COVID-19 Advances The Necessity For Bold Reforms In Education

After the unprecedented disruption created by COVID-19, the urgency and importance of robust education policy is even more important than ever.

India needs a new education policy that can benefit students, ease the challenges faced by institutions, and support the industry. This is a seemingly challenging task, to balance the interests of key stakeholders of education, however, that is the only way to advance, for in every stakeholder’s interest lies the other’s. We have all been awaiting the announcement of India’s next education policy. It has done several rounds of deliberations between civil society, committees, inter-governmental exchanges, and the ministries. 

After the unprecedented disruption created by COVID-19, the urgency and importance of robust education policy is even more important than ever. We saw stories of how Indian students were being evacuated from Wuhan just after the outbreak and for me especially, that was the first time I got to know that Indians are studying there. Globally, around 7.5 lakh students from India were studying in a foreign country in 2019, a number that has been steadily growing year on year. Students studying in a foreign country, as well as students who intend to enroll this year, have been adversely affected. 2020 post-COVID-19 will in all likelihood be the first time when we see a dip - a big one - in the number of students choosing to go abroad. Unfortunately, this is not by choice but by compulsion. 

Let's look at three major fissures in India's education system, that have been hit by COVID-19, but require healing nonetheless. 


At a diplomatic level, India needs to work with other countries to ensure that students can complete their education abroad or transfer it to India. At the policy level, we need to reflect on this growing trend of foreign education and ask if, there are some aspects we need to reform in our system which makes people choose foreign universities and spend so much on high fees. So we ask, what are some key elements of high-quality education in foreign countries? One of the primary factors is autonomy. A trustful system relies on autonomy and merit whereas a distrustful system uses regulations and compliance. Sadly, excellence does not flourish under outdated regulations. In a flow of autonomy, countries that are known for high-quality education impart autonomy to institutions, these institutions pass it on to various departments, and the departments in turn to faculty. This is how they nurture a culture of excellence at all levels. On the contrary, we in India tend to believe that our faculty are incompetent, our departments are lazy, and our institutions are malicious. 

There are of course outliers in the Indian system and on closely examining them, we will realize that they are founded on principles of autonomy. In fact, that has been the government’s award to some of the top institutions - they have been given autonomy from a highly bureaucratic system enabling them to become ‘Institutions of Eminence’. If the issue is so clear, is it not natural that we extend autonomy further? How this will be done is a grey area in the draft policy. There are suggestions to close down current regulatory bodies but there are also recommendations to create new bodies. It is yet to be seen if the policy can answer the issue of autonomy. 


We are grappling with end-year examinations. Weeks into the lockdown, we have still not been able to devise how exams will be conducted and how students will go from school to college and from college to companies, without having a mark sheet. It is indeed an extremely difficult task to achieve. However, beyond this operational issue, the idea of exams is at its core to be examined. Not just in India, but globally, evaluation methods have been criticized and even mocked. Many have seen the popular cartoon graphic where an examiner asks a bunch of animals, including fish, to climb a tree in order for it to be declared as passing an exam. It is an exaggeration but reveals the enormity of the issue. COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to rethink evaluation methodologies. 

We strongly believe that exams are generating false positives as well as false negatives. I graduated as an engineer from a premier institute but surely cannot reproduce much of what I learned as well as other individuals, who are much better engineers but could not get into the institute. Meaningful evaluation cannot be done as standardized tests. Such tests served the purpose of a robotic workforce in the industrial era but do not cater to today’s needs. However, personalization is a hugely challenging problem to execute at scale. The policymaker’s dilemma is to implement it at the level of an entire system. That is where we use the autonomy described above and support it with the current technology available to us. Now, learning styles and learning levels can be mapped at the level of an individual at scale. 

Other than standardization, the checkpoint approach that the examination system has adopted needs to be reformed. We cannot be examined annually or biannually to judge our learning abilities. The process has to look at the way we lead our lives. Is there an exam before a husband and wife decide to split? Is there a test before a promotion? Does a venture fund invest in a company based on an assignment? Life teaches us that not only efforts are a continuous process, they are also judged continuously and in a variety of ways. The experience of learning has to draw from the experience of life. We cannot design an education fit for life if our ontology for education is different from that of life. Subjective feedbacks, faculty endorsements, peer-assessments, self-assessments, to name a few, have to be tried out as ideas and policy must give a directed scope for it. This raises a natural question of how will we identify people for admissions to IITs, UPSC, NEET and so on. Till the time there is a demand-supply gap in these areas, we will need an exam based objective criteria. But a system designed for competitive exams cannot be applied to education in general. 


COVID-19 has opened us to a major issue in our existing models. Hitherto, ‘formal’ education in India is legislated to be a not-for-profit sector. Schools, colleges, and universities cannot pursue profits. This is a very honorable thought but has not generated much honor for our education system. Many philanthropic activities have led to the creation of excellent non-profit institutions but donations alone cannot suffice India’s continuously growing needs. The country requires massive investments so that the education sector can attract top-quality talent as faculty, invest in industry-standard research, and diversify its offerings to build a rewarding financial model. 

Schools are unable to collect fees and henceforth unable to pay their staff, who in turn may not be able to teach students. The whole system is at a loss. In a month’s time, higher education will face a similar situation. We are exposed to the fact that institutes have to totally rely on student fees to run their operations. Without investments and liberal policies, they are not able to build a robust business model that can reduce risks and increase their rewards. The draft education policy is silent on this matter. We need bold experiments if we want transformative results. 

In conclusion, while there are many challenges our system faces, and many solutions that the draft education policy proposes, these are three big areas where we feel there is still a massive gap. Many a time, public awareness feeds into policy changes. Regrettably, education has never been a major political issue so public pressure to enable reform has been low. Now at a time when a global biological crisis has highlighted the fissures in education, we have to effectively manage existing challenges amplified by COVID-19 and skillfully harness the prospects it has opened. Our policymakers have to be cognizant of the current changes and use them to take bold decisions. The opportunity is here and the time is now. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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