Distance education has expanded the scope and reach of higher education.  Relegating  its  importance  or  subjecting it to the rigmarole of policy-paralysis and reckless experimentation, is fraught with   consequences   both   for   the  learners and the nation&’s human resource pool.  It  has  the potential to effectively break   exclusivity   in   the   access   to  higher education ~ RUDRASHIS  DATTA
When Leonard Knight Elmhirst, who once served as Rabindranath Tagore&’s secretary,  founded the Dartington Hall project in 1931, little did he realize that he was effectively inspiring a movement in non-formal education, which became the mainstay of learning at the turn of the century the world over. Admittedly, India, where Elmhirst worked for a number of years, has been one of the few countries  to foresee and acknowledge the importance of non-formal and distance education. The first such programme was initiated in 1962 when Delhi University started the ‘correspondence courses’ in response to the recommendation of the Central Advisory Board of Education. The objective, according to the official document, was “to provide opportunities of academic pursuits to educated citizens through correspondence instruction without disturbing their present employment”.
This system of education has now gained acceptance across the world primarily because it is cost-effective and offers a measure of flexibility to learners.  Its importance has been underlined in the UNESCO document entitled “Open Learning” ~ “The system is designed to offer opportunities for part-time study, for learning at a distance and for innovations in the curriculum.
“They are intended to allow access to a wider section of the adult population, to enable students to compensate for lost opportunities in the past or to acquire new skills and qualifications for the future. Open-learning systems aim to redress social or educational inequality and to offer opportunities not provided by conventional colleges or universities.”
A major step was taken with the setting up of the Distance Education Council under the aegis of Indira Gandhi National Open University in 1985. The DEC&’s primary function was to “coordinate and determine standards of teaching, evaluation and research” in  the institutions offering distance education. It gradually emerged as an effective alternative to regular classroom education in the context of the vast geographical areas out of the purview of conventional face-to-face instruction.
As distance education gained in popularity, critical issues of quality and standards cropped up. Regretfully, the DEC was found wanting because of its weak statutory powers. As often as not, a two-year course was stretched to four in the absence of infrastructure and human resources. In fact, almost all distance education institutions depend on faculties of regular face-to-face campuses to conduct basic programmes, hold examinations and evaluate answer papers. This can hardly be an effective arrangement not least because distance education has on its rolls over 4 million learners and comprises nearly 22 per cent of the total enrolment in higher education in the country.
The N R Madhava Menon Committee, set up in 2010 to suggest measures to regulate the standards of education being imparted through the distance mode, advanced a number of proposals. These included the setting up of an independent statutory body to recognize institutions offering degrees in the distance mode, bringing distance education degrees at a par with degrees of the regular mode, incorporating Information and Communication Technologies in the curriculum.
The recommendations are meant to streamline the country&’s education system to accommodate  the ever-increasing number of learners. Actually, however, we are witnessing a disoriented bureaucratic exercise that can have serious consequences for distance education as a whole. Through an executive order, DEC was dissolved in May 2013, and its job was entrusted to an overburdened University Grants Commission. These institutions are now functioning without any effective regulation and control, putting over 4 million learners without any credible means of redressal of grievances. The UGC has no authority, legal or disciplinary, to control and manage distance education.
Not much attention has been given to the need for privately-managed distance education institutions. With only 13 state level open universities operating across the country, it is only a matter of time that the quality of education  declines. This is bound to affect learners who opt for this system. The National Knowledge Commission, in its report on Open and Distance Education (2007), had recommended the setting up of a “national Information and Communication Technology backbone which would enhance access and e-governance in ODE, and enable the dissemination of knowledge across all modes, that is, print, audio-visual and internet-based multimedia”.  A classic model could be the ‘Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships’ (LAAP) institutionalised by the US Department of Education in 1998, which proposed a government-private education partnership on the basis of matching grants in order to accommodate millions of learners who are out of the conventional educational institutions.
There aren’t enough seats in the conventional system. The development of distance education institutions is, therefore, imperative. Unless these institutions gear up to meet the challenge, the government will not be able to help those students  who have been compelled to opt for an alternate educational set-up.
Distance education has expanded the scope and reach of higher education.  Relegating its importance or subjecting it to the rigmarole of policy-paralysis and reckless experimentation, is fraught with consequences both for the learners and the nation&’s human resource pool. It has the potential to effectively break exclusivity in the access to higher education.