The future of distance education in India

Written by Rupesh Mishra | Rajat Mukherjee | Updated: Jul 29 2013, 17:20pm hrs
With a modest genesis in 1962, the open and distance learning (ODL) system has grown exponentially into a dynamic and vibrant mode of teaching and learning that boasts of one national open university, 13 state open universities and more than 200 distance education centres functioning under conventional universities and private/autonomous institutions. More than four million students are enrolled in the ODL programmes and account for about 22% of the total enrolment in higher education.

Until recently the ODL system in India was governed by the Distance Education Council (DEC), established by the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in 1991. DEC was primarily 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.

Given the regulatory uncertainty surrounding the authority and functioning of DEC and regulation of the ODL system, in August 2010, the ministry of human resource and development (MHRD) constituted a committee under the chairmanship of NR Madhava Menon to suggest measures to regulate the standards of education being imparted through distance mode. The Madhava Menon Committee questioned DECs 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. According to the Madhava Menon Committee, DEC being an unit of IGNOU and working under the control of IGNOU, lacked the moral authority to regulate other universities which are also autonomous bodies created by the Acts of various state legislations and have the authority to prescribe their own norms and standards.

The Madhava Menon Committee observed that DEC, UGC and AICTE do not have the wherewithal to enforce their norms in the distance education space. The Committee found the ODL system practically unregulated and recommended the dissolution of DEC and the establishment of an independent and effective regulatory authority to regulate ODL system.

In view of the findings and recommendations of the Madhava Menon Committee, the MHRD and IGNOU dissolved DEC by the notifications issued by them in May 2013 and entrusted UGC and AICTE to perform the roles and responsibilities of DEC in their respective jurisdictions. The dissolution of DEC is a welcome move in the direction of long-awaited reforms in the ODE system in India. However, is this adequate reform

Lack of a pragmatic approach

The MHRDs decision to replace DEC with UGC and AICTE is not in consonance with the Madhava Menon Committees recommendation to replace DEC with an independent and effective regulatory authority. The rational offered by the MHRD for not accepting the Committees most important recommendation is pendency of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill. Given the uncertainties surrounding the NCHER Bill and the news reports that the MHRD has given up on the NCHER Bill and is instead working on a coordination mechanism for the education sector regulators, the MHRDs decision to substitute DEC with the old regulators UGC and AICTE, which in view of the Madhava Menon Committee have no expertise and experience to regulate the ODL system, lacks a pragmatic approach. Substitution of DEC with UGC and AICTE would effectively take the regulatory regime back to pre-DEC era.

Are UGC and AICTE ready

The readiness of UGC and AICTE to take over roles and responsibilities of DEC is doubtful. The MHRD order required UGC and AICTE to prepare an action plan for the growth and development of distance education system in India in light of the Madhava Menon Committee Report within three months of the MHRDs December 2012 order. However, neither UGC nor AICTE has issued any such action plan so far. Further, UGC and AICTE were supposed to take all necessary steps to ensure that as soon as IGNOU notification dissolving DEC is issued, UGC and AICTE should be in a state of readiness to take over the roles and responsibilities of DEC without any confusion or delay. However, it has been more than one and a half months since the IGNOU notification dissolving DEC was issued, and UGC and AICTE have not yet given any firm indication as to when and how they will take over the roles and responsibilities of DEC.

No clarity on other critical issues

In line with the Madhava Menon Committees recommendations, the MHRD order reversed the ban imposed by AICTE on technical and professional education programmes through ODL mode, except MBA and MCA, as being against the provisions of the National Policy on Education, 1986.

The Madhava Menon Committee has strongly recommended for review of UGCs blanket ban on MPhil and PhD programmes through ODL system and running of ODL programmes by deemed universities. It has been observed that the concern for quality has to be addressed through a comprehensive and effective regulatory mechanism and not by imposing bans. However, MHRD has not clarified its stand on these issues.

The government has also missed this golden opportunity to clarify certain other critical issues pertaining to the regulation of the ODL system, viz regulation of non-technical institutes which are not regulated by UGC and AICTE, the legality of state universities offering ODL courses outside the state territory, the legality of franchising of education, etc.

Given the above, this regulatory overhaul appears inadequate. The dissolution of DEC is not the complete solution. The fate of millions of students using the ODL system is uncertain unless immediate sustainable reforms are carried out in the ODL system.

What is required is an independent and effective regulator, strengthening of the implementation and enforcement mechanism and a more efficient bureaucracy. The need of the hour is better coordination and consensus on major policy issues and not conflict among the regulators.

Rajat Mukherjee is a partner and Rupesh Mishra is a senior associate at Khaitan & Co in New Delhi. Views are personal