at that age, then, to maintain consistency in our thinking, we should also allow them to vote, marry, drink, drive and do everything else at that age. If we are unwilling to do the latter, why are we insisting on the former?
For me, the four-year undergraduate programme allows us to make a correction, provided we take a proper view of what the additional year lets us achieve. In my scheme of the four-year undergraduate programme, students can take courses as they like — in physics and in philosophy, in economics and in art. These courses are at various levels, with the ones at higher levels requiring some knowledge of things covered at lower levels. The lowest-level undergraduate courses, therefore, should require knowledge levels no higher than what the student had studied up to Class 10. The additional year enables the student to experiment with her likes and dislikes, as well as her talent, to come to a more informed decision about what she should do. A student graduating with physics specialisation will not have done it because she never knew what philosophy had to offer, but because she decided on physics after she had tasted a basic philosophy course.
Two clarifications are in order. First, I am not saying that the young cannot decide on their choice of specialisation at an early age; I am saying that most cannot because many college-level disciplines are often not even available at the school level. Second, I am not saying that parents will not drive their children’s career choices with the four-year programme — but that it gives most children a better perspective and, hence, ability to counter their parents’ dreams being thrust upon them.
One of the major objectives of higher education is to create an army of people who are trained to solve society’s problems — and the training is not only in terms of their specific expertise but also in terms of their motivation. One burning issue in our society is to generate better healthcare for all. This will not only require more medical expertise; it will also require people skilled in hospital management and public health issues. Indeed, it will also require engineers and scientists to develop better medical equipment, and economists and entrepreneurs to produce them at affordable rates. So, if all have to work together to solve a basic problem, is it not a good idea that each specialist has an appreciation of the discipline of the person she is working with? In our current three-year system, the physicist seldom knows anything about the methodology of economics, and vice versa for the economist.
I am worried, however, about the way most people are thinking about the four-year programme. Remember, my main objective is to let students take an informed decision. Making physicists take pre-determined humanities courses and giving them an additional year to do so is not what I understand from a four-year programme. What if the aspiring physicist wants to do some art courses or, more importantly, wants to discontinue with physics and become a musician instead? Or the aspiring philosopher wants to find out about the major open questions in physics today? I am afraid, the way things are being discussed, we will miss the essence of the four-year programme.
Imagine how exciting life would be if the son of your lawyer uncle was studying something other than law, or you were not doing economics even though your parents were. For that, you need to decide what you want to do and not leave it to your parents to decide. And that is where the four-year programme can really help.
The writer is research director at India Development Foundation and the director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Shiv Nadar University