The University Grants Commission (UGC) has now legitimised the pursuance of two degree programmes parallelly for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The move is in line with the suggestions of the National Education Policy 2020.
But nowhere in the 66-page document of NEP 2020 does it explicitly say that students should be given the opportunity to pursue two degrees simultaneously. Rather, it emphasises the need for higher education to be more flexible in order to develop the abilities of students to help them in an increasingly automated society.
We are now on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the NEP 2020 posits. Exponential growth and application of technology have led to changes in all spheres of life. This will impact the restructuring of the manufacturing and distribution sectors drastically. Artificial intelligence and the internet of things are adding fuel to the changes that are already underway.
As a result, many jobs in the labour market and the skills associated with them may fizzle out in course of time. For example, it will not take long for LPG to reach our kitchens through pipelines. In that case, those in the allied sectors, including gas cylinder supply workers, will have to migrate to other occupations. Such changes are applicable to all job sectors.
Given the unpredictability of the pace at which such changes are taking place, layoffs will hit the economy hard. To grapple with this catastrophe, the labour force must have the ability and willingness to find their feet in another, related, job sector. The only way to make it happen is through lifelong education and thereby continuous renewal of work skills.
Modern societies place the entire responsibility of dealing with such crises on the citizens themselves. Absolute freedom is the remedy given to the citizen to deal with such issues. The most important of these is to further liberalise end-user freedom in higher education. NEP 2020 put on the table many such student-friendly suggestions including the Multiple Entry Exit option and Academic Bank of Credit system.
Another advancement that falls within this category is allowing UG and PG students to pursue two degrees parallelly. However, research students are not given this privilege. It was once illegal to pursue two degrees together.
A judgment of the Calcutta High Court in 2010 is one example. The parallel dual degree system is a great opportunity in a competitive world. At the same time, governments and institutions of higher learning must ensure social justice is part of this new move.
To help students pursue two degrees simultaneously on a regular basis, educational institutions need to rearrange their working times. If a person wants to get two degrees from other departments in the same college, the working hours of both departments need to be set accordingly. If the student is trying to get a degree from another college, time and distance matter.
Therefore, one is not sure about the practicability of working towards two degrees at the same time. Another way is to do one degree online and another on a regular basis. As part of this, the UGC has listed some universities that are eligible to offer online degrees.
Many institutions are in the queue as well. If universities start offering degrees online, there is a possibility of a huge influx of students into them. This would turn into a huge source of funds generation for them as many would want to learn while working.
If universities decide to charge higher fees for more demanding courses, the prices of the degrees are likely to fluctuate like the costs of the goods in the market. The UGC shall have to be a price regulatory agency as well in future.
And our traditional colleges may shrink into institutions where fewer students study courses on a regular basis. Moreover, the regular mode of education could become a luxury.
Although the number of students studying directly on campuses will decrease, there will be a huge leap in enrolment in higher education.
There is no doubt that with the implementation of the new system, all students will face pressure, both direct and indirect, to enrol for two degrees. Perhaps students who have not done so can even end up as second-class citizens of the higher education system.
The biggest hurdle that economically and socially backward students will face in making use of this opportunity is the availability of money. Expenses such as admission and exam fees may impose a large financial burden on students and parents.
Although e-grants and other financial support are offered by states for students belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the governments may conveniently place the financial responsibility of enrolment in a second degree on the shoulders of students and their parents.
Would governments be willing to provide financial assistance for both degrees for deserving students? Will there be reservation for students belonging to deserving categories for the second degree? These questions need immediate attention to ensure our higher education system is rooted in social justice.
An analysis of the budgets of various states reveals that the education departments in most of them are already at the mercy of the finance department. With the implementation of the parallel dual degree system, special attention should be given by the government to economically and socially backward students to address any potential inequalities that may arise.
If enrolling for a second degree becomes the sole responsibility of the students, in principle all of them will be pursuing a self-financing degree too. Even meritorious ones who get admission in public institutions will become students of a self-financed degree programme. So public-funded universities and higher education institutions have to offer the second degree as well with a subsidised fee structure, for which they definitely need the support of the state exchequer. Will that happen?
(The writer is Professor, School of Education, Central University of Kerala and can be reached at email@example.com)