Is a degree from an open and distance learning (ODL) system at par with a degree awarded by a formal university? Apparently not, if one goes by a recent Calcutta High Court judgment expressing serious reservations about the quality of education imparted through distance mode.
The court’s observations contradict a Gazette notification of the Central government dated March 1, 1995, and subsequent circulars issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC), which state that an ODL degree is equivalent to a degree obtained through regular university education.
“Degrees/diplomas/certificates awarded by open universities in conformity with the UGC notification of degrees be treated as equivalent to corresponding awards of the traditional universities in the country,” states a UGC circular issued on October 14, 2013.
The Calcutta High Court, in the meanwhile, deciding a candidate’s eligibility for the post of a principal on the basis of his PhD obtained from an open university, recently stated, “We have no hesitation to hold that be it a graduation degree, a Master degree, Ph D degree or M Phil degree which is granted by an open university either through distance mode of education programme or through any informal education programme cannot be equated with the graduation degree, Master degree, PhD degree granted to a candidate by Formal Conventional Recognised Universities after conducting a conventional course on regular basis.”
Though concerned about the court’s observations, academicians and experts from the field of ODL programmes have accepted that the perception of the ODL system not being qualitatively at par with regular education is because of deteriorating quality and lack of strong regulatory measures.
Manoj Soni, vice-chancellor, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Open University, Ahmedabad, who is also chairman of the MHRD’s three-member committee reviewing the feasibility of the Distance Education Council of India draft bill, finds the HC observation “quite alarming,” adding that “It will disappoint and discourage students from joining the ODL system”.
“I agree that some fringe elements in the distance education sector have compromised with norms and indulged in unacceptable practices, but it doesn’t mean that the whole sector should be put in the dock. There are serious violations in the formal system of education as well. It’s due to this ODL system that those from an economically deprived background have been able to get good education,” says Soni.
Well-known scholar, Prof N R Madhava Menon, who chaired a committee on reforms in distance education and gave its report in 2012, says that in principle there should be no distinction between regular and open university degrees. “There is lack of credibility in the distance education system because all types of players have been allowed to play and no proper regulatory system is in place today. Delay in enacting the Distance Education Council of India draft bill, which has been envisaged as a strong regulator for the ODL system, is going against the interests of lakhs of students,” says Menon.
Experts say that despite UGC’s own notification barring state and private universities offering courses beyond their own geographical boundaries, majority of universities were flouting rules. “The situation has become so bad that now there is trust deficit among universities – they are not honouring each others’ degrees for admitting students in higher programmes,” says Swarj Basu, former director, Distance Education Council (DEC), an erstwhile regulator of the ODL system. He says the government should have woken up in 2009 when the Supreme Court in the matter of Annamalai University had asked if the alternative system was envisaged under the Open University Act in substitution of the formal system. The apex court had stated: “In our opinion, in the matter of ensuring the standard of education, it is not. The distinction between a formal system and informal system is in the mode and manner in which education is imparted.”