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Q1. What impact has COVID-19 had on the higher education sector in India?

The education industry had been crying for change. COVID-19 has triggered changes in an industry ripe for disruption.  There is a belief that higher education pays off and there are empirical evidences to support the view that average income goes up with higher education. This has lead to an increased demand for higher education in societies - higher numbers of people want higher education. The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in India stands at 28% percent today.

Premier institutes did not respond to the market demand for higher education for higher numbers of people. For example, IIT Bombay had 10 hostels that were built earlier and they used to operate within those constraints for the first 40 years. To meet this pent up demand, a large number of institutes of varying quality have come up. At most places the quality is terrible or mediocre at best.

The Higher education sector remains highly fragmented (with no particular university or institute controlling more than 1% of the market share) and has not been very efficient. The average price for education has risen higher than inflation and unlike other industries, says such as automobiles, we have not increased productivity. We always assumed that a student must be physically present and must be in a classroom environment. Technology so far has not played a major role in education even though AICTE norms allow institutes to have up to 20% of their courses delivered online (Pre COVID-19 norms). Now is the time to question all such assumptions - can we increase the productivity, can we deliver better education at lower cost, can we provide access to education to higher number of people?

Traditionally, higher education operates as a bundled good where growing up academically, broadening views and building network has been packaged together. Unbundling of higher education as a product is bound to happen. Entrepreneurs will come with unbundled products which may look at different aspects of education individually – gaining knowledge, building network, giving cultural exposure, etc. A lot of people had been discussing these aspects even before COVID-19 but now there has been a trigger which has forced to relook at some of the fundamental assumptions.

Q2. How is IIM Udaipur bracing up for this new challenge?

Campus remains the most important offering we have. Higher education and MBA in particular is a transformational journey that has three parts to it – academic curriculum; skills & capabilities development outside the classroom through clubs & communities; and personalized self-discovery of what a student wants to do in life. We look at online as a way to enhance this journey where campus experience remains central.

Due to the current situation, we trained our entire teaching faculty in the art of teaching online. In fact, our one year MBA started in mid-May and has been running totally online with students yet to come to campus physically! We also relooked at the situation for the two year MBA program. There is a delay in second year students re-joining the institute in mid-July instead of early June. We looked at how best to make use of this time and have leveraged online learning MOOC (massive open online courses) platforms such as Coursera. We have divided the online courses into three categories – faculty designed hybrid courses, faculty supported popular courses and non-supported courses. For hybrid courses such as digital marketing, Blockchain and FinTech we provide a blended model where the online learning from MOOCs is supplemented with additional teaching by the faculty and students are awarded credits for such courses. Then there are popular courses such as courses in supply chain which students can take online and faculty provides additional support but credits are not awarded. Finally, there are courses for which faculty support is not available but students are free to take such courses to enhance their learning.

Q3. How should students adapt to this new way of learning?

With Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) students need to fundamentally question if the world would need so many people with higher education at all? More and more work which was earlier done by people with skill sets learned in higher education is being increasingly done by machines. The idea that getting a degree is good enough and would serve one for lifelong is long gone. The basic skills of critical thinking, ability to work collaboratively will remain but skills such as being able to value options correctly or being able to do complex clustering with tools will get devalued.  Every 5-10 years one would need to reinvent oneself to remain relevant. Driven by fundamental changes in the very nature of the work, the idea of learning to learn has been there even before but COVID-19 has accelerated the pace.

Q4. Historically we have measured the value of education by how many people we can exclude from it - the more difficult it is to get in the better the education is deemed to be (case in point IITs and IIMs). With online education becoming a greater size of the pie, do you see a fundamental shift in how we look at education and educating?

Higher education and especially branded higher education sustains on twin effects – Alumni Effect and Need to screen. Even twenty or thirty years after graduating, people are still introduced as alumni of so and so college. Hence alumni have a vested interest in making sure that their college remains high in rankings. On the other side, the job market has an inherent need to screen people and judge talent. Unlike say choosing a coder where one could design exams to test the programming abilities, picking up managers is a fairly complex task where a broad range of skills is involved. People have tried to devise games but so far no one has been able to come up with a game that can replace the credibility of graduating from a good college. Hence the brand value of a good academic institution remains and scarcity will continue to play a role.

Q5. In 1991 when the Indian economy was opened up, it was feared that foreign companies will eat up homegrown ones. But today we have likes of Tata, Infosys and Reliance which are global giants. Do you think education going online is doom or boon for Indian institutions?

Relatively speaking online education will have less of an impact on Tier 1 colleges. Tier 1 in India will continue and Tier 1 in US will continue - Harvard and IIM will continue to operate in their own spheres. Online is not a competition for Tier 1 colleges. Tier 1 colleges look at Technology as an enabler and not an alternative.

It is Tier 2 and Tier 3 where the shift to online education is both an opportunity and a threat. Players will come up with new models of education leveraging technology which can totally disrupt mediocre colleges by delivering quality education at a fraction of cost with economies of scale. At the same time, it is a great opportunity for Tier 2 and Tier 3 colleges to blend online resources into their existing offerings to significantly improve their quality.  A smart Tier 2 college could play this very well probably by hiring different kind of teachers who are less subject oriented knowledge specialists (as that subject expertise would come from online course) but rather more focused on helping student take advantage of the knowledge that is out there and how to apply it. It would be interesting to see how the competition between technology and good Tier 2 and Tier 3 institution shapes up. From a student’s point of view, who is the consumer, there will be more choices which is always a good thing.

Prof. Janat Shah is the founding director of IIM Udaipur and Chairman Board of Management Studies - AICTE. He has a BTech in mechanical engineering from IIT Bombay and obtained his Fellow in Management (PhD equivalent) from IIM Ahmedabad.

Prof. Shah has been the Chairperson of the Post Graduate Programme, coordinator of the Management Programme for Technologists and Chairperson Supply Chain Management center at IIM Bangalore. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Sloan School of Management, MIT. He was also a visiting faculty for a term with The Logistic Institute at National University of Singapore (NUS). He was the President of Society of Operations Management India from 2008 to 2010. He currently holds a position of Special professor at Nottingham University.

Author of 'Supply Chain Management: Text and cases', he is a leading authority in the fields of Supply Chain Management and Operations Strategy. His book has been used in MBA and executive MBA courses at IIM Bangalore as well as at numerous other business schools throughout India. He has also published extensively in national and international journals. Prof. Shah has consulted with and been responsible for management education programs for executives in, several companies, including Aditya Birla group, Bharti Airtel, IBM, Infosys Ltd., Ingersoll Rand, Mahindra & Mahindra, Marico Industries, Tata Chemical, Tata Motors, Tata Teleservices, Yokogawa Blue Star.

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