A licence to drive a four-wheeler is not a licence to drive cars for all purposes. An ordinary four-wheeler licence for domestic driving is usually for limited commute for the purposes of meeting the demands of domestic livelihoods. The demands of driving a car for other purposes such as Formula One racing, Stock Car racing, car rallying, off-road racing, etc, are sophisticated and require different levels of skilling and training besides a four-wheeler licence.
This is true for all forms of entry-level requirements that shape careers of many. A university degree is only an entry-level requirement but definitely not the be-all and end-all for careers. In some cases, it may never be required. However, the purpose and modus operandi of higher education can never be homogenised universally and definitely not in a complex and diverse Indian society where the gap between ‘illiterate’ employers and ‘literate’ employees is getting widened. The current global pandemic is a policy vista to explore uncharted territories of online education and leverage the optimal progressives.
The sudden surge in online education due to Covid-19 has transformed the digital landscape of higher education globally. The sweeping impact of online education has created a euphoric policy response globally as well as in India. The main regulators of higher education in India—University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE)—amended their existing online education regulations to accommodate 40 percent of courses in the online mode even under normal circumstances. A case of how a Short-term Academic Response Solution (SARS) found its way into the normal system! Need to wait and see if the general universalisation of this SARS is fatal or vital.
Coursera is seeing its ups and downs since its March 2021 IPO offer aligning with the global MOOC hype cycle which saw its peak, trough and silently flat pattern between 2012 and 2020. The online education that is digitally (semi)powered has clearly exposed the gap between the digital haves and have-nots. The complexity of issues involved in global higher education is significantly demanding for online education to serve all purposes of higher education. At best, it is now an instrument best used to fill the gap and confer a degree due to the absence of a better alternative to overcome the Covidian shortcomings and opening pathways to differentiate.
“An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead” is a comprehensive 2013 report published by the Institute of Public Policy Research jointly with Pearson Publishing Corporation. The report, besides many significant policy inputs and propositions, identifies 10 important features of higher education—Research, Degrees, City Prosperity, Students, Faculty, Governance and Administration, Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Assessment and Experience. It is left to the reader’s own assessment how much of the 10 shall online education be able to address. In my own assessment, not more than three as the need to prepare students for 21st century citizenship and for a meaningful working life cannot come at a time more appropriate than this.
The Pearson report identifies different types of university models—elite, mass, niche, local, etc. Each of the university models of engagement have its own market and there can never be a policy to universalise all models of engagement and online education can certainly only be the greatest common denominator of change and not the unitary agent of delivery. University research for the purpose adding new to a body of knowledge, universities as prime movers of knowledge economy, behavioural mechanisms in a team-based and socialised university-campus setting, the university stakeholders’ life cycle, creative pedagogy, etc, are some of university characteristics that can happen only in ‘brick and mortar’ types and not in ‘bits and bytes.’
The post-Covidian learning experience has demonstrated the need for unbundling the tightened blocks of regulations, reimagining the role of HEIs and rebundling delivery by HEIs with alignment to their purpose. The crux lies in enabling a policy ecosystem that allows re-imagination in a manner in which the individual institutional minds want them to be and not through regimental regulation or outsourcing in which the real danger lies. In short, this SARS is an opportunity to unbundle, reimagine and rebundle. Are we all ready? Only time will tell.
Vice-Chancellor, SASTRA Deemed University