India plans virtual universities to drive up higher education enrolment rates

Almost 60 per cent of students surveyed in schools across 26 districts in five states could not access online learning opportunities. PHOTO: AFP

KOLKATA - Only about one in four Indians in the university-going age group is enrolled in a higher education programme. Driving up this number has long been a government priority but numerous hurdles that prevent access to higher education, including socio-economic disparities as well as an inadequate number of institutes in rural areas, have held back progress.

In a renewed effort, the government has now proposed the creation of virtual universities to drive up the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education from the current rate of around 26 per cent for those aged between 18 and 23.

The National Education Policy, which was adopted last year, has specified a GER target of 50 per cent by 2035. The GER in China and Brazil in higher education is more than 50 per cent.

A government media release on Jan 29, quoting the country's Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, said the government will soon establish virtual universities to achieve the desired GER target.

These institutions, it added, will be different from existing open universities that mostly combine remote self-learning with audiovisual support, physical coursework-related counselling and exams that are conducted offline. It is expected that the proposed virtual universities will have greater reliance on virtual learning and online exams.

This move comes at a time when online education has received a fillip because of the pandemic despite encompassing challenges - such as poor access to smartphones or laptops and patchy Internet connectivity - that have limited its reach.

A survey by the Azim Premji University released in September last year found that almost 60 per cent of students surveyed in schools across 26 districts in five states could not access online learning opportunities.

While the Ministry of Education did not respond to a request for comment, a report in The Telegraph newspaper, quoting an unnamed ministry official, said students enrolled at the proposed virtual institutions will receive study material online, including video lectures, and can clarify doubts through chats or e-mail. Examinations will also be held online.

These universities would offer courses that do not require laboratory experiments, it added.

But experts have cautioned against an over-reliance on a virtual mode that, while driving up GER, could compromise quality of learning and even yield poor course completion rates.

Professor M Aslam, a former vice-chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), which offers open and distance learning (ODL) programmes, said digital learning is meant to supplement classroom teaching but not replace it.

He said the government's focus should instead be on further expanding the existing network of open universities in the country and supporting them to offer quality programmes.

An ideal ODL programme, he added, requires quality self-learning material that is "self-motivating and self-explanatory", reinforced by good audiovisual support and dedicated face-to-face counselling for students.

"But IGNOU and its network of open universities have not received the adequate attention they deserve. These institutions themselves have also not introspected on what makes for quality open and distance education intervention," Prof Aslam told The Straits Times.

"We should be conceptually clear on what constitutes an ideal ODL learning programme and not run after numbers."

Completion rates in online programmes are also a potential problem. In a 2019 study, academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that online courses offered on edX, a platform co-created with Harvard, had a high dropout rate of more than 90 per cent on average over five years.

In India, distance enrolment constitutes about 10.62 per cent of the total enrolment in higher education.

Only around 20 per cent of those enrolled from marginalised communities, officially categorised as Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes - population groups with GER lower than the national average in higher education - successfully completed their ODL courses.

Dr Pushkar (who uses just one name), the director of The International Centre Goa and a commentator on India's higher education sector, said students dropping out of online programmes because of a lack of motivation is a concern that must be addressed.

"Online education is a very lonely business and this motivation (required to see oneself through a course successfully) comes from your peers, not just your parents or family. How many will be able to build it within themselves?" he told ST.

"I therefore feel some combination of classroom and virtual learning can work possibly over the long term, but a fully virtual mode is neither a fair nor a practical proposal," Dr Pushkar added.

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