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Hobbling Online Education: UGC nod for online degree courses belies talk of automatic approval

The UGC ‘approving’ online education proposals of 37 universities and higher education institutions (HEIs), as reported by Mint, exposes the many alarming slips between the government’s intent and action on higher education reforms. While a policy push for online tertiary education has made headlines since at least 2018, it was only in May 2020, after Covid-19 made online education an imperative, that the Union government freed this up, though in a limited manner.

So, it is baffling that, while the government announced in May 2020 that top-100 universities/HEIs (based on NAAC/NIRF showing) can start online degree programmes—indeed, as early as May 30, 2020—in the automatic route, a JNU has had its online Sanskrit post-graduation programme approved by the UGC only now. If, in September 2020—four months after the big announcement—the UGC was soliciting “roadmaps” from universities/HEIs on rolling out of online degree programmes from January 2021, the “automatic approval” talk was surely a smokescreen?

Advocates of a more controlled approach argue that deregulation would cause dubious operators to flood the market. However, with online short-term courses and even degree programmes from universities abroad already available to Indian students, delays in freeing up the space push prospective students out of the reach of Indian universities/HEIs.

The reputation of universities/HEIs offers some manner of check against fly-by-night operators, and as good/poor reputation gets established, there would be adequate information to help students avoid such fraud. That said, the ask is to allow existing universities freedom in starting online degree courses; it is hard to understand why a university allowed to offer degrees in the brick&mortar mode should have to ask for the regulator’s approval to do this online. Some disciplines—especially those involving laboratory work—may be difficult to move wholly online, but surely there are many others that can be run online effectively?

As Teamlease’s Manish Sabharwal argued in an article in The Indian Express last month, regulatory sclerosis is holding India back on online education. The UGC (Open and Distance Learning Programmes and Online Programmes) Regulations, 2020 are downright antediluvian.

Not only do they limit qualifying universities to a “maximum of three undergraduate and 10 postgraduate programmes”—UGC’s permission will be required to start more—they also require institutions to submit “desired information” and “an affidavit to the UGC”, gateways to government control. Also, while the annexure to the Regulations talk of ensuring programmes is “relevant to the national economy”, the provision restricting courses to only those offered in the offline mode means universities are hamstrung.

News of the UGC receiving “applications … from all entitled (HEIs)” along with “affidavits on compliance with the UGC’s 2020 Rules”, and allowing 37 HEIs to start online degree programmes—against the talk of 100 being ‘free’ to do this—may seem like good news but actually is quite telling of how India is lumbering on online education.


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