In his prophetic Ted Talk on 'The Next Outbreak' in 2015, Bill Gates alluded to the great danger posed to humankind by global epidemics as compared to nuclear war. Five years later, we are right in the middle of what may be termed as the greatest global crisis since the Second World War. The current Covid-19 pandemic has taken the lives of more than a hundred thousand people and has affected billions of people worldwide in one way or another.
While the immediate economic fallout of this pandemic directly impacts the healthcare, travel and hospitality and entertainment sectors, there are other sectors that will surely be affected too. One such sector is higher education. Schools, colleges and universities are spaces of face-to-face learning and are therefore prime locations for the potential spread of this contagion. As a result, educational institutions across the world have asked students to stay at home while education continues in an online mode.
However, this shift away from in-class learning has not been without criticism. Several colleges at Cambridge University were criticized for causing alarm when they sent out emails instructing international students to go home immediately. Several other institutes in the United States have asked students to vacate campuses until further notice. Students who have taken loans or work part-time on campus to sustain themselves have been left out in the cold. They would have to find accommodation outside campuses, which can be expensive, to stay back in the US or return to their home country.
Every year, a large number of Indian students go abroad to pursue higher education. The most popular destinations for Indian students are the Anglophonic countries -- the US, Britain, Canada and Australia. According to a recent report by QS-iGauge, over 700,000 Indian students were studying abroad in 2018. However, moving forward, given the widespread nature of this pandemic and its spread in the United States and Europe, continuing travel bans and visa restrictions seem highly likely. As suggested by the QS-iGauge report: “Ultimately, it is without an iota of doubt that student mobility will be greatly affected. This can especially be true for Indian students as the countries which they prefer to go to for their higher studies suffer from alarming rates of novel coronavirus widespread.”
What does this mean for the cohort of Indian students having aspirations of higher education abroad? In March 2020, approximately 3.3 million people filed for unemployment in the US. With the world going into a recession, more and more unemployed youth will want to enrol in university programmes in order to gain additional skills or expertise. This has been seen in the past during the 2008-09 recession. This makes admission into foreign universities that much more competitive. Second, due to uncertainty in the financial futures of universities, we expect that scholarships will also be highly competitive. Third, there remains considerable insecurity in terms of international travel, health concerns and careers abroad after completion of higher education studies. As a result, we expect that many students aspiring for higher education abroad will not be able to fulfil that aspiration in 2020.
How then does an Indian student aspiring for higher studies abroad navigate this brave but uncertain future? There seem to be three options. The first is to take up higher studies abroad with the assumption that classes will initially be held online and eventually Indian students may be permitted to move to physical classes abroad. However, foreign universities are prohibitively expensive and out of reach of most Indian students. The tuition fees that foreign universities charge are not just for the education that students receive but also for the “university experience” -- whether it is engaging in close quarters with students from across the world, or experiencing new customs and traditions in a foreign land. With the university experience being largely absent in online learning, high tuition fees cannot be justified.
The second option is to adopt a wait and watch approach and defer admission to a foreign university for a year. While this may be suitable for post-graduate students who are perhaps gainfully employed, taking a “gap year” for an aspiring undergraduate student would be tantamount to the loss of an entire year.
The third and perhaps the most viable solution, is to look to Indian universities. Here lies another problem. The primary reason why Indian students aspire for higher education abroad is the established and perceived quality of universities in various parts of the world. With higher studies abroad no longer being a viable option in the foreseeable future, students must consider quality Indian universities instead.
What then constitutes quality in Indian universities? Enrolment in a number of universities in India is highly competitive and thus they “self-select” quality students, thereby gaining in perceived quality themselves. However, there are a number of other metrics that students could use to choose a quality Indian university. A small number of Indian universities have been ranked among the leading universities in the world in various international rankings which themselves are based on the quality of teaching, research and reputation. While the quality of teaching is, at best, a subjective opinion, a high ratio of faculty to students allows for more personalised and individualised education, thus elevating the learning experience. Publication track records, intellectual contribution to society, infrastructural facilities and career opportunities are other metrics that students may consider in choosing a quality Indian university.
Lastly, we must not lose sight of the underlying aspiration of the student to actually pursue studies abroad. Therefore, when choosing an Indian university, students must consider the access to the global community that the university may offer in later years. This could include a high percentage of international faculty and student mobility programmes such as semester exchanges and dual degree programmes. While many Indian universities focus on providing a basic grounding in some area of specialisation, others provide pathways into lucrative careers. However, students aspiring for higher education abroad must ensure that the Indian university they choose acts as a pathway for global opportunities, whether through international student mobility or post-graduate programmes abroad. For Indian students seeking higher education abroad, this should be the key defining factor when deciding upon which Indian university to go to.
While the world is gripped in the panic of the Covid-19 coronavirus, it is important to keep in mind that this too shall pass. However, it is equally important that Indian students not forego this opportunity to engage in quality learning while studying in India while keeping their sights focused on the rest of the world.