Covid complications make Indian HE’s uphill battle even steeper

Government should ‘pump in’ more resources for online infrastructure to address inequality, expert says

September 28, 2020
Source: iStock

Indian experts gave a sobering account of the daily struggles facing students and educators in the country, which is the hardest hit by Covid-19 in Asia.

Speaking at a webinar on the pandemic, hosted by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education, they outlined how pre-existing, systemic problems were exacerbated by the crisis and how public universities will have to overcome numerous hurdles to achieve the goals set up by the National Education Policy (NEP), which was released with great fanfare in July.

India’s higher education sector, although the third largest in the world after the US and China, offers “poor employability” to graduates, has a “limited presence” in global university rankings and displays a vast disparity in the numbers of outbound and inbound students (265,000 versus 30,000), said Saumen Chattopadhyay, a professor at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.

Now, with the additional burden of Covid-19 restrictions, Professor Chattopadhyay worried about what he called the “public-ness of higher education”.

“If there is a problem of access, will enrolment rates fall due to the digital divide? Will there be an accentuation of differentiation?” he asked, adding that “when there is a shrinkage of public space, socialisation suffers”.

“The government needs to pump in a good deal of support for [online] infrastructure. Otherwise, we cannot push for equality,” he said.

He recommended that the government “equip teachers and institutions − and identify which students can or cannot engage”.

Jyoti Arora, a PhD scholar also at JNU, relayed first-person accounts of the situation during the lockdown, which started in March. “Students had to vacate hostels in a rush, and some did not bring the right study materials with them. States were unprepared, and there were few clear guidelines from higher education institutions.”

Starting in September, the country began “Unlock 4.0”, which allowed some relaxation for PhDs or postgraduates to return to laboratory or clinical work. But Dr Arora noted that only 0.5 per cent of university students in India were engaged at the PhD level and that transport options were still limited.

She provided a broader picture of the situation in India, where per capita GDP is under £1,700, 93 per cent of the workforce are employed in the “unorganised sector” and only 36 per cent of the population have access to smartphones. Among certain tribes, castes or religious minorities, those numbers were even starker.

“Who suffers the most? First-generation learners and disadvantaged groups,” she said. For example, the government’s insistence that certain final exams and entrance exams be held might “push out” students who cannot afford to log in digitally or travel physically.

She referred to potential growth in the HE sector as a sort of “massification”, a term that refers to a practice used by high-end brands to expand into larger markets.

“The divide is not just a digital divide,” Dr Arora said. “It’s about the quality of the technology. It’s about institution and peer support.”

Rupamanjari Ghosh, vice-chancellor of Shiv Nadar University, a private institution that opened in greater Noida less than a decade ago, offered a more positive view of how an agile, new school could navigate a crisis such as Covid.

It announced a lockdown before the government did and quickly shifted classes and extracurricular activities online.

“Technology adds, but it also limits. Learning is much more than just delivering courses,” she said.

Professor Ghosh said that the main lesson learned during Covid was that “HE should prepare for the unexpected. Not everything goes according to plan. A system’s strength is the flexibility to create knowledge.”

Before Covid, India was already talking about Industry 4.0, or a fourth industrial revolution, and the nation should not let that momentum slow, she said: “We were starting to see disruption in the education sector. We dreamt of a new India, where innovation would drive, not just respond.”

However, she conceded that the challenges were vast: “India has many layers – it’s [a place] where the 17th century coexists with the 21st century.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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