By Manish Sabharwal & Shantanu Rooj
The Ilbert Bill of 1884—a proposed law that would make English and Indian judges equal in the British Raj—was withdrawn after an uproar from Englishmen that benefited from the apartheid. India’s current online university regulations create a similar apartheid by allowing only seven of our 993 universities to launch online courses; during the Covid-19 lockdown overseas universities have signed up 100,000+ students in India for online courses. The lockdown exposes the folly and unfairness of the UGC 2018 online regulations; we must immediately allow all accredited universities to launch online courses with full flexibility in design, delivery, and assessment. If we don’t act quickly, Indian online university education will become like Wimbledon; it is played in England, but no British ever wins.
India’s universities have delivered quantity, but uneven quality and employability. We have roughly 38 million university students; of these, 34 million are on campuses, 4 million are in traditional distance education, and only 25,000 students have opted for online education. UGC banned online education in 2015, but notified new licensing guidelines in 2018. Since then, UGC has only licensed seven universities for online courses. This raises three important questions. Why aren’t all accredited universities automatically allowed to launch online courses when India can’t stop overseas universities from signing students in India? Why distinguish between licensing for paper-based distance learning and online learning? Why not give universities flexibility in curriculum, design, delivery, and assessment of online courses rather than force them to be the equivalent of an ATM machine with a teller physically handing out cash?
Covid-19 seems more dangerous for patients with pre-existing conditions; the global higher education system has ten multi-decade, pre-existing challenges. The first is the crisis of affordability; many US college classrooms now cost $200 per hour. Second, there is a crisis of education returns; estimates before Covid-19 suggested that 50% of the $1.5 trillion student debt (`1,14,75,150 crore) was slated to default. The third is a broken promise of employability; college graduates include 60% of Korean taxi drivers, 31% of US retail checkout clerks in the US, and 15% of Indian high-end security guards. The fourth is the differential needs of adult learners; they need anytime, anywhere, and affordable learning that they can do concurrently with their jobs. The fifth is a massive shortage of quality faculty. Sixth, there is a problem of diversity; the typical university student is no longer an 18-year old privileged urban male studying full-time; today’s students are just as likely to be female, poor, older, from rural areas, or studying part-time. These education outsiders need more flexible admission criteria, rolling admissions, continuous assessments, on-demand, on-the-go, always-on, qualification modularity and multi-modal delivery. The seventh challenge is a change in the definition of employability; knowing is useless in a world where Google knows everything; the most important 21st-century skill is learning how to learn. A new world of work where employment shifting from a lifetime contract to a taxicab relationship needs a new balance between repair, prepare and upgrade is the eighth. The ninth is a blurring of the line between corporate training and higher education; research suggests that employed-learners are expected to cross traditional learners within five years. The tenth is the attractive self-financing, employability and signalling value of degree linked apprenticeships. Online higher education not only addresses these ten challenges, but the lockdown has brought forward its destiny from 2030 to 2020 in one month.
Many Indian universities don’t balance cost, quality, scale, and employability because regulations stifle innovation. The UGC Online Regulations 2018 needs modification in five ways; a) Remove clauses 4(1)(i), 4(1)(ii), 4(1) (iii), and 6 that restrict licensing, and prescribe a discretionary approval process and replace them with something that authorises all accredited universities to design, develop and deliver their own online programmes. b) Modify clause 4 (2) to allow innovation, flexibility, and relevance in an online curriculum that allows universities to work closely with industries on their list of courses, and ensure the integrity of purpose. c) Rewrite clause 7(2)(i) appropriately to allow universities to work with the best technology platforms without holding them hostage to a state sponsored system. d) Modify clause 7(3)(viii) to allow rolling admissions, and, e) Replace clause 7(2)(vi) with clause 4(4)(iv) to allow technology-driven, on-demand, and credible online assessments.
In 1948 Sarvepalli Radhakrishan, Chairman of India’s University Education Commissio, said: “When we think we know, we cease to learn”. Dr Radhakrishnan would surely be disappointed by any regulations discriminating against Indian universities in favour of foreign ones. But, he would have been even more pained by regulatory unwillingness to learn, experiment and innovate. The sabotage of the Ilbert Bill in 1884 accelerated the 1885 creation of the Indian National Congress that led to Independence. The Covid crisis of 2020 should lead to Poorna Swaraj for all Indian universities to go online.