Pandemic or no pandemic, to digitalize higher education (HE) in a country like India, is no more an optional question. Let’s look at some facts. The All India Survey on Higher Education, 2018-19, reports that India has 993 Universities and 39931 Colleges catering to 37.3 million students. The number of colleges per 100,000 eligible population (18-23 years) ranges from a low of 07 in Bihar to a high of 53 in Karnataka, with the India average being 28.
34.8 percent colleges in India offer only a single program, out of which 83.1 percent are private institutions. Among these private colleges, 38.1 percent only offer a B.Ed. program. 16.3 percent colleges have less than 100 students enrolled, whereas only 4 per cent of the colleges have more than 3000 students.
Almost 80 percent of Indian HE students are Undergraduate students, while PhD enrolment is less than 0.5 percent of the total HE enrolment. Out of a total list of about 187 HE degree/diploma programs, 10 programs account for a more than 80 percent share of students.
If we infer insights from the above data, it’s clear that as far as the three classic problems facing Indian HE, namely – Access; Equity/Inclusion; and Quality – we have still a long way to go.
Apropos, Access to HEIs – India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) has risen from 0.7 percent in 1950-51 to 1.4 percent in 1960-61, to 8 percent in 2000 and finally 26.3 per cent in 2018-19. Thus, for an overwhelming majority of the 18-23 years old Indians, we simply do not have the capacity. Our polytechnics and trade schools are also too few in numbers to handle such runoff.
In terms of Equity/Inclusion, we have done well in terms of gender parity with 51.36% male and 48.64% female students in HEIs. However, the share in GER of – (i) Scheduled Caste (SC) student enrolment was 14.89 percent (as per NSSO-2007, SC constituted 19.59 percent of Indian population); (ii) Scheduled Tribes (ST) had 5.53 percent share (8.63 per cent of Indian population); and (iii) Other Backward Class (OBC) had 36.34 percent GER share (40.94 percent of total population). Thus, inclusion is still a long distance away.
Finally, if we talk of Quality in HEIs – only 08 Indian HEIs were listed in the top 500 universities of QS World Ranking 2020, out of which 07 were IITs. Delhi University was ranked 474th. IIT-Bombay and Delhi ranked 152 and 182 were the only Indian HEIs in the top 200. The ‘India Skills Report -2019’ suggests that only 47 percent of Indian graduates were employable.
In 2019, a Clarivate report estimated India’s share among the most highly cited scientists across the globe at a mere 0.25 per cent, whereas China accounted for more than 10 per cent. Severe shortage along with hiring of ad-hoc/part-time faculty in HEIs has skewed priorities among faculty members away from quality research. Elite HEIs such as the IITs and IIMs, report faculty shortages of up to 30 per cent. Our HEI student/teacher ratio went up to 29/1 in 2018-19, from 21/1 in 2014-15. USA weighs in at 12.35/1; and Brazil at 19.4/1.
Finally, of the 2018-19 India GER, 66.5 percent are enrolled in BA, B.Com, and BSc. This reveals the generic quality of education which does not really equip the students to cope with modern day careers.
To answer the continuing challenges of Access, Equity and Quality in higher education, the moot question is – whether there is an over-arching strategy that a developing country with resource constraints and a large population of youth can adopt. Digitalization of education in general and HE in particular can have the following real effect –
• Digitalization can tear down barriers quickly by being pervasive and low cost to set up. This can help us answer the ACCESS as well as the EQUITY questions with minimum effort and infrastructure.
• It can jumpstart wide and instant access to teaching/learning resources which are scarce, especially if look at quality faculty and access to their expertise and knowledge. This can a go a long way in addressing the EQUITY question.
• Digitalization can definitely provide the substrate to grow and multiply research capabilities especially in resource and logistically constrained HEIs, thereby improving content taught in classrooms. This is also a force multiplier for collaborative research, aiding HEIs with limited faculty strength. This would address partially the QUALITY question along with being an incentive for retention of faculty.
• One of the biggest game changers as evident from the current pandemic is the ability to impart teaching remotely, which has only required internet access at the end of the teacher and the students. Digitalization can effectively bridge this gap of shortage of quality teachers in Indian HEIs by reducing logistics and teachers’ time by amplifying their reach. This addresses both the questions pertaining to QUALITY as well as ACCESS. As 60 per cent, colleges are in rural areas use of digital can help alleviate faculty crisis.
• Digitalization can also help make the implementation as well as audit of quality norms, by bringing in transparency in teaching/learning processes and by benchmarking them with universal standards. This addresses the questions of QUALITY as well as EQUITY.
• Reduce the immense pressure on Universities being seen as the only employment generating channels. This can be achieved by using digitalization to modularize learning and make it more relevant to the individual realities of the learner, which may not be amenable to long term university/college curriculums and programs. This certainly addresses the question of EQUITY; and by enabling and simplifying lifelong learning – it helps in creating ACCESS.
Given the current pandemic evidence from India, infrastructure or technology is not really going to be the obstacle in digitalization of education. In fact, the biggest impediment will be our own red tape and bureaucratic control mechanisms governing HEIs. The elitism of degrees/diplomas being considered as the sole indicator of qualification is an artificial bottleneck undermining our youth from gaining meaningful livelihood and social standing. We must urgently set up (professional) assessment systems across verticals and endorse anyone who successfully goes through them as being qualified.
Recruiters also have to shed being hidebound and look at capabilities and not qualifications of candidates. According equal standing and recognition to digitalized learning, comparable to any other form of learning will unshackle the Indian youth, giving them wings to fly. Digitalization is a change that can forever bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots of a country like India. Venkatesh Umashankar, Professor, Marketing, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon.