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The government of India is for the first time allowing universities to offer fully online degrees -- a change that could reshape education delivery in the country while blowing open the door to a previously limited market for U.S.-based online education services companies.

For many years, Indian universities and colleges were not permitted to offer more than 20 percent of a degree online, in part because of concerns about quality and limited mechanisms for oversight and regulation. Now, as part of a push to widen access to higher education and raise the profile of Indian institutions globally, restrictions on online learning are starting to lift.

For U.S.-based online education platforms, the news is a welcome shift. Massive open online education providers Coursera and edX both say they hope to increase their existing presence in India and partner more deeply with institutions there.

The government’s approach to online learning is, however, still cautious. Only the top 100 institutions in India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework can apply to offer fully online degrees, and the subject areas are restricted. There will be no online medical or law degrees from the country's universities in the foreseeable future.

At the launch of India’s 2020-21 budget last month, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about the need to make India’s young people more employable through better higher education opportunities.

“By 2030, India is set to have the largest working-age population in the world. Not only do they need literacy, they need both job and life skills,” Sitharaman said. The government is currently working on a new national education policy, which Sitharaman said would be published soon.

A draft version of the policy outlines the important role online learning could play in reforming India’s education system and expanding access to higher education. The policy encourages Indian institutions not only to develop their own online programs, but also to recognize and award credit for online programs offered by foreign institutions. The policy proposes that some foreign institutions may be invited to operate in India -- something the country has long resisted.

In her speech, Sitharaman acknowledged that foreign investment in India’s education sector is needed to “attract talented teachers, innovate and build better labs.”

Currently, around 25 percent of students graduating from high school in India go on to pursue higher education. The Indian government wants that figure to reach 50 percent by 2035 -- doubling the country’s college and university enrollment from its current base of around 35 million students.

India has thousands of colleges and universities, but few have the campus facilities or resources to accommodate a 50 percent increase in students over the next 15 years. With no financial support to build new facilities or open new universities, enrolling students online seems the logical solution to boost capacity. But few institutions have staff who are experienced in launching online programs, and that has education service providers eyeing the subcontinent's educational landscape eagerly.

"It's a high-focus market for us," said Raghav Gupta, managing director of India and the Asia-Pacific region for Coursera. "We're thinking about how we can serve the market better. We see online education in India as a large opportunity."

Discussions about allowing universities to offer online degrees began a few years ago, but progress has been relatively slow, Gupta said. Last month, seven universities were granted approval to offer fully online programs. Gupta described these institutions as “early movers” in the online education space.

Amity University, a not-for-profit private institution with campuses across India, is launching 24 online programs, including six bachelor’s degrees and four master’s degrees. The rest are postgraduate certificate programs. Amity was the only institution to announce the launch of more than three programs. Whether the small number of programs launched by the other institutions is a reflection of their limited capacity or perhaps some trepidation about entering the online market is unclear.

Allowing universities to offer fully online programs is a significant announcement, as it will lead to “true democratization of higher education in India,” said Amit Goyal, country head of India and Southeast Asia for edX, a nonprofit.

Fully online degrees can increase enrollment and completion, while at the same time reducing barriers to entry, Goyal said. Both Gupta and Goyal predict that online degrees will likely be offered at lower cost than face-to-face programs and will likely appeal to working adults who don’t have the time to pursue a traditional on-campus degree. An online Indian degree could also be attractive to students in South Asia, Africa or the Middle East, Gupta said.

Currently most degrees in India are offered by a single institution over two to four years. Goyal thinks the landscape could become a lot more modular, with students taking courses for credit from multiple institutions around the world. This model will encourage global partnerships, but a key challenge that will continue to face education providers will be producing job-ready graduates, he said.

Both Coursera and edX already reach millions of students in India. Coursera offers courses from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and the Indian School of Business. But many more institutions are looking to move online, Gupta said. Coursera for Campus, a platform that enables institutions to create online programs, has recently been adopted by six Indian institutions, he said.

Goyal reports that several Indian universities are starting to integrate edX courses into their core curriculum. He said one large institution recently agreed to integrate edX MicroBachelors and MicroMasters programs into their on-campus IT and computer application degrees. Both platforms have also worked with employers in India to upskill current and future employees.

“Our business model and core offering will remain as is. However, we foresee a high number of blended learning or integrated degree partnerships with institutions in India,” said Goyal.

Though students and working adults in India have embraced short online courses and certificates, it remains to be seen how many will be willing to study toward a degree online amid concerns about quality and employer recognition. It's still relatively easy to buy a fake degree certificate in India, and there are dozens of unaccredited institutions still in operation.

India's University Grants Commission is responsible for validating the new online degrees and has stated it will not accept any compromises on quality.

"Industries are no longer interested in vanilla degrees, as they want professionals with relevant skills and knowledge. The online curriculum will have to be of high quality to make the students job-ready, otherwise the increase in enrollment will serve no purpose," said Bhushan Patwardhan, vice chairman of the University Grants Commission in a recent Times of India article.

Patwardhan acknowledges, however, that work will need to be done to change attitudes toward online learning.

"For these online programs to gain academic validity, the mind-set of the society must change," he said.

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