India – Can a Better Higher Education System Emerge Out of the Coronavirus Crisis?

by Mousumi Mukherjee


In a recent article in the Financial Times, Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and professor at Harvard University, reflected on how a better society can emerge out of the lockdowns by citing historic developments around the world in the post-WorldWar II period. He calls for more concern for equity in crisis management to usher in a less unequal world in the future. If a better society can emerge out of the lockdowns, can a better higher education system also emerge out of the lockdowns?

In fact, India had a great ancient tradition of higher education, about which scholars such as Amartya Sen have already written extensively. Over the many centuries, this tradition of higher education had declined. The modern Indian higher education system, established during the British colonial period, has been caught up in a tug-of-war, post-independence from colonial rule, with its heritage as “retailers of knowledge” to reproduce educated professionals out of colonial subjects and the needs of a contemporary postcolonial sovereign nation-state to reproduce “critical thinking Indian citizens”.

Historically, higher education has been a privilege for the few. Hence, widening access to higher education became a major postcolonial agenda. In recent years, there has also been a major policy shift to re-imagine modern Indian higher educational institutions as active “creators of knowledge”, rather than passive retailers and consumers of knowledge.

Now with the coronavirus lockdowns, the delivery of education in the private higher educational institutions and some public institutions in India has moved online, like many other countries, in order to manage the learning gap for the rest of the academic year in 2020. But, many academics and experts, who are driven by a call towards social justice, have been raising questions about access to online education and highlighting the issue of the digital divide.

Two committees were set up by the University Grants Commission in India, led by the Vice-Chancellor of Haryana University and the Vice-Chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, to deliberate on issues related to learning loss and online education. The committee members have recommended a staggered approach to resume classes in the new academic session in September instead of July, and to conduct online classes and exams only when it is feasible. Otherwise, faculty and students should wait until the lockdown is over.

Higher Education in Crisis Before COVID-19
However, will access to online education help to manage the learning gaps of even so-called privileged students in India? Here, it is important to narrate my own college experience within the mainstream public higher education system in India. Even without COVID-19 related national lockdowns, we hardly had meaningful teaching and learning experience in the classrooms.

Except for the classes delivered by one or two outstanding professors, students would take least interest in attending classes in college. Teachers would appear with a register to take attendance and then read out notes from the yellowed pages of their notebooks. These notes were probably delivered by their own professors 30 years ago!

Most good students would be self-directed learners who seek out help outside of the mainstream education system in their pursuit of knowledge. Hence, more privileged students, those who were either academic elites or financial elites, would travel abroad for higher studies. This outward movement of students from countries like India created a large international education market abroad.

Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, many scholars and experts are predicting that the national lockdowns may benefit higher education systems in the emerging economies, such as India. Since Western countries are deciding to focus on the domestic education sector and move towards online education for the rest of 2020, it may not be an attractive proposition for Indian students to pay huge fees to study abroad if the education is delivered online.

Experts are predicting that it might take 5 years for students to move freely across borders again and for the international education market to recover. This could be an opportunity for new quality higher educational institutions in India to retain outward-mobile Indian students and build India as a regional educational hub, according to a recent QS-iGauge report. The Indian Minister of Human Resource and Development, Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank also expressed great optimism about recovering Indian HEI’s ancient glories and thanked teachers for their contributions as “yodhhas” (warriors) against coronavirus during his live interactions on 28 May with the heads and staff of 45,000 HEIs in India through Facebook and Twitter, organised by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. But, could the restriction on international mobility for Indian students due to the global coronavirus crisis be taken as an opportunity to improve the overall domestic higher education sector in India?

This could be an opportunity for new quality higher educational institutions in India to retain outward-mobile Indian students and build India as a regional educational hub.

What is Missing in Indian Higher Education?
As highlighted in the narration of personal experience above, mainstream Indian higher education curriculum and pedagogy need a massive overhaul. Often, within academia, the use of technology is seen as something that is dumbing down the curriculum. The teaching and learning process is often viewed as a scholarly, monastic activity. Those who are bookworms, those who can read and write well without much effort are seen as intelligent, smart people. The rest are all seen as either stupid “Buddhoo” (in Hindi) or, highly entitled “spoiled-brats”.

At the higher education level in India, there is literally no training for teachers in teaching and learning. There is little awareness about critical and digital pedagogies among large masses of teachers. It is assumed that those who pursue higher education and get masters or doctorate degrees get to know, by default, how to teach. The result of this assumption has been disastrous.

It has led to huge brain drain and economic drain out of India. Universities have also produced graduates with degrees earned through “rote-memorising” of bookish knowledge without much connection to the needs of the contemporary society and economy. Hence, it has created the problem of “economic apartheid”, mostly for students from historically marginalised backgrounds.

This reminds me of another personal experience from a few years ago. At that time, I was visiting a school in India from Melbourne. As a visitor from Australia, I volunteered to work at the school on some of their educational outreach projects. There was some construction work going on inside the school campus at that time. One day, one of the construction workers approached me and the teacher-coordinator of the school outreach projects with a piece of paper in hand.

The piece of paper was the CV of this young man from a rural tribal background. It turned out that he holds a first-class Master’s degree from one of the premier public universities in that city. Since he was unable to get any other job, even after his MA degree, and could not go back to his native village, he decided to join the construction workers to do one of the least paid jobs for manual labourers in India.

What was missing in this young man’s education? Did access to the mainstream higher education system actually empower this young man? Of course, any kind of educational process creates a sense of empowerment and courage. I am sure his education gave the young man courage to approach us with his CV for better work opportunities. We were able to mentor this young man to re-draft his CV, train him to use computers for record-keeping and data management for school outreach work, and eventually he found employment with a nongovernmental organisation. But there are so many more in similar situations.

Technology, Equity and Reform
Right now, online education is being seen as the best solution in many countries affected by the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, many experts within India are concerned about access and the digital divide. But, can this crisis be taken as an opportunity to seriously think about higher education reform beyond just access to technology and the digital divide?

The National Sample Survey 2017-2018 shows that only 42% of urban population and 15% rural households have internet access. But, irrespective of this existing digital divide, it is a fact that digital technology and social media are one of the most important phenomena in contemporary times. India and many other emerging economies with large young populations have more Internet and social media users than many other more affluent countries in the world. Education and technology are also two great levellers that can help to reduce existing socioeconomic inequality.

Can this usage be utilised as a pedagogic tool? Will access to new technology be further widened as promised by the Ministers? Will the teachers within HEIs be empowered to teach by providing necessary teacher’s training? How these questions are answered will determine the future of higher education in India and indeed, around the world.

MOUSUMI MUKHERJEE is Associate Professor & Deputy Director at the International Institute for Higher Education Research & Capacity Building, O.P. Jindal Global University, India.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #08. Click here to read the full, online issue.

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