FF Recommends: How to think about higher education

June 5, 2021 | FF Daily #390: Advice for students and parents on how to think about the next steps

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Good morning,

The pandemic is taking its toll on teenagers. Class X and Class XII exams have been cancelled. Many students feel lost and their parents feel conflicted about how to help them. To find answers to questions that are top of mind, we got on the phone with Meeta Sengupta, who is founder, Centre for Education Strategy. She shared her thoughts in a conversation that lasted over two hours. That conversation is the backbone of this FF Recommends on how to think about higher education.

Stay safe and have a good weekend.

How to think about higher education 

Research suggests that after the Spanish flu of 1918, a generation of students did badly through the rest of their life. It took a generation to overcome the scars. While that debate hasn’t been settled yet, what are we witnessing now? What advice would you have for digital natives who are now practically living online and their parents who are digital immigrants?

It is actually incorrect to suggest that the generation studying in virtual classrooms are digital natives. Almost all of their learning and schooling was in a world away from the internet. Screens were places where they went to unwind. 

They are also discovering [that they are not digital natives]. They were not born with it. So, somebody like my niece who was given a phone when she was in her pushchair finds meaning only when she shares on Instagram—it’s incredible. 

So, what is happening in the learning space? Teachers who are digital immigrants were picked up and placed in front of a TV or a computer camera. And now they have 40 little boxes in front of them and they don’t know how to deal with it. 

This is like picking up a print journalist from another era and placing them in front of a television camera or asking them to handle the digital newsfeed. They cannot. If they attempt it, it will be sub-standard offering. 

A few things are happening now. For those who are rich and have access to the internet, there is a learning lag. For the underprivileged with no access, the digital divide is growing and we are witnessing a learning loss. That is why, I want to say three things to this generation.

I want to almost apologize to this generation. You really have a tough decade ahead. You will have to toughen up faster than your parents did. Suddenly, you’re clueless. Will the Class X and XII exams be held tomorrow? What decision will the authorities take next? How does a kid deal with all of this? That’s a tough mental space to be in.

The second part of it is more optimistic. There is more awareness of the mental health impact of all of this compared to what it was like in 1918. People are learning to be kinder and are creating structures.

This kindness will help bridge the digital divide and communities of learning are being created in our digital spaces

A friend is grappling with a dilemma. His son has an offer of admission for an undergraduate programme in economics at Ashoka University. And he also has an offer from the University of Toronto. While Ashoka has assured him admission, irrespective of whether the exams are held, Toronto remains non-committal. They are in wait-and-watch mode. Assuming the Class XII ISC board exams get cancelled, could this become a hurdle for students like him looking at admission in foreign universities? Is it better to stick to a high-quality local university like Ashoka? Ashoka has been kind enough to say that they will refund the fees provided they withdraw by August.

With the advent of seriously high-quality Indian institutions like Ashoka and ISB, every international option is not necessarily better than the Indian option. And given the pandemic, and only specifically because of the pandemic, it might not be a bad idea to keep your family close to you. You do not know when a crisis might strike. We are in very uncertain times for a few more months at least. That’s the emotional part of the argument. Keep family close. And therefore, universities such as Ashoka, make sense. 

In this case specifically, it depends upon how much the student cares about that particular subject. Ashoka is clear that it will stay focused on the liberal arts. The question to be answered then is, how passionate is the student about the liberal arts versus a specific subject on offer at the University of Toronto.

And the second part is, how good is that university on that subject? If it has some great teachers and great feedback about that domain, look it up. 

Having great teachers in higher education is one of the biggest gifts in the world. But the question is, where are the great teachers? The best universities aren’t by brand name. Look up places such as Rate Your Lecturer, student blogs, dig on YouTube, on forum boards—there is a lot of feedback available. You’ll have student videos that tell you about what your living conditions are over there and if you find pockets of excellence, don't lose that chance. 

But if you’re not passionate about it, just go for what is the best available option to you. Why would you spend money, create uncertainty for yourself, and go far away from home at a time like this if you’re not passionate about something? 

There's no pressing reason to take that economic risk right now. In any case, employment opportunities, specifically between Toronto and Ashoka, are pretty much the same. You will find the same kinds of jobs. Canada doesn’t have a great history of employment. After [university], they're not offering too many visas anymore. There was a fantastic visa boom a few years ago, but that’s tapering off now. So, specifically between Toronto and Ashoka, look for passion and excellence. Otherwise, take the safe choice. It’s cheaper as well.

Do you think foreign universities may cut down on fees this year? 

Unlikely. The cost of teaching and continuously retraining teachers has been going up world over. So, their costs have actually gone up. And their fixed costs have stayed. You can’t stop paying your janitors just because your rooms and schools are not being used. For that matter, you cannot stop renting or owning certain facilities. If you’ve taken loans to buy a building, interests on that must be serviced. In fact, 85% of all costs in education are fixed costs. So their costs have actually either remained the same or gone up in many cases.

Universities are in very, very bad shape financially and the best of them will definitely not be able to reduce fees.

So, that rules out lower fees totally?

Colleges and universities may create separate online degrees that are a poorer cousin of a full degree. That may happen. But their reputation will be lower as well. 

What it means is that when a student enrols for a full degree, a university will offer full access to their professors and to all of its facilities, whether online or physically when things open up. But the online degree will offer only the classes and will be available only as a bare bones, cheaper version. 

What should Indian kids who have made up their minds to go abroad this year keep in mind?

It is very, very likely that on site international education will resume by December. If not already by September or October. In the US, kids are already getting vaccinated and have started going to class. Normal life has already resumed in places such as the UK as well. China, however, has insisted that students going there must take the Chinese vaccine only.

There are parents we know about who feel conflicted about sending their kids back to places such as the UK after having evacuated them during the second wave. What advice would you have for them and other prospective applicants? 

There will never be a perfect answer to this one, because the situation itself is so crazy. For example, India is still in the red zone when it comes to the UK. So, [as soon as you enter the UK, you will have to shell out] 2,500 to 3,000 pounds. Because you must be in quarantine for 14 days and get RT PCR tests on the fourth and eighth day. That’s a lot of money.

So, one part of the decision is easily taken if you do the math of it. Can you afford it? 

But what if there is an outbreak of the virus in the student dorm? Hopefully, it will not happen because 60% of the country has already been vaccinated. But we don't know the impact of the Delta variant. The efficacy of the AstraZeneca jab is 33% against this. Suppose there is an outbreak there, what do you do? Again, you need to ask, can you afford to put your child in an Airbnb or rented accommodation for a while? 

The other way to think about it is to ask, how much will your child actually gain by physically being on campus? What is the child’s opinion on this? Now, most teenagers have very strong opinions on this and you cannot fight them. So, look up what is the guidance from the university. Some absolutely insist you must be present there. Others are offering a choice. 

Different universities offer differing levels of care. Investigate. Get the student to ask questions. How will you keep me safe? What happens then? How will you isolate a case if it happens on my floor or in my dorm, or in my building? Ultimately, you will have to be guided by your counselors at the university. But you really want the decision to be only yours. And it’s a question of how safe you feel. It's like investing in a stock. Nobody can tell you to buy or not buy. You have to do your due diligence and research. And then you have to ask yourself, can I afford to handle this choice, because for any choice you make, there will be pros and cons. There is nothing certain about the situation at least till December. 

Now, the good news is, in the UK, the term starts in October. And you have a big break in December. So, we’re only talking about six weeks of risk. And by December, you’ll be in a much stronger position to understand the impact of the pandemic.

So, if I’m totally risk averse, I’d think about sending my child there only by January. 

In India kids are headed for another year of online classes. What advice would you have for them and their parents?

The one thing you learn as a mother of a very small child is that if you give them certain structures—not fixed structures, not jail-like structures, but certain sets of routines—younger children also are more secure. And we learned that as young parents also, that this actually works for our children. They cry less at night if they follow a routine. So pragmatically, my answer comes from that. 

First, do not impose routines on them. But get them to think about it and begin by having very equal conversations, almost adult-to-adult conversations. It’s very difficult for us as parents to pull back from the parental role. That’s our job. That’s our struggle. They don’t need to see our struggle to have an equal conversation with them.

Definitely build in at least three or four short bursts of exercise if you’re not exercise mad. Otherwise, we are going to stagnate into squishy potatoes at home. And that’s a rotten place to be. This is when you are going to build health for life. May God never let that happen. But if we find ourselves in hospital, it is this discipline that will make it easier for us because our business is to survive this horrible thing.

Find opportunities to hone and showcase your talent. Don't depend only on schools. Whatever your talent be, it doesn’t matter. Find a way to not only practice it, but also showcase it. Because we are entering years where if you do not learn how to show off a little bit, people will not know anything about you.

We’ve been taught that showing off is a bad thing. Here, I’m saying showcase don’t show off. But know how to showcase it so that people can identify your talent and reward you for your talent saying “Oh, would you like to do this painting for me? Can I commission a painting,” so you can find your own life path. 

You can find your own comfort path, whether it is music, whether it is painting, etc. 

For example,I am in a women’s group, which has people who’ve been hardcore business managers for 30 years, who are now doing a lot of paintings, a lot of yoga lessons, music and showcasing their music. 

I mean, seriously crazy, really talented people without music degrees. But they fought to hone that talent. And now 30 years later, they’re showcasing it, because it brings them both comfort and an income and a choice saying I don't have to be a business manager for the rest of my life. But you have to start working on that now. 

And finally, which is possibly the most important, gamify a little bit. Which means create milestones and reward yourself. For all the good things you have been able to achieve for yourself. Don’t depend upon outsiders for validation and marks. Create your own milestones and say I feel good because I have exercised and I kept to my plan. I feel good because I invested in myself, not just for my work, but for my hobby, as well. 

Mentor yourself and learn to reward yourself even emotionally. Yes, I did it. Women are not taught to reward themselves at all, by the way, especially in India. We’re not taught to reward ourselves. We forgot that rewarding oneself is also a virtue. And that is a practice that you have to build lightly. Because this is where self-efficacy comes from. This is where you actually have true ownership and responsibility for the freedom that you have right now.

How do you reward yourself?

I treat myself to a samosa.

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