Dinesh the mathematician
Dinesh Singh has done the math, and can explain to you with logical precision why the four-year bachelor’s course he tried to introduce in Delhi University is good for students and for the economy. Hearing him out and checking on his background, it does not seem such a man would take a decision for ad hoc or political reasons.
But the appellations flow thick and fast on campus when it comes to the Delhi University vice-chancellor, whose resignation earlier this week was greeted with a glee that ill suits a leading academic light. He has been called individualistic, revolutionary, a ‘tyrant on the rampage’ and accused of ‘acting like a terrorist’. Not by poor beleaguered students, who wouldn't really know that much about such an exalted functionary, but by teachers, unionised and belligerent. When we remember that these professors are government employees, the accusation made by a DU alumnus that they are just too lazy to learn the new syllabus or change their old ways does seem to have an element of truth. So is it the desire for status quo — also called stagnation — that has led the professor to being demonised, accused of pushing through a reform without preparing the academic community adequately for it? How much preparation does the intelligentsia need to adapt to a new idea, a new way of working?
In interviews to the press, the distinguished-looking professor explains patiently that there has been a systematic process of building a consensus. “All of us are in this together, and when we chart our programmes, it isn’t an individual who starts it; it’s actually a large group,” he has said. He said he himself has attended a Town Hall-style meeting where 4,000 students interacted with him to understand the changes. He can recount many other attempts to pave the way for the changes.
Singh has a definite philosophy on life and learning, if only students would listen. Like, it is not where you study but what you study that counts — this is of course to counter the rush for ‘prestigious’ colleges that makes the DU admission process every year so traumatic. Students just don't care what they study, as long as they do it in some hallowed ground — the exact opposite of what the good professor advocates. Easy for him to say, some might scoff, as he did both his bachelor’s (in 1978) and master’s at St Stephens. Armed with an MPhil from DU, he went to Imperial College London in 1981 for his PhD. Research, apparently, is what he wanted to get into right from the start.
To say he didn’t do his homework before introducing the semester system and also the four-year bachelor's programme (since withdrawn by new HRD minister Smriti Irani) would be a travesty of the truth. In his scheme of things, every student would get a better chance of getting an honours degree in the subject in which he has displayed interest and ability at the school level. The fourth year is meant for those who are most inclined towards advanced studies, say research. A diploma would be given after two years, a degree after the third, instead of treating those who leave before three years as dropouts.
Singh does give the kind of philosophical insights a man of erudition is expected to. Like “Real success and satisfaction only comes if you are pursuing the path to your dreams.” One of the foundation courses he wanted to introduce is on entrepreneurship, which he says every student should get exposure to. “In addition, we are working with many government agencies and quasi -government agencies, like nationalised banks, to create an environment of entrepreneurship. This course is not just about creating job worthy students; it’s about creating those who will eventually create more jobs.” All this might amount to the Americanisation of our education system under corporate pressure, but what’s so great about the British system which was meant to produce clerks for the Raj? Besides, everything has an expiry date.
Perhaps, like other misunderstood geniuses — his most virulent opponents are talking of an ‘ignominious exit’ — Prof Dinesh Singh is just ahead of his time.