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Education booster: Dual-degree proposal is welcome, but there are important caveats

The new guidelines put Indian higher education at par with systems in many developed nations and will allow students to acquire formal education in diverse fields.

Given that future jobs call for inter-disciplinary and intersectional competence, this can yield huge positives.
Given that future jobs call for inter-disciplinary and intersectional competence, this can yield huge positives.

The higher education reform announced by the University Grants Commission (UGC) recently is a pragmatic move. The UGC has allowed students to enrol for two full-time academic programmes in physical mode at higher education institutions in India, and has eased collaboration between Indian and foreign institutions in terms of academic programmes jointly administered by the two partnering universities. Under the full-time dual degree academic programme, students can enrol for a diploma and an undergraduate degree programme, two undergraduate degree programmes, or two post-graduate degree courses (except doctoral programmes). Also, if a student is eligible for pursuing a post-graduate programme in one discipline and is keen on a bachelor’s in a separate one, they will be allowed to enrol for both. The UGC has proposed a three-way choice involving a combination of offline only; offline with distance mode; and distance/online only modes for dual programmes. Dual full-time enrolments—excepting integrated programmes—were not allowed so far, though the Furqan Qamar committee had recommended this in 2012.

The new guidelines put Indian higher education at par with systems in many developed nations and will allow students to acquire formal education in diverse fields. Given that future jobs call for inter-disciplinary and intersectional competence, this can yield huge positives.

While collaborations with foreign universities for simultaneous degree-awarding were allowed earlier, it was only available to students at a few Indian institutes. Also, UGC had assumed the role of a gatekeeper, given the article of association between partnering institutes had to be submitted to it for approval after a thorough scrutiny. The latest guidelines, to be notified shortly, say there will be no need for seeking UGC’s approval if the Indian partner has a minimum NAAC accreditation score of 3.01 out of 4 or figures among the top 100 universities in the country as per the National Institutional Ranking Framework, and the foreign partner figures in the top 1,000 as per the Times Higher Education or QS World University Rankings. For professional courses, the approval of statutory bodies like the Bar Council of India, the National Medical Commission, etc, will be needed. This will allow the students to get the experience of studying abroad—a significant gain in terms of exposure to diversity in pedagogy and networking—while getting degrees from both partners for the same course, or a degree from the Indian partner and certification from the foreign partner. This will solely be in the physical mode.

Undoubtedly, these have the potential to benefit students immensely. But there are some gaps that the reform measures must look at. Regarding dual degrees in the physical mode at Indian institutes, the regulator and other stakeholders will need to ensure that it doesn’t choke access to students through increased competition—a bright student cornering two seats will have ramifications for those who are less gifted and yet deserving. One solution, of course, is for the institutes to increase their intake capacity; but that is easier said than done given the time and resource angle. Such a situation is best avoided in view of the country’s poor college density.

The Qamar committee had recommended that dual degree programmes be offered only in the online mode for this reason. While the guidelines call for ensuring that timings don’t clash for classes in both programmes, it is nearly impossible to structure this for the entire pool of courses offered in the country. And while foreign collaborations may seem attractive, care must be taken to ensure they don’t end up eroding equity in access and opportunity as fees and costs may pose a barrier for many. While the reforms tie into the National Education Policy 2020 vision very well, there is a need to take a comprehensive view, too.

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