The Open Distance Learning (ODL) system was introduced in India to undo the legacy of restrictive education by extending its reach socially as well as geographically—access with equity and socio-economically relevant curricula were the cherished goals. This urge found expression in the words of the then Prime Minister, who inaugurated IGNOU on November 19, 1985. He said, “Our endeavour is that in India, the poorest, the most backward children receive the best possible education, and in this direction today, we are here to take a step forward. This Open University will extend educational opportunities to all the corners of the country.”
I was a part of IGNOU during its formative years, and remember how we began 1987 with a modest intake of about 4,500 students. Today with a cumulative strength of over 3 million students, it is said to be a mega university—but is the size of the student body the ultimate measure of its success! There are other subtler measures that are easily lost sight of. As a provider of higher education nationwide, IGNOU had, over a period of time, established a credible record of performance in the development and delivery of academic programmes through the distance mode including student support services and the training of the personnel.
IGNOU: Once a visible player
IGNOU was a visible player on the international stage. Apart from the commitment, dedication and hard work of one and all, part of that success was due to the rigorous observance of the prescribed processes within the set structures—the structures were developed meticulously and the processes cultivated diligently, as we kept identifying and overhauling our weaknesses continuously along with our growth.
Contrary to this approach of nursing and promoting the ODL principles and methods accommodating self-correction routinely, there have been occasional lapses here and there, but nothing like some of the initiatives, as I understand, taken during 2006-2011, which not only unsettled the rhythm of university's orderly growth and development but also created a crisis of identity among the various cadres of staff. Apart from diluting and eliminating the routine processes, the more visible of these initiatives were i) signing of hundreds of MOU's with a large number of private organisations, which invariably disregarded the IGNOU Act, Statutes and Ordinances, and ii) adoption of the full-time campus-based teaching.
These MOU's had given rise to a large number of institutions across the country that were offering programs of all hues without the necessary approvals from the University's statutory bodies. And yet were assured of IGNOU stamping the award of degrees and certificates. They were allowed to offer all sorts of programmes to facilitate earning huge amounts of money. Similarly, under the Community College Scheme, a large number of private institutions were allowed to offer all sorts of programmes with absolute disregard of IGNOU norms, as IGNOU was not involved in their a) admission process, b) delivery of education or c) conducting examinations; yet IGNOU would issue all sorts of certificates and credentials.
Where were the watchdogs?
Was this a National Institution functioning in the interests of the country or some self-centred individuals? Where were the watchdogs? This is not what IGNOU was created for, nor was it ODL for access and equity. It appears to be the Indian version of human avarice reported recently (COL Weekly News Service—May 25, 2015) regarding how some people misuse the ODL system. Contrary to the glistening media reports about their ODL operations, “…..on closer examination, this picture shimmers like a mirage. The news reports are fabricated. The professors are paid, actors. The university campuses exist only as stock photos on computer servers. The degrees have no true accreditation”. The question again is ‘where were the watchdogs then?'
As for the third initiative mentioned above, the mandate of the University stated clearly in the preamble of the IGNOU Act 1985 is “introduction and promotion of open university and distance education systems in the educational pattern of the country and the coordination and determination of standards in such systems”. There couldn't be a more serious lapse than ignoring this mandate in the face of persisting weaknesses—backlog in the distribution of study materials, tardy handling of assignment responses or poor student support services—still plaguing the system. The nation had turned a blind eye to the goings-on!
The end of 2011 marked a change. A new Vice-Chancellor was given charge of the IGNOU affairs. I have had occasions to observe the functioning of this person, who found himself entangled in the mesh of aforesaid disastrous mismatch between the blind and large scale expansion of the University operations and the need for mandatory conformity with the governing doctrines enshrined in the IGNOU Act, the Statutes and Ordinances of the University. No sagacious Vice-Chancellor would handle the said mismatch on his own. The situation was brought to the notice of IGNOU's Board of Management, which viewed the developments with deep concern and referred the matter to a High Power Committee, which was to review the role of IGNOU as mandated, examine the entire gamut of issues, evaluate the then-existing trade-off between quality and quantity, and make appropriate recommendations within the framework of the IGNOU Act, 1985.
In its report, it is well known, the High Power Committee categorically stated that the mandate of the University as articulated in the preamble to the Act “….do not envisage IGNOU entering the field of formal classroom-based education either to supplement the efforts of or to compete with, traditional universities offering formal education.” It further observed that “at any rate, the rapid expansion in the last five years has posed several problems and challenges. Campus-based full-time education is not an option for IGNOU, as it is not mandated to adopt that mode of education; and, if IGNOU has to ensure the quality of its provision, it has to restore the primacy of its processes and procedures that lend authenticity and credibility to its programmes and services.” But was the Report accepted for implementation?
I understand that the report of the High Power Committee was tabled in the 113th Meeting of IGNOU's Board of Management, when the Board observed that the mandate of the University was to offer its programmes/courses through the ODL mode only and therefore, IGNOU needed to focus on Distance Education only. The Board further observed that “in order to ensure that the University is not reduced to a Degree/Diploma/Certificate distributing institution, it is necessary that the issues raised in the Report are given proper attention.” All the subsequent steps to bring IGNOU back onto its well-defined tract seem to have been taken on the basis of the recommendations made by the High Power Committee and as approved by IGNOU's Board of Management. Though redeeming for IGNOU, these steps must have bruised the vested interests, who as a rule are blind to every harm they bring to their nation, but their interests.
I understand that no sooner was the decision of the Board of Management (to keep the face-to-face full-time teaching programmes being offered under various schemes in abeyance) implemented than a number of institutions, which had MOUs and other deals with the University, challenged it. Given the IGNOU Act 1985, every court would rule the above mentioned so did Delhi High Court while dealing with 9 writ petitions in July 2013 and held that “MOUs/Agreements/Arrangements entered into by the University with the petitioners to be illegal, being ultra vires to the provisions of IGNOU Act.”
One wonders why a badly wronged institution (nay, a wronged nation), was not allowed to be made functional. Why its operations were not allowed to get streamlined? Why are reformative steps bulldozed?
I have heard people questioning the viability of the decisions taken by an acting Vice-Chancellor. Acting or otherwise, a Vice-Chancellor apprises the Board of Management about the issues that need to be addressed and then implements the decisions reached by the Board, which does not take the epithet ‘acting'. The IGNOU Board of Management exercises powers vested in it by the IGNOU Act 1985. Why punish the Vice-Chancellor.?
As an observer who served IGNOU from its very beginning and was responsible along with others to lay its academic foundations, I feel distressed to see the treatment being meted out to this mega university. Its potential to play a crucial role in changing the development scenario of this country is being eroded—to what purpose, one wonders! After the gross lapses of the five years mentioned above, which not a soul seems to have bothered about, the subsequent three years showed IGNOU was beginning to re-emerge as an institution that has the potential to reach the unreached and the disadvantaged groups of our society.
Re-imagining IGNOU: Beyond a certificate distributing institution
It was being re-galvanized i) to streamline its operations— besides streamlining the distribution process, the backlog of lakhs of packs (study materials), delays in announcing results were eliminated and appropriate student services being facilitated; ii) to enter professional domains, such as teacher training, at a large scale; iii) to penetrate remote locations like tribal and backward areas with purposeful learning packages promising employment and/or social development; and iv) to address social concerns—expansion of services for Jail inmates, for example.
Further, in response to the Prime Minister's call for ‘Skilling India', IGNOU had started working on its flagship undergraduate programme (B.A. /B.Com) to blend its curriculum with skill-based components, so that along with their graduation, the graduates may earn certification in skills and competencies to enhance their employability. This is what IGNOU should have been working for, and this is what the permanent Vice-Chancellor was striving for after taking over in March 2013.
I feel greatly disturbed that instead of recognising and encouraging the above initiatives the Vice-Chancellor, was being subjected to humiliation by initiating an inquiry said to aim at the functioning of IGNOU, but the Vice-Chancellor was put on forced leave for about three years. It is not my purpose to vouch for his sincerity, commitment and honesty. But it is unprecedented that a Vice-Chancellor is forced to be on leave, particularly when there are no financial irregularities or cases of nepotism. He was made to complete his remaining tenure on forced leave, which is unprecedented. He seems to have been singled out for this treatment, as those who actually violated the IGNOU Act and the related Statutes have been allowed to get away scot-free.
They need to be identified and brought to book—witch-hunting is not the solution. Or, maybe, this forced leave had some other purpose not discernible to the common eye. Whatever the case, both the University and the ODL system were damaged beyond measure. The cumulative effect of such retrograde steps over time has brought in courts and bureaucrats to impose limitations on the reach and potential of the ODL system in India. With this uncertainty and lack of interest shown towards the apex OLD institution in India, it seems that OLD is forced to trace a course antithetical to the aspirations of those who introduced it and the purposes it was envisioned to serve.
Need of the hour: A permanent Vice Chancellor for IGNOU
Leadership plays an important role in the growth of an institution. IGNOU has been forced to be administered by ad-hoc arrangements for the last three years. Nobody seems to be bothered about how much IGNOU and consequently its students are suffering in absence of a permanent Vice-Chancellor. At the moment, IGNOU is like a significantly laden rudderless vessel that is tossing on rough and treacherous waves. The rudder needs to be installed forthwith, lest our progeny should bemoan our lack of concern and vision. Hope that good sense will prevail and IGNOU will have a permanent Vice-Chancellor soon who will be allowed to function as per IGNOU Act and Statutes without any further bureaucratic or political interferences.
The author, Prof. B.N. Koul is a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor of IGNOU, served as the Founder Director, Distance Education Division, IGNOU. He is one of the Honorary Fellows of the Commonwealth of Learning, Canada. Views are personal.
Editor's note for transparency: The main photo of this article has been changed on June 5, 2021.