The University Grants Commission (UGC), India, has brought out guidelines for the introduction of the choice based credit system (CBCS) in higher educational institutions for graduate, postgraduate, diploma and certificate programmes. The expressive stated purposes of the introduction of the scheme are mainly to provide opportunity for students to have a choice of courses or subjects within a programme resembling an la carte menu — as against the mostly fixed set of subjects now being offered except for the limited choice of electives in professional degrees and postgraduate programmes — with the flexibility to complete the programme by earning the required number of credits at a pace decided by the students.
This would mean that the programme would emphasise more on students earning the prescribed number of credits to qualify rather than being herded to come out successfully within the normal stipulated time for the degree. For these reasons, the CBCS is touted as a cafeteria approach to education. The scheme is also expected to provide mobility to students within the country, and, eventually, even internationally, as the credits earned at one institution can be expected to be transferred freely. To ensure uniformity, a system of classification of courses or subjects within the programme is made.
It would seem that the element of uniformity sought to be achieved is addressed, and the concept of portability in higher education has been realised. At the same time, flexibility is needed for dovetailing the structure of the programme by the institutions concerned to suit local educational needs.
The authorities of higher education are moving fast to ensure that the system is adopted countrywide the next academic year onwards. Quite a few institutions, including central universities, have adopted the system in the current academic year itself.
While there can be no argument against the imperative to have portability in education at college and university-level and also providing opportunity to students to choose, it is a fact that only a small percentage of the institutions in the country are in a position to bring in these changes in letter and spirit. As a matter of fact, these institutions have been offering such options for quite sometime: wide choice of subjects in the form of interdisciplinary and open electives to their students supported by the presence of number of diverse departments with qualified faculty members and an established culture of research and consultancy. Consequently, these institutions can smoothly change over to the new system both in style and substance.
The rich diversity of programmes, faculty and students is an important feature enabling this changeover. And these institutions can aim at reaching the benchmarks set by leading foreign universities such as Stanford in offering opportunity for the students to major in computer and music or computer and literature simultaneously, thus providing true meaning to the word ‘choice’ and exploring its limitless possibilities. That leaves us with the bulk of institutions of higher education which, though willing to switch over to the new system, have to counter their inherent limitations to make the changeover indeed meaningful. To begin with, the professional colleges affiliated to universities established by state governments have to follow the admission norms formulated by their respective governments which often provides detailed admission criteria on the basis of ‘son of the soil’ approach, and therefore regional diversity in the form of student admissions is virtually very little. Even in the case of faculty, the preference for local candidates in recruitment is understandable as it can secure some kind of insurance against higher faculty turnover. The revenue model and the practical working condition of these colleges would not enable them to have the luxury of a number of diversified departments manned by quality teachers.
In fact, even when the university curriculum prescribes elective subjects, the institutions would get around the situation by making students opt for one or, at the most, two electives for which the college has the resource in terms of faculty and other infrastructure. For these institutions, whose number is not inconsiderable, to move essentially from their present position of enabler of higher enrolment ratio at degree-level education, to a stage of quality service-provider, on the lines of the cafeteria approach in higher education, would require overcoming many obstacles calling for a graduated approach spread over a period of time. The eco-system around which these colleges and institutions are functioning requires radical transformation. Otherwise the change would prove to be just one of style without substance.
LETTER GRADING SYSTEM
Another aspect that is closely linked to the CBCS is adoption of letter grading system. The UGC recommends adoption of nine-letter-grades including one-letter-grade for the absence of the student in the examination. The grades may be relative or absolute.
The switchover to grading system based on the process of simple mapping of percentage of marks to grades without the distribution of marks of students being taken into account can therefore serve only limited purpose and can never be considered a progressive step. It must be noted that most of the institutions of higher education have been following the system of percentage of marks and the credit system can pose no challenge as the weight of the credit can be suitably factored into maximum marks awarded for the particular subject.
In any case, the link between grading procedure and CBCS is tenuous and the emphasis on the letter grading, especially the absolute grading, seems a little misplaced. More than the system of grading, one must delve into the aspect of evaluation, especially the system of continuous evaluation. The excessive reliance on final semester examination for evaluation should give place to regular classroom and mid-term tests on continuous basis.
The way forward then would be monitoring carefully and regularly the implementation of the CBCS by the institution covered by the UGC. Offering a reasonable range of choice of subjects to students of a programme by all institutions should be the first priority. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, a calibrated approach to take all institutions forward on a step-by-step basis should be followed, eventually ensuring that the institutions reach the desired level of quality and recognition. The primary focus should be on enabling the institutions to wholeheartedly provide diversity in subjects offered.