Portal to freedom

Print edition : July 15, 2011

At the 22nd convocation of Indira Gandhi National Open University in Bangalore on April 2. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

IGNOU opens a window of opportunity to millions through its distance education and skill-development programmes.

INSIDE Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Jail in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Rajesh Upadhyay, who is serving a life sentence, is assiduously working on something. Every day, this graduate in law and science is seen scribbling something in a notebook. Rajesh is, in fact, making extensive notes for an educational course he has been pursuing for some time. When he finally walks free in a few months, he will have one additional diploma in the basics of computer science. A specialised skill, apart from his other degrees, is what he thinks will help him in his life outside. The course will help me get employed after my release, he says.

For thousands of prisoners like him across the country, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has opened the gates of higher education. The initiative was launched in New Delhi's Tihar Jail in 1994. Since the beginning of 2011, IGNOU has made this education of prisoners absolutely free.

All jail inmates in the country will now be able to access free and quality education according to their choices. This is an opportunity for them to return to the mainstream of life with quality education and future development, both morally and vocationally, the university says in a statement.

Not very far from Jabalpur, in the district of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, IGNOU has begun a pilot project to train 1,014 anganwadi workers to deal better with the issues of child malnourishment and women's health. At 55 per cent, Madhya Pradesh has the highest malnutrition figures in the country. In the light of this, IGNOU decided to collaborate with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Department of Women and Child Development in the State to impart skill-based education to anganwadi workers. The Madhya Pradesh government now has plans to extend the programme to all the districts of the State.

It is not just prisoners and health workers who figure in the university's plans. In a country where access to basic education is still a dream for many and where education is considered secondary to most other needs, IGNOU, through its skill-based programmes, has made the marginalised people hopeful of a bright future. Its open learning methods are drawn up flexibly to suit the needs of India's huge working population. The thrust of the university, according to Vice-Chancellor V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, is on the workers in the unorganised sector and on developing the skills of poor and lower middle-class households.

The figures speak for themselves. At a recently concluded convocation ceremony, 2,15,000 learners received degrees, diplomas and other certificates. Three of them got their doctorates.

IGNOU is the only university in India that holds two convocation ceremonies every year. In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared IGNOU the largest, most diverse, and inclusive institution of higher learning in the world, a feat that will stay with the university for many years to come. Student enrolment has doubled in the last four years from 1.5 million to over three million.

IGNOU has proved how inclusive education can support the nation-building process, something private universities have long forgotten. It has also been unwavering in its commitment to creating equal opportunities for women and members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and the disabled. IGNOU imparts free education to the most vulnerable sections of society. The bulk of the money for IGNOU's expansion has come from internal accruals, notably the modest tuition fee. This is in marked contrast to the general trend of higher education in India, which depends heavily on public grants or ridiculously high fees. With more and more enrolments in the last four years, the fee generated from students in IGNOU has virtually doubled from Rs.158.52 crore to Rs.312 crore.

IGNOU, unlike other universities, focusses on employing students in its various programmes, thus turning them into revenue generators as well. By this action, IGNOU has shown the way to make higher education and skill-development plans accessible to those who must have never thought about studying in a central university.

Convergence scheme

The number of study centres in the university has risen from 1,468 in 2006 to 3,000 today. The credit for the unusually exponential growth justifiably goes to the team led by Rajasekharan Pillai, who has focussed on the vision of inclusive education. The 2007 IGNOU scheme of providing university education opportunities to the maximum number of eligible students by making optimal utilisation of the existing infrastructure and intellectual capabilities of the best affiliated and autonomous colleges through the open university and distant education systems proved to be a successful and sustainable intervention for enhancing the gross enrolment ratio. The convergence scheme', as we call it, is a partnership between the nationwide collegiate education system and IGNOU to share academic resources. The 480 colleges that participated in the scheme represent the best in the country, he says.

The colleges lent the services of about 5,000 teachers without disturbing their regular work. Classrooms, computer labs, and library and laboratory facilities were given to these additionally admitted students in extra hours on working days and during weekends and holidays. The students under these schemes get the complete set of study material from IGNOU. The college is given the freedom to increase the number of teaching hours depending upon the nature of the course and the requirements of the students. The students, too, get a campus feel and fair opportunity to interact with regular students and teachers in the college, he adds.

At a time when increasing cut-off marks and cut-throat competition in other universities across the country has demoralised students and excluded many of them from the mainstream, IGNOU has set an example of how quality distance education can be imparted efficiently in a country like India.

One factor behind IGNOU's success is the flexibility in its approach. Knowing well that the courses are opted for mostly by the working population of the country, the university has made path-breaking advances in challenging existing modes of delivery and ushering in innovative combinations. Approaches like multi-modal delivery, the application of Internet-communication technologies in education and training, on-demand examinations, and student satisfaction surveys have all contributed to IGNOU's success story.

The student satisfaction survey, the first of its kind in the country, enlists the open participation of all students and responses. The feedback has helped identify and initiate refinements and corrections in the course curriculum. The survey is now a mandatory aspect of academic programmes and will be administered every year, says Rajasekharan Pillai.

Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal recently said the gross enrolment ratio needed to be expanded to around 45 million from the present figure of 13 million in higher education. IGNOU has successfully been able to make significant advances in this respect. The Nehruvian goals of education inclusivity, efficiency and accessibility are successfully being realised in the nation's largest university.

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