For the last couple of weeks, Indians have been treated to an entirely local subject by Delhi-based TV news channels, namely, Delhi University's experiments with its undergraduate (UG) course, and its duration. The issue: should UG be of three or four years duration.
But no one has asked one very simple question: why can't UG in liberal arts courses also be of two years duration? Why do elementary courses like these need all of three or four years? After all, the much harder postgraduate (PG) ones are for two years, and some even for one.
I have been asking this question for over two decades without getting a satisfactory answer from anyone. Such answers, as one gets, have had nothing to do with the course content and the time needed to learn it. These answers are not entirely without merit, but if one were to assign weights to them, they add up to less than 20 on a scale of 100.
In short, they are trivial. It has been taken as a given that at least three years are needed for a UG course. Four has probably become a need now because too many IAS officers want to send their kids to the US for a Master's degree and the US needs 16 years of education prior to it - 12 in school and four in college.
Meanwhile, one oft-cited reason is that the students are too young at 18 to decide on their futures. But currently, by locking them into specific courses, that is precisely what we do. Hardly any switching is possible.
Also, 18 is the voting age, isn't it? If they are clever enough to decide not to vote for Rahul Gandhi, they must be clever enough generally. You can join a five-year engineering degree programme but you are not old enough to be able to absorb history, economics, political science and so on at 18? And you can marry at 18, can't you?
It quickly becomes evident that no one has really applied their minds to the economics of the issue. The facts, however, suggest otherwise.
The first of these is that in all our universities, 75 to 80 per cent of UG classes are held in the morning only. This, if you think about it, is like a factory not working in the afternoons on almost five of the six working days.
Many teachers go off in the afternoons for their second jobs, which could be anything from running their shops to taking tuitions and so on. Meanwhile, the classrooms remain empty which, given how much it costs to build them, is a waste of gigantic proportions.
The overall result is low productivity of both the teachers and classrooms. Both are expensive and are affordable by the public universities only because they are not dependent on commercial finance and get money from the taxpayers.
Private universities don't suffer from this problem. Their resource utilisation is almost double of that in publicly-funded ones. But even they are following a three-year system perhaps because, by and large, they have more students in each class.
So here are two suggestions for Smriti Irani: first, think product differentiation and start (a time-bound) debate based on the economics of colleges on whether the UG courses can be offered for two, three and four years. Put out a discussion paper. Ask for views within six months. And then do as I am suggesting - have two, three, and four years UG programmes.
The four year UG would satisfy the needs of those who want to go abroad because many foreign universities require 16 years of education for entry to a master's course; and the three-year course would be for those who want to have a good time and want to go to UK, and similar places that need only 15 years; and the two-year course would double capacity, with teaching hours per teacher increased from the current 18 per week to 21.
(The rest of India by the way - barring farmers - works at least 48 hours a week. Women, whether employed or not, work at least 72 hours a week. So why should UG teachers be an exception?)
The second suggestion is that Irani ask the most basic of all questions: have universities outlived their usefulness? Why not make all colleges autonomous, and free to award their own degrees? The curriculum and examination standards can be set every seven years by the central government and the colleges can follow these standards - or not at their own risk.
Eventually, if the standards are sensible, competition will force colleges to adopt them. How good a college is will be determined by placements of students for jobs, which would force a college to pay more attention to the teaching quality.
These may sound like drastic steps, but we are in dire straits now because of a failed centralised system. The time has come to finally realise that we are in the 21st century now, where 20th century solutions must be discarded.