Different economic crises have jolted our lives from time to time. However, the current crisis is unique in the sense that it is triggered by a health crisis and has affected people in all of the six inhabited continents on earth. Moreover, the previous depressions and recessions had not directly and disproportionately impacted the education sector as much as the COVID-19 crisis did. Months-long lockdowns and preventive measures for social distancing have led to shutdown of campuses, colleges and schools. This has far-reaching socio-economic ramifications for the various stakeholders of education like the teachers, students, parents and the institute management. Since, education is the most important determinant of human capital formation, adverse impact on the sector is likely to have an adverse impact on economy too; in the short and long run both.
Rising unemployment amidst the pandemic is a shared experience across sectors. However, education sector is disproportionately hurt as pandemic has shutdown educational institutes. As per Pew Research Center (Kochhar, 2020), unemployment in USA was higher for women than for men as more women are employed in the education sector. Employment in the sector fell by 15 per cent between February and May 2020. In April alone, 1.1 million teachers and staff lost their jobs (US Labor Department Report, 2020). In India, some teachers are forced to take up manual labour or selling vegetables to make ends meet (ANI, 2020).
On the brighter side, educational technology is the biggest gainer as teaching moved online. Edtech startups like Byju’s, Unacademy, Doubtnut.com and many more have received $795 million in investment funding compared to $408 million last year (Sharma, 2020). They have also ramped up their hiring process as they aim to double their workforce by the end of 2020 to meet with burgeoning demands of online education. Video-conferencing applications like GoogleMeet, Zoom, Cisco WebEx have registered an exponential growth overnight (Reuters, 2020).
Nevertheless, edtech is meaningless without internet and smartphone penetration. Even prior to COVID-19, there already existed a digital divide in the world. Underdeveloped regions lack access to basic telecommunication network, let alone a steady internet connectivity to sustain smooth streaming of lectures online. As per the QS report “COVID-19: A wake up call for telecom service providers”, Indian telecom infrastructure is not sufficient for a shift to online lectures as most of the survey respondents reported network and power cut issues. Internet penetration in Africa is as low as 39.3 per cent compared to the rest of the world at 62.9 per cent (Ngware, 2020). Thus, the pandemic has reiterated the need to fill in the digital gap, which if not done can further deepen inequalities.
Even with a high-class digital infrastructure, online teaching comes with its own demerits. Firstly, academicians and teachers had to overnight, forcefully adapt to the new online teaching methodology. Moreover, teaching online is a whole new ballgame which not just requires rudimentary technical skills, but a lot more energy, tactics and innovative ways to keep the students engaged in absence of face-to-face interaction. Learning outcomes are difficult to evaluate as peer interaction, group discussions and dynamics of face-to-face classroom are lost in the process.
Teaching from home is also a much more tedious task as teachers juggle with multiple responsibilities at home. Female teachers have been suffering more as most of the women carry the burden of household chores and childcare single-handedly. The only respite they would get from stepping out of the house for work is also gone with lockdown. It has also been reported that number of scientific research publications by female researchers has also drastically reduced to one-third during the pandemic (Gewin, 2020). It has been observed that men give more importance to their work than to their female partner’s professional commitments.
Pandemic has also thrown light on one of the most contentious issues of the conventional education system which is the written examination pattern. It is often argued that the written exam method is not just obsolete but is also an invalid and unreliable test of one’s learning. In light of current crisis, where taking these written exams has become a huge issue, it seems that the time is ripe to bring in the most awaited change in the education system. Conrad Hughes, Campus & Secondary School Principal, La Grande Boissière, International School of Geneva opines that projects and viva should instead replace written examinations which will better prepare the students for the complexities of the real world, especially for post-pandemic times. Lockdown forced many institutes to either cancel the exams or take them online. To add on to that, many competitive exams like NEET, JEE, UGC-NET, UPSC CSE, etc. have also been postponed which have left the candidates anxious about their future.
It is a sad time for the trusts and managements running educational institutions as they have huge physical capacities lying unused. It is much worse for higher education institutes as attracting students will be a challenge. Even students are in a quagmire whether to choose between working or going for higher education as the job market is also grim and investment of huge sum of money for online lectures seems unjustified. Therefore, COVID-19 has also cast a shadow on market for student-loan as students may choose to either cancel or defer their enrollment in higher education courses as classes move online and travel restrictions continue to exist.
Even prior to COVID-19, demands of job markets were changing with the advent of artificial intelligence. Current pandemic has been a testimony to the growing necessity of AI. This pandemic crisis is a time apt for both individuals and institutions, across all sectors of the economy, to look into their fault lines and grow from there. Education sector, throughout the world, has been unable to keep up with the ultra-dynamic environment of modern times. The much-required overhaul in terms of teaching pedagogy, evaluation methods and technical accessibility should be brought in now as remote learning is here to stay and job market is going to change drastically in post-COVID-19 era.
The long and short of it is that the already existing gaps- gender inequality in research and academia, school enrollment inequalities amongst rural and urban population and digital divide – are further widened and exposed by the pandemic. Education sector seems to be neglected in media reporting, public discourse and policy-making as issues related to healthcare and core economic activities take centre stage. It is not implied that the latter are not worthy of the attention, however, if education sector is ignored now, then it is going to have a trickle-down impact on all the other sectors and will drag the economy down with itself.
-Dhriti Garg (A Student of MA in Applied Economics at Christ College, Bengaluru)
Picture Credits: WeForum.org / REUTERS / Amanda Perobelli
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