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Universities: Post CORONA

Our future universities must be places, where they must coexist with the industry. They must collaborate on projects that solve real-world problems. Only then will they become precincts of innovation that actively apply research for community impact.

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Clayton Christiansen must surely not have envisaged this disruption, though his Disruptive innovations have ruled our lives and businesses for at least a decade now. Today’s millennial swears by the quote “Disrupt or be disrupted”. Several disruptive ideas have changed the way we live in this decade. A few like OLA, Amazon, Netflix stand out in a long list. The decade saw some major businesses die, while new ones sprung up from nowhere. Several innovators across the globe have been trying different ideas in the hope that theirs will be the elusive queen bee disruptor that can make them the proverbial prince charming. Management Gurus only had theories of an elusive master disruptor. That COVID 19 is proving to be one, has everyone fascinated and worried in equal measure. A little hard to believe, for it has not spared any business be it Manufacturing, retail markets, or the service sector, unlike the Christiansen model that disrupted only one. Education which has always been loath to changes hasn’t been spared either. Academicians and their administrators have been running in circles in search of credible ideas that can solve two problems in days to come. One immediate of salvaging the current academic terms and the other in the long term. We have almost 40 Million students enrolled in Higher education, in more than 45000 colleges and almost 1000 universities spread across the length and breadth of the country. The Gross enrolment ratio of higher education is still only 26, revealing as it is, an available space waiting to be exploited, in favor of the remaining 74 out of every hundred eligible. There are however, tremendous challenges in scaling those numbers. Post Corona, what? will be a momentous and consequential time for everyone. 

For a start, it is a given, that the academic work left uncompleted, at the end of February in our institutions and universities cannot be completed, unless out of box ideas emerge. Collaborations with various credible Online educators on Online learning platforms must be actively pursued so that the remaining academics can be completed. The end semester/year examinations must be abandoned except for those in their final Semester/Year, assessment limited to continuous evaluation, that was anyway a part of a semester or yearlong appraisals. It always was a matter of concern that a majority of examinations were an exercise in futility and were actually ineffective in assessing the true potential. If any, they only added to the mental torment that a student goes through in the aftermath of delayed and improperly assessed results. If one were to be a little more adventurous, the final year/semester students could even be evaluated on the basis of the average score of the earlier two semesters along with an objective assessment of the current one, with due credit given to the scores earned in continuous evaluation. This will at least allow the new academic term to begin on time and in earnest. The companies wanting to place these students in their midst will however need to be on board. They will, for an assessment is always relative, whatever form it may take. 

Now, for the long term and Post COVID 19 scenario. Can this period be seen as an opportunity to improvise and implement long term policies which will completely overhaul the existing teaching learning paradigms? Eight out of 10 students in the country do not have access to ranked universities, which are probably the ones with the greatest resources in teaching and research besides a majority of them not designed for an age of rapid technological change, global interconnectedness, and shifting labour market needs. Still, can we pair unranked universities with ranked universities to ramp up the quality of higher education? This too has a downside, for it could be counter productive as well. 

Can we radically realign our priorities in education and alter the quality of graduates we produce? Can we assure quality rather than accredit our universities? Quality assurance must include all policies, measures, planned processes and actions through which the quality of higher education is maintained and developed. Quality must be the degree to which education meets the client's needs and demands. Our policies must consider competency-based skills that help employability. This will require serious re-aligning the curriculum towards skills. Post Corona, one cannot possibly find an employment opportunity, or a ‘job’ to be simple, for everyone. Entrepreneurship skills and substantive leadership skills to be taught in our institutions becomes imperative. Enabling one to be an entrepreneur will be the task for the government.  

Within our Institutions and Universities, quality education must be made more accessible to masses. Today too many resources are tied up for too few. Complete choice-based credits with utmost flexibility must be the design principles. Multiple points of entry and exit, along with opportunity for further higher education or life long learning must be the tenets. A registration to an institution must be valid for, as long as the student chooses or takes to complete the course. Skills must be seamlessly built into the curriculum. In a way, skills must be institutionalized. 

The Universities must only be facilitators and enablers. Nothing else. They must enable technology platforms to provide Choice based education and Online training-evaluation processes. They must research the markets and their requirements and provide an almanac that can facilitate the students to choose courses to pursue. Each course must project its outcomes with an industry component. They must enable boot camps. Programs currently are cast in stone and cannot innovate. A set of core courses across disciplines along with an exhaustive list of specializations can increase the employability multifold besides breaking down the many artificial barriers we have created between what we term as Science and Technology and Arts and Commerce. A multi-faceted individual, probably trained in life sciences and social sciences along with technical skills will only do better in a post Corona world. Knowledge of a foreign language will be the X factor. 

Mode of learning must never be a constraint. Like everything else changing, the universities must now facilitate Online learning. Besides improving outcomes, it comes at a fraction of the price. Until the content improves with the local providers, there must be a large-scale investment in sourcing effective content wherever it may be available. A conscious move to blended mode of learning must be encouraged. A 50:50 assessment model of credits obtained in whatever mode to the skills acquired can be a starting point. Acquiring required competencies and minimum credits must be stressed upon rather than marking them on a scale of 1-100. Inter and Intra disciplinary courses, hands on training or internship, soft skills courses etc. all become meaningful and interesting as a consequence. That such curriculum can be periodically reviewed by industry experts is looking into the future. Mandatory completion of minimum credits can ensure continuous professional development throughout the career of a learner. 

Increasingly, the universities are losing the plot of meaningful assessments, looking at the number of cases that seek re-assessment with a larger number clearing subsequently. Is it not adding salt to injury when results are declared when no one cares? Post Corona, can we not dispense with these end semester / end year examinations altogether? Credits can always be earned on continuous evaluation and bi monthly objective assessments. Opportunity is an opportunity whether it springs out of adversity or from prosperity. Can we afford to lose this corona sent opportunity? Alas, we have not a single university in the country today, that can bail us out of the Corona induced lockdown. Our future universities must be places, where they must coexist with the industry. They must collaborate on projects that solve real-world problems. Only then will they become precincts of innovation that actively apply research for community impact.

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. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr S S Mantha

Former Chairman AICTE and Adj Prof NIAS, Bangalore.

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