Value add Education

The time is NOW

The current pandemic has adversely affected every aspect of human life from health, business, and leisure to education. Schools and colleges are closed and there are many doubts about the short-term and long-term impact of the measures being used to tackle the problem. Even after the pandemic subsides, its ripple effects will have a permanent impact on education.

While most educational institutions have shifted to online teaching, this approach will be challenging in the long term. Amid what is likely to be a deep economic recession, students and parents have begun to question what type of higher education provides the best value (if any). COVID-19 will also exacerbate some of the pre-existing and systemic challenges faced by higher education providers.

Since independence, the higher education system in India has undergone a development spurt, entailing drastic improvements in the number of establishments, enrolment rate, faculty positions, infrastructure development and provision of facilities and technological advancements. India boasts the second-most expanded higher education system globally. The regulatory roadmap of this sector is curated by the University Grants Commission (UGC), which devises appropriate guidelines and standards, keeps a check on the extent to which they are implemented countrywide, and aligns the functions of the central and the state governments. However, unlike the West, we have never developed a backup online education plan.

Now, COVID-19 is forcing parents to become tech-savvy in a short span of time to help their children learn. This may become the new normal with far-reaching implications for students from lower economic groups. Its effects need to be studied further so that the experience becomes valuable in overhauling the Indian higher education system. Unlike the West, we have never developed a backup online education dissemination plan.

According to the 2018-19 All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), there are 993 universities, 39,931 colleges and 10,725 independent institutions nationwide. Unfortunately, higher education institutions are concentrated mostly in urban areas, and that is the reason for the poor Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER). However, the GER has increased during the last five years, from 24.3 in 2014-15 to 26.3 in 2018-19. An effective online education system can mitigate this challenge, bring more objectivity and transparency and GER can reach beyond 80%.

There are challenges as well. Many students today travel abroad to get a good education, primarily due to the lack of globally ranked education institutions in India. Harvard University has around 21.1% international students in its entire student body in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. At Oxford, this number is 43%, with students from more than 150 countries. Almost 30% of the student body of the National University of Singapore, included among the league of premier Asian universities, comprises international students. In contrast, the rate of enrolment of international students in Indian institutions is considerably less. At the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the number is only one per cent; Jamia Hamdard — recently recommended as an ‘Institution of Eminence’ (IoE) by the Ministry of Human Resources Development — has about 7%.

According to the 2018-19 All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), a total of 47,427 international students are enrolled in different Indian universities. The majority belong to India’s neighbouring countries. COVID-19 will definitely limit their international travel and the proportion of foreign students enrolled in Indian Universities will also reduce.

The above description is an argument towards the Indian education system waiting for a revamp. If India is to be featured on a larger scale on the global education platforms, this is the time. Significant focus needs to be laid on technology and innovation with improvisations in the IT infrastructure.

Such a crisis can be turned into an opportunity to align with upcoming prospects. This is the perfect occasion to understand possible threats, spot loopholes and work on capacity building. The Finance Minister has announced that the top 100 universities in the country will be permitted to start online courses by May 30, 2020, which is a welcome step. This will help in increasing the GER substantially with increased enrolment from tier 2 and tier 3 cities. We have never given online or distance mode of education as much weightage as the regular mode. This is the right time to change this mindset.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) and other regulatory bodies need to revise their protocols so that online education is made more mainstream. Faculty selection criteria should also be amended to check for technology friendliness. The current disruption in the education sector will lead to a paradigm shift in the learning process. This will bring more transparency and address to deliver quality education on a large scale while ensuring inclusive e-learning. Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education, says, “We don’t simply want to frantically struggle to restore the status quo because the status quo wasn’t operating at an effective level and certainly wasn’t serving all of our children fairly”. The already existing financial and technological disparities among various students have been made more apparent by the current scenario.

The online education system cannot function unless there is a reliable backup of Information Technology infrastructure. Very few universities have a good quality IT-enabled education system, which also has Internet connectivity with good bandwidth and a robust security system, in place. Till now, we never realised the need for an online university with universal, curriculum-linked resources for teaching and learning integrated curriculum widely delivered with a blended model. There are opportunities for universities to leverage the Internet and offer an “anytime, anywhere, anyone” model of higher education. The real challenge will be professional courses like Medicine, Nursing and Engineering. The education system should also focus on creating innovative career opportunities as we could see a complete change in the future job markets.

With the young population in India being a large number, policy makers should look at developing a consortium-type cluster university platform. A group of premier institutions like IoEs can form a virtual cluster education model to offer low-cost, high-quality, professional education that does not need separate campuses or geographic boundaries. For cost-effectiveness and economies of scale, cluster universities can share administrative resources to reduce duplication of activities. Such IT-enabled universities will have to deal with a large student base and, therefore, cannot falter on infrastructure. This requires enormous investment and the majority of the Indian institutions cannot afford that unless the government provides support. The national education budget should absorb the cost of these technologies for at least all the IoEs regardless of their status as private or public.

India spends considerably less on education compared to many other countries. The operational expenditures of Harvard University and Oxford University are $5.2 billion and $3.1 billion per annum, respectively. On the contrary, as per the annual budget of 2019-2020, the total allocation for the higher education sector in India is less than $ 5.0 billion. This implies that the entire nation’s higher education budget is less than Harvard University’s annual operational expenditure alone!

The IoE tag permits certain institutions to admit up to 30% international students with no restrictions levied on the fee charged from them. They can also hire foreign faculty up to 25% of the total number. With the focus on online or distance learning, hiring foreign faculty will be easy and cost-effective. In the recent past, India has become one of the fastest-growing sources of outbound students. The latest trends have demonstrated an increase in the number of students pursuing undergraduate education abroad, in contrast to earlier scene when students migrated for a post-graduate degree or a doctorate. Many students now seek admissions in foreign institutions immediately after high school, which is evidence of the availability of buying power, demand and a favourable market.

According to the data recorded by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, nearly 753,000 Indian students were enrolled in foreign universities as of July 2018. Another study conducted by ASSOCHAM and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, reveals that the expenditure of Indian students on foreign education amounts to $7 billion or around ₹45,000 crore a year. This outbound travel can be reduced significantly if global levels of quality can be obtained from Indian universities. Also, IoEs like Jamia Hamdard, IITs and IIMs can enhance their capacity through online mode. While this will trigger a competition to attract Indian students, the country will benefit enormously in the long run and emerge as a world leader in quality education with global rankings coming as a bonus!

Shibu John is Professor and former Dean, School of Management and Business Studies, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi. Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain is Vice Chancellor, Jamia Hamdard and Former Vice Chancellor, University of Hyderabad, and Former Invited Professor, IIT Delhi, and Former Member, University Grants Commission (UGC).

An edited version of this article appeared in print.


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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 11:39:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/the-time-is-now/article31710989.ece

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