Creating ‘University 5.0’, After The Covid Learning Loss

A trainee studies in a library in Mysore, Karnataka. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Creating ‘University 5.0’, After The Covid Learning Loss


Covid-19 is a massive setback to massifying higher education. But this tragedy is an opportunity to reimagine our university system.

Guru Gobind Singh evocatively titled his autobiography Bichitra Naatak or strange drama. India’s 1,000+ universities and 35 million university students would unhesitatingly adopt the Guru’s description for last year; as Covid-19 disrupted every rule of teaching, campus life, curriculum, and assessment. This has painful consequences; a survey that polled Indian university leaders and students suggests learning losses of between 40-60%. This is double the estimated losses in the rich G-7 countries. We believe this tragedy is an opportunity to re-imagine the financing, delivery, and employability of higher education and create University 5.0.

Learning losses are global; 220 million students were impacted as universities closed their campuses, governments enforced lockdowns, and countries shut their borders. Equity and quality suffered more in India than in rich countries because of differences in investments, capacities, and innovation. The table below suggests that the Indian learning loss may be double that of rich countries:

Dual Digital Divide

India’s higher learning loss is primarily because of two digital divides; one between students and the other between Indian and global universities. Students need internet connectivity and devices which many didn’t have.

  • The 2017-18 National Sample Survey reported that only 23.8% of Indian households had internet access and only 12.5% of the households of students in India have internet access at home.

  • Only 41% of students in urban areas and 28% in rural households have internet access and 55% of university students are in rural households.

  • Of the 5 million university students who stay in hostels, 48% don’t have internet access at home.

The digital divide between Indian and global universities arises because only 30 of our nearly 1,000 universities are licensed to offer online learning. Universities learn by doing but regulatory cholesterol has held back the learning and experimentation that will improve delivery platforms, learning management systems, and get faculty comfortable with teaching online. Ending India’s digital divide will involve public spending on infrastructure for disadvantaged students and policy deregulation for universities.

Other sources of India’s higher learning loss could include governance complexity in government universities, pre-existing capacity deficits because Indian universities are over-regulated but under-supervised, and longer lockdowns and slower vaccination.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Students study at a college in Uttar Pradesh. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)</p></div>

Students study at a college in Uttar Pradesh. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Five Interventions

University leaders surveyed suggest it will take three years to overcome the loss; we suggest five policy interventions to shorten this nightmare.

  1. All universities and colleges must be allowed to open physically immediately with necessary precautions.

  2. All universities must be immediately and automatically licensed for online learning.

  3. We must accelerate Digital India to blunt the digital divide among the poor, rural areas, and disadvantaged communities.

  4. The higher education sector must be financially supported by government funds and banks (like healthcare has been) for one-time Covid capital expenditure in digital infrastructure, training, and transition.

  5. We must reduce the implementation timeline of the National Education Policy 2020 from 15 years to 5 years.

The Flaws With What We Have

Universities all over the world have trapped themselves into a low-level equilibrium that makes them more expensive, deprioritises teaching over research, and delivers poor employability. Of course, the difficult trade-offs between cost, quality, and quantity drive their evolution but the world has produced more graduates in the last 30 years than the 800 years before that.

University 1.0 was driven by religions. University 2.0 was driven by the State. University 3.0 was driven by philanthropy. University 4.0 was largely delivered physically on a beautiful campus with a sage-on-stage. The challenges with this model include financing; student debt in the U.S. now totals $1.5 trillion of which 50% may have to be written off because of poor employability and employment outcomes for alumni.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Banners of U.S. universities are displayed in a classroom as participants attend a counseling session,&nbsp; in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)</p></div>

Banners of U.S. universities are displayed in a classroom as participants attend a counseling session,  in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)


Covid-19 has accelerated structural changes in the world of work, organisations, and education. Modern work was done from a physical office, entailed living in the same city, and involved a full-time contract. Covid’s mandatory randomised control trial around work challenges all three assumptions for organisations. The disruption of education has been long coming; in a world where Google knows everything, knowing is useless, and learning how to learn is the key skill. Again the mandatory randomised control trial forced by the pandemic has accelerated the reimagination of universities.

University 5.0 must be designed to recognise that our parents had 35-year careers, we will have 45-year careers and our kids will have 55-year careers. These long careers need the lifelong learning provided by a university system that reinvents itself to have more employed learners than full-time learners.

University 5.0 must innovate by offering:

  • Delivery flexibility - multiple classrooms that include online, on-site, on-the-job, and on-campus;

  • Qualification modularity - multiple on and off-ramps between certificates, diplomas, and degree with varying duration;

  • Employer signaling value - it must signal specific skills;

  • Admission criteria, assessments, and higher value for money for the average student - the wage premium compensates for the opportunity cost and capital cost incurred; and

  • A continuum between prepare, repair, and upgrade.

The Covid learning loss has important implications for the world (25% of the world’s new workers in the next 10 years will be in India), the Indian economy’s productivity (our problem is not land, labour and capital, but the fourth factor of production of entrepreneurship or innovation), and Indian employers' people supply chains. This learning loss was policy fate. Ending this Bichitra Naatak is a policy choice.

Manish Sabharwal is co-founder of Teamlease Services and Shantanu Rooj is co-founder of Teamlease Edtech.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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