A slew of public notices, rules and regulations issued by the Delhi-based University Grants Commission (UGC) — the apex higher education supervisory organisation — relating to open and distance learning (ODL) have raised the hackles of the 13 government and seven deemed (private) universities in Tamil Nadu (pop.72 million), which offer distance education programmes.
The UGC (Open and Distance Learning) Regulations, 2017 (First Amendment) stipulated that only universities awarded a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of at least 3.26 on a scale of 4.0 by the Bangalore-based National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), are eligible to offer online and distance education programmes.
Subsequently in August, when UGC released a countrywide list of universities eligible to conduct ODL programmes, only four state government universities in Tamil Nadu — Madras, Anna, Alagappa and the Tamil Nadu Open universities — featured in that list, together with the private sector SRM Institute of Science and Technology and SASTRA Deemed University.
Shocked by their exclusion from the UGC list, several state universities including Annamalai University (which has been conducting more than 500 distance education programmes since 1979) and Bharathiyar University moved the Madras high court and obtained a stay order against the UGC (Open & Distance Learning) Regulations, 2017 (First Amendment).
With several state government universities which did not make it into the UGC list continuing to conduct distance learning programmes, the UGC in a second amendment granted time to universities until June 2020 to work towards achieving the minimum NAAC CGPA (3.26) and submit an undertaking to this effect. In a third amendment of the regulations, UGC also made it clear that if universities fail to achieve the minimum CGPA, approval to run distance learning programmes will be withdrawn.
On November 20, UGC issued a public notice detailing the programmes that universities eligible to conduct ODL courses can offer, and warned that any deviation from the UGC (ODL) Regulations, 2017 and subsequent amendments will result in institutions losing recognition for courses offered in the ODL as well as conventional modes.
The stringent regulations and stern warnings relating to online and other distance learning programmes of UGC have evoked mixed response from academics and educationists. Ever since the Distance Education Council (DEC) — the erstwhile regulator of distance education programmes — was dissolved by the Union HRD ministry and its regulatory powers were transferred to the UGC’s newly established Distance Education Bureau (DEB) in June 2013, DEB has been framing tough new regulations for higher education institutions offering distance learning programmes.
“UGC/DEB should not have prescribed the eligibility benchmark to conduct ODL programmes without consulting vice chancellors of universities. Although quality of programmes is important, DEB has been hasty in de-recognising several job-oriented courses and is clearly interfering with the autonomy of universities,” says Dr. Shettu, general secretary of the Chennai-based Association of University Teachers.
On the other hand, some educationists are of the view that tough regulation had become essential to ensure the quality of distance learning programmes. “Too many universities offering distance learning programmes are failing to provide printed study materials, online interactive lessons and options for additional reference. They have reduced distance learning to the status of mere correspondence courses for their financial gain. The intent of the UGC regulations is to guarantee content quality and ensure that universities also offer digital resources to students who enroll for distance learning programmes. Therefore, prescribing CGPA benchmarks for institutions offering distance learning programmes is necessary to introduce quality culture in distance learning. However, prior notice of the new regulations should have been given,” says S.P. Thyagarajan, former vice chancellor of the University of Madras and currently professor of eminence and dean of research at Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Hospital, Chennai.
With improved broadband connectivity becoming available across the country, distance learning offers a chance of making good learning deficits of the past decades. Therefore, it’s in the national interest for UGC/DEB to obtain the willing cooperation of all higher education institutions. Even if it means slowing the rollout of distance education programmes.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)