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What is a digital university, how Modi govt plans to set it up, and what are the challenges

PM Modi asked stakeholders to speed up process in webinar Monday. Plan is to get universities to come together to form digital system that enrols students as single unit.

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New Delhi: The Ministry of Education and various stakeholders are working to set up the ‘digital university’, announced in the 2022 Union Budget, by August this year. 

Still at a nascent stage, the idea has the support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a webinar Monday morning, he asked the stakeholders involved to speed up the process of setting up the university, adding that it will “solve the problem of seats”. 

The government’s plan is to get various universities to come together and form a digital university, which can then enrol students as a single unit. The university will offer the whole gamut of qualifications — certificate programmes, diplomas, degrees. 

A panel discussion that followed the PM’s address, comprising high-level officials, heads of educational institutions and representatives of NGOs, identified both opportunities and challenges that a digital university will present. 

As proposed by the University Grants Commission (UGC), there won’t be any limit on the number of seats, with anyone who has passed class 12 able to enrol —  a measure that’s meant to open up opportunities and help boost India’s degree enrolment figures for 18-23-year-olds to a target of 50 per cent in the next 15 years. 

On the other hand, some of the challenges include stable digital connectivity, availability of devices, the attention span of students and the delivery style of online content.

Also read: Edtech created over 75,000 jobs in 5 yrs, cut Covid job crisis, says its self-regulatory body

Panel discussion

Participants in the two-and-a-half-hour discussion included Union higher education secretary K. Sanjay Murthy, UGC chairman M. Jagadesh Kumar, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) chairman Anil Sahasrabudhe, IIT Madras director Professor V. Kamakoti, and Swati A. Piramal, vice chairperson of the NGO Piramal Group, among others.

The government has decided on a timeline of the next six months to a year to act on suggestions that came up during the webinar.

During the discussion, the UGC proposed that there would be no upper cap on the number of seats and number of online programmes offered at the digital university. Anyone who has passed class 12 would be eligible for admission.

“The current admission system at universities is that of elimination…many good students are not able to get admission in the college of their choice because of how much they have scored in class 12. With [a] digital university, we will be able to solve that issue…anyone who has passed Class 12 will be able to seek admission in the course of their choice,” Jagadesh Kumar said during the discussion. 

He added that the commission is working on adding a clause about collaboration with edtech companies. “Higher education institutions will be able to collaborate with edutech companies to offer programmes to students through their platform. We are working on making this a part of the regulation,” he added. 

The university is to be governed by its own set of regulations, which will decide which institutions can be part of the digital system, and what courses can they offer, among other things. 

According to a presentation shared at the end of the discussion, a copy of which has been seen by ThePrint, the UGC will come up with a regulatory framework for digital university within the next two months. 

The government has also sought the support of NGOs such as the Piramal Foundation that have worked for education on the ground, to learn from their experience and implement the policy. 

Improving the enrolment ratio

The idea behind a digital university is to take the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), which represents the percentage of the population in the 18-23 age group that attends college, to 50 per cent in the next 15 years. 

The current GER in India is nearly 27 per cent according to the latest All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE). 

Data from the AISHE report 2019-20 and the U-DISE — the Unified District Information System for Education, a database about schools maintained by the government —  report of the same year, presented at the discussion, shows that the number of students in the system decreases as they move up to higher education.

The data shows that while there were 215 lakh students at the class 8 level, the numbers dropped to 84.65 lakh at the undergraduate level. And most undergraduates go for bachelor’s degrees in the arts, science and commerce, with far fewer opting for engineering, management and computer applications, according to the presentation. 

Because of this, it added, there is a need to “reimagine the bachelor degree” and have “employment-oriented courses”.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Make arts education mandatory till Class 10, rid it of ‘colonial mindset’, Parliament panel says


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