Open Educational Resources is the Best Way for India to Have Inclusive Education

The right to information and to education give the government the mandate to make policies that guarantee the delivery of educational resources to all. But the Copyright Act needs to be amended to strengthen fair use exceptions for educational purposes.

House of Knowledge. Credit: Adrian Sifre/Flickr CC 2.0

Jaume Plensa’s House of Knowledge in Bordeaux. Credit: Adrian Sifre/Flickr CC 2.0

Last August, the University of Maryland University College made an announcement that it had replaced its undergraduate textbooks with open educational resources (OER), thereby becoming the first university in the world to take this step. OERs are defined by UNESCO as “any type of educational materials that is in the public domain or introduced with an open license.” Such materials can be legally used, copied and adapted. OERs increase access and surely reduce the cost of education considerably. They are very much needed in a developing country like India.

The Supreme Court of India in Unni Krishnan (1993) recognised the ‘right to education’ as being implicit within Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Indian constitution. Through the 86th constitutional amendment in 2002, Article 21A was inserted to include ‘right to education’ as a fundamental right. In a country where at least 29% of the population falls below the poverty line, national education policy should involve efforts to reduce the cost of education.

The burden of textbook costs

The cost of education comprises of tuition fees, textbooks, stationery and other miscellaneous expenses. At the school level, the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) and respective state councils prepare standard textbooks that are sold at subsidised price. But at the graduate and post-graduate level, the syllabus for each course paper prescribes multiple textbooks, increasing the educational expenses incurred by students. Added to this, professional courses require materials from paid online databases that are not available for students who cannot afford elite institutions.

Many universities in India prepare ‘course packs’ that are intended to help students get recommended readings at one place. Course packs contain relevant extracts from many textbooks. The fair use exceptions under Indian copyright law allow for a fair amount of copyrighted work to be copied for educational and research purposes. However, in August, 2012, some leading publishers initiated a legal battle against Delhi University and Rameshwari photocopy service for producing course packs. The court is yet to deliver a final verdict.

Imported foreign books are so expensive that even libraries find it difficult to afford them. The economy editions of foreign books sold in India are expensive even for well-to-do students. A study by Lawrence Liang and Achal Prabhala (2006) found that a consumer in India would have to pay 0.025% of her income to purchase the Oxford English Dictionary, whereas her counterpart in USA would be paying just 0.0005% of her income. Though publishers claim that their book prices are lower in India, it is unfair – given the low per capita income in India. 

Needed: Indian university presses

While libraries and students spend millions of rupees buying text books, students are still battling for fair use rights under the copyright law. Many authors including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen expressed their dissatisfaction at the move taken by the publishers to sue the photocopy services that help the student community. While the legal battle for fair use rights continues, we believe there is a need to need to think about the long term goals. If Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press can publish world class books, why is it that Indian universities have not been able to do so?

The government should fund universities to upgrade their publication divisions with state of the art technology and more human resources. It is a well-known fact that less known authors pay publishers to get their books published. Even well known authors do not get proper royalties from publishers. This problem can be fixed if public universities can actively take part in publishing good books. The books so published should be priced reasonably and offered under a Creative Commons License.

The copyright obstacle

Creative Commons Licenses offer a simple and standard way for copyright owners to allow their works to be copied, while retaining their copyright over them. For example, an author can declare through a standard Creative Commons License that her work can be copied and adapted, but shall not be used for commercial purposes. This open and free culture helps in the growth of human knowledge for the benefit of mankind.

Books published under Creative Commons License can be photocopied without the fear of facing copyright infringement suits by giant publishers. The electronic version of the books should be published online for free. This will solve the bottleneck problem of distributing books to remote parts of the country. This will also ensure that students have access to the books any time on their electronic devices. The possibilities with electronic versions of scholarly books are endless. Such books published by Indian universities under Creative Commons Licenses will lay a strong foundation for incorporating OERs in our educational institutions.

As early as 1975, the Supreme Court in State of UP v. Raj Narain recognised the ‘right to information’ as a fundamental right within the ambit of Article 19(1)(a) of our constitution. The right to information and the right to education give the government the mandate to make policies that guarantee the delivery of educational resources to all. But the Copyright Act needs to be amended to strengthen fair use exceptions for educational purposes. The term of copyright is unusually long in India and needs to be reduced, so that more and more works are available in the public domain.

There have been a few OER initiatives in India. The Digital Library of India project – initiated in 2002 has taken the task of digitising old books that are in the public domain. The ‘National Repository of Open Educational Resources’ has brought the information in NCERT textbooks online and made it available under a Creative Commons License. However, ‘EGyankosh’ – the open repository of study materials from IGNOU – has been ‘under repair’ for more than a year! These materials were created by utilising public funds and hence they belong to the public. Even other institutions funded by the government should open up their knowledge resources to the public.

Finally, libraries should be upgraded with infrastructure to provide access to digital resources for the public. All these policies together will help in achieving the goal of inclusive education.

Madhu K S is Assistant Librarian, National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She tweets at @BibliolawGagan Krishnadas is a research scholar, Department of Studies in Law, University of Mysore. He tweets at @gagankrish.

The authors wish to thank Alok Prasanna Kumar for his suggestions