Student preferences have shifted substantially in the wake of the pandemic
Students who prefer the traditional route of enrolling full time for conventional classroom learning are no more the norm. This shift had started even before the pandemic. According to a 2019 Pearson global survey, more than 70% of Indians (aged 16–70 years) felt that a degree or certificate from a vocational college or trade school is more likely to yield a good job than a traditional university degree. The pandemic only strengthened these preferences.
Today, more and more students favor academic flexibility, learning at their own pace, and quick acquisition of skills through on-demand learning resources. In our survey, students ranked short-term courses and certifications, increased flexibility in learning, and focus on skills development as their top three priorities in the postpandemic period.2
A visible shift in how education is consumed calls for a change in the way education is delivered. Higher education institutions need to be conscious of evolving student preferences as they reopen campuses and revamp education delivery in the postpandemic world. They also need to walk that extra mile to ensure that education reaches every doorstep in the nation.
A three-step framework to meet shifting learner needs
As higher education institutions gear up to build back better, the following three-step framework can guide them:
- Empower learners to chart their education pathways
- Leverage traditional and unconventional partnerships to bolster learning
- Ensure widespread diffusion of education
Higher education institutions cannot bring about this change all by themselves. Stakeholders, including students, industry, and the government will need to play a crucial role to enable institutions to take the next big leap and build a self-reliant higher education system.
Empower learners to chart their own education pathways
Giving students the freedom and autonomy to decide how and what they learn can boost motivation and help them develop critical life skills such as risk-taking and problem-solving.3 Brown University, in the United States, allows students to be “the architect of their own education.” For over 50 years, the university has followed an open curriculum where students, instead of completing a set of core courses, can explore and sample a range of subjects before making their choice on what to pursue in depth.4
As academicians and students in the Indian higher education brace for new beginnings, an immediate next step could be assessing how students can take greater ownership of their education, chart their own pathways, and pursue education at their own pace. This autonomy could pave the way for lifelong, self-driven learning.
Design flexible courses and programs
More than 60% of the deans we surveyed said that the pandemic has shifted student priorities; among other things is a preference for greater academic flexibility. Students agree. A majority of those we surveyed, listed increased flexibility in learning as the second most important priority.5
Institutions can start by implementing the four-year undergraduate program with multiple entry and exit options as envisaged in the National Education Policy 2020. This program is designed to give students the choice to earn a certificate after completing one year, a diploma after two years, and a bachelor’s degree after three years.6 Students who wish to pursue research in the future can opt for the four-year degree with a research option.
The Ministry of Education and University Grants Commission (UGC) have asked all 45 central universities to implement the four-year undergraduate program.7 Delhi University will soon be implementing it, starting with the 2022–23 academic batch session.8 Other institutions, including Lucknow University and Bangalore University, will also be following suit.9
Additionally, institutions can adopt and advance the use of alternative credentials, including stackable credentials. Adult learners or those who are juggling multiple priorities such as work and parenting, along with education, will find such credentials particularly helpful. As the name suggests, stackable or microcredentials can be either stand-alone or stackable toward a degree. Relatively new, these credentials can help students quickly learn a specialized subject or learn new skills.10 A study focused on North America suggests that stacking can lead to a four-percentage-point increase in employment, particularly in health and business.11
Stackable credentials are gaining ground across the world. Academic institutions in Europe, including Switzerland and Belgium, follow a structured path toward stacking short postgraduate courses.12 Some universities in the United States are also promoting the use of microcourses that are stackable toward a degree. For instance, the Western Governors University introduced an IT MicroBachelors program in 2020 for students across the globe. Though the program permits on-demand learning for busy adults looking to add new skills to their profile, it is also suited for those intending to pursue a bachelor’s degree, as it stacks into seven distinct IT bachelor’s degree programs, including bachelor of science (BS) in computer science, BS in cloud and systems administration, and BS in data management.13
Provide multidisciplinary options
Real-world problems are often multidisciplinary, and employers are increasingly scouting for talent with multiple specializations.14 Educational institutions can cater to this need by designing programs that allow students to specialize in multiple disciplines instead of confining them to disciplinary boundaries.
More than 70% of the deans surveyed think that introducing or expanding multidisciplinary courses is one of their top priorities to prepare students for the future of work.15 As suggested by one of the deans at the summit, “Students pursuing humanities should be encouraged to learn STEM courses and vice versa. This will build a future talent that is capable of forming a holistic approach to societal or business problems.”
Our previous studies, “Towards student centricity” and “Building resilience and self-reliance” also highlighted the benefits of this approach.
This is the direction that the Multi-Disciplinary Education and Research University model proposed by the National Education Policy aims to take by helping universities depart from rigid disciplinary boundaries and enable students to specialize in a range of subjects.
Some Indian universities have already adopted the model. For instance, IIT Bombay’s liberal arts, sciences, and engineering program is a novel, bespoke program designed to promote interdisciplinary learning. Introduced in 2021, the course offers students the opportunity to graduate with a BS degree in five fields: engineering sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, art, and design.16 From artificial intelligence (AI) and EdTech to biology, students will have various options to choose from. Students can also consult faculty and further customize the course if they wish to.17