Tuesday, Mar 21, 2023

Indian Universities In Post-Covid Crisis Landscape: The Way Forward

Indian Universities In Post-Covid Crisis Landscape: The Way Forward

In an altered landscape, what can Indian universities do to become attractive options for Indian students planning to go abroad for higher education?

Image for representational purposes only Amit Haralkar

We’ve entered June, and it is now clear that it’s going to be a very complicated academic year ahead for universities worldwide.

For instance, it looks like Australia can hope to retain a flow of international students only if its universities drastically slash tuition. Former University of Canberra Vice-chancellor Stephen Parker recently told the Times Higher Education that Australian universities had been “caught out like luxury brands have been caught out”, with prices reflecting prestige names rather than the “intrinsic superiority of the product”. Now in a Covid-altered world, with the pandemic significantly altering the appetite for foreign education for countries like China, escalating fees will be a severe deterrent for international students. Similar concerns are being voiced in the UK as well.

The massive sprawl of universities across the US, meanwhile, have begun to work out intricate and elaborate plans for the fall that include multiple combinations of online and severely restricted on-campus instruction. As The Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, a major issue facing American campuses that choose to open in the fall is going to be about liability and potential litigation on the event of illness and death. To address this, universities will need to shield themselves with a phalanx of waivers and disclosures that may further discourage students, especially applicants from overseas who would have chosen them in a more normal world.

What can Indian universities do to prepare a tough year ahead? Particularly, what can they do to become a reliable and enriching place for students who might stay in the country as opposed to going overseas for higher education?

It is becoming increasingly clear that global education and institutional collaboration – or even semester-long study abroad experiences – are going to look very different for at least the next few years. For one thing, the international experience may have to become a combination of various things – short-term visits by students and faculty, online collaborations, electronically enabled sharing of libraries and archives, team-taught courses via digital collaborations, webinars straddling multiple time zones, and a range of other measures.

A range of things can be done to make Indian universities an attractive and viable option for the student who may choose them over a foreign option. Sanat Sogani, Manager of Admissions and Outreach at Atria University feels a holistic admission process would greatly help. Many students go abroad as they find the selection process in most Indian colleges and universities too restrictive. It is particularly harsh on students emerging through the IB/Cambridge curriculum as their education does not necessarily prepare them well to perform well in competitive exams. The limitations of the traditional admission methods are also pointed out by Sapna Goel, the College and Career Guidance counsellor at Mayo College, who feels many research-focus students prefer to go abroad as they feel discouraged by the narrow admission criteria of Indian institutions.

Sogani feels that another reason why students choose to go to top institutions abroad is to get a chance of being in a global network. This could mean an opportunity to witness the next big tech invention or even better, to be a part of it. If Indian institutions could create programs where students can spend some weeks in an international community later in their college life, it could be really attractive. It is just as important to let students to experiment and even fail in the course of their education. “If a student feels like they are walking on burning coal all the time”, he says, “they will play safe.” Atria University expects students to declare a major only after 18 months. Along with curricular learning in the classroom, internships and field projects play key roles in the education process.

To provide an educational experience that compares favourably to leading international institutions, universities in India need to focus not only on the curriculum but also on the process of its delivery. Sriram Raghavan, Joint Director of the Office of Career Services at O.P. Jindal Global University, argues that career development goes hand in hand with the development of the overall personality, and softer skills often play a disproportionate role in students achieving their career goals. “Universities,” he says, “cannot be built for ease of programme delivery.” They should rather shape and promote ecosystems of self-directed learning. Indian institutions which provide a range of electives across disciplines instead of the traditional one size fits all programme are already on track for this self-driven, entrepreneurial educational experience.

Better employment prospects also make up a persuasive reason for Indian students pursuing higher education abroad. Though there is no dearth of opportunities in India, Raghavan feels that Indian universities need to do much more to realize these opportunities. Along with paid research and teaching assistantships, part-time consulting assignments – some of which already exist – universities should push the idea of year-long paid internships where students can explore the world of work and come back to finish their degree. Another option is the French and German model of apprenticeship – which involves a tripartite agreement between the student, the school and the organization. The organization commits to paying the tuition fees of the student in exchange for commensurate work, while being supported by the state in the form of tax benefits. Innovation in such collaboration between the student, the government, and the institution is also likely to widen access to quality higher education for students from diverse backgrounds.

In the last few years, an increasingly interconnected world and large economic shifts have significantly shaped changing patterns in student mobility. Kanchi Khanna, Director of Communications and Outreach at Krea University points out that 7 lac students go from India to study abroad every year but close to 40,000 foreign students from 155 different countries across the globe also come to study in India. 76 per cent of these students are enrolled in traditional UG Programmes like B.Tech, B.E, MBBS, B.Pharma, B.Sc., while interdisciplinary liberal arts programmes have grown in popularity in the last decade. “The idea that a foreign education is better,” Khanna says, “is fast losing ground and many students are choosing to stay back especially for their undergraduate studies,” with the numbers in 2019 experiencing a 21 per cent dip than the year before.

Khanna points out that Indian students going abroad look for curricular flexibility, diversity, and high teaching quality, much of which are now available in several Indian universities. In the meantime, increasingly restrictive immigration and employment policies have now made post-graduation employment and residence difficult in many countries.

While these are all important long-term measures, the most important immediate responsibility for Indian institutions of higher education in the coming academic year is almost certainly likely to be the consolidation of digital and remote learning methods to deliver as comprehensive a learning experience as it is possible in a landscape severely constricted by a pandemic. Anu Batra, Director of Information Technology at Ashoka University recommends a number of measures: investing in online teaching platforms and tools; planning course material, delivery and assessment such that it can be conducted remotely; developing standard guidelines for faculty so the students are not overwhelmed by plethora of platforms and screen fatigue; planning one on one video interactions to maximize effectiveness and personal connection. In spite of all these measures,  she says that some courses, especially those requiring laboratory work will remain difficult to conduct remotely.

Higher Education experts have already started anticipating several positive research and pedagogic consequences of the pandemic. Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, has pointed out to the Times Higher Education that several areas of research, including the effect on access and learning for disadvantaged students, the damage to the graduate labour market and the impact on university finances, are likely to be revitalized by the pandemic.

It is up to Indian institutions of higher education to respond to this crisis – and the post-crisis landscape, when it comes – with vigour, innovation, and spirit. 

(Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education, and is the author of several books, including, College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar.)

(With research input by Harshita Tripathi)