Will flexible HE entry-exit system increase inequality?

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 aims to make foundational changes in India’s higher education system. The policy proposes major forward-looking changes to make the country globally competitive in a knowledge economy era.

One of the proposals is to introduce a four-year bachelor’s degree with a Multiple Entry and Exit System (MEES). According to this, students will have exit options at the end of each year of the course.

The recommendation is that they will receive a certificate after completing one year, a diploma after completing two years, a bachelor’s degree after three years and a bachelor’s with some research element after four years.

These changes in the curricular structure not only provide flexible opportunities for students but also make foundational changes to the very idea of education.

However, the MEES deserves slightly deeper discussion in terms of its potential effects on equity and inclusion of students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. As research evidence suggests, choice over entry and early exit from higher education is impacted by multiple factors, including social, economic, cultural, pedagogical and emotional ones.

Flexibility should not lead to the reinforcement of structural inequalities that exist in higher education. An inclusively flexible system needs to promote student aspirations to attain a degree and enter a new world of opportunities, while institutions need to own their responsibility for students’ outcomes.

Why multiple entry and exit?

According to the Incheon Declaration and framework of action for implementing Sustainable Development Goal 4 adopted in 2015, “recognition, validation and accreditation of the knowledge, skills and competencies acquired through non-formal and informal education” is important for promoting flexible pathways and quality lifelong learning. Aligning with the idea of ‘flexible pathways’, the MEES is aimed at removing “prevalent rigid boundaries and creating new possibilities for lifelong learning”.

The NEP also introduces the concept of an Academic Bank of Credits (ABC) which would enable students to earn credits from any recognised institution. Credits accumulated would be counted towards the awarding of a degree. This flexibility provides students with the ability to learn from multiple sources, including massive open online courses (MOOCs) platforms.

Overall, the MEES is considered to be a major reform aimed at making the higher education system more student-friendly and equitable.

MEES and dropouts

In many places, the MEES is also considered as an innovation which can reduce dropout rates among the most disadvantaged. How it will work in the Indian context needs to be carefully examined. Mass higher education in India is characterised by a student body from diverse socio-cultural, class, gender and schooling backgrounds and also people with special needs. It is very important to note that a significant share of those students are first-generation learners.

Exclusive campus spaces and non-inclusive teaching-learning processes pose challenges for achieving inclusion in higher education. Student dropout in campuses needs to be understood in this larger context of massification and student diversity.

Although introduced with the intention of offering students more choice, multiple exit points may discourage students with limited social and economic capital from making an effort to take up the challenge of studying for a full degree.

Research suggests that students are not voluntarily withdrawing from education, but they are being pushed out due to various socio-economic, pedagogical and institutional reasons.

Marriage is one of the reasons for early exit for women students.

The idea of equity provision is to retain such students in the system and provide them with the social, academic and economic support they need to overcome these various barriers and to achieve equality of outcome with their peers. Needless to say, this equity provision is resource intensive and holds governments accountable for their success in enabling students to complete their study programmes.

Early exit with a certificate

As students who drop out before the completion of their degrees are given appropriate certification, the time spent by the student in higher education is not wasted. There are two advantages to this. One is that they can enter the labour market with a certificate. The second is that students can save the credits and take up higher education later.

However, there is a danger of treating early exit certificates as a stamp of failure in the labour market. Due to recruiter bias, there will be students who do not find employment on the basis of an early certificate or diploma unless it is technically specialised.

Students from lower socio-economic strata, those who have attended public schools or schools located in rural areas and who are first-generation learners are more likely to make an early exit from higher education due to external pressure than their advantaged peers.

Non-completion of a degree due to external pressures would mean the continuation of their unequal access to economic opportunities and upward mobility. Also, such students are less likely to enter research programmes and further higher education.

Thus the MEES, which, prima facie, seems to be flexible and to encourage inclusion, could be in danger of becoming an exclusionary mechanism for reproducing inequalities.

Envisioning an inclusive system

We need to differentiate between exit as a voluntary choice and exit due to external factors or forces.

Any flexible system that enables students from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds to earn full degree awards within a stipulated time frame with multiple exit and entry options is welcome.

But the exit option should not be seen as a means for institutions to run away from their responsibility to provide opportunities for students to overcome the various social, economic and pedagogical barriers they face and to ensure the success of a diverse student body.

In other words, a diversity audit of the MEES should not mirror existing hierarchies and disparities in society.

In order to tackle the emerging issues of equity and inclusion that the introduction of the MEES may bring, the government and higher education institutions need to take several strategic steps.

First, the curriculum needs to be reworked in order to reflect the specialised competencies, knowledge and skills required in each particular subject discipline. This may be more feasible in science and technical education programmes than in the arts and humanities.

Second, the SHREYAS programme (the ‘earn while you learn’ scheme) needs to be successfully implemented for non-technical degree students.

Third, scholarships should be made available for students from disadvantaged groups.

Fourth, support services need to be encouraged and developed at institutional level for students who are more likely to drop out due to social, technical and non-economic reasons.

Fifth, institutions need to follow up on students opting for early exit to understand their study trajectories and provide them with opportunities to re-enter the institution to secure a degree.

Finally, besides Open and Distance Learning, higher education institutions need to increase their provision for students who have to work alongside their studies through the opening of more evening colleges. The number of these has shrunk significantly in recent years.

Dr Malish CM is assistant professor and co-editor of the CPRHE Research Paper Series at the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), New Delhi. Dr Anupam Pachauri is also an assistant professor at the centre. The views expressed are personal.