It’s no longer surprising to find teachers, students and activists protesting on campuses around the country against the Ministry of Human Resources and Development. What does surprise, though, is that these disparate groups, despite their differences, have coalesced around their opposition to one particular issue.

A simple Google search for student protests over the last few days throws up over 150 entries, all related to agitations against the University Grants Commission’s plan to introduce Choice-Based Credit System across every Indian university from the coming academic session.

On Monday, prominent academics and representatives from several state and central universities assembled at the India International Centre in Delhi to assess the recent education policy changes introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government. Most prominent on their agenda, again, was the Choice-Based Credit System, or CBCS in shorthand.

For months now, the University Grants Commission, the apex body for higher education in India, has been pushing universities to accept and implement CBCS. Not accepting the directive may not be an option for several varsities: since they depend on the University Grants Commission for funding and certification, a refusal could end up threatening their very existence.

What, then, is this system that is likely to change the contours of Indian education? Here’s a primer:

What is Choice-Based Credit System?
Put simply, CBCS is a cafeteria-like approach to education. It claims to provide students with various choices on the courses they want to pursue, skills they want to pick up, and the pace at which they want to learn these.

The courses under the system are divided into core, elective or foundation.

* Core courses are those which one needs to necessarily study in each semester to complete the requirement of the primary discipline of study.

* Elective courses can be chosen from a pool of papers that are either complementary to the core subjects, or skill enhancing in nature, or provide exposure to a different field of study.

* Foundation courses are further divided into compulsory and electives. Compulsory foundation courses are based on content that add knowledge, while electives are the ones which are value-based in nature and contribute to what the University Grants Commission calls “man-making”.

To illustrate with an example, you might be studying geography, but under Choice-Based Credit System you could opt for a course in philosophy as an elective and acquire computer modelling skills in the final year instead of pursuing a module on mathematical ability.

Who will this apply to?
The University Grants Commission says the CBCS will be applicable to “all undergraduate- and postgraduate-level degree, diploma and certificate programmes... awarded by the central, state and deemed-to-be universities”.

Besides courses, what else will the system change?
The CBCS will also fundamentally alter the way students are evaluated. The University Grants Commission believes a grading system is better than the conventional marks system. It is therefore pushing Cumulative Grade Point Averages, or CGPA, as the way to determine a candidate’s success in completing the course.

CGPA? Tell me more about it.
The University Grants Commission recommends a 10-point grading system, with grades being awarded according to the following table:

The trouble is in the calculation. Varsities can either choose to grade students on their absolute scores by converting marks into grades through predetermined rules. Or they can relatively-mark students by comparing the scores with the performance of the rest of the batch. In this second method, percentile scores and not percentages will get converted into grades as per the above table.

Calculation of Grade Point Average, then, is a complicated process involving computation of grades in numbers and averaging them out with the total credits up for grabs in a semester. The resulting average per semester is then averaged out further using a formula to arrive at the final Cumulative Grade Point Averages. Here’s a numerical example to make it easier to grasp.

Isn’t it good to have all these choices?
Yes, it is. But they only make sense when enough preparation has gone in. The abrupt end met by the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme piloted by Delhi University – which was not extremely different from the Choice-Based Credit System – shows how the most well-meaning policies can go haywire in absence of effective planning before implementation.

Though the idea behind CBCS is closer to the holistic approach adopted by international universities, academicians fear it will result in chaos here and hurt students because of the persistent faculty and infrastructure shortage at major universities in the country. Besides, they say, there is always the threat of poor implementation in India. They point to the disastrous Four-Year Undergraduate Programme as a cautionary tale against hasty reforms.

So who exactly is protesting against it?
Lots of people. The Delhi University’s Teacher Association is spearheading the charge in organising public meetings and multi-university agitations in the capital. University students are pouring into Delhi from Allahabad University, Calcutta University and others to register their protest. Staff associations of 52 Delhi University colleges recently passed a joint resolution to oppose CBCS.

What next?
It’s not that the system is being opposed across the board. Some universities such as the Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi and many in Telangana are gearing up to switch to the CBCS from the coming session, while several others may join over the next few years.

Only Delhi University remains as divided as it is. The university has claimed that it has not received any instructions from the University Grants Commission, even though the autonomous body had directed all universities to implement CBCS.

Will the admissions be impacted?
Not really. Most universities have kept their admission process unchanged and the admissions are unlikely to be affected by a university’s stand on CBCS. However, its implementation could seriously change our students’ career paths.