Covid piles pressure on India to embrace online degrees

India is accelerating plans to offer higher education online as coronavirus forces universities and colleges to close while the student population swells.

A range of international universities, domestic institutions and tech platforms are expanding their online offerings after the government said that it would allow degrees to be offered entirely virtually.

Finding ways to improve access to quality higher education to the country’s 1.4bn population was an urgent task even before coronavirus, be it undergraduate degrees or skill-building courses for professionals. India has more than 35m students enrolled in higher education, up from about 8m in 2000.

Yet the ratio of enrolment to the eligible population is only 26 per cent, according to government data, well below the likes of China and the US. The government wants to boost this to 50 per cent by 2035.

While India is home to a number of elite universities, it added 4.4 colleges a day from 2000 to meet the explosion in demand, according to Devesh Kapur, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Yet many of these 40,000 colleges are small and poorly run, failing to prepare students for employment.

Authorities and universities hope that expanding online offerings is part of the solution. “India has a very unusual problem,” said S Sadagopan, director of the International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, referring to the mismatch between the growth in students and quality colleges.

Mr Sadagopan’s institute, which already offers online diplomas, wants to offer full undergraduate degrees.

Stephen Waterworth, head of international partnerships at Liverpool John Moores University, said: “I would question whether traditional, fully face-to-face, programmes are ever going to come back.”

LJMU is working with education tech start-up upGrad to offer a handful of masters degrees in areas such as data science and business administration. It wants to introduce programmes blending virtual and in-person teaching.

India’s huge population has made it one of the world’s most promising markets for education technology, with companies such as Byju’s raising billions of dollars from investors by targeting school children.

Others, such as upGrad, Great Learning or Emeritus, have focused on demand from university students or working professionals. Consultancy Redseer estimates that the online higher education market could be worth $4bn to $6bn by 2025.

Yet, creating a viable model for mass online higher education is still a work in progress. Many students outside urban elites struggle with reliable internet access and hardware such as laptops, and employers are often sceptical of their credentials.

“Universities are a lot more open minded now,” said Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder of upGrad. “Employers need to feel that an online diploma is as valuable . . . One of the big challenges is corporate acceptability.”

The severe hit to India’s labour market following the coronavirus lockdown could ultimately prove to be a double-edged sword.

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Students and professionals may feel more determination to boost their employability and skillset online. Yet momentum could fizzle out if the economic blow limits employment opportunities.

“We know that demand for education is very much linked to what you are going to get out of it,” Mr Kapur said.

It is contingent on “that link between higher education and employment. And employment crucially depends on economic growth.”

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