Corona Crisis: Implications For Higher Education In India

The opportunity in higher education is one of transformational change and not just incremental. This requires brave leadership that is willing to dismantle today and create a new tomorrow.

Corona has impacted the world like none other. Even the H1NI, SARS or the subprime crisis in 2008 pale when we realise that more than 50% of the world population is today stuck in homes, many are jobless and hungry. The number of people affected continues to go up. At the time of writing this article, over 3.6 million people were confirmed to have the virus. Of this 1.2 million had recovered but number of dead were 257000 people. This is perhaps the worst ever crisis post the second world war. India had 49391 confirmed cases of which 14183 had recovered and a number of dead were 257000.  In percentage as also absolute terms, this was much lower to the Second World War when globally 75 to 80 million people had died. At that time the world population was just about 2.3 billion as opposed to today when it is more than 7 billion. Likewise, SARS death rate was much higher than coronavirus, but the latter has already claimed more lives in a shorter period of time. Some compare this to 1918’s Spanish flu where to globally 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population were infected The global death toll was estimated to be as high as 50 to 70 million. The consequences of pandemics like the current one are not restricted to health and immunity system alone but also has economic, social and human repercussions. COVID is a disruption in society—a disruption last seen 100 years ago. 

Let us look at some of the more apparent consequences. In the first place, people mobility gets severely impaired. People now become immobile. They leave their workplaces to return to their home cities or village as we see happening with migrant labour in or outside India. Yet, a large proportion of the population gets stuck in places other than their home cities. For example, a recent report in University World News mentioned that hundreds of Indian students were stranded in different countries due to lockdown and disruptions in travel. Similarly, students in India were also stranded in cities other than their home city. All these incidents across India and the world have shaken up people’s confidence in work or education outside their home towns. This situation is likely to exist for a period of 3 to 5 years as it happened in 1918-20. Another expected outcome is high unemployment and joblessness. This will have a severe impact on family income. 

World Bank stated that COVID-19 pandemic will hit South Asia very hard and the significant gains made in poverty alleviation in the region are likely to be wiped out.  It has advocated for governments strong economic impetus and has further concluded that beyond the present crisis, significant opportunities exist in digital technologies which can unlock the potential in remote areas of the region.

Such loss of income will severely impact an individual’s ability to pay for goods and services. Now the basic needs of food, shelter and security will become more dominant.

On a more positive side, one of the consequences is that people have rapidly become more technology-friendly. More people are today talking on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Facebook etc. and are also spending more time on their laptops or mobiles for work, learn or acquire a new skill or just collaborate with others to perform the task.  This will help them post COVID to find gainful employment or work.

Frequent disruptions, primarily driven by technology and global demographic shifts have occurred in the last two decades. To add to this is the never experienced pandemic which has affected the entire world almost simultaneously. What is different this time from any other epidemic or change is that organisations had no or little time to respond. This holds good for higher education also even when it was slowly adapting to MOOCS and other technologies.  This adversity has today created an urgency to innovate and respond to changing demographics in different parts of the country. It is also time to integrate technology in programme curriculum and delivery, besides using it extensively in talent management.

The effect of this pandemic is the emergence of a new work culture that is based on individual and simultaneously collaborative functioning using video conferencing tools like Zoom, Cisco ad Microsoft Teams. At the same time, it has also led to people acquiring new knowledge and skills, many a time on their own instance and in other cases as a consequence of organisational HR intervention at the instance of the leader. All this learning is through online courses. Post-COVID, organisations including higher education institutions (HEIs) will have to evolve a new working model which will combine work from home with work at the institution. The model that mandates the physical presence of human resources on all days of the week for a minimum number of hours would now have to change to a combination of online and physical on-campus presence. Not only so, but new models of individual and group performance measures will also now be required. Another question that will need resolution is the effective use of physical infrastructure and other physical resources created for hundred per cent physical presence of human resources and classroom learning. 

Corona has also taught a very sombre lesson --- one of striking a balance between environment, industry and society. HEIs will have to focus on not just developing technical and management skills but perhaps redesign the programme to develop the intellectual, emotional, environment and spiritual quotients. In these times, successful individuals are those who are able to manage their moods, emotions and mind. Balance in one’s life is extremely important as else one may despair and get into a circle of negative thoughts. Spirituality (not religiosity) can always help an individual in such moments when all may look lost. Harvard Business School Dean Dr. Nitin Nohria has championed the need to develop spiritual quotient of the graduate alongside with intellect and emotional balance. Being aware of one’s environment and protecting it for better performance and for the posterity has to be a role played by all citizens but more so by graduates. I believe it is the role of HEIs to develop graduates as responsible citizens. Responsible graduates exhibit IQ (intellectual quotient), emotional quotient (EQ) Environmental quotient and Spiritual quotient or I+E2+S The above change requires HEIs to develop linkages with industry and society. 

Finally, the effect of Corona is that a large number of students who went to the US, or Europe for higher education may not pursue their dream. The opportunity now arises for top institutions like NMIMS, BITS, Jindal, Ashoka, Symbiosis and the like to target them. Applications for these Universities are likely to see a spurt especially in undergraduate programmes in business, design, liberal arts, and performing arts. Postgraduate applications in management and technology, especially ones that are offered in dual degree mode in partnership with a well-known US university which also offers internship opportunity in the US, will also see a spurt and so will be the online degrees like online MBAs.  

All this will have a bearing on institution capacity and financial resources. A new financial model including pricing will be required to survive and grow in the post COVID era.   

Paradigm shifts in Higher Education

It is hard to imagine the new world of Indian higher education post-COVID. For example, can campuses be hundred per cent touch-free? What happens to the group work where students come together to complete an assignment or an experiment? What happens to university student residences where huge capital is locked up? How will the universities ensure social distancing in traditional classrooms? How does the university evaluate the risks, if any, in online education and will students pay the same price as that of campus programme? Harvard launched its online MBA programme at a fraction of its full-time on-campus programme. It has much larger numbers enrolled globally than in the regular on-campus programme.  While it is hard to imagine the new world, a few issues seem to emerge that will lead to new paradigms. 

Deepen market reach

The US has successively been making it difficult for foreign students and now with US President likely to close immigration for all for a few years, many students dream of studying, working and settling in the US now seems a tall order. Many other countries in Europe may also not necessarily open up to foreign students,. Many of these universities which were endowment based and also depended on alumni, corporate and government funding may have difficulties in financing talented global students. 

India has an opportunity to reach out to the world market through high-quality programmes offered both in a F2F(Face to Face) and online mode The value proposition of Indian education should be quality, employable skills, relevant programmes as per the needs of the industry and society. As a mentioned earlier programme that focuses on developing student intellect, emotional intelligence, environment orientation and understanding of life can be a unique proposition. This would require integrating liberal arts subjects like geography, history, literature, sociology, philosophy and psychology in business and technology programmes. Entrepreneurship programmes at Bachelor and Master’s level with incubation facilities can also draw students from different parts of the world.

This requires extensive marketing effort in the world market. Top institutions like IITs, IIMs, NMIMS, XLRI, VIT, Symbiosis, Thapar etc which have a global ranking or global accreditation from AACSB, Equis, AMBA or ABET can be the prime movers. So can the new age universities like Ashoka or Munjal or Shiv Nadar. 

In the context of the domestic market, institutions should reach out with both campus-based and online programmes offered as far as possible in their geography. Corona is a rude reality to many students who travelled to different cities for higher education. Mobility will be affected at least for next few years. Hence branch campuses in different geographies should now reach out in their territories for students. Once again Universities that have branch campuses in different states can benefit only if they deepen their reach in the states and offer the same experience as students have in the home campus. So, if NMIMS, VIT, Symbiosis, Manipal, SRM were to offer the same learning experience in different campuses as in their home campus they can emerge winners.  

Another aspect of domestic demand relates to one emanating from more than 100000 students who have been going abroad to study. They may not want to go now or in the near future. They are the potential applicants for top Indian multidisciplinary universities. These universities would now have to reach out to them through education counsellors who focus on foreign universities and also through the social media offering programmes in diverse areas like business, entrepreneurship, liberal arts, design, performing arts, and technology. Universities that offer dual degree programmes in campus-based or hybrid mode (combo of online and F2F) can also benefit as they will provide an augmented value of Indian and foreign degree. 

Transformation to a world-class university

It is also an opportunity to transform our top 100 universities to world-class status. This needs to be done in partnership with the private sector. For this to happen an ecosystem that trusts institutions is needed. We need to open up ad let these universities innovate and respond to the changing dynamics students and industry dynamics. As society evolves post-pandemic, new norms of behaviour, working, and communication will evolve and universities will have to change their programmes, delivery modes, assessment, working models and governance. All this may not be possible if the regulatory regime is not supportive. For example, remove all barriers to improve universities access by students in any geography, domestic or international. The choice of vehicle i.e. campus or hybrid (a combination of online and campus instructions) should be that of the institution.

These institutions will require large financial support to the extent of Rs 100,000 crore only for research in the next 5 years. This funding is required for infrastructure ---establishing world-class labs, workshops, library and acquisition of large databases difficult to be paid by any single institution from its resources at this time.  Also, this fund will help finance post-doctoral research besides major research projects of national and global importance. 

The private effort is also required to create research abundance—a characteristic of world-class universities. Hence corpus has to be created through endowments from corporate and philanthropic capital. This may require a change in the governance model as the donor may want a seat on the Board and voice in future planning and management of resources.

It is now time for us to respond to the disruption that has occurred. Disruption of a magnitude unseen or heard in the living memory of human being. The opportunity in higher education is one of transformational change and not just incremental. This requires brave leadership that is willing to dismantle today and create a new tomorrow.

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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