January 13 2022:Almost a year after its intent was first confirmed in the Union Budget of 2022-2023, the government appears to be moving to translate word into deed, and to set up a National Digital University in time for the 2023-24 academic year.
In a brainstorming webinar within days of the budget announcement, where academics and government officials charged with higher education participated, the aim of the Digital University was spelt out: ‘Making world-class higher education accessible to all’. One thing was made clear the University Grants Commission would function as an enabler not a watchdog.
In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha, in April 2022, the Minister of State for Education, Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh provided some more details of the government’s thinking on the subject:
The Digital University would provide students access to “personalised learning experience at their doorsteps.” The Department of Higher Education, in consultation with University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and other stakeholders were said to have initiated the process to ensure the early start of this digital university
While addressing a Rozgar Mela in Odisha in September 2022, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan confirmed that the Digital University would be up and running from the next academic year and he further defined what a digital university was, an institution “where education, exam, certificate and all related components will be provided digitally to students.
In recent days, UGC Chairman Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar in the course of multiple media interactions, has filled in the details of how the Digital University would differ from existing higher education options:
Hub and spoke model
The concept was a networked hub-spoke model, with the Digital University at the hub and universities and higher educational institutions to collaborate as a network of spokes. All government-funded institutions – IITs, NITs, IIITs and Central Universities – would be part of the network. Including foreign educational institutions is also on the radar.
The Digital University will allow students to register for multiple courses from different institutions if they so choose. They can accumulate credits from different institutes and redeem those credits to get a certificate, diploma, or a degree. The student will be awarded the degree by the university where he or she has earned 50 percent of the credits. But if the credits are more thinly spread, the Digital University will award the degree.
Another plus point being mooted is that there would be no quota of seats – any number of students can join -- based on passing the qualifying exam, with no entrance test.
A useful tutorial on the aims and objectives of NDU has been presented as a blog by the 'College Vidya' portal and can be found here. However the section on existing digital universities, may be misleading – as we have explained later in this report
Prof. Jagadesh Kumar explained some of these concepts of a National Digital University in this Prasar Bharati interview. He suggested that the NDU could even award postgraduate degrees and doctorates.
These are all radical departures from current practice and some educationists have expressed doubts about the workability of the idea: How can standards be enforced if students are allowed to mix-n-match courses? If student intake is unlimited, the teaching may need to be online. Will this not devalue those still earning degrees and diplomas the old-fashioned way by attending multiple academic semesters at the same institution?|
But the idea has received unqualified support from some quarters. Mayank Kumar, Chairman of the India Edtech Consortium (IEC), a self-regulatory body created under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), has welcomed the formation of the National Digital University adding: “It will bolster the growth and adoption of online higher education across Indian households and will co-exist with Indian ed-techs to further future-proof our youth.” He applauds the idea of an Academic Bank of Credits (ABC) that allows students to accumulate credits and then use them as they go for later upskilling.
Drawing an analogy with the way India’s Universal Payments Interface has transformed the digital payments system, he suggests: “NDU could be India’s next UPI moment making quality education more accessible and flexible…”
But at this stage there is insufficient clarity about the exact mechanism that the government has planned to deliver on the promise of an NDU: It would appear from the government announcement -- “all components” would be “delivered digitally” -- that NDU is seen as a clearing house for online learning with no teaching campuses.
Prof. Jagadesh Kumar seems to suggest the same thing when he is quoted (in the Prasar Bharati interview) saying the NDU would be restricted to courses that do not require lab or practical work.
Listening to Prime Minister Modi’s opening remarks at that first brainstorming session on digital universities in February 2022, it is clear that the government sees this as a way to bridge the enormous gap in skills that looms ahead for India as it tries to aggressively carve out its share of the market in what is broadly called Industry 4.0 – the fourth digitally driven, AI-fuelled industrial revolution that the world has already entered. This is not just a mechanism to increase the number of graduates and PhD holders.
A National Digital University appears to be a radical but calibrated vision to sharply grow the size of a certified and skilled workforce overcoming current logjams caused by limited seats in higher educational institutions especially in the professional side and the consequent unhealthy, debilitating spiral of goofed-up entrance tests and exploitive coaching classes.
And this is tacit admission of the failure to achieve the skilling objectives, of past initiatives like the SWAYAM MOOC courses and the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), that a piece in Swarajya highlighted even a year ago. It required a sharp and long over-due course correction.
The National Digital University will hopefully be just that.
For related story on Kerala's own digital university, see Image of the Day
This article has appeared in Swarajya