Leadership at University during Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the higher education sector in India. Institutions as well as students are under pressure to not lose academic time. There is an urgent need to re-invent teaching and learning methodologies. EPG, in partnership with Ansal University, recently organised a webinar on “Leadership at University during Covid-19 pandemic”. The agenda was to discuss the challenges faced by universities amidst the pandemic, with inputs from a distinguished panel of experts in the higher education sector. Here is a brief summary of the discussion. 

What are the issues and challenges faced by universities during the lock down? 

(Dr.) D.N.S. Kumar, Vice Chancellor of Ansal University, Gurugram acknowledged that the leadership at universities have a vital role to play during crises such as the ongoing pandemic. “Leaders have to go online fearlessly”, he says, as it is the only option left. But, when it comes to implementation of this, there are uncertainties with respect to the usage of technology, despite its availability. Energy, skill and competency of all stakeholders should be improved to overcome the uncertainty, he adds.  

Further, Dr Kumar warns that the job market and the economy aren’t going to be the same as before, so there is a need to undertake measures to upskill students accordingly. He also stresses the need for mentors to be able to guide students for the same.  

Cost cutting, new admissions and recovery of fees are some of the other challenges faced by universities. However, Dr Kumar remains optimistic on being able to address a majority of these issues. He says that the current scenario is an opportunity to synergise and brainstorm new ideas and topics for research papers and projects.  

The aforementioned challenges are only initial obstacles, which have been addressed to a certain extent by universities. However, in future, there may be more challenges, which may become apparent only at a much later stage.  

What are the issues and challenges that universities might face in future? 

Prof. (Dr.) Manoj K. Arora VC, BML Munjal University, Gurugram said that a major disruption is bound to occur. Only universities that can quickly adapt accordingly will be able to survive, he predicts. An academic institution is known for innovation, R&D and infrastructure — changes may have to occur on all these fronts, he says. IT infrastructure needs to be upgraded and new software must be used for teaching, he adds.  

There will be challenges in the admission process for new students, but with online outreach, flexible deadlines and reviewed qualification criteria, this can be addressed. He also adds that there is a likelihood of students opting for universities closer to home, so there is a need to change geographical reach. He also thinks that students would now prefer colleges that are affordable, while having a well-developed online learning infrastructure at the same time 

Dr Arora strongly believes in adapting a blended model of learning i.e a combination of virtual and face-to-face learning. He feels digital tools can only be complements but not substitutes for learning. In future, classroom time should be utilised for discussions, debates and practicals rather than lecturing, he says. He acknowledges this would require faculty to make long term changes to their curricula and teaching approaches. Faculty training to adapt to blended learning methods is essential, he adds.  

Adapting to new methods of learning and teaching could be stressful for both teachers and students. Therefore, mental health programmes are also required, says Dr Arora.  

On the research side – funding opportunity will reduce due to economic slowdown. But he feels new research areas will emerge. Collaborative research and teleconferencing will become more popular, he predicts. 

Regarding placements, Dr Arora predicts that recruiters will now be looking at skills like creativity, communication, collaboration, empathy, emotional intelligence and the ability to work across demographic regions. All these skills need to be seamlessly embedded into the curriculum, he says. 

He further adds that the current scenario has provided us an opportunity to brainstorm and collaborate in real time. According to him, clusters and partnerships between small universities is essential to provide blended learning. “This is the right time to be peers than competitors for the glory of the society”, he sums up. 

What are the financial aspects of managing universities during adversities such as the current lockdown? 

Technology is the need of the hour for teaching and learning processes. But adapting to e-learning requires huge investment and institutions need to grapple with funds. Prof. I K Bhat, Vice Chancellor, Manav Rachna University, Faridabad, spoke on the financial aspects of the challenges faced by universities.  

Prof Bhat says that the Covid-19 pandemic situation has challenged our long-held belief that learning can occur only when the teacher physically stands in front of the class and teaches. Now, there is a scope for rethinking such traditional beliefs and moving ahead by adapting to e-learning methods, he adds. 

Coming to the financial aspects of this at universities, he says students haven’t been able to pay fees since parents are also under financial stress due to the current economic condition.  

Admissions and the counselling process haven’t been able to take place in the manner they used to occur, before the lock down period. As a result, there is higher attrition and lower conversion rate in new applications. Due to this, the fee collected is also reduced. Universities, especially private ones, are run wholly by the fees paid by students, so budgets allocated among various resources will be affected. According to him, public universities, which received insufficient funds even before the pandemic, are going to receive much lesser funds now. As a result, even they will be affected. 

Another major concern is the government giving in to the public demand for fee waivers, which would increase the financial burden, especially for private institutions. Funding for research from the Government as well as private entities has also been hit, he adds. Therefore, it is crucial to map out a plan to sustain despite the financial hurdles.  

With regards to adaption to online teaching methodologies, Prof Bhat adds that a huge investment is required to upgrade the IT infrastructure. Whether it is cloud-based or own datacentres, it would need enormous funding and not many universities can afford it. Teachers need training to be able to use new software, which again needs money. Apart from this, hiring new professors is also affected as they are unable to offer a good salary. 

Another concern is the slowdown in internships and placements being offered to students. Industrial internships during this time is hit as they aren’t functioning at full capacity. Prof Bhat says that some industries have demanded money to offer internships to students, which is a very disturbing trend. Companies that had previously offered placements have been revising the salary figures promised prior to the lock down, he adds. 

What is a possible road map for universities post Covid-19, in the interest of all stakeholders? 

Prof. (Dr.) Kamlesh Mishra, VC Rishihood University opines that one of the greatest damage that has been done by the pandemic is that the whole learning environment has been completely destructed. Therefore, the first thing to do is to build a new learning environment and a new learning model. He warns university leaders to not adopt online learning model completely as there may be issues from regulatory bodies in the futureAt the same time, he does admit there is no going back to our traditional method of teaching. He predicts a blended model of learning as the norm for the future. Along with classroom teaching, online assignments and self-learning material can be provided to students – so that they are better prepared for the class and speed of teaching will be quicker. He says that universities, especially the ones in rural regions, have to address the issue of digital access to everyone before they offer e-learning. 

Prof Mishra also proposes that universities within India should offer joint degree programmessimilar to the ones being offered by some Indian universities in partnership with foreign universities. For example, a student should be able to complete one half of the course in a university in Delhi and the other half in a university in Bangalore. He predicts this will become popular in future.  

The connect between teachers and students has been lost in the current situation, says Prof Mishra. We need to rebuild this in a new model of education delivery. Not just between students and teachers, but a strong connect between all stakeholders must be rebuilt and strengthened. Social reconstruction is necessary, and he admits that it is the responsibility of university leaders to decide a model for it. 

He also stresses on the need for universities to maintain a fund for emergencies such as the current situation. Many universities do not have the necessary funds to pay salaries. Going ahead, he opines that a university should always maintain a fund that will be sufficient for a minimum period of 6 months. 

Prof Mishra also feels that lesser students are going to go abroad for studies in the coming years, especially for UG coursesHe adds that parents will remain sceptical about sending their children to study abroad. As a result, more students are going to end up studying in India and universities need to be prepared with the right infrastructure. 

He sums up by saying that education leadership is going to be critical now as they have a responsibility to create social worth. And to achieve this, we need leadership that is willing to challenge conventional ideas. 

Watch the recording of this webinar session on our Facebook page here.

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