Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ignou's shut courses leave lakhs in the lurch

NEW DELHI: The Indira Gandhi National Open University, India's primary vehicle for taking higher education to the poorest, is today a case study in chaos. It has swung from furious expansion under the previous leadership to the other extreme, with the current dispensation randomly shutting down courses and initiatives, leaving lakhs of students in the lurch.

Such is the state of this critical institution that the vice-chancellor and a former registrar stand accused of perjury. A hike in tuition fees has coincided with a drop in student intake. As a result, thousands are being denied access to cheap higher education and skill development.

The roots of the crisis is said to have been during the tenure of previous vice-chancellor V N Rajasekharan Pillai (2006-11), when the university carried out massive expansion, far beyond its capacity. Pillai has since been booked by CBI for alleged corruption in some of those decisions.
But if Ignou needed a course correction, the response of the new leadership under V-C M Aslam has been excessive, although he claims to have wielded the axe on the basis of recommendations of a high powered committee.

In the last two years, it has shut down nearly 300 programmes and 250 community colleges, cancelled over 600 MoUs with various institutions, suspended courses through 29 partner institutions in 19 foreign countries, stopped most on-campus programmes, abruptly shut India's first sign language research and training centre, cancelled all programmes for the disabled, scrapped a convergence scheme run in partnership with regular colleges and shut down most chairs and all special centres in the Northeast.

As these decisions come under increasing scrutiny, top Ignou functionaries have been accused of selective presentation of facts to a parliamentary standing committee and the Delhi high court.

A high powered committee appointed to look into the working of the university is now being expanded to bring on board at least two more experts. A source told TOI that the three-member panel, headed by educationist N R Madhava Menon, is now set to look at new evidence and allegations.

Ignou V-C M Aslam told TOI that his decisions were based on recommendations of a high powered committee and the board of management, or grounded on strong legal advice. He also cited a Delhi high court order to justify the steps. He added that the aggressive expansion during his predecessor's tenure was "unjustified" and "a disaster".

However, TOI investigation shows crucial information was held back by the Ignou leadership while defending its decisions. For instance, Aslam's critics accuse him of not submitting two legal opinions before the high court and parliamentary committee that backed Ignou's expansion in 2009.

Opinions of then attorney general Goolam Vahanvati and additional solicitor general Mohan Parasaran were obtained in October 2009, before the university expanded into community colleges and on-campus programmes. Both legal officers supported the moves, saying 'open university' did not mean correspondence education alone. They said Ignou could use all means of imparting education to expand higher education.

The policy reversal began soon after Aslam took over. By the end of 2012, Ignou had cited a high power committee recommendation to shut all 253 community colleges where 1,42,321 students were enrolled. Aslam told TOI in a written statement that the committee had said the community college scheme must be "discontinued".

TOI has a copy of the committee report and it contradicts Aslam's assertion. "The scheme of community colleges fits well with the Ignou's mandate for skill development," the report states. It recommends some restructuring of these colleges to meet the aim of skill development, consistent with the National Skill Development Mission. Until then, it says, no new colleges must be added to the scheme.

Besides community colleges, Ignou has also scrapped most on-campus programmes. Aslam told TOI, "Ignou has neither the mandate to launch face-to-face programmes nor does it have the mandate to create centres/units for offering academic programmes." However, Ignou continues to run hospitality and hotel administration programmes through 53 institutes, defying its own logic that the varsity should not be involved in on-campus programmes.

The stand also contrasts with the legal opinion of both Vahanvati and Parasaran, as well as the Ignou Act. The Act says the university "may establish or maintain colleges, regional centres and study centres at such other places in India as it may deem fit."

Ignou's shutting spree hasn't spared programmes for the disabled. In recent months, it has shut down the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre, India's first such institute set up with funding from the Centre. Ignou claimed it didn't have land for further construction at its Maidan Garhi campus in Delhi. However, Delhi Pollution Control Committee documents show Ignou has another 100 acres where construction could have been carried out.

The list of axed programmes includes e-Gyankosh, through which Ignou offered resources online to learners, and a research and training assistant scheme under which young scholars were being helped in research leading to MPhil and PhD degrees.

Meanwhile, over 3,50,000 students, including over 2 lakh military personnel, await their certificates for courses they completed almost two years ago. The HRD ministry on June 24 ordered Ignou to issue the certificates, but they are yet to be given.

As a fallout of these decisions, Ignou faces over 2,000 cases in various high courts. An Ignou faculty has accused the V-C and the former registrar of perjury in securing Aslam's appointment.

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