Bid to boost tertiary enrolment through online courses

Universities and other tertiary institutions in India will be able to offer undergraduate, postgraduate and diploma programmes online as part of the government’s efforts to improve enrolment in higher education. The aims are to help India improve its low gross enrolment ratio and tackle problems with higher education access in several parts of the country.

The University Grants Commission, which oversees higher education, recently approved regulations for institutions to offer degrees online from this 2018-19 academic session.

Institutions may offer online courses in disciplines in which they already offer classroom teaching to graduation level or in open and distance learning modes, with at least one cohort of students having already graduated.

Online courses in subjects like engineering, medicine and pharmacy that require practical or laboratory classes will not be permitted.

Enrolment and access

India wants to raise its gross enrolment ratio or GER to 30% by 2020 from the present 25.2% in 2016-17. GER is the percentage of the eligible population of students aged 18-23 enrolled in higher education. India’s GER is lagging far behind countries such as China, which has a GER of around 42%.

Also, the GER varies across the country. While in the southern state of Tamil Nadu it is 47%, enrolment is only 14% in the northern state of Bihar and 21% in the eastern state of Odisha.

Ministry officials said online learning could help bridge such gaps, as students can learn any time anywhere.

Vijay Singh, registrar of AISECT University – a private institution in central India – said: “The GER in the field of higher education has been on the rise and any measure to further increase the GER is good for the country’s educational institutions, including open universities. Nearly 36 million students are pursuing higher education in the country. An increase of 1% in GER means 360,000 more students.

“The open universities provide higher education opportunities particularly to disadvantaged segments of society. The government’s initiative is very helpful for students belonging to underprivileged sections,” he said.

However, Singh noted that many believe the government should focus on skills-based education instead of pushing more people into higher education.

Maya Sinha, a lecturer at Sarojini Naidu Girls College, which is affiliated to Barkatullah University in Bhopal in central India, said the move is unlikely to affect open universities like Indira Gandhi National Open University, which has more than four million students enrolled.

“The aim is to enrol more students for higher studies through the online mode. The existing open universities will not be much affected as the number of students is also expected to increase,” she said.

Ensuring quality

Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar said the adoption of technology in India is huge and the use of mobile phones is increasing, which can be used to promote higher education.

To ensure the quality and credibility of the online programmes, only top-rated higher education institutions will be eligible to offer such courses.

Only institutions in existence for at least five years and accredited by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, with a valid minimum score of 3.26 or A+ categorisation on a 4-point scale, will be allowed to offer such courses. They should also have been in the top-100 in the overall category in India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework for at least two years in the previous three years.

These conditions will not apply to existing government-funded open universities.

Since only a fraction of universities and only those highly ranked will be allowed to offer online courses, government officials believe most of the institutions qualifying will possess the proper technology and resources to run the courses.

But a shortage of staff could be a key challenge, even in some top institutions, if large numbers of students enrol.

Student engagement will be monitored via participation in discussions, assignments and programme involvement.

Examinations can only be conducted in the presence of an invigilator and in conformity with any norms for examinations set by the University Grants Commission for the correct evaluation of students – often a difficult task for online programmes.