Distance education in India: Mired by misgovernance, apathy

Distance education in India: Mired by misgovernance, apathy

The Open and Distance Learning (ODL) system, begun in 1962, has grown exponentially into a dynamic mode of teaching and learning, accounting for about 25 per cent of the total enrolment in higher education.

 The ODL boasts of one national open university, 13 state open universities and more than 200 distance education centres functioning under regular universities and private/autonomous institutions. 

The traditional education system of attending classes on a regular basis has considerably changed with the introduction of ODL system in India. Many of the Indian universities have now initiated offering different courses of study on distance education mode; and these are gradually getting into the mainstream of education. Nearly all the vocational or professional courses along with the regular courses are now being offered in distance learning mode. There was a time when getting a degree in B Tech was not possible for everyone, but today it is a reality. 

The ideals and objectives of ODL were headed in the right direction – but somewhere we seem to have got derailed and the situation seems to have got out of hand. Who regulates the regulatory bodies in India? This is a million dollar question as we see ministries which are supposed to monitor have failed miserably in regulating distance education. Multiple regulations have led to chaos as each regulatory body has contradicting and conflicting approaches to distance education.

Previously, the ODL system in India was governed by the Distance Education Council (DEC), setup by the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in 1991. This body was entrusted with the promotion, coordination and maintenance of standards of ODL system in India and expected to create an effective regulatory framework. However, DEC was criticised for its inaction, apathy and lack of effective mechanism to monitor implementation and enforcement of its norms. Institutions offering ODL programmes found the norms prescribed by DEC too rigid and unrealistic, lacking the flexibility to meet the diversity of local contexts and emerging concerns.

The “Distance Education Cell” for monitoring the Distance Education programmes was established by the Rehabilitation Council of India in 2001. The responsibility of this “Cell” expanded and subsequently, due to increase in number of programmes, an “Outreach Division” was established in April 2004. This division is responsible for promoting, maintaining, monitoring, and coordinating the special education programmes offered through open and distance learning system across the country. In order to safeguard the interest of the students with special needs, and to ensure the quality of special education programmes, the norms and guidelines-2010 has been framed for regulating and monitoring the open learning institutions.

In August 2010, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) constituted a committee under the chairmanship of N R Madhava Menon to “suggest measures to regulate the standards of education being imparted through distance mode.” The panel questioned DEC’s authority as the apex regulator of the ODL system mainly on the basis of “conflict of interest” and lack of adequate manpower and technological support. 

It said that DEC under the control of IGNOU lacked the moral authority to regulate other universities which are also autonomous bodies and recommended dissolution of DEC and the establishment of an independent and effective regulatory authority to regulate ODL system. In view of its findings and recommendations, the MHRD and IGNOU dissolved DEC in May 2013 and UGC (University Grants Commission) and AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) took over its role and responsibility.

Dissolution or disillusion?

But this is not a pragmatic reform. Substitution of DEC with UGC and AICTE would effectively take the regulatory regime back to pre-DEC era. The UGC says it is vested with the monitoring of the quality of distance education therefore new study centres cannot be opened without its sanction. But the transition to the new regime should have been done smoothly. Because sudden change brings uncertainty and turbulence in its wake.  These are the issues that have arisen:

• What will happen to all the institutes to whom DEC has given recognition?

• Should students take admission to any universities offering distance learning course?• Why did the UGC not prepare guidelines/directives for distance education before dissolution of the Distance Education Council?

• What will happen to universities giving degrees through distance education like Sikkim Manipal, Assam Down Town, Mahatma Gandhi University Shillong, etc? 
Study centres in distance education programmes don’t function the way they ought to.
 The allegations against them are:

• Many study centres have converted one year training courses to 5 day long courses• Involved in large scale examination malpractices• Lack faculty and infrastructure• Lack e-learning facilities and teleconferencing facilities• Charge a huge fee in addition to the course fees though they are paid by the university to give academic support.

The attempt to restrict the spread of DE is not commensurate with our national education objectives. Restrictions on DE operations are now being increased on the plea of quality. Why is there no control on the controllers? To whom are they answerable? Is it to the bureaucrats of the HRD Ministry or the Parliament? The UGC educrats have taken over the task of “regulating” DE under an executive fiat of the HRD Ministry. It has been already challenged by the IGNOU teachers in the Delhi High Court. 

The fate of millions of students using the ODL system is uncertain unless immediate sustainable reforms are carried out in the ODL system. If education for all has to become a reality, then what is required is better coordination and consensus on major policy issues and not conflict among the regulators.    
(Sharada Prahladrao, is trustee and Indumathi Rao, Regional Advisor for non-governmental organiation CBR Network, South Asia)

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