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Distance Education Are We Moving Forward?

Updated: April 13, 2013 1:10 pm

The problems in reforms agenda in the higher education sector have seen a snowballing effect due to various bills pending in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The new team at the HRD is slow but steady. However, it faces a daunting task of accomplishing too much in too little time. Distance education is one such issue which needs a concerted effort to be resurrected in the country. This is particularly significant due to the fact that a central university, arguably the biggest in the world and the only university in India looking after distance education and till recently performing the dual task of being a university as well as a statutory organization for coordinating growth of distance education in the country has been directed to wrap up its’ Distance Education Council (DEC).

In addition to the above, distance education in India has been facing lot of flak of late. However, It was a priority of the UPA government in its second term. It also found mention in the first 100 days agenda. Thus began an exercise to streamline distance education with the first Policy on Distance Education circulated on August 28, 2009 by the MHRD. Eventually, it resulted in another committee appointed by the MHRD vide their notification dated August 5, 2010 under the Chairmanship of Prof. Madhav Menon, a distinguished legal luminary to suggest ways to (a) harmonize the legal position in respect of distance education (b) recommend a framework for approval (c) recommend outcome benchmarks and equivalence with conventional modes (d) recommend guidelines for processing of the approval of technical programmes and (e) suggest ways towards enhanced contribution of Distance Education to GER of 30 per cent. The report was accepted by the government and in December 2012, the MHRD issued a notification on behalf of the President of India to annul statute 28 framed under IGNOU Act thereby ordering dissolution of the Distance Education Council and also empowering the UGC and AICTE to devise norms and standards for distance education both for universities and institutions offering general and technical courses respectively under distance education. Section 20(1) of both the UGC and AICTE Act empowers the government to issue directions on questions of policy. Undisputed is the fact, that this being a decision of policy, the AICTE and the UGC will have to follow the directions in letter and spirit.

There is however, a sense of being discriminated against, when I think of India being a pluralist society. My deep sense of commitment to distance education, as a mode to take education and training to the vast majority of socially, financially, locationally and physically disadvantaged people or adult learners takes a severe beating by this notification. The edifice on which distance education was started and later was misused as a cash cow for hordes of private and public institutions and universities alike have done a major disservice to the cause of education. The government rather than doing the hard work of removing this malaise, has dug a grave and even wrote the epitaph! Why do I say it, is an interesting question, which needs to be elaborated.

Mindset, people always say takes generations to change! Sometimes it is very difficult to convince regular students’ the virtues of distance learning, the flexibility, the freedom of choice or the unrestricted entry when he can afford paying for a regular degree. It is as much a choice of quality, of convention and tradition that one opts for as the power of money that one opts for it. The same holds true for organisations. Therefore, an organization which has all along been devising ways and means to restrict entry in terms of approval, in terms of age, in terms of norms and standards, cannot appreciate the difference. We shall in times to come, realize with regret that we killed a model which could have changed the face of education in India, both within and outside the classroom. I tried hard to find some solace in the Act of AICTE and the interpretation of its various clauses given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the Bharathidasan Case. It explains in detail why the Parliament chose not to include Universities in the ambit of AICTE as far as approval to start a Technical program was concerned. The court also observed “When the language is specific, unambiguous and positive, the same cannot be over-looked to give an expansive meaning under the pretext of a purposive construction to perpetuate an ideological object and aim, which also, having regard to the Statement of Objects and Reasons for the AICTE Act, are not warranted or justified.” If this interpretation is to be believed, then the notification issued by the MHRD on December 29, 2012, which says in section (i) “The UGC and AICTE, as already empowered under their respective Acts, would also act as a regulator for Higher Education (excluding technical education) and technical education through ODL mode respectively. Universities are empowered under their respective Acts to offer any programme/course including in Technical Education in the conventional mode. However, if they offer any programme/course in ODL mode, they would require recognition from the UGC, AICTE, NCTE and other such regulators of the conventional mode of education in those areas of study”. What I understand by this order is that although in the conventional mode universities are free to offer courses under technical education, in ODL they would be restricted! When the Act of AICTE does not empower them to grant approval to a university in conventional mode, how can they grant approval under ODL modethis is hard to fathom. One can always say that the Act does not specify ODL as a mode in AICTE Act and therefore it can be done. Then again, if the Act does not mention distance education/ODL how can the Central government, through an executive order allow such a scenario? The word chosen in the Order is “recognition” which is covered under AICTE Act in clause 10(u) for setting up National Board of Accreditation for institutions and not universities. There again, recognition or de-recognition of Universities cannot be done by the AICTE.

Let me be clear, I am not averse to AICTE having to play some role in ODL, if it helps. I do not want that a mode of education which has gained some prominence and acceptance in the government policy during 11th and 12th Plan should be dogged by controversies and endless litigations. ODL must be regulated through an independent authority, like DECI suggested by the Madav Menon Committee and agreed to by the government. However till such time, the NCHER bill remains in the Rajya Sabha, neither the DECI will be institutionalized nor will it function within a single statutory authority. The decision taken now is in divergence to the contention made by the MHRD while promulgating the NCHER bill that they wanted to harmonize all statutory authorities, remove overlaps and make a single window to co-ordinate higher education. If that is the avowed object of the NCHER, why the decision taken now should make distance education institutions go from pillar to post in the offices of UGC, AICTE, NCTE, BCI etc.?

When fairness is demanded and exercised, decisions must reflect the intent. In this case however, the order of the government leaves the distance education field a lot murkier than it earlier was. The irony is: the decision shall hurt those most, which the UPA government swears by almost every day!

 By Dr Ravi P Singh

(The author is Senior Regional Director (IGNOU) and former Vice Chancellor, Sharda University)

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