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IGNOU, RTI And The Distant Dream Of Women's Empowerment

By B Rahul

28 December, 2006

Analysis of the latest data made available by the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi (IGNOU) in response to an application made under the Right to Information Act reveals that the average number of female students freshly enrolled each year in the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree programme in the seven years from 1996 to 2002 was 17146 which is 65% of the total. Among these the average number from the Scheduled Castes (SC) was 1903 (11.1%) and the average number from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) was 831 (4.8%). The average number of female students per year over the same period who had successfully completed the course and been awarded the BA degree was a miniscule 440. Among these the average number from the SC was only 64 and the average number from the ST was just 17. Even though the time schedule for completion of the course in the distance education format is flexible and so it is not possible to directly compare the enrolment and pass averages given above nevertheless it can be roughly said that over the period under review on an average about 2.6 % of the female students were successfully completing the course every year while this statistic for the SC is 3.4 % and for the ST it is 2 %.

The most striking feature of this data is that of the considerably fewer number of female students passing as compared to male students. Thus in 1996 even though females constituted 67.1% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 29.5%. Similarly in 2002 while females constituted 63.4% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 31.6%. Thus it is quite evident that IGNOU, which is the premier institute of distance education in the country, has not quite lived up to its self professed mission of " ....knowledge ... dissemination through sustainable open and distance learning systems seamlessly accessible to all, including the hitherto unreached, from among whom the leaders and innovators of tomorrow will emerge."(Italics added for emphasis) (IGNOU website - www.ignou.ac.in).

However, not being privy to these dismal statistics in 1998, Subhadra Khaperde, impressed by the mission statement of IGNOU, had then enrolled for the Bachelor's Degree Programme of the university. She comes from an economically very poor dalit marginal farmer family and had had to give up her education after somehow passing the higher secondary examination in 1987 in the third division and start work as an anganwadi worker. She progressed to becoming a political activist involving herself in the many battles that were fought over land, water and forest rights in Madhya Pradesh before concentrating on securing the reproductive health and rights of Bhil adivasi women in western Madhya Pradesh from 1995 onwards. After a decade of grassroots mobilisation however she found that her initial belief that the various enabling provisions of the Constitution and many affirmative laws would be implemented if only the people got organised and demanded their rights was very naive. She realised that the rule of law promised in the Constitution was not only there only on paper but also that the state would not tolerate organised attempts by the masses to make it work on the ground. This made her feel that she must read up on political theory and practice to properly understand this sad conundrum of laws on paper that are never implemented. However, the education she had received in school she found was wholly inadequate for her to understand the various books that she was plied with by other better read activists. So in 1997 she decided to start formal studies again by doing a bachelor's degree in Political Science from IGNOU.

Subhadra soon found herself all at sea in the deep waters of the IGNOU course material. The problem was compounded by the fact that the texts had been originally written in English by the leading Indian scholars in their fields and then translated into Hindi. The normal practice for translation of arcane technical terms is to break up the English word into its Latin or Greek roots and then construct a Hindi word by combining the corresponding Sanskrit roots. This artificially created term being a specialised one is not found in any of the standard Hindi dictionaries. Moreover since the main words are in Sanskrit the sentences constructed with these also use a high Sanskritised Hindi, which has little relation to the colloquial Hindi that is popularly spoken. Thus making sense of the IGNOU course material for a graduate of the government school system is almost as difficult an exercise as deciphering the Harappan script. Since this was beyond her capacity Subhadra had to engage a tutor to assist her in a big way not only in understanding the meaning of the texts but also in doing the assignments which too had to be written in high quality Sanskritised Hindi. The crunch came in the examinations. The papers were set in such a way that they thoroughly tested whether the student had read and assimilated the course material properly and wholly. A study of past question papers revealed that there is no pattern discernible in the questions asked. So it is very difficult to predict the possible questions and prepare accordingly as is the custom in most universities in this country. Nor are there any study guides as the student base of IGNOU is too small to make their publication profitable.

The inevitable result of all this was that in the initial stages Subhadra mostly passed her examinations by the skin of her teeth or sometimes failed. Even though the tutor prepared the answers for a wide range of questions it was just beyond her capacity to cram all of them. So she had to write off the cuff answers to questions for which she had not prepared and obviously she did not have the proficiency to do so. Sometimes she was failed or given poor marks despite writing good answers and there was no redressal even after filing for review. The only saving grace is that a student could take as many as eight years at that time to pass the three-year course and so failed papers could be reappeared for or a lesser number of papers could be taken per semester. She gradually passed her papers till only one paper remained. This was the foundation course in English. She had already failed in this once in the initial stages. She had to spend a whole year learning only English and then somehow passed the paper on the strength of an essay on a topic, which she had prepared before hand that luckily came in the paper.

Once this IGNOU odyssey was over Subhadra began wondering as to how many people actually passed the BA examination of IGNOU given the toughness of the course and the exacting examination standards. The BA being the most basic graduation level course would be opted for mostly by people from a disadvantaged background who had like her lost touch with education for a long time and wanted to catch up on it. But the fact of the matter is that Subhadra had been able to stay the course and become a graduate of IGNOU with much difficulty only because she had engaged a tutor to help her throughout. Not everyone is so lucky and so she surmised that very few people were actually successfully completing the course. She asked around in her own city Indore and found that all the people whom she traced had dropped out of the course after enrolment having been frustrated by the toughness of the course and the examinations. This prompted her to write to IGNOU for statistics regarding the pass percentages disaggregated by caste category in the BA course over the past decade. There was no reply. The research section of IGNOU, which should be analysing the performance of the students and evaluating the efficacy of the course, too said that they had no data regarding the BA course. She then got some of her journalist friends in Delhi to inquire about this and they too got fobbed off with vague replies. She then wrote to the Principal Secretary Higher Education of the Government of India who is an IAS officer from the Madhya Pradesh cadre to get this information and once again drew a blank.

Finally as a last resort an application was filed with the Public Information Officer (PIO) of IGNOU under the Right to Information Act 2005 for this information. A subordinate of this officer replied and refused the information with some vague excuse. A stern letter was then sent to the Vice Chancellor who is the Designated Appellate Authority for IGNOU under the RTI Act, pointing out that the Public Information Officer was liable for penal action for having wilfully obstructed the furnishing of the information that had been demanded. This had some effect and the officer sent the data but it was complete only for seven years from 1996 to 2002. Repeated reminders could not elicit the remaining information from 2003 to 2005 and so a second appeal was filed with the Central Information Commission to direct IGNOU to furnish the data for the whole decade from 1996 to 2005. After a long wait of eight months the appeal finally came up for hearing before the Commission on 18th of December. The Information Commissioner instead of taking the IGNOU PIO to task for not supplying the complete information and penalising him said that since he had given some information the petitioner should not be intolerant and should sit with the PIO and sort out the remaining differences. The petitioner's argument that enrolment and pass statistics are basic information and that the Information Commissioner should order IGNOU to put them up compulsorily on their website so that they would have to sit up and do something to improve their performance as a result of public scrutiny of such a dismal performance cut no ice with the Information Commissioner who said that the staff of IGNOU were over worked anyway. The petitioner finally left in disgust leaving the IGNOU PIO and the Information Commissioner to their mutual backslapping.

This whole sordid scenario indicates that there are a lot of women like Subhadra with a poor schooling background and unable to take admission in colleges which require regular attendance who are enrolling in IGNOU in the fond hope that they will get a BA degree. However, the toughness, nay inappropriateness of the course material, the examination papers and their strict and even sadistic evaluation coupled with inadequate coaching are putting paid to their dreams leading to these women not being able to pass out. No wonder then that these statistics regarding pass percentages, that are easily made available by most universities, are such a closely guarded secret in IGNOU and not readily disclosed to anyone. Not only has IGNOU failed to help the underprivileged students who have taken admission in the BA degree course to emerge as leaders and innovators of tomorrow but it has instead severely dented their self respect by making them into failures. This criminal negligence assumes an even more serious hue when we consider the fact that an overwhelming two-thirds majority of those aspiring and then failing to make something of themselves due to this insensitivity of IGNOU are women. What is most galling is that an institution that projects itself as the best distance learning university in the world on the strength of the performance in its money spinning elite professional courses like management, which are availed of by students from a privileged background, does not have the honesty to review the continually deteriorating performance of its most basic BA degree programme. The attempt to bring some transparency into the operation of IGNOU through the RTI Act too has proved futile given the tendency of bureaucrats to shield each other. The net result is that the empowerment of poor women is destined to remain a distant dream.

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