Green light for universities to offer fully online degrees

India’s higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC) has this week approved plans to allow 37 top universities to offer fully online degrees which will be formally recognised as degree qualifications.

In September last year, UGC put forward guidelines on the standards for online degrees and said universities accredited by the country’s National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and ranked A++ or A+ by NAAC, or those that figure in the top 100 list of the India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework, could apply for permission to offer fully online courses.

Previously, universities were not allowed to offer more than 20% of a degree programme online, but the COVID pandemic meant full courses had to shift online temporarily.

The restrictions mean quality will be maintained by allowing only highly credible and recognised institutions to offer online degree courses.

The move is intended to improve India’s gross enrolment ratio or proportion of young people aged 18-23 in higher education, which is currently around 26%. The aim is to reach 50% by 2035. In particular, online degrees are seen as a quality option for rural areas, which lack higher education institutions, if the relevant connectivity and equipment constraints can be overcome.

Universities can offer a maximum of three undergraduate programmes and 10 postgraduate programmes in online mode. Experts said it would also enable universities to generate extra revenue and better utilise existing resources.

Many universities, including Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Aligarh Muslim University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the University of Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka, OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, and Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida near Delhi, are set to offer programmes in online mode.

Universities can only provide non-technical courses, which excludes the most popular programmes such as medicine and engineering.

The majority of universities and institutions that have expressed interest want to run business administration online degree courses.

Alagappa University in Tamil Nadu, the University of Mysore and Kuvempu University in Karnataka state plan to offer the maximum number of 13 courses each in online mode.

Academics said most employers today accept online degrees, although some still prefer traditional graduates. With many high-quality institutions now offering online programmes, employers are more positive than in the past, they say.

Indian Institute of Management Indore Director Himanshu Rai said education quality will not be compromised because during the COVID pandemic most institutions have gone online.

On the other hand, the experience will not be as good as that of a physical campus and classroom-based programme. But he said the two “should not be seen as the same programme”.

‘Not comparable’ with classroom programme

“We are talking about two completely different programmes and so there is nothing to compare,” Rai told University World News. “A physical classroom programme offers learning through experience and peer group interaction, so that is why it will always be a very different programme than a completely online one.”

Rai said the advantage of an online programme is that it “democratises education, which means more people will now find access to good institutions”.

For many students, online degree courses are cost-effective and so can be very helpful for those who do not have the financial capability to study in expensive colleges.

He added that content creation and assessment are also different in classroom-based and online programmes.

“All kinds of courses would be offered in online degree courses. Except those programmes where you require laboratory settings, everything can be offered in online mode,” he added.

Critics say the high drop-out rate from online courses would need to be addressed.