With Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announcing in her Budget 2020 speech that the top 100 educational institutions in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) will be offering full-fledged degree programmes online, the focus now is on providing quality education across the spectrum, more specifically to the deprived sections of the society. However, the infrastructure will be critical to ensure the wider reach and seamless delivery of the content.
Bhushan Patwardhan, vice chairman of UGC, says that the online degree programmes are aimed at improving the country’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education, and UGC will strictly verify the degrees offered online to avoid any compromise with the quality. “The industries are no longer interested in vanilla degrees, as they want professionals with relevant skills and knowledge. The online curriculum will have to be of high quality to make the students job-ready, otherwise, the increase in enrolment ratio will serve no purpose,” he says.
The UGC will be responsible for the legal validity of the online degrees and will follow an approval process similar to the one already in place for online courses. “But, for these online programmes to gain academic validity, the mindset of the society must change,” says Patwardhan, adding that blended learning is the only way to uplift the education sector because as we move forward in the future, institutional boundaries will dissolve.
Earlier, UGC had drafted the UGC (Online Courses) Regulations, 2018, which made HEIs eligible to offer online courses if they were accredited by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) with a valid minimum score of 3.26 on a 4-point scale. The institutions must also be in the top-100 in overall category in the NIRF for at least two years in the previous three years.
Quality and credibility
What will add to the lure of online degrees is the recent government regulation, which stipulates that online degrees are to be treated at par with regular degrees. “Employers understand the constraints of many students to study full-time programmes, which explains the wide acceptance of the online study mode by employers both in India and worldwide,” says Ajit Chauhan, chairman, Amity University Online, which has been granted approval for offering 24 online programmes at both the UG and PG levels. “Any degree coming from a UGC recognised university with international accreditations from the UK and the US would set the benchmarks for credibility of online degrees,” he adds.
Why the upsurge
The growth of the online learning industry at a rate of 25% every year underscores its growing acceptance. “Factors such as convenience, comfort and versatility in pursuing the path to career advancement and skill upgradation have contributed to its burgeoning effect,” says Chauhan.
The acknowledgement of the online mode of delivering higher education will see greater collaboration between educational institutions and edtech platforms, says Raghav Gupta, managing
director, India and APAC, Coursera. “It is easy to predict that the majority of the learning in the near future will happen online and even on-campus programmes will have a substantial online component.” Considering India’s target to achieve a GER of 35% by 2025, there is a need to allow more quality-driven institutes to harness the power of online learning. “Changes in textbooks and syllabus cannot keep pace with the rate at which technology is evolving which makes online learning imperative and not just a catalyst in the fast-changing environment,” Gupta says.
HEIs, while making online education more accessible, must devise an exam system that tests students’ critical thinking skills,” says Vidya Yeravdekar, pro-chancellor, Symbiosis International University. “Courses in humanities, management, commerce that require less practical component can be offered through online mode,” Yeravdekar adds.
IITs to retain their USP
“Technical courses are the hallmarks of quality in the IITs and lakhs of students compete each year to gain admission here. They require heavy practical coursework and thus cannot be offered in the online mode,” says Venu Ramgopal Rao, director of IIT Delhi, which will only offer its non-technical programmes such as those in management and humanities in the online mode. The entry criteria for the online programmes will be relaxed but candidates will be assessed through an exam for course completion, Rao says.