Ignou’s dual talk leaves students in the lurch

Nobody would have thought that in less than two years of setting up of the first Indian Sign Language Research & Training Centre (ISLRTC) for the hearing-impaired, plans would be afoot to shut it down. But that is what seems to be happening at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou) campus here.

Vice-Chancellor M. Aslam categorically told The Hindu that there was no point in continuing with the Bachelor of Arts in Applied Sign Language Studies (BAASLS) programme.

The decision has left the students angry and confused about their future. They shared their grievances with The Hindu in sign language through an interpreter.

Dashrath Jadeja, a second-year student and students’ representative, said, “The BAASLS course is the only one in the country. It is offered bilingually and caters to 70 of us here. There are [an estimated] two million hearing-impaired students in the country. What will the centre tell them after shutting down the course?”

“Fresh admissions have not been happening for the past two years. (BAASLS was started in 2009). This triggered rumours about the continuation of the course. In May, I went to meet the VC with my mother and he assured her that we would get our degrees. But that is not happening,” said Sheena Kaul, a final-year student.

When the hearing-impaired students enrolled for the programme, they were told they would receive a dual degree from Ignou and its partner in the United Kingdom, University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). However, Ignou has now backtracked saying the students would have to be content with only an UCLan degree.

Recently, after the students agitated in front of government ministries and the VC’s office, the VC said he would provide them with a certificate of participation. “But it is unfair and unacceptable,” say the students.

“Why should we sacrifice our Indian B.A. degree? I am applying to a college in Bombay and they insist on a degree from a UGC recognised institution,” said Bablu Kumar in his final year.

According to copies of the brochure available with The Hindu, the programme was indeed advertised as a dual degree, “BAASLS ….is a dual award programme jointly offered by Ignou and UCLan, after the completion of which students get the benefit of dual degrees.”

No infrastructure

The VC, however, dismissed this as a mistake and said the course details had been wrongly advertised. “I am going to take strict action against the person who advertised wrong information,” said Prof. Aslam, adding that even as the programme was being initiated (by the erstwhile VC, V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai) he saw it as a mistake to undertake a face-to-face programme for the hearing-impaired in Ignou as the institute did not have appropriate infrastructure. He refutes that there was ever any agreement of a combined degree.

“The MoU clearly states that it is a Memorandum of Cooperation for franchise arrangements between UCLan and Ignou. Nowhere does it state that it will be a dual degree programme,” he said. The MoU also states, “Ignou and UCLan shall be jointly responsible for the promotion and publicity of the course/ programme. All intended promotional material should be submitted to the UCLan Advancement Service, including the proposed use of UCLan’s name or logo, for approval. Ignou should not use any such promotional materials without the prior written consent of UCLan.”

Prof. Aslam said there was no provision in Ignou Act and statutes to issue a dual degree.

The foundation stone for the ISLRTC, set up with support from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (SJE), was laid with much fanfare in 2011 by the then Human Resource Minister Kapil Sibal and Minister for SJE Mukul Wasnik.

The documents available with The Hindu for the phase-wise proposals of the launch of the programme signed by programme coordinators of both UCLan and Ignou clearly state that the Undergraduate B.A. (Hons) degree is a “joint degree programme awarded by Ignou as well as UCLan for both Indian and foreign students.” The objectives of the programme have been listed as, “to provide access to higher education for the Indian deaf students as well as to the deaf community in Asia, Africa and Middle East. To produce sign language teachers and other related professionals.”

As far as the setting up of ISLRTC is concerned, the minutes of the 109th meeting of the Board of Management available on the website state that the proposal for establishment of the ISLRTC as a sponsored project of the Ministry of SJE was approved by the Board.

For now, steps are under way to disengage both the Ministry and UCLan from the programme.

“I have spoken to UCLan’s representative Prof Ulrike Zeshan and we have agreed to terminate the course at the moment. We are open to future collaboration. In the meantime, I will look into the provisions of the Act so that any programme we start for the hearing-impaired in the future is done properly,” said Prof. Aslam.

When contacted, a Ministry spokesperson said, “Ignou has informed the Department of Disability that it is not interested in continuing with the course. They have unilaterally decided to withdraw from the arrangement. We are in discussion with them and looking at alternatives.”

ISLRTC Director P.R. Ramanujam insists that it is not for the Ignou Act to spell out each degree. The Board of Management and Academic Council, based on the Act, chalks out the finer details of the programmes to be offered.

“It is a strange irony, that problems faced by the students — lack of proper infrastructure, no labs and scholarship issues — are being cited as reasons for shutting down the course rather than improving on the present structure. How can they complain about lack of qualified teachers when they are shutting down the only centre in the country offering teachers the required qualification?” asked a teacher on conditions of anonymity.

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