The All India Council for Technical Education ("AICTE") has published the AICTE (Open and Distance Learning Education and Online Education) Guidelines, 2021 ("AICTE Guidelines 2021" / "Guidelines") on March 1st, 2021.

The AICTE has, through these Guidelines, permitted   offering of full-fledged courses through online mode; although at present this is only for limited programmes. These Guidelines regulate the process for certain technical courses to be offered online and through open and distance learning programmes. ("Online and ODL Programmes" respectively).

The AICTE Guidelines 2021 are to be read in conjunction with the University Grants Commission (Open and Distance Learning Programmes and Online Programmes) Regulations, 2020 ("UGC Online-ODL Regulations 2020") as notified on September 4th, 2020. This is in keeping with the vision of the National Education Policy (2020) for a single umbrella regulator for higher education in India, as there appears to be certain degree of co-ordination required between the two regulators, i.e., AICTE and the UGC.

The major highlights of the AICTE Guidelines 2021 are as follows:

1. Applicability: The Guidelines apply to higher educational institutions ("HEI") including standalone institutions, institutions-deemed to be universities, and universities under UGC Act, 1956, for courses in management and allied areas, computer applications, artificial intelligence and data science in the engineering and technology domain, logistics, and travel and tourism.

Any programmes other than these have been expressly prohibited for Online and ODL mode.

The Online and ODL Programmes will be equivalent to the Certificate / Diploma / PG Diploma / PG Degree level programme offered in conventional mode.

2. No prior approval for certain institutions: In terms of section 3 (a) of the Guidelines, The Guidelines permits HEIs having either a National Assessment and Accreditation Council ("NAAC") score of 3.26 and above on a scale of 4, or a National Board of Accreditation ("NBA") score of 700 on a scale of 1000, or having rank in Top 100 in the university category of National Institutional Ranking Framework at least twice in three preceding cycles (at the time of application), to offer full-fledged Online and ODL Programmes without prior approval of the AICTE only for NBA accredited programmes.

However, such institutions shall be required to submit an application along with the required information and affidavits as given in the Guidelines and shall be required to comply with the Guidelines at all times.

3. Approval process for other institutions: In terms of section 3 (b) of the Guidelines, HEIs which have completed at least 5 (five) years of existence and which are either accredited by NAAC with minimum score of 3.01 on a 4-point scale, or accredited by NBA with at least 650 points on a scale of 1,000, or shall be in the top-100 in the University category in the National Institutional Ranking Framework for at least twice in last three preceding cycles (at the time of application), can apply for AICTE's approval for offering Online and ODL Programmes.

It must be noted that such institutions must acquire NBA Accreditation with a minimum score of 650 points on a scale of 1000 within two years from the date of initial approval by AICTE.

4. Programme Approval Process: In terms of section 5 of the Guidelines, the AICTE shall process the applications received as per the Guidelines and will have the authority to: 

  1. Remove any such deficiency or defect with the necessary documents or information, if any, within 15 (fifteen) days.
  2. where the Institution has made an application for offering Online and ODL Programme(s), the AICTE can cause an inspection at its discretion through an expert committee.
  3. To examine the application with the help of an expert committee constituted by the Council and the recommendations of the committee shall be placed before the Council for its consideration.

Upon AICTE being satisfied with all the parameters specified, it shall pass an order granting approval to such institution in respect of such programme as specified in the order. It also has the authority to refuse such application if it is of the opinion that application does not fulfil the requirements laid down in the Guidelines.

5. Refusal or withdrawal of approval: In terms of section 5(5) of the Guidelines, if the application by an HEI for approval of their Online and ODL Programmes is refused by AICTE, the HEI must discontinue such programmes with immediate effect.

Furthermore, as per section 6 of the Guidelines, the AICTE may withdraw the approval granted to an HEI on its own motion or on any representation received from any person, if it is satisfied that the said institution has contravened any of the provisions of these Guidelines and orders made or issued there under, or has submitted or produced any information and documentary evidence which is found to be false at any stage or any condition subject to which recognition has been granted.

6. Assessment, Accreditation, Audit, Inspection and Monitoring: According to sections 8 and 9 of the Guidelines, HEIs are required to mandatorily undergo assessment and accreditation as per the existing regulations or norms in addition to third party academic audits every 5 (five) years. Further, HEIs recognized under the Guidelines must also undergo assessment of Online and ODL Programmes and annual academic audits by Centre for Internal Quality Assurance ("CIQA") once in a year. The CIQA report after assessment must be placed on the HEI's website and presented to the AICTE. Moreover, the AICTE has powers of inspection and periodic review over the HEIs and may require HEIs to provide information with the viewpoint of adherence with the Guidelines.

7. Miscellaneous: Other salient features of the Guidelines include:

  1. Intake: The approval of intake will be a maximum of three times of the sanctioned intake of specific programme in conventional / regular mode.
  2. Academic year of Online and ODL Programmes: Every Institution which is accorded approval by the AICTE shall offer Online and ODL Programmes from the academic session as mentioned in the AICTE Order.
  3. Approval from UGC: As per the UGC (Online-ODL) Regulations 2020, approval of respective regulatory body is necessary for running the programmes of that domain and accordingly institutions which are Institutions Deemed to be Universities and Universities shall take approval of the AICTE and also necessarily shall take the approval of the UGC in order to actually run the programme. None of the affiliated colleges / institutions can conduct Online and ODL Programmes.

Mr. Vinay Vaish, Joint Managing Partner

Mr. Manish Tully, Associate Partner

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