A reality check for higher education dreams

Ashok Thakur, S S Mantha write: The proposed academic bank of credits, multiple entry-exit options will require infrastructure, manpower and budget that the Indian education system simply does not possess

Imagine a student doing a physics course from Panjab University, mathematics from TIFR, chemistry from IISc, an astronomy course from Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences and a course in AI from IIIT Hyderabad, drop out for a year and still have a career in astrophysics — all enabled by a virtual online entity. Too good to be true? Well, all this could be a possibility when the UGC starts implementing its two recent regulations — the Academic Bank of Credits and Multiple Entry and Exit. The PM had also announced these some time ago.

The National Education Policy (NEP), released in July 2020, rightly observes that the education delivery system in India is too structured, rigid and expensive. Students tend to drop out because of its lack of relevance, its failing to sustain their interest or because of affordability. The two regulations could change all this by promoting flexibility of curriculum framework, interdisciplinarity and academic mobility for students across higher education institutions, with appropriate credit transfer mechanisms. Most importantly, they can facilitate students choosing their learning path to attain a degree, diploma or certification with multiple entry-multiple exit options. Above all, the regulations aim at student-centric learning, customised for each student’s strengths, needs, skills, and interests. The regulations are, therefore, being showcased as star recommendations of NEP and game-changers for higher education.

While it is difficult to fault it at a theoretical level, the gap between the perception on which the initiative is based and reality is perceptible. To begin with, can a young student of 15 or 16 meaningfully select the best courses or combination of courses to suit her aptitude or her future? Even if she can, she may not be able to tailor her degrees as she wishes, as the control over the nomenclature of the degree rests solely with the UGC. Besides, it does not make sense to issue the same degree to students following different curricula. Regarding flexibility in the choice of subjects, if 50 per cent of the curriculum must be carried out within the degree-granting institute, then there is actually little flexibility left for the student. A similar concept of a “Meta University” was attempted in 2012 that failed to take off despite a UGC regulation, primarily due to the silo mentality and ego hassles of the heads of institutions.

Multiple entry/exits for students to complete degrees at their pace with the flexibility to choose courses across disciplines is a great thought but difficult to implement. The National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQF) took almost a decade to come to fruition with nothing tangible to show for it. It has similar enabling provisions for vocational education. How are things going to be different this time? Besides, if a student chooses to drop a year or two into a degree programme, the issue of his employability remains unresolved. A similar argument had been used by the present dispensation while pulling down Delhi University’s Five-Year Undergraduate Programme unceremoniously in 2014. Interestingly, the tables have now been reversed with FYUP being incorporated lock, stock and barrel into the NEP.

If flexibility with quality were the tenets, why limit courses only to those available on SWAYAM, NPTEL, V-Lab, etc, for credit transfer and credit accumulation? One must recognise that quality is not restricted to government portals. Just as the jurisdiction of a university defeats the very purpose of offering quality education to anyone who wants it, limiting the number of students registering for a course in a certain university also defeats the purpose of accumulating credits. Also, why prevent credits from good foreign institutions from being recognised?

Without the use of technology to authenticate and store digital records in a distributed system, proving the authenticity of credits awarded by various institutions can be a nightmare. The academic bureaucracy in India is notorious and cannot be relied upon to implement such path-breaking changes. Getting a migration certificate from one university to another or simply getting transcripts of one’s own marks, even from an established university, can be onerous. Trusting our present system to handle the complicated issues of entry-exit and accumulation of credits is asking for the moon.

Student-centric learning customised for each student’s strengths comes at a cost. It implies huge budgetary allocations in terms of improving the teacher-student ratio from the present 1:30 to 1:5. The faculty will need to be reoriented to become guides and mentors, from just teachers. Besides improving record maintenance, the conduct of credible assessment, transfer of credits and award of degrees with similar quality levels across institutions will require substantial funds both for manpower as well as IT infrastructure. With the total central education budget falling constantly by 4.14 per cent in 2014-15, 3.4 per cent in 2019-20 and by 6 per cent in 2021-22, this seems to be a tall order. It is clear that unless the implementation of the new regulations results in the generation of surpluses, no institution will be willing to come forward and become a part of it.

For the objectives of NEP — “Curriculum and pedagogy will be transformed, rote learning minimised encouraging holistic development with 21st-century skills” — to succeed, great commitment will be required from every stakeholder, from the Centre and UGC to VCs, faculty and non-faculty staff. The Academic Bank of Credits and its accompanying regulations are perhaps not the solutions for all evil but the proposal does have some innovative ideas, including one on a fee structure based on credits earned. Better still would have been to try it on a pilot basis through the much-talked-about Virtual University, where universities and other institutions in India become collaborators, creating their own or sourcing content from SWAYAM, Coursera, EdX or Udemy and other similar providers. It is an idea whose time has come. In times to come, the level and quality of its implementation will be an indicator of the health of higher education in the country.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 9, 2021 under the title ‘The challenge of flexibility’. Thakur is former secretary to the Government of India, MHRD and Mantha is former chairman, AICTE

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