The Future Of Higher Education: A White Paper

COVID-19 changes substantially how the higher education sector must operate. This brings with it new challenges that must be urgently met, and new opportunities. Based on a virtual conference organised by Ashoka University and Harappa Education on this subject, IPC has written up a white paper that lists out insights and challenges, as well as possible solutions and opportunities.

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 drastically changed the nature of India’s higher education sector. With no real idea of how the situation would unfold in India, leaders in this sector were forced to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances with no precedent. Many institutions readily adopted an online mode of teaching and assessment while others remained reluctant to do so. 

It has become clear however, that for the foreseeable and near future the COVID-19 virus is here to stay. And so, changes in the way higher education operates are inevitable. ‘The Republic of Letters Virtual Conference’, organised jointly by Ashoka University and Harappa Education last week, provided a space for leaders of the higher education sector to come together and discuss the nature of these changes and the consequences they will have. Here are key insights into the nature of change, challenges and proposed solutions, and also possible opportunities that the COVID-19 Pandemic presents to higher education in India. The ‘new normal’ of Higher Education - Higher education is to be imparted partially through both online and offline modes, in what is to be called ‘blended learning’, where students would study partly offline and partly online (the specifics being worked out by their respective institutions). This will also include a mix of synchronous learning, where students and teachers are engaged together at the same time (as in a traditional classroom setting) and asynchronous learning, where students learn their material and complete assignments individually, as is common on platforms such as Coursera..

- If this transition is conducted properly, there can be a great increase in the reach of quality higher education across India, something that has been sorely lacking in this sector. However, there remains the risk that this will further compound existing inequalities if the tools to access this education are not equitably distributed.

- The idea of what it means to be an ‘educated person’ is set to change. Concepts like digital literacy and digital hygiene must be conveyed to students in a world where digital interaction is to increase dramatically. There must also be some emphasis on the digital humanities; in that ensuring human values like compassion and ethics are not lost in such a world. For instance, a story recently gained traction where a doctor informed an infected patient that he was to die in a few days through video call. The patient's family felt that the doctor had not used his digital tools in accordance with basic human empathy. Thus, a curriculum which focuses on teaching ethical behaviour on these tools is a necessity.  Finally, institutions must tweak their methods so that the core skills (such as communication) that they impart to their students are modified alongside the nature of the new post pandemic world. 

- There will be disruption in terms of teacher training and the role of educators. In addition to upskilling themselves by becoming more comfortable with digital learning tools, they must be encouraged to be creative and innovative in terms of how to make best use of these tools and technologies. New teaching philosophies (that lay more emphasis on experimentation, rather than following traditional norms) must also be encouraged; simply lifting the old offline model onto this new medium will not be the most effective approach. 

- The methods of ranking, accreditation and regulations for universities are primed for massive change. Points on which the quality of education was previously judged, such as student-faculty ratio, must take into account how they play into this new format of education. Regulations must also be revised, so that Indian universities would be able to compete better with increasingly accessible foriegn university programs, that are not necessarily bound by similar restrictions.

- An increase in student autonomy and student centricity will be seen. Students will have more choice in terms of their mode of learning (as evident from the aforementioned ‘blended learning’) and more choices in terms of subject combinations to create a more holistic learning experience. These are more necessary now than ever. It is also likely that students may be able to choose the time period in which they would like to complete their programmes, and will be able to convert credits they acquire into degrees or diplomas with more flexibility than before.

- There will be an increased emphasis on collaboration, both inside and amongst institutions. Intra-institute cooperation amongst all departments and administrative bodies is a necessity for transitioning to this new mode of education. The experience of some institutes like Harvard Business School show that streamlining and setting up efficient processes and systems for communication between departments and the administration - as well as between universities - would help institutes function better in these times. It has also been recommended that universities and colleges share courses amongst each other, thereby increasing student choice and decreasing cost to the institutes involved. 

- Different fields and subjects will experience independent problems and opportunities. Business students for instance will benefit from the increased flexibility of education and have a chance to more deeply experience experiential learning (although the full benefits of this would only be realised post Covid and after the education system has seen many of these reforms enacted), while natural science and engineering departments may struggle to find feasible alternatives for conducting lab experiments. Challenges and Proposed Solutions - Bridging what is known as the ‘digital divide’, between students. Those living in remote areas and those without devices of their own will lose access to education. To prevent this, the government and public sector must work towards creating infrastructure that will ensure connectivity to those even in the most remote areas of the country. Other methods of redistribution could include the donation of old devices from the well-off to university libraries, who could then distribute them to students who require them.

- Ensuring the new learning model is not limited to a ‘one-way’ transfer of information between teacher and student. The digital lecture format does pose risks as to the level of student engagement. Other digital tools such as customised discussion boards and real-time quizzes delivered during video lectures, can ensure greater engagement in this new format. 

- Setting up technical infrastructure for effective online learning, such as the tools mentioned above, in an equitable manner. Universities and colleges which are able to implement such measures are likely to have access to better resources (such as a better staffed IT department) and faculty, which could lead to a greater gap in quality of education between elite institutes and others than exists today. 

- Imparting social learning and a wholly interactive ‘campus’ experience. Heads of most universities and colleges agree that a significant part of learning occurs outside the classroom, where from different disciplines students who would otherwise not interact come together to exchange ideas. The creation of similar, digital spaces could be a solution to this, although much more experimentation is needed before a feasible model for most institutes can be widely accepted.

- Cultivating and maintaining a sense of belonging to institutions when we do not occupy their physical spaces. This problem may be further compounded by measures like course sharing, and most higher education leaders believe it must be addressed. A solution on this front, however, is yet to emerge. Possible Opportunities - Increased accessibility and reach of higher education. Provided the digital divide can be reasonably overcome, more Indians will have the opportunity to receive quality higher education than they would before the pandemic. 

- Increased flexibility for both students and faculty. This would allow students the ability to gain experience and learn through experiential learning while simultaneously being engaged in their coursework. Faculty would possibly be able to pursue research projects in a more effective manner, increasing their knowledge of the subject matter as well.

- It is widely agreed that the pandemic is bringing about changes that would have occurred regardless in India a few years later. It could thus provide an impetus to the advancement of digital literacy and related skills in higher education programs, which some argue was lacking prior to these changes. You can read more about the conference here:


You can watch a playlist of the videos here:

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