Will virtual education reach Indian masses?

As 2022 kicks off with a bang, the looming higher education crisis is so different in India and the West that they practically complement each other. So much so that they could almost solve each other’s problems. Almost.

The biggest crisis in higher education in the US and UK is one of cost – college is rapidly moving beyond affordable to increasingly middle class, let alone those -below. What’s worse is that the costs no longer seem to justify the returns, and it’s starting to impact even those who can afford it or those who are about to. Once college passes a certain threshold of affordability, it becomes difficult to be idealistic about education and mindful of its long-term intangible benefits. The natural instinct then is to weigh the cost against the immediate quantifiable benefits, namely jobs and returns, which explains the mass migration of Ivy League graduates to Wall Street – the attempt to repay astronomical student loans with high salaries.

If the end of World War II had ushered in a golden age for universities in the Anglo-American West, this period of expansion is coming to an end as new forces come together to challenge traditional campus life. – particularly those of rising costs and spiraling student debt. , growing administrative expenses and growing doubts about the foreseeable benefits of higher education.

As industry demands more and more job-ready graduates, trust in universities to produce them begins to erode. With aging populations in Western countries demanding public funds, support for higher education is on the decline, especially with right-wing governments. Low birth rates have reduced the “support ratio” of people of working age compared to people 65 and older. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that 48 countries and territories will likely have support ratios below two. At the other end are countries, mostly in the developing world, with birth rates well above the replacement rate of 2.1, huge young populations and growing middle classes.

(Image credit: Tribhuvan Tiwari)

The impact of this disproportion on international higher education is obvious. The decline in domestic enrollment at U.S. universities has been partially offset by growth in international enrollment. Australia and Canada have actively promoted their universities as destinations that will strengthen demand for migration. Post-Brexit, the UK declared itself ‘open to talent’, with longer post-study work rights as part of the incentive. But the West fears those attractions won’t last, and that worry has been compounded by the pandemic, even as student visa applications to the West have started to rise again. China invests heavily in its university system, as do many other Asian countries.

India is the key to these countries, with a robust birth rate, a striking ‘youth bulge’ and a growing middle class, which has, however, suffered serious blows in recent years of economic uncertainty, compounded by the pandemic. But India is also battling its own demons through a deeply scaled and layered system. Despite an ambitious national education policy unveiled in 2020, the ruling BJP-led government has been deeply intolerant of free speech, dissent and liberal views on college campuses across the country, and this has been particularly destructive to the country’s public university culture and infrastructure. system. Many of us received an excellent higher education virtually for free thanks to Nehruvian socialism which still shapes the primary infrastructure of public universities – of uneven quality and often relics of a colonial past – but this socialist landscape is now increasingly further eroded, by an unsympathetic government that has, at the same time, shown great sympathy for the professional education models sponsored by for-profit universities.

During the pandemic – and now, as it increasingly seems, far beyond – virtual and hybrid models of learning and teaching will continue to be game changers in higher education around the world, and the India will be no exception. But how Indian students will react to change – or what their ability to participate in it will be – remains a much more open question. The lure of a booming college-age population and a large middle and upper class able to fund ambitious college experience has prompted many Western universities to seek collaboration with their Indian counterparts – as I have myself lived directly as the head of a department at Ashoka University. However, as I said before, it is unlikely that foreign universities will be able to go all the way to establish satellite campuses in India, mainly because it will be difficult to find local, private sponsors or public, as such. campuses have found in East and Southeast Asia and in the Gulf countries.

International collaboration will likely revolve around what the pandemic has already established as the central focus of global higher education – the blended mode of learning, bringing together in-person and location-based programs, experiential teaching and flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning programs. A system in which students live together on campus, but still participate in virtual classrooms, will help create a more flexible and resilient economic structure for the future. If a student has enough choice in this field, they can potentially spend the first year on campus, then spend a semester abroad, and then complete their degree online.

“The situation in the West has already demonstrated that higher education has become as vulnerable to technological disruption as other information-centric industries such as news media, magazines and journals, encyclopedias, music, cinema and television. The relative affordability of cloud-based computing, digital textbooks, mobile connectivity, high-quality streaming video, and “just-in-time” information gathering has pushed vast amounts of knowledge into the “placeless” web.

Alternative sources of knowledge and learning pose challenges to the traditional mission of universities, including online and for-profit universities, non-profit organizations such as the Khan Academy, commercial lecture series providers, online services such as iTunes U and a host of specialist training centers that provide instruction and qualifications for particular trades and professions, most of which can provide online education at a scale and pace well larger than physical universities. Universities are therefore trying to retool and develop their adult, continuous and online learning portals. The 2011 Pew Research Center study found in a survey of college presidents that more than three-quarters (77%) of respondents said their institution offered online course offerings. Half said they believe most students in their schools will be enrolled in at least some online courses within the next 10 years.

All of this has been accelerated by the global pandemic, and it’s clearer than ever that virtual, distance, and hybrid learning is here to stay, even if it doesn’t necessarily replace the physical campus. But what does this mean for a heavily populated and resource-rich country like India? How will the digital divide affect these new models of learning? In the West, the big question is whether virtual learning will dilute the quality of the college experience and education. In India, the question remains whether it will reach most people.

(With research contributions from Harshita Tripathi)

(Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature and higher education. He tweets at @_saikatmajumdar.)

Norma A. Roth