14 May Two Academic Programmes and UGC Guidelines
Two Academic Programmes and UGC Guidelines – Today Current Affairs
The University Grants Commission (UGC) of India has issued the “Guidelines for Pursuing Two Academic Programmes Simultaneously” in April 2022 to allow for “multiple pathways to learning” and earning degrees (UGC 2022). Under the new guidelines, two full-time academic programmes may be undertaken simultaneously in (i) regular modes, (ii) one in regular and another in open and distance learning ODL/open learning (OL), or (iii) up to two ODL/online programmes.
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The Rationale of the Guidelines
Against the background of these guidelines, a substantive question to answer is: “What happened in 2022 that compelled the UGC, taking a polar opposite view, to declare that two academic programmes can be pursued simultaneously in regular or ODL/OL or mixed mode?” Another question is “whether the UGC’s decision is contrary to the mandate of the maintenance of standards by the UGC and hence against the constitutional provision that directs the union to maintain standards in higher education institutions.” I would like to raise a third question: “Whether or not pursuing two academic degrees simultaneously results in devaluation of degree.” In my view, these are substantive questions. Directions of reform cannot be undertaken without reason in a hurry to implement the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020. If the UGC guidelines 2022 lead to the deterioration of the standards of an academic programme, this goes against the constitutional mandate of maintenance of standards by the union government. Further, any further devaluation of degrees on account of “degree mills” may create confusion in the labour market as well as internationally to judge the worth of a degree.
Rationale of pursuing two academic degrees simultaneously : The Hindu Analysis
Before I proceed to answer the three questions posed above, it is important to understand the rationale of pursuing two academic degrees. The UGC guidelines 2022 note that increasing demand–supply gap has made it necessary to promote ODL/OL modes “to meet the aspiration of students” (UGC 2022: 2). Besides, technology enables learners to study outside the formal setting of a classroom. Hence, flexibility to pursue an academic programme in a non-formal setting may be ensured to the learners. So far, there is nothing wrong in the argument that technology is used judiciously to enrich the learning experiences of students. However, the rationale is too supportive of ODL/OL modes of learning to meet the demand–supply gap in higher education rather than through the expansion of regular programmes of public higher education. The ODL/OL modes of learning may, in reality, be promoted by private providers giving a fillip to the commodification of higher education. Such a market-based process of expansion of higher education through ODL/OL modes may not only be against the objective of equity, it will rather lead to the decline in quality. Hence, the rationale given in the UGC guidelines is a weak argument in favor of pursuing two academic programmes simultaneously.
Practical Considerations : The Hindu Analysis
I will now return to the questions posed above, namely what led to the change in the mindset of the UGC to allow two academic programmes to be pursued by the students. First, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) has increased at a slow pace from 24.5% to 27.1% during the last five years from 2015–16 to 2019–20 at a compound annual growth rate of 2% (AISHE 2019–20). Projected GER in 2035 turns out to be 36% as opposed to the 50% target in the NEP 2020. It is likely that allowing two courses may increase the prospects of reaching the target. Second, the UGC has been trying hard in recent years to leverage technology to increase access to higher education. Students may be lured to enroll in online courses while pursuing a regular degree programme. This would obviate the necessity to meet the expansion through public-funded institutions in the regular mode. Third, the UGC has not shown its concern to the structural issues facing higher education. For example, extreme shortage of teachers and infrastructure continues to exist as a major problem. Instead, the UGC has been shifting its strategy through outcome-based education, choice-based credit system, accreditation, ranking, flexibility in learning strategies, national credit transfer enabling students to move from one institution to another, allowing dual degree and joint degree with foreign universities, etc. The Hindu Analysis
This leads to the probing of the second question. Is a choice-centric approach for the learners quality-enhancing? We need to differentiate between rational choice and real choice. Rational choice is an ex ante choice made by the learner over various alternatives, and given the constraints, an optimal choice yields maximum satisfaction. For example, pursuing one regular degree, one ODL, two regular degrees, one regular and one ODL, etc, may be the alternatives available to the learner. Depending upon the constraints relating to the costs in relation to income and, perhaps, constraints relating to the number of hours of learning, a rational learner might choose an option that maximizes their satisfaction. Quality in this rational paradigm is the choice that yields maximum satisfaction.
However, rational choice should not be mistaken to be a real choice. In the real world, such choices may not be available. For example, a regular degree in a public-funded institution may be available to the learner with a host of alternatives of cheap and low-quality distance education courses by various providers, which the learner may not like to pursue. In an alternative scenario, a learner may even be lured to take up two cheap, low-quality courses in order to gain two degrees just for the sake of it. In the real-world scenario, choice-making is not rational. It is guided by different motives, preferences, and constraints. Granting more choices may sometimes be dangerous. Policy design, in all such cases, should be guided by practical rationality.
Do the UGC guidelines 2022 mean that a student could pursue one more degree simultaneously by sacrificing the quality benchmark of the first one? Does it not go against the quality benchmark set by the UGC in credit terms? The argument may be given that students vary in abilities—some may be fast learners whereas other students may be slow learners. Hence, a fast learner may complete the course requirement of 1,080 hours in less time, say, 700 or 800 hours. The surplus time may be used by the fast learner in pursuing another degree. However, another degree may also require 1,080 hours in a semester. In that case, a fast learner may have to work for extra hours, otherwise they may not be able to meet the quality benchmark for another degree programme. Working for extra hours for fast learners may occur at the cost of their mental and physical health. Hence, from this point of view, taking up two degrees and meeting the quality benchmark of credit by the UGC is not justified. However, add-on courses for skill development may be pursued by the learner, and there is no restriction on certificate or diploma courses if it adds value to the learner’s education. Pursuing two regular degrees simultaneously, however, goes against the quality benchmark set by the UGC. Any such guidelines have serious implications as it directly violates the constitutional obligation of the union government to maintain the standards of higher education. The Hindu Analysis
There is also a practical consideration of meeting the 75% attendance requirement for pursuing an academic programme in the regular mode. If a student enrolls for another regular programme, then the 75% attendance requirement will have to be met. How is this possible unless two institutions are in close proximity and the time table of both do not overlap with each other? It is possible if another degree programme is through the ODL/OL mode. Hence, for all practical purposes, UGC guidelines 2022 shall promote ODL/OL programmes.
I now come to the third question of the devaluation of degrees when two academic programmes are pursued simultaneously. “Degree or Diploma Mill” is a term that refers to a degree or transcript that is sold by legitimate or illegitimate providers of education through fraudulent practices. A degree can be managed without putting in the hard work necessary to complete an academic programme. The attendance, assignments, and even the examination can be managed by the institution at a hefty price to be paid by the student to the providers of education. Basically, the degree is manufactured and sold in a market. In the United States (US), degree mills became prominent in different time periods when the mushrooming of institutions or high demand for a programme was created. In India, our memory has not faded when the mushrooming of private universities in Chhattisgarh became a source of degree mills. The Supreme Court declared in 2005 the Chhattisgarh Private Universities (Establishment and Operation) Act as unconstitutional so that such degree mills could be controlled. Whenever the demand for BEd courses increased in the past, many degree mills became operative, and recently, degree scams have also been reported. Important personalities and even professors are caught with fake degrees.
The Danger of Substandard Degrees : The Hindu Analysis
The UGC, in a letter dated 7 October 2020, has released a list of 24 fake universities operating in India. The phenomenon of degree mills is present in many colleges, which admit tens of thousands of students and without completing the teaching–learning process, degrees are awarded to lakhs of students. There are numerous instances where fake degrees were sold in India and students seeking admission in the US, Singapore, and Malaysia or seeking jobs in foreign countries were asked to prove the genuineness of their degrees. In such a vulnerable scenario, it will not be surprising that the UGC guidelines 2022 may lead to the rise of degree mills, which will add to the devaluation of degrees. Judith S Eaton and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic (2008) note that “Colleges and universities are harmed because their legitimate efforts to provide quality higher education are undermined.” It is important to note that ODL/OL providers of higher education in India are hardly accredited, except for the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). There are recognised providers of ODL/OL by the Distance Education Council. However, students may easily be cheated by unrecognized providers in pursuing two degrees. The job market will be skeptical of degrees and higher education institutions will not be able to judge the worth of such degrees that were simultaneously pursued.
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The UGC guidelines 2022 can become a reality only after it is approved by different academic bodies of the university. I hope that responsible academic bodies will consider the potential threats of degree devaluation while assessing these guidelines. The academia will be sensitive to the benchmark determined by the UGC of completing 1,080 hours of student engagement in a semester. They will be sensitive to the academic burden imposed on students in pursuing two degrees. Hopefully, they will be sensitive to the physical and mental health of students due to the exertion of passing out from two simultaneous courses. Learners will be lured to complete two courses, say post-graduation along with BEd, in two years in a hurry to get a job. However, degree devaluation caused by the UGC guidelines 2022 will not help fetch a job or pursue higher studies in India or abroad as they will be looked at with suspicion.
Quality education demands a deep engagement of students with teachers, journal articles, books and a supportive environment of peer interaction and critical debates. The public-funded university needs to be supported by the state for quality education as high-quality human resources are capable of contributing to nation-building. The purpose of this article was to create more discussions in academia so that a rational decision is taken within universities in the interests of students at large.