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Monday, February 19, 2007

Secrets of an open university

(Subodh Varma | TIG, New Delhi): It’s touted as the world’s biggest distant learning centre with more than 1.5 million students in 125 programmes. Since its inception 21 years ago, 3.2 million students have enrolled with it. Its mission is to take education to the ‘‘unreached’’. That’s a short introduction to the Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou).
Now look at these facts. Between 1996 and 2002, nearly 68% of the students enrolling with it were women and of them only 2.5% have actually passed. Of the more than 1.64 lakh students enrolled in the BA course in these six years, nearly 75,000 dropped out.
India’s distance learning establishments, consisting of Ignou, 13 state open universities and 106 other institutions, are projected as an answer to the biggest problem of our education system — that only 9% of those in the 17-23 years age bracket have access to higher education. But are these centres delivering on the job given to them?
Ignou and other distant learning institutions lead below-the-radar existence — they are rarely under scrutiny. It took Subhadra Khaperde and her husband Rahul Banerjee of Indore nearly a year to struggle through the Right to Information maze and glean out facts.
Subhadra was determined to find out about Ignou. Born in a Dalit marginal farmer family in Kanker district of Chhattisgarh, Subhadra passed senior secondary from a government school and later worked as an “anganwadi” worker at Rs 200 per month.
In 1997, she enrolled in Ignou’s BA programme. When the study material arrived, Subhadra was stumped — she couldn’t comprehend the language used for instruction. The difficulty was not peculiar to Subhadra. The course material is such that few are able to make sense of it.

Enrolment up, success rate sliding
New Delhi: The truth about Ignou’s performance is difficult to find in the undergrowth of diverse statistics available on its website — the number of answer sheets evaluated, number of students sitting for term-end examinations etc.
Calculations based on the vice-chancellor’s report at the 17th convocation of Ignou reveal that of all its students, about 6 lakh, or less than 18%, have been successful in getting degrees, diplomas or certificates.
Going by the 2006 convocation figures, more than two-thirds of the successful students were pursuing diploma or certificate courses, that too, mostly in computer or management-related courses. These shorter duration programmes have increased the pass-out share in Ignou, which used to be below 10% till about a decade ago.
However, since 2000, the number of successful students has been steadily declining although enrolment is going up.
Bewildered at this contrast and the incomprehensible texts and approach pursued by IGNOU, Subhadra’s husband Rahul Bannerjee filed an RTI application seeking details of Ignou’s BA pass-outs. In response, the Ignou bureaucracy led them through an obstacle course of incorrect data, technical objections, delays and appeals — ultimately giving out inco plete information.
‘‘Such essential information should be made available in the public domain as a matter of routine,’’ says Bannerjee.
With the pressing need for increasing enrolment to acceptable levels — the upcoming 11th five year Plan talks of 15% enrolment ratio as a target — several education administrators and theorists are suggesting expansion of the open and distance learning system.
It finds increasing favour because, as the approach paper to the 11th Plan rather quaintly says, ‘‘it overcomes the infrastructure constraint’’.
That is, you don’t have to spend money on teachers and classrooms, as in regular universities. Moreover, information technology has provided a whole new meaning to distance education.
However, the dismal performance of Ignou raises serious questions about the viability of India’s education system following this trajectory.
Publication: Times Of India Delhi; Date:2007 Feb 12; Section:Front Page; Page Number 1

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