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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

No Technical Degree Programs through Distance Education

Last week, Supreme Court has given a judgment which says that no educational institution can offer degrees in technical subjects without specific approvals from regulatory bodies, namely, UGC and AICTE. It has also suspended engineering degrees obtained through distance education of batches between 2001 and 2005 from 4 institutions. These students now have to give tests in both theory and practicals within the next 8 months and pass those tests, without which their degrees will be cancelled. And those admitted after 2005 will have no recourse to such a test. Their degrees from the same four institutions will be cancelled.

One can find media reports here: LivelawScroll.inTimes of India, and LiveMint.

I read the entire 118 page judgment, and frankly, found it rather confusing, and at times, a bit overreaching.

Is it really fair to ask students who received their degrees 10 years ago to give a test again in all the subjects. A lot of what you study at college is not meant to be remembered after a while. It is supposed to broaden your horizons, and you can apply certain learning from such courses in your life. A test at the end of the semester is supposed to ensure that you have gained a fair amount of understanding at that time, in the hope that some of it would be internalized in your education. But remembering all that to pass the test after 10 years is certainly asking for too much. Now, if AICTE prepares a test at the level of what a decent university will do, and ask students to pass 45-50 such tests in less than 45-50 days (of course, after a preparatory period of 6 months), only rare students would pass such tests. If AICTE were to prepare a test at the level of what a poor quality university would do (and there are many of them in our country), or better still, just ask them to pass a single exam like GATE, AICTE would be admitting its failure in regulating engineering education in the country, and telling the whole world that that is the level at which Indian education system operates.

But not permitting even this relief to post-2005 students is a bit strange. Is it the argument that admissions till 2005 were in confused zone. But after 2005, there was complete regulatory clarity that they were not supposed to admit students, and they still did. First of all, SC is admitting in its judgment that these institutions had indeed some approvals from some regulatory bodies (which turned out to be illegal), and they had stay orders from High Court. So the institutions were in confused zone even post 2005. So either you say that the distance programs were illegal throughout or you say that there were some confusions. This division into two time zones is not sufficiently clear. And in any case, should we consider confusion of institutions or confusion of students. Are we saying that students till 2005 were genuinely confused about the legality of the programs, but post 2005, they should have known better. I am not convinced.

The judgment is also reiterating a typical Indian mindset - that degrees are more important than knowledge. After 10 years, their continuation in jobs should be based on their performance and not based on their degrees (unless it was clear that they cheated to get their degrees, in which case, they are being punished for violating the law and not because of poor quality of education). As far as whether the employer must give them benefit of the degree, the court could have ruled that employers should do the testing on their own to figure out whether they deserve those benefits, instead of AICTE doing such a testing.

To draw a fine line between deemed to-be universities who continue to offer programs in disciplines which they had at the time of such a notification, and deemed to-be universities who offer programs in new disciplines (in which apparently they have no expertise) was completely unnecessary, and frankly reflect the lack of understanding of how educational institutions are supposed to work.

The reason why universities are allowed freedom to decide what new disciplines they can get into is that universities are very conscious of their reputation and prestige. If they are excellent in one discipline and they are trying to expand into another discipline, they will make sure that they are excellent in the other discipline too. SC repeatedly pointed out that at least three institutions were granted deemed to be university status for their quality in certain subjects other than engineering, and hence somehow starting engineering discipline was bad in law. Come on. Is it anyone's case that these three institutions are excellent in those disciplines to begin with. If you accept their quality in arts and whatever else, you better accept their quality in engineering also. They too have maintained their reputation by starting new programs, whatever that reputation was.

SC finds it interesting and indeed disturbing that a college affiliated to a university which as per its act have certain restrictions in operations once becomes a university itself will not have any restrictions which the initial affiliating university had. Frankly, I don't find this disturbing at all. If the promoters of the original university (which is typically a state government) want to free the university of those restrictions, they can do so any time through a change in the Act. That they do not wish to remove those restrictions can not be the reason for maintaining those restrictions to this newly minted deemed to be university. And this logic has been used to put deemed to be universities back into the regulatory control of AICTE, which is so sad, given the past record of AICTE in maintaining the standards of engineering education in the country. The judgment has essentially said that best quality institutions like BITS Pilani will now have to seek approvals of a poor quality institution called AICTE for many things.

I am not at all suggesting that the distance programs offered by these four institutions were great or even acceptable. I am only suggesting that LOTS of academic programs offered by LOTS of universities, including government universities, are very poor quality. Hence reference to quality of education in a judgment is unfortunate. Either the judgment is based purely on the applicability of law, or all poor quality programs must be closed. And if the judgment is based purely on the applicability of law, there should not be any reference to extraneous issues like quality. References to quality give an indication that judgment was influenced by concern for quality and a strict interpretation of law may or may not have happened.

The Supreme Court has thrown a bombshell which was not even a question in the case. It has decided that no deemed-to-be-university can use the term "university" in its name. What happens to so many institutions which use the term "university" in their name. Are they going to change their branding overnight (or within a month). Will it not affect their programs, admission process, attracting faculty and everything else. Just like some relief has been provided to students admitted in 4-5 years, shouldn't some relief be provided to those institutions who are using the term "university."

SC mentions that engineering education requires practical training and use of labs and that is why distance education cannot be allowed for engineering degrees. Almost the entire engineering education in the country is without practical training and use of labs. That is why the graduates are unemployable. As I have often said in many blogs, I always ask each MTech admission aspirant whether they have written even a 100 line program, and the answer in most cases is that they haven't. And remember, I only interview students from good institutions. I do hope SC will find a way to close most engineering education in India by quoting this judgment. (Don't tell me that labs are part of curriculum, they were part of curriculum of these 4 institutions also. The question is whether these universities even had the infrastructure in their study centers to conduct those labs. And the question is whether colleges who do have these labs, ever conduct lab work.)

Now, the next level questions will be, what is a distance education program. From the definition of distance education, MOOCs are certainly distance education. If a university offers a program in which students can get upto 50% credit from MOOCs, is that distance education. As per Washington Accord that India is signatory to, we are expected to recognize degrees granted by accredited institutions of other signatories of the accord. And some of these institutions have started offering a program based on MOOCs. Can a university in India transfer those credits, if not allow MOOCs directly under its banner.

On a lighter note, someone famously said that distance education starts from the 3rd row of a lecture hall. Should we ban large classes.


sumunthra said...

An excellent and straight forward writing. Great analysis.

sumunthra said...

It is true that high quality institutions like IIIT Delhi, seeing moocs or courseera ( distance education) as an opportunity to students to expand their horizon by allowing students to credit them and get benefit, other institutions starting worth less distance programs just to raise their incomes wrt their brand name.

Great article Prof.Dheeraj.

Shan said...


I am also a Victim. I passed in 2003-2007 batch.
And I am in Job from 2007. Now SC is saying to appear on exam.

As per RTI JRN Rajastah Vidyapeeth having authority for distance mode till 2005.
So as per this degree should be valid who enrolled between 2001-2005.

How i will qualify exam. After failing disqualifying exam i will loss my job.
Who will care my family.....