In sync with many other countries in the world, India is also now under Lockdown to address the disastrous impact of hugely contagious dangerous COVID-19 – forcing practically every citizen to stay at home and maintain distance from any kind of gathering. While appreciating the cause for taking such a bold step across the entire country and maintaining our resolve to strictly adhere to all guidelines prescribed for this Lockdown phase, it is quite obvious that the socio-economic situation is now under serious distress and out-of-the-box methodologies have to be evolved and deployed to sail through this unprecedent national crisis. Such challenging times also provide opportunities to self-introspect and emerge stronger as a nation. This article focuses on expected response from our national higher education system from this perspective.
Many academic Institutions are now busy in shifting to on-line delivery of syllabus since Institutional premises are now inaccessible for conventional teaching-learning process. Capabilities of digital infrastructure are being stretched to the limit, repository of various on-line contents being explored , and faculty members are being encouraged to develop and disseminate their class notes in on-line version. Such initiatives are commendable. However, such obsession to complete a “course” in terms of prescribed “no of contact hours” raises serious questions on the “basic philosophy of education” – that too, in the background of the extremely rich heritage we have on education from ancient ages.
Primary objective of education is to inculcate strength in character and build personality in young minds which are inherently creative in nature – through dissemination of knowledge and skill. In the present situation when a student is forced to stay at home, he/she may be encouraged to seriously pursue with his/her passion – which may be singing, dancing, reading, writing, painting, creative design and so on. When societal and family pressure makes a student “self-oriented” with mad rush to achieve “materialistic success” in a fiercely competitive global arena thereby getting completely drained out mentally even before he/she joins the work force, this time of national crisis is ideal to imbibe into the young minds feeling for the nation as a whole with the urge to at least think about the miserable plight of large number of underprivileged fellow countrymen.
Digital infrastructure provides a unique platform as socio-economic equaliser in the sense that members of a virtual group in this technology-driven framework enjoy exactly similar equity irrespective of inherent divergence in their background. In modern India, when all feasible efforts are being made to ease out legacy driven fragmentation’s embedded in our society, we could achieve very little on the ground at least in the domain of higher education. Students of Tier-II institutes get hardly any scope to interact (academically, socially and culturally) with the students of Tier-I institutes – which in turn, has the potential to generate lack of confidence in the former and to inculcate seeds of arrogance in the latter. From a different perspective, if we restrict our discussions to technical education for the time being, it needs to be emphasized that any education system which does not provide adequate exposure to social science and basic science, is destined to generate professionals without appropriate background to comprehend and analyse real life societal and industrial requirements. In the present scenario when we are forced to depend completely on digital platform, it is imperative for academic administrators and policy makers to grab this opportunity and evolve some road map to address the issues of inclusiveness and equity.
Inability to scale up enrollment has been a major limitation for all big institutions in our country – and this issue is a primary deterrent against deriving maximum benefit from the demographic dividend our country fortunately possesses. Digital infrastructure being inherently immune to the challenges of scaling up in large quantum, present situation has offered an opportunity to academic policy makers to plan for an appropriate implementable work plan to address this issue of scaling up.
Any country in the world cannot aspire to be a socio-economic superpower if its education system cannot provide adequate and relevant support. Presence of a globally competitive education system is a mandatory prerequisite for a country to be globally competitive in socio-economic terms. Our higher education system has miles to go to reach this target. Thanks to COVID-19, it is forecasted that many international big corporate houses may look for some opportunity to shift their base, at least partially, from China – and, this is where India has huge opportunity. Schemes like Make-in-India, Skill-Development and so on are already in place to act as backbone for the transformation to be implemented. Academic policy makers may utilize present digital connectivity for creation of domain specific clusters involving the corresponding industrial sector with interested faculty members of entire range of academic institutes. The complete road map should be ready for implementation immediately after the present crisis is over.
To conclude, in ancient ages, our country had been the leader in world to identify the inherent power of knowledge and engaged very heavily on generation and dissemination of knowledge. Even today, at individual level, many of our alumni have been doing exceedingly well in academic and industrial sectors which are known for creativity and innovation. But, unfortunately as country, over last several decades we have gradually got degenerated into a big market for consumption of products evolving out of technological innovation – without hardly any role in contributing to creation of knowledge. Now, it is needless to even mention that technology driven remote delivery of curriculum will become an integral part of teaching-learning process all over the world – and our country cannot be an exception. This COVID-19 driven crisis has provided us an opportunity to test our preparedness – and take any appropriate remedial action if required. At the same time, we have to keep within our action plan, initiatives to be taken for inclusion of those underprivileged students who may not have the requisite resources for participation in intensive technology-driven teaching-learning process.
Finally, any academic administrator and policy maker has to think much beyond the mediocrity of getting blindly obsessed with completion of scheduled number of contact hours and subsequent mechanical evaluation system – and concentrate passionately on the broader definition and purpose of “education” for transforming today’s energetic and creative young minds to tomorrow’s responsible citizens of our beloved country. COVID-19 has precipitated a huge crisis – but, as discussed in this article, it has also opened a door of opportunity to emerge out much stronger and rejuvenated to get back to the position of world-leader in “knowledge” – the position our country rightly deserves.
Professor Swapan Bhattacharya
Former Director, NITK- Surathkal and NIT-Durgapur
Former Sr. Research Associate, National Research Council, USA