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Miles to go

The rot in the distance education system runs deep

Written by M M Ansari | Published: July 31, 2012 12:40:47 am

It comes as no surprise that a former vice-chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and chairman of the distance education council (DEC) has been charge-sheeted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). According to reports,the VC allegedly granted approval to certain universities to offer distance education courses in violation of the norms,allowing them to make huge profits.

What is astonishing,however,is that a single person has been identified for trial and punishment. A large number of individuals and institutions are associated with the corrupt management of self-financing open and distance learning (ODL) institutions,which generate considerable surplus from the fees paid by poor learners.

Education and training undoubtedly have significant socioeconomic value. Fourteen mono-mode open universities and 220 dual-mode conventional universities are in the business of providing all types and levels of education. They have established teaching shops in almost every nook and corner of the country to cater to the needs of higher education aspirants. Together they offer thousands of programmes and enrol millions of students,largely from variously deprived groups.

Due to flexibility in the policy on admissions,conduct of contact classes,examinations and fee structure,these institutions attract a large number of students and earn huge profits because of the economies of scale. There is enough scope for making private gains at the cost of the poor.

Unfortunately,ineffective monitoring and evaluation of the quality of teaching means the educational attainments of students are very low. That is why ODL institutions produce so many unemployable graduates,dragging down the productivity of resources.

Regulatory bodies,mainly the University Grants Commission (UGC),the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the DEC-IGNOU,remain oblivious to the current practices of ODL institutions. Governments,both at the Centre and the states,are well aware of the commercial activities of such institutions. They have deliberately encouraged these institutions to widen the access to educational programmes,from elementary to higher education,just to minimise the burden of financing the conventional system of education.

It is an irony that education of the poor is largely self-financed whereas education of more affluent sections of society is heavily subsidised. In a research study entitled Economics of Distance Higher Education (1992),I raised three issues. First,the money paid by highly motivated distance learners,many of whom belonged to deprived sections of society,was utilised for purposes other than meeting the requirements of quality education. Second,the money collected from students of poor families was diverted to subsidise the education of students who were more well-off and belonged to the conventional system that was highly subsidised already. Finally,in many institutions,the tuition fee charged for different programmes was much higher than the per unit cost of education. It was concluded that the distance education system in the country is highly inequitable without being efficient in the delivery of educational services. In the two decades since the study was published,the cost and finance aspects of the education system has worsened due to the commercialisation of all types and levels of education. Rampant corruption in the functioning of the education system may be attributed to this.

Needless to say,corruption in the functioning of regulatory bodies like the Medical Council of India (MCI) and AICTE has already been exposed as senior officials from these bodies are either behind the bars or facing criminal charges. The malpractices in the functioning of DEC-IGNOU have also been highlighted in the recent revelations.

Against this backdrop,the Central government faces the challenge of weeding out corruption from the functioning of educational systems. It must also lay down a strong institutional foundation to increase the responsiveness of the education sector to the manpower requirements of the knowledge economy.

Several things need to be done. The ODL institutions should not be allowed to operate beyond their defined territorial jurisdiction and offer programmes that are commonly available at recognised institutions located near the learners. In case of overlapping jurisdiction,the government should issue necessary directions to clarify the rules of the game. Duplication of efforts,with ODL institutions offering common programmes,should be avoided. Teaching shops that are established without accreditation by a credible body should be closed. The policy of diverting funds collected from distance learners to further subsidise the education of regular students in dual mode universities should be stopped. Norms of quality assurance should be adhered to. In fact,the benefits of financial surplus should be shared and passed on to distance learners,who largely belong to underprivileged families. A thorough review of the academic and financial management of ODL institutions must be made so as to ensure equity and efficiency in the delivery of services.

The writer,a Centre-appointed interlocutor on J&K,is also former director,distance education council,IGNOU,express@expressindia.com

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