During the COVID period, our campuses have become as silent as cemeteries. What will happen to the sights and sounds that characterise our kids' campus lives in the post-COVID era?

The transformation of educational institutions from a window of knowledge to a window to the labour market is currently a hot topic. The National Education Policy emphasises the importance of such a change. The epidemic should only be viewed as a catalyst for the changes that are already taking place. Many things labelled as oddball reforms before COVID may have become a necessity now. For example, the use of mobile phones during class hours would have annoyed teachers in the pre- COVID period. And the open book examination system will become part of the quotidian practices. The irresistible influx of digital technology into education will take place; in a sense, education will become a digital colony in the post-COVID period. Therefore, locating knowledge with digital tools can become as important as the intellectual ability to learn and analyse content and approach learning critically. While there will be a spate of micro-level changes, we need to anticipate the ones likely to affect the system at large.

Almost all universities in India have condonation fees for lack of attendance. Students in higher education often lack attendance for various reasons—political, economic and personal ones, including early marriage, physical difficulties, and so on. But it is not surprising that in the post-COVID era, the concept of online attendance as an alternative will be even interpreted as a right of the student. As a better customer care practice, the odds are high that all teachers regularly have to log in to online classroom applications during their regular classrooms. There is a possibility that even the judiciary may come to the point where prohibiting a student to write exams due to lack of physical attendance can be interpreted as a violation of the right to education. Thus, technology has percolated into education so much that it completely marginalises the physical and social dimensions of education.

After the advent of the choice-based credit and semester system, we are witnessing ritualisation of assessments in higher education institutions. Too many exams with significantly less potential to contribute anything seriously to improve the teaching-learning process. Everyone gets high marks (often above 70%) too. Marks are often not correlated to attendance in the current scenario.

It is a strong labour market that stealthily offers new interpretations for the great idea of self-reliance in education as the student’s responsibility to work while enrolled in a study programme. Making such a section of the youth (especially those who are financially backward) available for work while enrolled in a study programme ensures continuous labour supply in the market. Students will be forced to incline towards the demands of employers rather than the needs of educational institutions. This will become the perfect example of the tragedy of the commons in the future. All students may think that ‘though I go to college regularly, no one else does; then why should I?’. This will reduce education to an activity that requires only the secondary consideration of students.

Higher education in the post-COVID era

The change in educational institutions from a window of knowledge to a window to the labour market is all the rage now. The National Education Policy underscores the need for such a transformation. The pandemic should be seen only as a catalyst for the changes largely underway. Many things labelled as oddball reforms before COVID may have become a necessity now. For example, the use of mobile phones during class hours would have annoyed teachers in the pre-COVID period. And the open book examination system will become part of the quotidian practices. The irresistible influx of digital technology into education will take place; in a sense, education will become a digital colony in the post- COVID period. Therefore, locating knowledge with digital tools can become as important as the intellectual ability to learn and analyse content and approach learning critically. While there will be a spate of micro-level changes, we need to anticipate the ones likely to affect the system at large.

Almost all universities in India have condonation fees for lack of attendance. Students in higher education often lack attendance for various reasons—political, economic and personal ones, including early marriage, physical difficulties, and so on. But it is not surprising that in the post-COVID era, the concept of online attendance as an alternative will be even interpreted as a right of the student. As a better customer care practice, the odds are high that all teachers regularly have to log in to online classroom applications during their regular classrooms. There is a possibility that even the judiciary may come to the point where prohibiting a student to write exams due to lack of physical attendance can be interpreted as a violation of the right to education. Thus, technology has percolated into education so much that it completely marginalises the physical and social dimensions of education.

After the advent of the choice-based credit and semester system, we are witnessing ritualisation of assessments in higher education institutions. Too many exams with significantly less potential to contribute anything seriously to improve the teaching-learning process. Everyone gets high marks (often above 70%) too. Marks are often not correlated to attendance in the current scenario.

It is a strong labour market that stealthily offers new interpretations for the great idea of self-reliance in education as the student’s responsibility to work while enrolled in a study programme. Making such a section of the youth (especially those who are financially backward) available for work while enrolled in a study programme ensures continuous labour supply in the market. Students will be forced to incline towards the demands of employers rather than the needs of educational institutions. This will become the perfect example of the tragedy of the commons in the future. All students may think that ‘though I go to college regularly, no one else does; then why should I?’. This will reduce education to an activity that requires only the secondary consideration of students.

It is very difficult to meet this challenge unless we make education an enjoyable social process. The social engagement and enjoyment derived from it need to become the most critical indicator of education quality. So, we should pay special attention to strengthening a philosophy based on the idea of growing society rather than reduction to the individual to sow the seeds of a robust educational culture in the post-COVID era.

If the choice-based credit and semester is implemented in its true sense, each year, the syllabus of courses will change. Teachers will have absolute freedom to design and teach new courses. They can attract students from other departments in the same college or university by offering soft courses. With the help of MOOC courses, teachers can attract students from all over the country. Therefore, the teacher with the most students enrolled in their courses will be the most valuable teacher. To a large extent, teacher skills and depth of knowledge will not be the criteria; their market potential will become a significant factor.

Simultaneously, another critical factor in attracting students will be the institution’s goodwill and credibility where these teachers teach. Institutions rely on accrediting agencies to earn such a name. The new NEP opens up the process of accreditation to a two-tier competition. While the institutions may compete for better rank through accreditation, the accrediting institutions will also compete to survive. In this way, institutions’ reputation in a perfectly competitive accreditation market will become an essential tool for attracting students to courses. As course enrolment through MOOC is a global competition, our traditional colleges will have a tough time ahead.

The response to all of this from college managements would be to follow a business model rooted in competition. This means that strategies for enrolling more students in courses offered by their teachers will become part of the very existence of colleges. In the Victorian era, teachers’ salaries were fixed in proportion to students’ numbers in their classes. Therefore, the teachers devised all sorts of strategies to attract the maximum number of students to their class. The sufferers were the erudite teachers who got fewer students.

Teachers’ intellectual pursuits will have to be aligned with the trends in the labour market. In a short period, these changes will transform teachers into a class that delivers a kind of human capital as dictated by the labour market from time to time.  The courses change from year to year, and teachers will be responsible for their success and failure. Courses demanded by the market are more likely to accumulate than ones based on teachers’ insights and interests. There will be a new genre of teachers, the ‘teaching executives’. Marketing their courses will become the priority.

Teachers need to respond to such changes by participating in a collective effort to shape progressive forms of society and economy through socially committed perspectives. To break the shackles of alienation surrounding the teachers, a culture of critical learning must become part of teacher education. Education shall shape the labour market, not vice versa.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in New Indian Express. The original article can be found at https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2021/may/29/higher-education-in-the-post-covid-era-2308894.html)