A soldier with decades of service in the armed forces would retire today to find a civilian world that has changed beyond recognition – and is a lot costlier to live in. 60,000 personnel retire from the armed forces every year, fighting for pensions, jobs and stability in the cut throat civilian job market. Being without a degree in a year being called ‘the graveyard of jobs’ can be daunting.
It’s the kind of situation that the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) was set up for. In 2009, the Open University stepped in with a Distance-Learning programme, that soldiers could work towards during their service to attain a certificate, diploma and Bachelor’s degrees in arts, commerce, science and business administration.
As with many of IGNOU’s projects, the outcome was a mixture of immense potential and insufficient execution. By 2015, roughly 30% of the Indian Army had signed up for courses – with 300,000 of them unsure if they would get a certificate at all, thanks to a sudden change of plans by the university. It took an intervention by the then Human Resources and Development minister Smriti Irani to get the degrees and mark sheets issued.
Hiccups aside, the army men should be on their way to a slightly more stable future now. With 3.5 million students, IGNOU is the world’s largest university by enrollment. Are they ready to take on the future – with fewer hiccups?
Immense reachIn the archipelago of Seychelles, 1500 kilometres east of Africa and more than 4000 kilometres from Delhi, IGNOU keeps a small centre at Mahe– offering distance learning courses and study material.
IGNOU has long had its eye on becoming an international force in education – with a focus on the global South. Six out of ten of the world’s largest universities by enrolment are based in South Asia, and many are Open Universities. IGNOU alone has 36,000 students enrolled from 35 countries across the world.
The open format is what makes these universities so popular – giving students the flexibility to study from their homes, writing exams at local centres spread out across the world. It attracts students whose academic journeys would have otherwise ended – due to work, geographical problems or other commitments.
Says Indira Mani, a skill development executive and teacher who did her Masters of Arts (MA) in English from IGNOU:
This is the future. It’s not always possible for everyone to go and attend a class, or go to a college, or schools.
Time is of the essence. What was once called India’s demographic dividend – more than half of the population being below the age of 26 – is increasingly being called a demographic time-bomb. Under-employment, skilling and education risks wasting the world’s youngest and largest workforce. The demand is for skilled jobs, but only 7.5 percent of students in the 17-23 age-group have a higher education,according to IGNOU.
With many in India unable to afford the time or resources for a full time education, distance learning, or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), become their only avenues for further study. IGNOU has made its first inroads into starting MOOCS, but the government seems more keen on Swayam – a platform set up by the Human Resources Department, Microsoft and the All India Council of Technical Education. IGNOU is a national coordinator for its diplomas and certificates.
ChallengesWith millions of students, its own TV station, FM radio and even a satellite Earth Station to help broadcast these, IGNOU seems placed at the threshold of an education revolution.
The challenges facing it are high drop-out rates. In 2007, more than 90 percent of applicants to the BA programme failed to graduate. IGNOU’s own studies from the time show up to 94% dropped out or failed. Students say the study centres were too distant from their home, according to a 2006 study by IGNOU.
This matches international trends – studies have found distance learning to have twice the dropout rate as traditional courses. MOOCS are no better – only six percent of registrants for Harvard’s open online courses earn a certificate.
However, IGNOU’s own cancellation rate is also a concern. In 2014, over 300 programmes were cancelled by the university, and over 600 Memorandums of Understanding with other institutions were terminated. IGNOU claimed this was done on the basis of a high-powered committee (recommendations) – but why would a committee advocate a university to break its word?
IGNOU’s overseas programmes are also controversial – in 2015, the Saudi government denied jobs to aspirants with IGNOU degrees, calling them invalid. Courses are popular amongst the diaspora in the Middle East, where women are often homebound and unable to pursue a full-time education.
Another challenge is the level of cheating and plagiarism among IGNOU students – which demands further investigation. Some websites promise ‘solved IGNOU question sheets’ – that can even be handwritten to meet IGNOU’s assignment requirements. Whether assignments remain a trustable form of assessment is a question for the future.
The FutureIGNOU is still making the digital transition for its distance learning programmes– though it claims to have the largest open access library, students mostly rely on printed material available at the study centres. As Prof. Indira explains, ‘It’s a massive online system, and IGNOU is a massive Offline System,’ and students often prefer the print medium.
When they’re not learning to make the digital shift themselves, they train India’s newest digital natives. Following demonetization, the government tasked them with spreading digital literacy – a mission that took IGNOU volunteers to rural areas across the country.
The biggest challenge to employment in the coming decades will be automation. Countries like Singapore have already approved ‘learning accounts’ for each of its citizens – giving them some credits to take MOOCS with. In a recent article, the Economist calls for adult learning in order to balance against the threat of massive inequalities triggered by an automation revolution.
IGNOU is the best-placed institution in India to facilitate adult learning. Its reach gives it access to thousands who are or have been outside of the formal education system. But if India’s education system is to have the shake-up it needs to enact societal change, IGNOU will need to change as well.
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