In the long-term, what are the problems that the higher education sector will face?
The decrease in the number of international students will severely affect the sector, and universities that rely on foreign admissions for income will be hit particularly badly. Several universities have already had to lay off adjunct faculty as a cost-cutting measure, and this has been done at the expense of quality. One must also question if it is ethical for universities to enrol international students for the short-term when most institutions are not sure about safety. The pandemic has just upended the dynamics of the sector. Universities have been compelled to recalibrate their approach towards education. They will have to come up with a sound solution that ensures the safety of all students and teachers.
Yes, online classes have made it possible for many international students to complete their respective courses, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that internet is a definite marker of social inequality. Given that the global economy is expected to take a turn for the worse, students without adequate financial resources will be placed in a particularly disadvantageous situation. Virtual interviews, online on-boarding and working with team members you know only on the screen is bound to make one feel the absence of a personal touch.
What are the solutions you are working on, and have implemented to adjust to the new circumstances?
MAHE has suspended all international exchange programmes till January 2021. We have developed an online platform – MAESTRO (Manipal Academic Exchange Student Traineeship and Research Outreach) that offers remote internship and virtual exchange. This was devised to revive projects that were in limbo and to evolve new ways to ensure their completion. Through MAESTRO, we were able to offer our students who were denied the opportunity for international exchange much-needed global exposure. There is also a proposal we are considering to offer electives across various disciplines and non-credit-based open electives on Indian culture, music and dance. The idea is to help students on the Manipal campus enhance the value of their programmes without charging additional fees.
When do you think things will return to ‘normal’, and in the event of there being no changes, what are MAHE’s contingency plans?
It is quite clear that this crisis will continue to impact our lives for some time. In this complex climate, flexibility and innovation are vital to running the university. MAHE was quick to adapt to the situation, rolling out online classes and taking administration online. The admission process involving submission of applications was tweaked accordingly. Institutions of higher educations are likely to remain either completely closed or function in an atmosphere that is severely restricted for the next six months unless there is a vaccine for the infection. The universities will have to blend online education with conventional modes of teaching in an environment where social distancing is the norm.