Up until March, the juggernaut of enterprises supporting education abroad seemed unstoppable.
As I write this article, my own university is in the process of formulating a way forward for the Fall 2020 semester. Options include having an online semester, delaying the semester by a few months or till January 2021. At this point, these plans seem uncertain, as it will exacerbate complications around visas, insurance, housing, assistantships and so on.
We also don’t know how the university will ensure social distancing in dormitories and classrooms if at all they choose to resume classes offline, or how they will ensure scholarships and stipends for foreign students while conducting online classes. Perhaps we will get a clearer picture in the coming weeks. It may take a while to formulate a new normal, but we need to ask this one question: what are the measures in the education sector here to stay?
It goes without saying that most North American universities (and particularly Ivy Leagues) monopolise academia by undertaking excellent research, as they have large surpluses of resources at their disposal through government funding, alumni donations, and even client investments. Hence, they are ivory towers, which thousands of students attempt to breach every year.
However, an international student also has to spend months meticulously planning the expenses before applying at these universities. Given the amount of time I have spent on the same process, and my experiences in the aftermath of the crisis induced by the pandemic, I will speak from my own experience as an architecture student.
For most Indian students vying to study abroad, the months from December (of the year before they intend to start) up to September (which is when most of the intake takes place) is a crucial time period for securing admissions, funding, assistantships and visas.
This time, the pandemic stalled the whole process as a lot of COVID-19 cases started emerging in the month of December itself. Up until March, most educational institutes were still hopeful for a possible fall semester – even though there were signals of it being deferred.
Now, as we approach June, it has become clear that these stoic universities are under the sway of coronavirus, resulting in absolute uncertainty – which also means that education abroad is set to change forever.
While formulating yet another loan application, these are some thoughts that come to mind.
What happens to international students?
A lot of foreign universities were already giving priority local students, causing a sharp decline in the percentage of seats available for international students. And now with the coronavirus, the universities might further cut short the seats citing international travel restrictions and domestic hegemony.
What this means is that the process of making education equally accessible to all is set to slow down, at least for a few years. The economic downturn suggests that the funding that these universities had through endowments to support economically weaker international students will also dry up.
In such a scenario, it may really be worth asking: what free education for all will mean in the post pandemic world – and free for whom? And who encompasses ‘all’? And will the larger geopolitics of the world manifest itself in the classroom too?
What happens to research opportunities?
Of late, the global south has become a fertile ground for most institutions to conduct their research in. In fact, the world before the pandemic had no bar on the areas of interest that one could engage in. But with the upcoming travel restrictions, a shift in the geography of research is likely to occur, with research yet again being limited to the constraints of the country.
Field visits are an important aspect of research in planning and architecture but now, due to limited mobility, the scope of research is likely to shrink. Most colleges also conduct client based real-time projects and with the economic downturn and lack of site visits, those avenues of funding are also likely to be sparse. Consequently, research funding will be met with same fate. Suddenly now, the scope of your research is only as large as the field you can physically cover, and the imagination of your research as much as your secondary data can provide.
Accessibility of online education
Online education intends to bring lectures recorded in haloed halls to our laptops, and to some, this has actually been far more beneficial of students from a certain class, who have access to all kinds of required resources.
But not everything is hunky dory.
A lot of students choose to study abroad as it often guarantees a well-paying job, as opposed to what architecture firms have to offer in India. And for some, it is an opportunity to learn and make new friends. However, physical interactions like these will not be possible over online education.
Plus, online education has its own set of problems. First, it is based on an assumption that every student has the means to actually own a device, and a high-speed broadband or wifi to stream the lectures. Second, for an international student, paying the exorbitant fees and rent for an online education adds to their daily expenses.
Third, all major Ivy Leagues already had free online lectures on websites such as Coursera and EdX. But most of these courses are not accessed, simply because the whole point for an Indian student was not to have an education through Harvard, but an education at Harvard.
There was already a steady stream of webinars and conferences, and that is said to boom after the pandemic. But we also know that anyone who wants to post – can post.
A university structure that monitors who could impart education (which in itself is problematic) might dismantle in the days to come. Some may argue that the university checks and balances are too hegemonic, and the internet boundless and fast. Will the post-pandemic world be able to stop education from becoming clickbait? Only time will tell.
The rise of the domestic and universalised higher education system?
Today, I find myself asking why I choose to attend a university abroad in the first place, knowing that education has become a highly capitalised venture in the global north (perhaps barring public universities in Europe and other exceptions).
Perhaps the pandemic will eventually reduce the number of students desiring to study abroad, and it will perhaps prompt the Indian government to provide better alternatives in the country itself. The Indian education system has several structural issues, but it goes without saying that having a higher education system of global standards within your own country is infinitely cheaper than the debt incurred on education abroad. A combination of distance learning through online teaching by renowned faculty and networked learning environments that can be mobilised domestically, might be far more agile and the future going forward.
But of course, these are speculations, which I understand may be redundant for a variety of reasons. How the world reacts in the aftermath of the pandemic will be anyone’s guess. What clearly is a possibility now, is that the health crisis will be followed by a devastating economic and social crisis. The brunt of this will be borne by the education sector, and the public education system which was in any case buckling under severe structural issues.
The budget for public education in India is roughly 4% of the GDP, and a limited outreach of the same in rural and urban sectors paints a sorry picture. The increasing rate of school dropouts, the dismal student to teacher ratios, and the even more lack of resources, and equipment are all to be exacerbated by the pandemic.
To be able to afford education abroad is a privilege, which I could only due to the financial aid from my university. To have access to education at all, is a privilege that needs to be acknowledged in this country. But equitable and accessible education, which is non-capitalised and is for the public good, is a right that we should all demand.
Ipshita K. is a masters student based in Mumbai.
Featured image credit: Jahsie Ault/Unsplash