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On 15th January 2021, in response to an email from the Ministry of Academic Affairs (MAA), Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar asserted that “I would like you to understand and explain to those who raise questions that the FCs are at the core of Ashoka’s academic vision.” The FC structure was changed for all batches following and including UG23 with the discontinuation of mandatory Critical Thinking Seminars (CTS), along with an increase in the required number Foundation Courses to nine (including ICT). In the same response, VC Sarkar justified these changes by stating that the decision was “arrived at after much discussion with the entire faculty body and the various governing councils of the university” and that it was “unanimously agreed upon.”
The changes in the FC structure were first hinted at in May 2020, when student representative of the English department, Vighnesh Hampapura, revealed that moving forth, CTSs will only be offered as an elective by the English department. Following this, the MAA began speculating that the FC structure for UG23 might be different from the other batches. In order to gain more clarity on whether the CTS would be a required course, the Student Government wrote to VC Sarkar on 31st May. In her reply on 5th June, VC Sarkar announced that “CTS will be offered by the departments but are no longer part of the Foundation Courses. From the new academic year there will be 9 mandatory FCs.” The MAA notes that “no more details [than the lines quoted above] were relayed” to them.
After several requests for a meeting, VC Sarkar finally met the SG on 22nd June. At this juncture, the questions that the SG was asking were: “Will one ICT course be sufficient for UG23 students? Why was [the change in the FC structure] not informed to the Ministry or the student body earlier?” A representative of the MAA stated that “Despite seeking more information at each step, the information about how the FC structure would actually work was not revealed in detail to us.” The minutes of the meeting revealed that the only information that the SG received was that “UG23 has 9 FCs with the following breakup – 1 ICT + 8 FCs.”
On 18th July, the MAA wrote to the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs (ADAA), Prof. Raja Rosenhagen, and the OAA with a request for a meeting to discuss the restructuring of Foundation Courses for UG23. ADAA Rosenhagen, replied that decisions regarding the FC structure were still being discussed in the Board of Management and hence, the Office would need more time to get back to the SG after the BOM meeting in the following week. On 27th July, ADAA Rosenhangen replied in an email stating that “The AC (Academic Council) meeting last week has seen some partial progress on issues having to do with FCs, ICTs, and ASP. But some are pending BoM approval still.” In a following email on the same day, he definitively confirmed the changes, adding that “ICTs will be taught both in the Monsoon and in the Spring and students will be allocated to the Monsoon/Spring ICTs 50/50.”
The students of UG23 expressed their disagreements with the changes to the FC structure stating that the increased number of FC courses had consequences on their abilities to pursue certain combinations of majors and minors. Furthermore, they felt that their ability to explore different academic fields would also be narrowed down. Many have also raised concerns regarding the inability to change streams or have undecided majors. One UG23 student, Ruhaan Shah, speaks up about how the new structure “restricts academic freedom in the sense that I cannot try out various courses from other majors that I am interested in. I came to Ashoka to explore a wide gamut of subjects and this FC structure is an impediment to that.” Moreover, it will be difficult for some students to complete even their major/minor course requirements within the stipulated 3-year period without opting for a summer semester or staying on for the 4th year. The students were also aggrieved that the decision to change the FC structure was taken without any consultation or proper information given to the student body. As Ruhaan recalls, “these changes were not reflected on their website either. And according to a few students who did the YSP, they were also not informed about the modified structure. There is a clear lapse in communication, and there is a dire need for course correction here.”
The issue of the FC structure got sidelined once the Monsoon 2020 semester began, as the SG refocused its attention towards more immediate and pressing matters, like students returning to campus and workers welfare. It was later picked up on December 23rd when a town hall was organised for the students of UG23 by the MAA. The MAA’s role had been to amplify the concerns of UG23 students and ensure that the administration evaluates them and reaches a consensus on how to address them through comprehensive negotiations. They aimed to press for structural change as highlighted by MAA members during previous townhalls. They drafted a plan of action to take the negotiations forward. The plan entailed UG23 sending their petition to the office, followed by the MAA requesting the OAA for a meeting to discuss proposed changes and alternatives to the FC structure. Depending on the response received and gauging their willingness to adapt, the MAA decided to set up another Townhall.
However, VC Sarkar’s email dated January 15th, 2021, insisted on the inflexibility of the FC structure, highlighting that there’s a reason it has been set up this way and that “I understand that with certain majors there is now not much room for a minor, but that will change once the National Educational Policy is implemented and we can transition to a four year system.” The MAA critiqued this, pointing out that, if this is so, “then why did this FC Structure take effect immediately? It could have been communicated as a tentative plan once the four-year degree is in place. Why are students who may wish to only be here for three years required to follow a structure better-suited in a four-year academic program?” However, the VC went on to promise that at least “a concentration is possible” with the current system, and for those keen on pursuing a minor “there is the ASP year.”
There is a clear lack of consideration about the opportunity cost of time in pursuing a fourth year while one could be joining postgraduate studies or entering the job market. Currently, students have to stay for an entire year simply to complete 1-2 courses remaining in their minor stream. Moreover, those who don’t want to stay for a fourth year have to accommodate themselves within the summer session, which further demands an extra expense. This also puts students on financial aid in a precarious situation, since aid is not normally granted for summer sessions, and only under the exceptional circumstances of previous year’s pandemic was aid extended to the 2020 summer session. Additionally, as the UG23’s open letter to the OAA dated 31st December 2020 also suggests, “the burden of summer semesters means that it will be extremely difficult for students to complete summer internships – which are seen as essential in today’s climate. The already highly-competitive job market has been rendered even more so during the pandemic.” This open letter highlighted a number of the aforementioned grievances expressed by UG23 students and was signed by over 400 signatories.
The number of mandatory FCs was previously reduced from seven to five for the UG22 batch. This was done, according to a professor who responded anonymously to an Edict survey, under the Vice-Chancellorship of Prof. Pratap Banu Mehta, after eight months of discussion in which student grievances and faculty suggestions were incorporated. The professor elaborates, saying that this decision to reduce the FCs that “was passed in the faculty meeting and the academic council [and] after incorporating several rounds of suggestions and feedback was overturned either by the BoM (Board of Management) or the Governing Body.” This issue ultimately marked the “first act in the drama which was to culminate in tensions between the then VC Mehta, and the Founders.”
On the cusp of structural reform and changes, larger questions loom about academic freedom and integrity, as students concerned about FCs currently have to appeal to powers much further than their reach. The Dean of Academic Affairs, someone whose name asserts authority, who should have a say in such academic matters, admits to the MAA in an email on January 3rd 2021 that “The FC course structure is not within our purview. We are not the ones you need to persuade.” Moreover, as Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee suggests in his letter sent to the student body on the 21st of March 2021, “There are only two points that the Founders have insisted upon. One, that Ashoka should not compromise on intellectual standards; and two, that the Foundation Courses should be integral to Ashoka’s academic offering.” This begs the question as to how strong the insistence of the Founders should be, and whether it should supersede the requests, reviews, and pleas of members of the student body who are struggling to cope within the current structure of FCs.
Note: The FC structure remains unchanged for the batch of UG ’24.