With the UGC continuously shifting its stance on the eligibility criteria required by universities to be able to provide courses in distance and open learning, 2018 was a tumultuous year for distance education.
Recently, on November 22, 2018, UGC declared that affiliated universities may lose their recognition for regular and conventional courses if they fail to follow the UGC norms regarding the ODL courses, i.e. Open and Distance Learning courses. It also said that only the courses that are mentioned on the UGC website will be recognised, and any other course apart from these will not be beneficial for students. No courses under open and distance learning will receive any kind of retrospective or ex-post facto recognition.
This created confusion on two grounds: first, many Universities have been providing ODL courses without recognition; and second, the announcement comes in contrast with UGC’s earlier notice that had relaxed the regulatory norms regarding distance education.
However, this is not the first time when UGC has dropped a bomb without any warning. In fact, ODL courses have been on a roller coaster ride since 2017.
Tracing Developments In UGC Regulations In ODL Courses From 2017 To 2018
In 2017, UGC announced new regulations for open and distance learning courses, according to which the institutes needed recognition by the UGC to offer ODL courses. And to get recognised, the institute had to:
1. Possess a position in Top-100 in overall category in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) for at least two years in the previous three years.
2. Exist for at least five years with minimum National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) accreditation of 3.26 on a 4-point scale.
Following this, many universities, like the Annamalai University and Periyar University, to name a few, acquired a stay order and continued to provide ODL courses without recognition, as they did not meet the above criterions. Other universities were advised to do the same at a meeting of Vice-Chancellors and Registrars.
Later, the UGC relaxed the norms and allowed the universities which did not meet the new standards to continue with the courses, provided that they would submit an undertaking stating that they will attain the required NAAC score of 3.26 or above by the end of the academic session 2019-20. But subsequently in November, 2018, in complete contrast with its earlier statement, the UGC said that only the courses mentioned on their official website will be recognised.
The chaos and wild speculations that these fluctuating notifications caused is evident in the drama that surrounded Mumbai University.
MU’s IDOL Gets Derecognised
Reports in August, 2018 stated that ODL courses of Mumbai University and 34 other state and central universities have been derecognised. This came after the distance education bureau of UGC said that the universities, in order to get recognised, must also have the same or similar courses running in regular mode for, at least, the last five years. It also said that courses like MBA, hotel management, etc. would also require prior permission from their respective regulatory authority.
Out of these, Maharashtra was the hardest hit with four major universities losing their recognition – Mumbai University’s IDOL (institute of of distance and open learning), Shivaji University, Marathwada University and Mahatma Gandhi University.
However, merely 3 days later, on August 15, 2018, reports stated that the recognition and approval process by the UGC are still in motion, and the UGC secretary Rajnish Jain clarified that no institutions had been derecognised as of yet.
But the drama did not end there. In October, when the UGC released the list of approved Institutes for distance education, IDOL was missing from the list. This caused another round of media speculations. In response, UGC stuck to its earlier proclamation, stating that the request for approval is still under review.
This was also echoed in a statement by Mumbai University which said that, “IDOL, University of Mumbai submitted the fresh application with compliances to the UGC on 5th October 2018 to get the recognition for IDOL programs. The scrutiny of the proposal is in progress and soon the UGC is expected to respond.”
One still does not know what the fate of IDOL will be in light of the latest development by the UGC in November 2018.
Are These Regulations Perturbing or Progressive?
Even without the contradictory and confusing reports, one cannot ignore the obvious drawbacks of these regulations and the problems that their poor execution caused.
1. Lack Of A+ Grade Institutes: One of the major drawbacks of the new regulation is the lack of institutes that meet the new standards. India does not have many institutes that hold a NAAC score of 3.26 or more (A+ grade). Kerala does not have a single varsity that has a 3.26 score on a 4 point scale, and none of the National Law Universities have made it to the list of top 100 in the NIRF rankings in the overall category for the last two out of three years.
2. Lack of Proper Planning: With such few universities and institutes meeting the required criterion, the UGC has instantly cut off on the number of institutes offering ODL courses. This leads to an immediate fall in the availability of options for the students. Not only that, in a country where the number of seats in educational institutes are scarce in comparison to the demand, cutting off on the efficient alternative of distance education will be a major drawback in the field of higher education. While the UGC was quick to announce its stringent norms, it did not provide us with any alternative for the sudden shortage of approved universities that can offer ODL courses. Where exactly is the rest of the student population supposed to go?
3. Lack Of Regulatory Bodies: While the UGC says that the universities must get the prior approval for the courses from the respective regulatory authorities, not all the courses have regulatory body as of yet. Also, there are no NAAC or NIRF systems in place for National Open Learning institutes, such as Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). The Human Resource Development Ministry had to solve this issue by exempting IGNOU from the new regulations all together. There are no All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) rules for open and distance learning courses either.
4. Loss Of Funds: ODL courses are a major source of funds for universities. The new regulations will have a disastrous effect on revenue collection of universities. Not only that, but the UGC has also stated that the state universities need to operate within the state and not beyond the territorial jurisdiction, and this has caused even the approved universities to lose their learning centres; Bharathiar University in Coimbatore was forced to discontinue around 450 franchises, 200 of which were located outside Tamil Nadu.
5.The Issue Of Finance: Distance learning courses are cheaper and can be accessed from even remote areas of the country. This makes it an affordable and efficient means of continuing education for the people who are working and earning simultaneously. The new regulation will surely lead to the lack of availability of this cheap learning method. And the approved universities, especially the private ones, can take advantage of the situation and increase the fees for the online courses. This is a loophole which should not be neglected as it would create huge financial burden on students.
6. Losing Credibility: The continuously changing notices and decisions, and the prominent lack of stability makes people wary and incredulous of the system. This leads to students losing trust in the regulatory body as well as universities that are under scrutiny, leading to a drop in the admissions in these courses and institutes.
7. Uncertainty: The uncertainty that these sudden decisions cause and the wave of panic that they arouse have drastic impacts. Many universities, fearing their precarious future in the light of the recent events may get discouraged to offer ODL courses in the future.
Even without these glaring loopholes, experts are still divided on the effectiveness of 2017 ODL regulations and its subsequent amendments in 2018. While on one hand some academicians feel that the 2017 Act may help improve the quality of distance education, others feel that it was huge leap, one which was way out of reach for existing educational scenario in the country.
However, what is for certain is that the process of introducing new regulation was hasty, and was done without proper consideration and planning. Universities need time, capital, incentive and resources to ensure quality education. Simply declaring the institutes invalid will not solve the problem. The Act should have been introduced step by step, with proper time and opportunity to improve the standards. There should also have been an alternative solution in place to mediate the possible backlash that such an extreme act may cause. But, given the constant changes the UGC has been adapting in the past few years, this definitely did not come as a surprise. But, losing this element of surprise is problematic for it makes us immune to reprehensible measures by the UGC.