The Covid-19 pandemic has been the greatest disruptor of education across the world. Schools and colleges have shut their gates and moved classrooms online. Academic life has been overturned, and careers put on hold. Several education boards have cancelled in-person examinations in India and replaced them with various formulas to assess students.
The pandemic has forced us to examine new ways of evaluating a child’s learning other than examinations alone. The CBSE or the Central Board of Secondary Education, for instance, plans to replace its Class 12 examination with a 30:30:40 formula to assess students based on their performance in Class 10, Class 11 and pre-board examinations.
The new National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, approved by the Union cabinet last July, replaces a 35-year-old document. It promises to boost spending on education and usher in sweeping changes that include an improved focus on access, equality and affordability in education.
India Today Magazine July 5, 2021 cover.
In this environment, the 25th edition of India Today’s Best Colleges Survey has had to search for excellence. We partnered with the reputed Delhi-based market research agency Marketing & Development Research Associates (MDRA) to rank colleges across 14 streams. The agency drew up 112 performance indicators in each stream to come up with the most comprehensive and balanced means to assess colleges. These indicators were clubbed under five broad parameters—Intake Quality & Governance, Academic Excellence, Infrastructure & Living Experience, Personality & Leadership Development and Career Progression & Placement. We also attempted to understand how colleges geared up to handle the pandemic. MDRA evaluated colleges based on data from the current year to give realistic, relevant and accurate information. The groundwork was conducted between December 2020 and June 2021. It was next to impossible to physically audit the campuses of participating institutes due to Covid restrictions. Despite the limitations, the colleges showed remarkable enthusiasm in participating in the survey, which over the years has become a byword for excellence in mapping college education in India and appreciated for its consistency.
The pandemic brought in its wake many innovations to meet the digital challenge in education. A dental college in Manipal set up a simulation lab for its students. A college in Delhi distributed free laptops and data packs to help students to bridge the digital divide. Another set up virtual classrooms and helplines. Some collaborated with international universities to give their students value for money. A computer science college in the south ‘gamified’ programming languages like Java to stoke the curiosity of its students. Students were given audio lectures to listen to in their free time to retain concepts taught in class. Those without laptops were given online code editing apps that could be used on smartphones.
We also spoke to students to learn how they were faring. A final-year architecture student from an IIT told us how he missed physical collaborative studio learning and a chance to use the department infrastructure. A mass communication student from Pune told us how the recorded lectures gave him better control over his education and allowed him to balance his studies with a part-time job.
The hard reality is that the pandemic has advanced digital learning. While today’s virtual classroom is dictated by necessity, the future clearly belongs to blended learning, where in-person and online will merge seamlessly to enhance the education experience. The Batch of 2020-21 signals what education might eventually look like.
There are, however, some worrying signs. The number of colleges has increased by 3,272 in the past five years, taking the total to 42,443. But colleges per million students have grown only from 2.8 per million in 2015-16 to 3 per million in 2019-20. The disparity in the geographical distribution of institutions is a continuing source of concern. Ten states—Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Telangana and Kerala—account for 78 per cent of the total colleges in the country.
One hopes that the spurt in digital education will now break these geographical disparities and make higher education more inclusive. Online education has opened up enormous possibilities. Just the way businesses have discovered the virtues of working from home or virtual meetings. Despite their genuine ability to overcome India’s adverse student-teacher ratios and its shortfall of quality institutions, open universities and distance learning were once looked down upon. Online education has the potential to usher in societal change.
When we launched the survey 25 years ago, India spent only 3.7 per cent of its GDP on education. According to the Economic Survey of 2019-20, we are spending even less now — 3.1 per cent. This decline should be a matter of great concern to all of us. In my Letter from the Editor 25 years ago, I had written: “The educated mind, we know, is vital to any emerging developing economy. The Asian Tigers are a fine example, having understood that 100 per cent literacy and a technically trained workforce are mandatory requirements for their progress. Yet, while we have liberalised our economy, we seem to have ignored one basic question: who is going to run it?” The tragedy is that, after two and a half decades, the question still remains pertinent. Even more so if we are serious about the ambitious goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy from the present $2.7 trillion one in the next three years.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, for July 5, 2021)