Are digital universities the way forward?

The 42nd amendment of the constitution of India added education including technical, medical and academic in the concurrent list of the seventh schedule. Pursuant to this and other provisions, the Union as well as the state governments administer the higher education system in India.

According to the data available on the UGC website, there are 54 central universities, 443 state universities (most of them have their affiliated colleges), 132 institutions of national importance (which include IITs, IIM, the AIIM, etc.) and many reputable universities and private universities.

Enrollment in higher education institutions has increased. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are also open or distance learning universities, including the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), administered by the Union government.

Increase in gross enrollment rate to 50%

The latest All India Higher Education Survey (AISHE 2019-2020) estimated that the total enrollment in higher education stands at 3.85 crores resulting in a Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER ) by 27.1% in higher education in 2019-2020.

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 aimed to raise the GER in tertiary education to 50% by 2035. It further aimed to add 3.5 crore seats in tertiary education.

But did the government really intend to increase the GER and the number of places in higher education?

While addressing the webinar on the positive impact of the Union Budget 2022 on the education and skills sector, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Measures like e-Vidya, One Class One Channel, Digital Labs, Digital Universities are creating an educational infrastructure that will go a long way in helping the youth of the country.

“It is an attempt to provide better educational solutions to villages, poor, Dalits, backward and tribal people in the socio-economic configuration of the country. The National Digital University is an innovative and unprecedented step that has the potential to fully solve the problem of university places.

Digital segregation in education

The Education segment in the Union Budget 2022 is for Digital University, Digital Teacher, Digital Learning, Digital Laboratories and One Class One TV Channel under “PM e Vidya”. As it seems, the entire expenditure is only dedicated to “digital education” and formal classroom educational institutions are excluded from the budget.

From the aforementioned Prime Minister’s speech, it is also apparent that the government will solve the problem of the shortage of places in universities as well as the increase in GER by creating digital infrastructures instead of creating new universities, institutions or improving the current state of higher education institutions (HEIs).

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, physical classes from KG to PG in all educational institutions are closed for approximately 2 years. Prime Minister Modi said it is digital connectivity that has kept the country’s education system functioning during the pandemic.

The Prime Minister shrugged off stories about ‘children quietly dropping out of school’. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation showed that almost 60% of schoolchildren in India lacked access to online learning opportunities.

A similar study by Oxfam India found that even among students in urban private schools, half of parents reported problems with internet signal and speed. A third of them struggled with the cost of mobile data.

The budget prioritized e-learning. (Representative image)

In 2020, the smartphone penetration rate in India was only 54%. As a college student, I know that most students have been unable to take online classes due to a lack of digital resources or poor internet connectivity in rural areas. These data clearly indicate the difficult conditions of the digital divide in India.

Why is the government focusing on digital education?

There is a strong digital divide in the country. So why is the government focusing too much on digital education? Privatization is one of the key policies of the Modi-led BJP government. This led to the sale not only of state-owned enterprises, airways, railways, etc., but also had serious repercussions on the education sector.

The private sector has almost taken over school education in large parts of the country. Most of the schools affiliated to the Central Council for Secondary Education belong to private authorities.

Today, the private sector is making continuous and rapid inroads into higher education. On the other hand, the government regularly cuts the funds of public educational institutions. These funds are also distributed unevenly and hierarchically among these institutions. The problem of vacancies in higher education institutions has become widespread.

The clear intention of the Modi-led BJP government is to destroy the state-funded higher education system and create an environment where high-cost, for-profit educational institutions thrive.

In such a situation, only the economically well-off people will get formal education and the rest of the majority, especially from SC, ST and OBC backgrounds, will be forced to take certificates, diplomas and degrees from “digital universities” in the name of the skill development.

Digital universities are the major step towards disrupting the process of knowledge production and its dissemination among the masses. They can make a person competent in specific areas, but they will not help him to interact with people from different cultures, castes, religions, regions, ideologies, languages, etc. different, which usually happens on college campuses.

At a time when people are gaining knowledge through Whatsapp messages, digital universities can speed up the process of turning humans into zombies.