Cutting red tape

Cutting red tape

Representative image. (DH File photo)

The Modi government’s mark on distance and online education was defined by an overreach of government intervention and too many regulations, tying the hands of universities. In a time when India needs to discover alternatives to make higher education accessible, impactful and employable, policy should not limit innovation or alternatives that provide access at lower costs. 

Two separate regulations— one for ODL (Open and Distance learning) and another for online programs is too many as they both have little or no differentiation. The frontiers between the ODL and online formats of education is blurring in the minds of the learner as the courses are marked by demand, are available on-the-go, and are modular. The regulator should evaluate the case of a single regulation that sets the benchmarks, creates a framework for self-governance and permit HEIs to launch their own offerings in the area of their specialisation.

Perhaps the greatest disruption to higher education’s brick-and-mortar hegemony has been the proliferation of online learning and competency-based education. More students are turning to online education to pursue degrees that may have been otherwise geographically or financially out of reach. However, UGC’s newfound approach to control quality (only universities with NAAC 3.26 and NIRF Top 100 can apply for the license) smacks of arrogance, places more red tape in the way of online learning options and is counter-intuitive for the expansion of GER in the country.

A similar strategy by the medical regulator produces only 45000 doctors a year — one lakh less than what it actually needs. Parameters of quality should apply to all formats of education and not only to online — denying this opportunity to new-age innovative universities thwarts the cause of apprenticeships in the country, something that can be the game-changer for fixing the crucial industry-academia linkage.

Universities are allowed to launch only those courses which are being taught currently and have one batch of graduated students. Universities would do better with guidelines provided by the regulator with an eye on providing autonomy and promoting innovation! The future of work is uncertain, and universities would need to work closely with the industry to innovate. Universities will need to get ready to not only handle the fresh students but also experienced professionals. 

The regulations are micromanaging universities by defining the number of staff a university must have before they can launch online programs. Looking at the advancements in technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence and bot-based services, universities would do well by using their existing schools as the academic home for their distance and online courses and their existing administration teams to manage the online students, thus providing standard levels of service to all students irrespective of their mode of learning. Leveraging technology to the optimum shall help universities optimise the levels of student service, improve governance, fix accountability and control costs. 

The line between corporate training and higher education is blurring and traditional models of provision no longer work for these students. Universities will need to offer more flexible structures so as to improve access for under-represented groups — an argument around an open door policy for the students with on-demand exams may hold merit!

Universities play an important role in determining the future; they shape it through their research and prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs. Technological changes such as automation and artificial intelligence are expected to transform the employment landscape. It’s hard to know what the future will look like. Universities will need to think of employability as a function of qualification.

In order to make online higher education sustainable and self-healing, we need to build a culture that values freedom, experimentation, and creativity while balancing accountability, transparency with adequate guardrails to protect student and taxpayer from fraudulent or low-quality education providers.

What is needed in this sensitive area is a sensitive buffer mechanism which can reconcile the government’s legitimate need for accountability and the universities’ need for autonomy.

(The writer is CEO of Schoolguru Eduserve)