If governance can be likened to a journey, people are the passengers wanting to reach a destination, facilitating institutions are the vehicles used, processes adopted are the drivers of the vehicles, and the pathways to the destination are the policies followed. How safely, successfully, comfortably and timely the passengers complete their journey depends on the people at the helm and the strength of policies and processes adopted. Policies and processes are like relationships. They require constant attention and calibration. Taking them for granted would derail the journey, putting all at risk and discomfort. At present, the passengers destined to reach online degree programs (ODP) find themselves at crossroads, aboard wobbling vehicles driven by people of varying calibre.

In the higher education sector, policies are primarily the responsibility of the regulators and the processes are that of the educational institutions. Educational outcomes are heavily influenced by the interplay of policies and processes. This piece covers the policy pathways where hurdles, which could have been dismantled when the pandemic began its onslaught, are still galore.

One interesting characteristic about technology is that while it catalyses many changes in society, it undergoes constant mutation itself. When technology remains in a state of perennial flux, policymakers dealing with technological usage are caught in a catch-22 situation. Given the humongous challenge, our policymakers deserve immense appreciation for their efforts in introducing course credits via massive open online classes (MOOCs) in 2016 and later permitting universities to offer ODP. They also merit kudos for frequent policy infusions concerning online and open & distance education even during the pandemic. 

The lapse, however, was neither inaction nor proaction, but in not heeding to the law of returns to scales. When the pandemic situation demanded a massive transformation, what was delivered was frequent incremental changes. When the first wave of the pandemic started to wreak havoc, online delivery of education became the only viable option. With the classes and evaluations getting held virtually in the last academic year, the higher education system got completely digitised. Juxtapose that with the latest norms: only institutions with at least 3.26 NAAC score or within the top 100 in NIRF ranking can provide ODP and institutions are allowed to have up to 40 per cent of the total courses in a programme as MOOCs courses in a semester (deserves separate discussion on another occasion). While the moves, though a tad belated, are welcome, the dosage is not enough. 

The number of universities is 1019. The number of universities with NAAC score of 3.26 or above is just 84. Considering this and the top 100 of NIRF, it is very likely that only 100-odd universities are eligible to offer ODP, barring almost 90 percent of the universities from providing ODP. Further, the eligible universities too can offer only 3 UG and 10 PG ODP. 

To give another perspective, there are no eligible universities in the States of Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. The entire North-Eastern States are unrepresented. Interestingly, there are 114 universities whose scores range between 3.01 to 3.25, which includes universities from the States of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Uttarakhand, and UT of Puducherry. Reflecting on the extant eligibility norms, the following questions arise: 

  • If the quality of a university is the reason behind the fixation of NAAC score (or NIRF Rank), why 3.26 (or, top 100) and why not, say, 3.01 (or, 101-150 band)?
  • If a university/ teachers in it are not good enough to offer online programs, how are they good enough to offer offline? 
  • Just because a university is underperforming in offline education as per accreditation or NIRF, why should they underperform in online mode too?
  • A new competent university can hit the ground running with ODP as they are not saddled with any legacy issues like existing conventional universities. But they need a few years to be eligible for NAAC or make the cut in terms of norms fixed. Why are they deprived a chance?
  • During the last academic year, almost all the universities conducted classes and evaluations online. Going by the prevalent norms, most of these universities are ineligible to offer ODP. Would the marks scored last year by the students of these universities be considered invalid? If not, how would the eligible norms of the Regulation still be logically tenable?
  • A good university with a high NAAC score may have an extremely under-performing department. What if that department offers ODP?
  • There are cases where an institution scores lesser in subsequent rounds. So, what if a university found eligible started offering online programs drops in NAAC assessment in the next round? (The latest 2021 Regulation mandates valid NAAC / NIRF for three years to be eligible as against 1-year validity in the 2020 Regulation)

With private online education providers coming up with customised ODP, it is only a matter of time before the market recognises them for employment purposes on a massive scale. It is for the regulators to lead the show or be led by chaging market dynamics. 

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image Courtesy: Economics Times

Dr M Saravanan
Dr M Saravanan
M.Saravanan has worked in public policy for over 12 years, focusing predominantly on higher education. Currently, he works as Deputy Registrar & Chief Finance Officer, Anurag University, Hyderabad. He has offered consultancy services to the Union and State governments, private organisations and educational institutions. He has a Ph.D. in development economics from the University of Madras. His areas of interest cover higher education, school education, skill development and economics. He had been a part of the editorial team of a journal and has published opinion pieces for Deccan Herald and Business Line.

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