Digital University – A Unique Initiative of the Indian Government announced during the Union Budget
February 1st, 2022, saw Nirmala Sitharaman, Honourable Minister of Finance, Government ofIndia, present the Union Budget for Financial Year 2022-2023.
Among the several announcements made by her was a unique initiative to set up a Digital University. This would provide students across the country, class leading, high quality universal education along with a completely personalized learning experience, right at their doorstep.
For many, the very idea of a ‘Digital University’ might seem unfamiliar. To understand this concept better, think of the Knowledge Village in Dubai. It is a one stop destination of sorts where multiple universities have their campuses, all in one location. Students can effortlessly choose their preferred institution, as well as the courses that they wish to pursue.
Now imagine this exact setup but in a digital form. That is precisely the concept of a ‘Digital University’ that is being envisioned. The finest educational institutions from across India, hand-picked and chosen by the government, can offer a smorgasbord of their courses and award degrees/diplomas, all online, to students successfully completing them.
Given India’s multilingual ethos, the intention is to make this University available in a plethora of different languages. Alongside, courses would be offered in multiple ICT (Information & Communications Technology) formats.
The University is designed to be based on a networked hub-spoke model, wherein the hub would build exemplary ICT expertise. This entire model would be well supported by some of the finest educational institutions and public universities in the country, functioning as an entire network of hubs and spokes.
While the intentions are clearly noble, appropriate steps taken in the right direction and in a timely manner can go a long way in ensuring the success of this initiative.
To cite an instance, edX is a multilingual open online course provider in the United States that has been set up by MIT and Harvard. This intended Digital University can be established in a similar manner, with top universities across India offering their degree courses.
Another apt example would be Coursera, which like edX, is also an open online course provider in the US that was setup back in 2012 by Stanford University professors. Coursera has clear guidelines on the way courses offered on the platform should be created.
For instance, most lecture sessions are structured in a way that they are not more than 7 to 10 minutes in length. This has purposefully been done to allow questions to be asked or pertinent activities to be included, after every video . A norm like this requires courses offered on the platform to be appropriately structured and defined, well in advance.
Yet another idyllic example is University of the People, also in the United States. This is a private, non-profit distance education university. Akin to the Digital University that is being proposed, this university does not have a physical campus. Multiple courses are offered, all online, with national accreditation duly received from the DEAC (Distance Education Accrediting Commission). A remarkable facet of this university is that students receive their degrees almost free of cost.
The government’s planned Digital University can take cues from comparable platforms like the above mentioned in order to appropriately structure and design the courses available on it. In fact, the whole setup can be executed better once it looks at precedents like the above.
Anytime a novel initiative of this nature is planned, the biggest concern remains cost. This is especially true in the context of India where the education sector invariably finds itself wanting on the budget front.
Quoting some numbers verbatim from the Financial Express Article, “The 421.01 crore earmarked for spending in FY-23 is 15.5% higher than the FY22 revised estimate (RE) of 367.51 crore, but lower than the FY-22 Budget estimate of 645.61 crore by 34.7%. The FY22 (RE), on the other hand, was 31.4% higher than the actual spending under this head in FY21. The overall Budget allocation for the department of higher education in FY-23 is 10.59% higher than the actual spending in FY-20, the year immediately preceding the pandemic, and 4.93% higher than the average amount budgeted in the last two years, each of which saw the actual/RE spend significantly undershoot the amount budgeted.”
While there is no clear picture on the way the government intends to financially allocate towards the intended Digital University, the very fact that there is a 11.86% increase in the budget allocation this year, as compared to previous years, is a positive sign. But we are a long away from achieving the intended target of investing 6% of overall GDP on education which is envisioned in the New National Education Policy document.
Yet, when we consider this pathbreaking initiative, universities and colleges in this case can breathe easy since they will not have to spend large sums on building their digital platforms. As the honorable minister has hinted, the financial onus would be on the government. As a result, educational institutions can solely focus on creating top notch content, without concerning themselves over costs.
An equally important (and frequently sidelined) aspect would be that of incentivizing teachers for the courses they create, that would be available on the planned Digital University.
Once again, cues can be taken from established players in this space like Udemy. Instructors receive a fixed percentage from the sale of every course created by them that is offered on the platform.
The government can consider taking similar steps towards incentivizing teachers for course creation. Economic benefits, say in the form of royalties, should accrue to teachers for every one of their courses that is taken and completed.
This is especially pertinent when we consider the fact that it is the government that would create and fund the entire Digital University platform. This would be contrary to instances like Coursera we cited above that are for-profit. In this case, the government can lead by example, financially rewarding teachers for the courses they create on the intended Digital University.
Additional points to consider here include the fact that teachers in general are often overworked and underpaid, globally. This problem is however especially exacerbated in India, with many teachers experiencing salary cuts, significant delays in salary payments, and in extreme cases, no salaries at all.
The persistent pandemic has only resulted in making things worse for teachers. Many of them have lost their teaching jobs and also faced prolonged financial hardships.
Considering these aspects, the Digital University initiative in fact presents a suitable opportunity to the government to financially reward teachers across the country, both in the short term as well as in the long run. This can be done by structuring things appropriately. A onetime payout can be given for every course that is created. Additionally, for every course that is taken and completed by students, an additional royalty payment can be made.
This royalty payment can be accounted for, from the tuition fee paid by students for the course. This way, neither the government nor the institution feels financially burdened for such payments. After all, taken together, such payments can add up to considerable sums of money.
Additionally, such a payment structure offers great financial incentive to teachers. In doing so, more talented individuals will be motivated from within to pursue what has always been considered as a noble profession. Eventually, this will lead to vast improvement in the quality of teaching and research across Indian universities.
When we look at the significant numbers of CEOs and others at top global positions, who have all graduated from premiere educational institutions in India like the IITs or the IIMs, there is clearly no doubt about the quality of education that is available in the country.
At the same time, it is a miniscule proportion, the crème de la crème, who make their way into these stellar establishments of higher learning. Most fall by the wayside, especially given the popular belief that it is harder to get into an IIT or an IIM, than even say a Harvard, a Stanford, or an MIT.
That does not in any way imply less scholastic aptitude of students not making it into institutions like the above.
Alongside, the government should tread carefully in ensuring that this Digital University initiative does not end up becoming another SWAYAM (an ongoing Government of India program that aims to ensure access to quality education for all, including the most disadvantaged). Instead, the intended Digital University should become a podium that rivals other digital learning platforms, both in terms of quality as well as universal access for all, especially the underprivileged.
Ultimately, a Digital University, set up with all the right intentions, and executed in just the right manner, taking cues from precedents that we cited previously, can go a long way in ensuring quality education for deserving students coming out in droves from India’s masses.
Clearly, there are good intentions backing the planned Digital University. In a vast country like India where a significant proportion of the populace misses out on the educational avenues it rightfully deserves, the idea of a Digital University offering a more level playing field is certainly a great concept. Now what it requires is a good execution plan that can take the entire proposal to fruition.
Author – Christo Joseph , FRSA.
Director Strategy and Planning ,
Board of Management Member
Garden City University.