When Nostradamus, the famous French astrologer and physician looked into his crystal ball and published his 'Prophecies' in 1555, he became world-famous for almost 450 years for his predictions. He was credited for predicting a huge number of events from Hitler to the fall of the Soviet Union. However, the issue with Nostradamus was that he was very cryptic in his predictions due to the conservative period he lived in. Not so in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries that we all live in today! Our predictions are precise, mathematical, scientific and have great credibility. Statistical methodology is imbibed in these predictions to give them heft, from correlations, elasticity, confidence intervals and other theorems to ensure accuracy. Education was no different. We estimated increased literacy, demand for degrees, improvement in skill development, and the impact of major education initiatives. We also estimated and analysed the enormous growth of institutions, the delivery of their programmes, and the differentiators they offered.
The world caught unawares
However, we could not predict COVID-19. We could not predict its economic, social, and educational effects as it caught everyone off guard. Yet, even after 12 months of dealing with it, we are still in uncertain mode across all industries, particularly education. We are all reacting to ongoing developments, rather than acting in advance to alleviate potential issues. This is particularly so with regard to how much education has changed. This is an area that is not fully explored as yet, and for most institutions, it is delegated to the back burner to address more pressing issues.
One major reason that the world is so disrupted is that accurate data collection is lacking. Another reason is that the authorities (all around the world) see such horrendous data coming out from various sectors that it is being ignored in an attempt to put out urgent fires like unemployment, job creation, inflation, and a host of other factors. But, unfortunately, what we do know is that COVID-19 is not going anywhere for the next few years. An interesting article in the 150-year-old Nature Magazine stated that after 14 months of COVID-19, it seems that it will continue till 2025, a frightening prospect. So how does education fare in this estimate? To understand that, we first need to understand the present education market first.
Education in 2020-2022
Education was hit particularly in these testing times. Online teaching became the norm from April 2020, and except for intermittent periods of offline classes, it has continued to be the mainstay of teaching for all institutions. Staff and students had to deliver online, and though this was done with aplomb, it has raised associated problems. One was finances. Most colleges did defer fees and reduced staff salaries, but with the new wave of COVID-19 coming along in 2021, the light of the end of the tunnel has disappeared.
The World Bank, in a January 21, 2021 report stated that COVID-19 has had 'severe' effects on education, though it did not have exact data. One trend it saw was that at least 10% had dropped out of education. This is an approximate dropout number of around 40 lakh students for college education, which is disturbing, as the dropout used to be around 5% prior to COVID-19. In reality, with the lack of actual data, the situation may be far worse. And with the new wave of coronavirus mutating in India, the education sector can be seen to be facing major challenges in admissions, fees payments and retaining staff at pre-COVID levels.
Then there are the challenges from MOOC (Massive open online courses) like Udemy, Coursera and others, who are seeing unprecedented growth. The real wolf in sheep's clothing, however, are the companies who used to use internal learning to train staff who are now looking at the market in general. This was already happening with Google, Microsoft and others in the technology space, but now the education pie is being looked at seriously by other players. Amazon, on April 13th 2021, announced that it was offering courses that were previously restricted to staff to the market through preferred vendors. Amazon is a major disrupter because unlike other technology companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM, Amazon can offer to learn in E-Commerce, Logistics, Retail, and a host of other subjects. And once Amazon does it, the others will follow suit.
Education in 2023-2025
If what Nature Magazine states is taken at face value and we can expect major disruptions from COVID-19 till 2025, then everyone should urgently start thinking out of the box. If you look at it logically, Nature's assertion is viable. The one way to lessen the impact of COVID-19 is to lessen the death rate. Diseases have been with us from the start of humanity. The problem is that COVID-19 kills randomly and that disrupts activity. One way to alleviate the problem is vaccination. But here we are in a blind. A BBC article on 13th April 2021, stated that India can make around 850 million doses of vaccine a year. That means that it will take at least 3 years to vaccinate the entire population if you also include the 2nd dose. In this period the vaccine will mutate, and it already has in the 2nd wave. So, disruptions are there to stay at least till 2025 and maybe even further.
What happens to education then? The problem they faced in 2020-2021 will escalate. Admission numbers, fees, and staff retention will become burning problems. The bigger issue will be jobs. Traditional strategies will only be a recipe for destruction for the less established colleges or deterioration for the well-established ones. COVID-19 will play no favourites for time, place, location or reputation. The colleges have to think out of the box.
The danger that colleges will face
Ironically, the colleges are the best placed to understand their own problems, but there is a tendency to look at COVID-19 as something that will go away in a few years with the pre-COVI-19 situation returning. All Colleges must do is whether the storm, which many have done in the past. That is a mistake. Education as it was before COVID-19 will change to an extent that it will be unrecognisable in 2025. There is precedent for this, though not in education. The corporate world is filled with examples of market leaders who were complacent and just disappeared because others did things differently. Examples are cameras, CD and Video players, Music on Walkmans, Xerox machines, and a host of other offerings. Education was out of this ambit because learning was just not on the radar of the corporate world.
No more! Everyone is looking at education today, and they are looking at it covetously. Till COVID-19, there were thousands of education companies offering add-on's to education from extra courses, short learning, grammar corrections, animated learning and others. Not anymore. After COVID-19, the Corporate world has realised that they don't need to work with colleges for recruitment, degrees or learning. Instead, they could 'Be the College'! The advent of online learning means that location, buildings, and staff talent can be replaced through sophisticated online delivery and the promise of jobs. This can actually replace physical college offerings. This is already happening with Executive courses. It's a small step to replacing a college if the jobs are built into courses from non-college entities.
What can a college do?
Colleges have to think out of the box. Their real estate is fine and it will have value. But the way education is evolving, their real estate will have just land value and no value as an education hub unless they change strategy. I understand that all colleges have limitations from statutory authorities in terms of syllabi, content and other aspects. However, if they want to survive, they have to think differently.
The first is how to get the degrees more industry-related so that no training is required from college to company. This is a major challenge that only Germany has addressed successfully. As long as this gap is prevalent, the job opportunities of graduates will be abysmal. One problem is the staff who teach according to statutory requirements. Another problem is that the statutory syllabi are just not in line with the real world which in COVID-19 times is changing month by month. So, how do you get companies on board to actually teach? Colleges do have companies teaching courses, but the question is will these companies hire those they teach? If they don't hire at least 75% they teach or if these students are not hired by others, then their teaching is just window dressing to tick a few boxes on their CSR initiatives and a feel-good factor for colleges.
If Amazon can collaborate with institutes to offer their level of courses, the colleges should look at this as an option to work with corporates. There is a lot of talent available and not all from the academic pool. Unfortunately, the college hierarchies will come in the way of ensuring the effectiveness of this offering, as non-academic teaching staff will always have issues with the traditional hierarchies. One way to work around this is to do what American Presidents did with their 'Roving Ambassadors', who they used to bypass the regular services when they needed things done outside the regular structure. This is what colleges need to do immediately to ensure the job-readiness of graduates.
The new normal
The new normal is a heavily bandied word! But for colleges, it is very relevant. The hunger for education is so high in India that any degree recognised by a statutory authority was acceptable, even when some of the colleges were not offering the best facilities or instruction. Not anymore. In the COVID-19 and Post COVID-19 world, a college that thinks out of the box and leverages the situation to its advantage will leapfrog over well established and reputed colleges. There is a very good international example for this. St. Andrews University which is the 3rd ranked university in the UK overtook the University of Cambridge in 2021 and took the 2nd spot for the first time in history because - students had a higher job acceptance ratio. Finally, it's about the jobs, and if a college can ensure more jobs for its students because their courses are more relevant, then they will do well in COVID-19 times.
That is the New Normal for Colleges. Those who adapt will do well. Those who are fixated with their real estate, present hierarchy structures and out of touch with the market will face increasing pressures on being relevant in the COVID-19 world.