06 Nov 2020 20:30 IST

Higher education needs a long-term plan for innovation

The post-pandemic strategy must focus on preparing students for a volatile and uncertain world

The ongoing pandemic is going to differentiate innovative higher education institutions from others. Those who will adapt will survive. It is a great opportunity for institutions to rethink their design of education. It is time to be bold and craft new models of education that will prepare our graduates for the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

Barring a handful of institutions in India, our higher education systems essentially offer a fixed framework to which the students need to fit themselves. And hope that it will get the outcomes they imagine. In some cases, particularly for professional courses like engineering and management, students’ ability to choose what they want to study and where they want to study is also decided by their performance in a Board or entrance exams. This model produces thousands of graduates who have specialised in something they never wanted to as they move on to take their place in the workforce. Their employers find them less equipped to hit the ground running. As per the India Skills Report 2019 by a Global Talent Assessment Company Wheebox, HR Technology company PeopleStrong, in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the employability of Indian graduates currently stands at 47 per cent.

This collective waste of time and talent where everyone seems to be just earning a degree for the sake of it is quite a shame for a developing nation like ours. We need to think afresh and design a new model of education that truly places the students at the centre. We need a system that allows students to choose, explore, and discover their passion for a particular specialisation or a degree track. Such graduates will have the right skills, the passion to excel and innovate and make a significant contribution to our economy.

The world has changed, our programmes have not

Today, disruptive and innovative technologies are reshaping jobs. Research by the World Economic Forum (WEF) states that 58 million net new jobs will be created by 2025 due to the adoption of disruptive technologies and automation. The problems and opportunities have become more complex and need an interdisciplinary approach. Most of our institutions continue to offer the siloed majors and teach the same ideas and concepts that they did two decades ago. No wonder we struggle to innovate, and our economy seems to have a lot of service companies and very few product companies. In fact, we take pride in being the ‘outsourcing’ hub of innovative firms across the world. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) kicks in, a lot of these ‘outsourcing’ jobs are going to be at risk.

We need to think ahead and design new specialisations for the new world. The New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) at MIT, USA and Cornell Tech, are already on the track and offer interesting examples of how engineering and management education is being re-imagined. Specialisations of computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering are now replaced with majors like living machines, digital cities and autonomous machines. If our next generation has to thrive, our degrees and programmes have to change.

While attempts are being made by upcoming institutions to offer interdisciplinary majors in the humanities, there is much to be done in the domain of STEM education.

Time for liberal sciences

In recent times, new universities in India have introduced what is widely understood as Liberal Arts education. It is time for Liberal Sciences for those who are passionate about sciences and engineering. If we can offer the same flexibility for exploring various domains of technology and applied sciences before a student settles on a specialisation, we will start producing passionate engineers and entrepreneurs. If we can do this right, we can stem the flow of the brightest minds who study engineering for four years and find themselves disillusioned and switch to management.

Upside down

Learning and education are often used interchangeably. Education based on curricula, examinations, and textbooks make the student a passive recipient of prescribed knowledge. On the other hand, learning that comes from understanding concepts and real-life application makes the learner an active participant. Real education comes from accumulating experiences and learnings, not grades or degrees.

Our education system is still based on a traditional model of delivery. Students go through the motions of learning a tonne of concepts, semester after semester wondering whether they will ever apply this anywhere and doing some experiments with predefined outcomes. After four years they are thrown into the real world where outcomes are always uncertain. No wonder our graduates struggle.

We need to turn the learning journey on its head. We should start with simple, real problems that the students need to solve. They need to then identify and learn concepts that need to be applied to solving that problem. In doing so, they will be more connected to the need of mastering concepts and they will see the connection between the problem and the theory better. By working collaboratively, they will also hone their teamwork and people management skills and improve their readiness for working in organisations. Imagine every graduate solving ten real problems every year, instead of doing ten theoretical courses every year.

Doing away with cut-offs

Over the last decade, there is a growing concern that scores in Board exams and entrance exams are failing to be true indicators of merit and potential to excel in a particular domain of specialisation. The causes are many. The advent of coaching institutions and tutorial classes has gamified the performance and results in exams, grade inflation that seems to have become a norm for all Boards and increasing competition that places an intense burden on students to run the rat-race. We all baulk at the news of the cut-off going to 100 per cent for some colleges in Delhi University but we take it as inevitable. We know there are constraints as lakhs of applicants vie for a limited number of seats, but this is precisely the reason why we need to innovate in our selection process.

We need to use technologies like Natural Language Processing (NLP) and build a certain dynamism into the application process that will enable us to match a student’s unique potential and disposition to what they would like to study and excel at. Selection for scores needs to give way to selection for qualities.

Never waste a crisis

Covid-19 has shown us that education and learning can happen in an online format. Reputed institutions like Harvard and UPenn are offering their master’s programmes online and have redesigned and expanded their course offerings and fee models to suit virtual formats of engagement. Finest professors and experts are now more available to a larger audience online than they were earlier in the physical world. As physical mobility drops and institutions struggle to get international students, they are willing to extend their resources and expertise online.

Our institutions in India should use this opportunity to up their game and course offerings and become viable alternatives to internationally bound students. This can also become a time to collaborate with international faculty and institutions to offer courses in India and lay a great foundation for future engagements once the Covid-19 pandemic subsides.

(Shaheem Rahiman is the CEO, Atria University, Bangalore.)

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