Government hands edtech a larger role in higher education

The Indian government is permitting 900 more colleges to offer online degree programmes and will allow more freedom to universities and institutes offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses to collaborate with edtech platforms to develop course content and offer online degrees.

Previously, only some designated universities and their constituent colleges were allowed to offer remote degrees. However, the 2022 budget, tabled in parliament last month, included announcements concerning the expanded reach of the education and skills sector, as well as improvements in education quality and capacity-building.

M Jagadesh Kumar, former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and current chairperson of the higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC), said last month the UGC also plans to permit top-ranking autonomous institutions to offer online courses, starting in the 2022-23 academic year. The regulatory body is also planning to lift the limit on the number of courses universities are permitted to offer as online only.

Diverse learning experiences

Allowing collaborations with edtech companies would provide students with diverse learning experiences and is in keeping with goals for online education envisaged in the National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020, Kumar said. These include a goal to reach a 50% gross enrolment ratio by 2035, from around 27% currently.

The UGC’s move runs counter to earlier announcements which warned universities against offering distance and online courses in partnership with edtech companies, saying “no franchise agreement” would be permitted.

The government is allowing edtech-higher education partnerships – including with foreign edtech companies, industry-developed courses, and overseas universities offering online courses, as long as the Indian institution owns the content – in order to strengthen the digital education ecosystem, as edtech firms possess tools and technologies that universities could be lacking, officials said.

The changes are also an acknowledgement that many institutions do not have the resources or skills to develop online curricula, while edtech companies have expanded rapidly, creating proprietary content.

At present, 59 universities in India offer 120 undergraduate and 29 postgraduate degree programmes, and two postgraduate diploma programmes, online. Out of the total courses offered online, only 15% are science courses, 50% are related to business administration, and the remaining 35% are in the humanities.

40% of courses can be externally sourced

According to draft UGC guidelines, institutions offering online degrees can source up to 40% of the course content externally in collaboration with edtech companies, while 60% of content must be developed in-house with the assistance of edtech companies.

However, edtech companies will not be allowed to advertise content developed with their help as their own. Higher education institutions will have “complete ownership of intellectual property rights” relating to content developed in-house, according to the draft regulations.

More details on what types of content universities will use from these companies were not immediately available.

However, the regulator prescribes certain restrictions for autonomous colleges: only those ranked in the top 100 in India’s National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) twice in the last three years, or those with a National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) grade of a minimum of 3.26 (3.26-3.50 class interval is assigned A+ and 3.50-4.00 class interval is assigned highest A++), can offer online courses from 2022-23. The NAAC conducts assessment and accreditation of higher education institutions in India.

While online courses would provide more flexibility, students in online degree programmes, like those in traditional degree programmes, will be expected to show a minimum of 75% attendance.

Latest technological tools

Shreyasi Singh, founder and CEO of online learning company Harappa Education, said: “Edtech companies have cutting edge market-ready technologies related to data, digital marketing, etc that are critical for new-age jobs for which universities would not have established departments or a curriculum.”

“As the world is changing and new technologies are coming in, it would possibly be very useful for universities to work with edtech firms,” she told University World News, noting that edtech companies have already been working with higher education institutions “in a very meaningful way” for the last two to two-and-a-half years.

Edtech firms will be useful “in supplementing the students’ academic knowledge with professional skills”, she said.

“As technology evolves rapidly, edtech firms are likely to gain greater grasp over the subjects than universities as they work with professionals and practitioners, and systematise that into courses.”

Digital ecosystem

Referring to the impending changes in online education, UGC’s Kumar said last month, during a virtual ministry of education-organised brainstorming webinar on the digital university, the UGC was planning to do away with limiting universities to 13 online degree courses per institution.

“Educational institutions that fall in the ‘entitled’ category will soon be permitted to conduct unlimited online courses. These institutions are permitted to start fully-fledged online courses without prior sanction of the UGC. Currently, more than 50 public and private universities are offering such courses,” Kumar said during the webinar chaired by K Sanjay Murthy, secretary of higher education, and co-chaired by K Rajaraman, secretary of the Department of Telecommunications.

Panelists described as “exciting” the opportunities for India’s current educational landscape provided by the edtech boom.

“The universities can make use of technology facilities available on these edtech platforms in terms of animation, visual effects, gaming, etc to create high-quality content,” Kumar said.

Veezhinathan Kamakoti, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, proposed a “digital university ecosystem” and suggested a regulatory framework be developed that granted digital universities the power to recommend deemed university status to institutions that are part of the ecosystem.

To boost access to quality education, Rajaraman proposed a digital infrastructure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the webinar virtually, urged the All India Council for Technical Education, the UGC and the education ministry to expedite the setting up of the digital university.