In this, our inaugural podcast on “Social Enterprises and the Law”, listen to Amrut Joshi and Mahit Anand discuss the UGC’s Online Education Regulations and its potential to transform the landscape for online education in India.

 

We have also reproduced a transcript of the conversation here.

Social Enterprises and the Law: A look in to the UGC’s Online Education Regulations

Hey everyone, I am Amrut Joshi, founder GameChanger Law Advisors. We are a boutique corporate and commercial law firm with offices in Bengaluru and New Delhi. We do a fair amount of work with social enterprises operating in the educational, healthcare, energy and agri-tech sectors.

Today I’m excited to launch our Firm’s first podcast focused on social enterprises and their interaction with the law. This podcast is specifically focused on developments in India’s online education industry. Before we delve into a discussion on certain regulatory developments in recent days, I thought it would be useful to lay out a few basic facts for the benefit of our listeners.

Online education is a mode of education in which students receive instructions via the internet and where they can access this information as long as they have access to either computers, laptops or smart phones. It is delivered in many ways including online courses, massive open online courses (also known as MOOCs) and hybrid courses that are a combination of online and classroom courses. Online education is economical, offers the advantages of flexibility in terms of time and place, and consequently can potentially be accessible to far more people than the traditional classroom education.

India’s online education market has been witnessing a high growth in recent years, driven largely by increased smartphone penetration and Internet connectivity. Some reports suggest that over a billion smartphones are expected to be sold in India by 2025. This has created an unprecedented opportunity for both private ed-tech startups as well as publicly funded universities to tap into the online educational ecosystem in the spirit of competitive collaboration. However, till recently the regulatory environment was not exactly favorably disposed towards online education, with regulators being concerned amount a host of issues, including the availability of infrastructure trained manpower as well as underlying concerns on the quality of such courses.

In this podcast I am joined by my colleague Mahit Anand, who is a senior associate in our firm. Mahit has done a fair amount of work with a number of ed-tech startups in India during the last five years. Hi Mahit, welcome to this podcast.

Mahit: Hey Amrut, excited to be on this podcast and look forward to doing more such events in days ahead.

Amrut: Alright, together we will try and explain how the regulatory environment for online education has evolved in the last four to five years, where things stand now, with the introduction of these new regulations, specifically I’m referring to the UGC’s online education regulations that were issued last year, and the public notice that was issued on January 4, 2019 which in effect is a follow-up action by the UGC, where they have invited eligible higher education institutions to submit their applications seeking the UGC’s approval for commencement of online education process from the academic year 2019-2020 onwards. So Mahit, talk us through the regulatory environment for online education before 2018 and what has changed, or is likely to change in this year, that’s 2019.

Mahit: Sure, Amrut. So, prior to the notification of UGC’s online education regulations, the degrees obtained through online examinations were not considered as valid. The UGC did not approve online examinations because the test or examination for a large group involved a host of complexities such as, managing a foolproof system with a reliable network, connecting the examination centers and preparing question banks etc. Since these issues were not addressed, the UGC made it abundantly clear that unless a clear set of regulations are formulated, the degrees obtained through online examination would be treated as invalid.

Amrut: So, this would have been the case prior to July 2018, when the UGC notified the online education regulations. So, can you explain, for the benefit of our listeners, what are some of the key provisions of these regulations. Let’s start by explaining what is the definition of an “online course or program”?

Mahit: The regulations define an “online course or program” as the courses which are offered through an online mode, leading to a degree being awarded to the candidate by the respective higher educational institutions recognized under the UGC regulations.

Amrut: So, what you are telling me is that only higher educational institutions can offer online courses?

Mahit: Those “higher educational institutions” which are recognized under the UGC regulations are allowed to offer online courses.

Amrut: So, Mahit can you explain what are these eligibility criteria that higher educational institutions will need to satisfy before they can offer an online course?

Mahit: Sure. There are various eligibility criteria that are laid down by the UGC regulation. Some of the key criteria are that the higher education institution (HEI) should be in existence for a period of at least five years to the initiation of being accredited by the NAAC, i.e., the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, with a minimum score of 3.26 on a 4-point scale. Also, the HEI should be ranked among the top hundred in the overall category, in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) for at least two years during the previous three years. The listeners can also check out the rankings which are made available on the NIRF website and it is made available for the previous years as well. Couple of other important qualifying criteria are that (1) the higher educational institution should demonstrate the capability to develop and produce online courses, and (2) also they should have the ability to conduct examinations using technology enabled online test, with all the requisite security arrangements and showing transparency and credibility of the examinations.

Amrut: So, are there any courses that can’t be offered through the mode of online education?

Mahit: There are, Amrut. The regulations clearly outline courses and state that courses or programs in engineering, law, medicine, dental, pharmacy, nursing, architecture, physiotherapy and applied arts are not permitted to be offered through the online mode. Also, another important point to be borne in mind is that a higher educational institution will be allowed to offer online courses in only those disciplines in which it has already been offering the same or similar courses or programs – (1) in regular mode, i.e., the classroom teaching, and (2) in open and distance learning mode, from which at least one batch has graduated.

Amrut: Alright, so what opportunities, if at all there are any, do these regulations present to private ed-tech companies or players in the educational technology marketplace? Is there any opportunity for them to collaborate with higher educational institutions?

Mahit: Definitely. So, the UGC regulation has paved a new pathway for ed-tech companies who can now partner with the higher educational institutions recognized by the UGC to deliver online courses or programs. I would like to bring our listeners attention to Regulation 4(4) of the UGC regulations, which states that “… a higher educational institution should demonstrate the capability to develop and produce online courses or programs…” This is also one of the qualifying criteria for a higher educational institution to be recognized by the UGC. In order to demonstrate its capability, the educational institution may either choose to develop and produce the online course in-house, or outsource the production facilities to third parties. Which is where the ed-tech companies come into the picture for converting the courses into online programs in four particular quadrants.

Amrut: So, what are these four quadrants?

Mahit: So, these four quadrants essentially include (1) production of learning videos with recording or dubbing or editing facilities for graphics or animation creation, (2) creating e-content for reading and improving comprehension of learners, (3) formulating tests and assignments that tests the understanding of the candidates and (4) creation of discussion forums that clarifies the doubts of the learners.

Amrut: Alright, so if I am a student and I am concerned about the receiving quality online education, do these regulations have any provision that addresses these concerns of mine? Can I be assured in some form that there is a regulator who is monitoring the quality of these online education courses?

Mahit: Certainly, Amrut. Going back to the UGC regulations, what it does is, it provides for quality assurance checks which the higher educational institutions are required to adhere to. These quality assurance checks requires the higher education educational institutions to (1) establish internal quality assurance cell, which should be in line with the Center for Internal Quality Assurance, as specified in the UGC’s regulation on open and distance learning, (2) the higher educational institutions to take adequate measures for training and capacity building of its teaching and administrative staff at regular intervals, (3) the higher education institutions also should ensure that the quality of online courses or programs offered is maintained on par with the standards laid down by the UGC, and (4) these institutions should also ensure that the technical and instructional facilities for online delivery of courses are in compliance with the guidelines laid down by the UGC.

Amrut: Okay. So, another important feature of any online educational course is at the end of the course the student also wants some kind of certification. For him to be able to obtain that certification, what are the requirements, especially pertaining to conduct of examinations? Because for you to be certified, you need to clear examinations. How are exams conducted in an online education course?

Mahit: So here again we go refer back to Regulation 4, which I explained earlier, which outlines the eligibility criteria that is required to be satisfied by the higher educational institution in order to offer online courses. The higher educational institution should have the ability to conduct examinations, either using technology enabled online test with all the security arrangements ensuring transparency and credibility of the examination, or through what is known as “proctored examination”.

Amrut: So, what do you mean by “proctored examination”?

Mahit: The term “proctored examination” is defined under the UGC regulations. What proctored examination means is that it is an examination which is conducted under the physical supervision of an approved neutral person who ensures that the identity of the candidate taking the test and the integrity of the test taking environment are in line with what the UGC has prescribed.

Amrut: Okay. And what happens in a scenario where any of these higher education institutions fail to adhere to the quality standards that are prescribed in these regulations?

Mahit: The regulations provide certain actions that the UGC can take against these higher educational institutions if they fail to adhere to the quality standards. This includes, where the UGC can (1) issue a show-cause notice to withdraw the recognition of the higher education institution, (2) to lodge a first information report against the officials or management of such higher educational institution and to take action as per law, also (3) withhold or debar from receiving certain grants from the Commission, i.e., the UGC, and (4) put out in the public domain the list of such defaulters of such higher educational institutions.

Amrut: Alright, I think that’s a very useful summary of the higher educational institutions’ online education regulations. From what you described to me, theoretically these regulations along with the public notice that has been issued by the UGC on January 4, 2019 have the ability to change the landscape for online education in India.

But I must also conclude by stating that there are still a number of X factors and variables that will need to play out through the course of this year, for the simple reason that there are several concerns that have been raised by various commentators ever since these regulations were put up in the public domain last year. I think the main sticking point has always been the requirement to hold proctored examinations, which you just described to us. The idea there is the requirement of having a neutral examiner to actually conduct the examination is a fairly onerous requirement, especially considering most universities are already short staffed in conducting their regular courses examinations. So, there is a legitimate doubt on how these higher educational institutions would actually be able to pull off proctored examinations, especially if these online courses become popular and you have a large number of students signing up for these courses. So, let’s say you have 50,000 students signing up for a popular course on business management. It would be fairly challenging for these institutions to conduct a proctored examination for an online education course.

Another point of concern is that the exams for online education courses are typically based on multiple choice or objective type questions and answers. These kinds of examinations do not lend themselves easily to humanities subjects, for example a study of history – there is a fair amount of subjectivity in understanding historical events. So how can students learn humanities subjects through online education. That is something that I don’t think most educational institutions have figured out.

The other concern that we will need to factor is the fact that most of our higher educational institutions or universities are understaffed for their regular courses, i.e., for their classroom courses. They don’t have high quality faculty for those courses itself. So where will these institutions be able to generate good quality faculty who can deliver online education courses.

The last point of concern is as regards the evaluation system that may be adopted by higher education institutional institutions for these online education courses. If it becomes too easy for students to pass these courses, then they may be questions asked of the merit or the relative value of these online educational courses beyond the intrinsic value of obtaining education.

All in all, these are very interesting times for all stakeholders in the online education industry in India. While I certainly believe that these regulations can potentially transform the landscape of online education in India, there are a number of practical challenges that will need to be navigated before the dream of providing online education to a large section of India’s population is realized.

Thank you for your insights, Mahit. I enjoyed listening to the details of the various regulations framed by the UGC. So, thanks once again thanks

Mahit: Thanks, Amrut. It was a nice conversation to begin the year with.

Amrut: We certainly look forward to tracking the online education space and the social enterprise space closely right through the course of this year. To our listeners, we really enjoyed doing this podcast and we hope that you’ve been able to take away some useful pointers from this conversation. Thank you very much.