COVID Crisis: Education

Wherever there are challenges there are also opportunities. Future of education seems to lie on both sides, depending upon how we are looking at it. This pandemic has the potential of worsening the situation, unless we are extra alert. We must act before it is too late. The good thing is that a lot can be done to reduce the impact of the crisis, but that will require, besides infrastructure, a lot of efforts of the society, the government, and of course the major stakeholders. All the strata of the society will be affected, middle-income and poor-income groups more. If we are careless we will allow inequalities to amplify. We must minimize the differences in opportunities, as much as possible.

It is time we put our dysfunctional strategies behind. The other side says that the crisis is a major threat and there will be “catastrophic shortfalls in university revenue, which will lead to massive job cuts and severe disruptions to learning and research.” Both sides are saying the truth, depending upon how the truth is interpreted. Some analysts believe “most public universities look more like bloated conglomerates than focused intellectual-capital and information-dissemination institutions that can help the economy and society navigate the future.”

Running an education system costs money. On the other hand, expectations from it are much more than ‘making money’ and ‘students getting jobs’. There is nothing wrong in filling the beds in a hospital provided one is careful about the treatment. There is nothing wrong in a student's expectation to get a lucrative job. And definitely there is nothing wrong if the job giver expects worthy job seekers.

Higher education has always been a matter of concern. There are issues of content, investment and output. There are problems of expectations from this enterprise. The understanding of cost control is a matter of opinion. Variation in understanding between the cost controller and the implementer can be so wide that the working of the enterprise may lose its primary focus.

Accountants can’t run an academic enterprise. Imparting education and maintaining account books are two different spheres of activities. Piecemeal efforts make sense only in the short term. ‘For the lambi race ka ghoda’ short term fixes often become long-term addictions, and as we know they do what addictions do. They lead to long-term structural problems. Mushrooming of low quality engineering and business schools give rise to long-term structural problems.

Starting a business school and an engineering school are two entirely different situations; one doesn’t need capital resources, while the other needs a lot of it. The requirements to teach at these schools are also different. Too much focus on specialization at the undergraduate level needs slight tempering. Matters of red tape can be resolved amicably only if that smoothens the process of working.

Another question is who should govern an academic institution – an academic, an accountant, or a manager? If ‘one is three’ that is the best solution. But that seldom happens; their ways of governance, due to the nature of their training, are so different. I have often seen that an academic at the peak of excellence is offered the position of the head of the institution. The problem is that we all want a ‘corner room’. We deserve it in some senses, while in many other senses we are so undeserving. For the sake of occupying the ‘corner room’ we often ignore this fact. Can’t we have more corner rooms?

Accountant sees only one colour. Administrator’s job is to run the shop. He has to fight with the authorities with one hand. He has to keep the other hand ready to fight with the government. Leadership roles need to be clearly redefined. One must not spend time on an activity one has proven to be a misfit.

Students will willingly pay only if the education provided is of expected quality. Students have known what a good quality education can be. Students think that they have the right to know what they are getting. More than the number of students, it is the quality of the students that is bothering many educators.

We need to train ‘locals’. Like in many other countries, we can’t depend upon the foreigners for revenue resources. As they say, buying education and buying meat are two different things. The meaning of ‘learning’, per se, has changed. We need to train students for jobs they don’t know they would be getting, because of the uncertain future of the ‘future’. According to one report, 85% of the jobs in 2030 have not yet been invented. We are observing a change in our attitude. Thanks to the crisis, an attitude of help is coming back. During a crisis, it is good to observe a massive spike in the energy of our workforce.