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Optimising learning outcomes in the Indian higher education sector

A three-step guide to thrive in the future

Executive summary

In 2020, the pandemic upended the higher education sector by bringing traditional modes of learning—such as classroom learning—to a standstill. Institutions and governments rose to the occasion, enabling a switch to virtual learning literally overnight. Besides, wider trends in the education sector accelerated, including changing student preferences, growing demand for digital skills, the rise of the educational technology (EdTech) sector and a widening digital divide. The Indian higher education sector was truly disrupted.

As the pandemic continues to ebb and flow, colleges and universities are getting ready to reopen their campuses. In fact, some have already done so. However, this transition from digital-first to hybrid to back-to-campus will not be an easy one. As institutions press the reset button, they need to be mindful of the radical changes that the pandemic brought about not only to educational institutions but also to work and the workplace, individual students’ perspectives and educators’ priorities.

Educational institutions face a series of choices—They can return to the old way of doing business, or select from a range of hybrid approaches and reshape how their campuses operate, diversify their offerings and differentiate themselves.1

As institutions navigate the postpandemic world, they will need to discard the one-size-fits-all approach to delivering education, revamp collaborations with key stakeholders and reorient their focus towards inclusion.

Survey and summit findings

This article draws insights from two primary sources:

  1. A November 2021 survey of two important groups of stakeholders in higher education—80 deans and 2,500 students—to understand their perspectives on how to redesign education delivery as campuses reopen.
  2. Deloitte’s Deans Summit, “Connected,” which, in December 2021, hosted 30 speakers from the industry and academia and over 230 participants from several top-tier higher education institutions in India. Deans participated in focussed lab sessions to discuss the future of Indian higher education in the postpandemic world, future of skills development and the new era of the talent ecosystem.

This article summarises the key themes identified during the summit and the primary findings of the survey to suggest a three-point framework that institutions and other stakeholders may follow as they gear up for the new normal.

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Student preferences have shifted substantially in the wake of the pandemic

Students who prefer the traditional route of enrolling full time for conventional classroom learning are no more the norm. This shift had started even before the pandemic. According to a 2019 Pearson global survey, more than 70% of Indians (aged 16–70 years) felt that a degree or certificate from a vocational college or trade school is more likely to yield a good job than a traditional university degree. The pandemic only strengthened these preferences.

Today, more and more students favour academic flexibility, learning at their own pace and quick acquisition of skills through on-demand learning resources. In our survey, students ranked short-term courses and certifications, increased flexibility in learning and focus on skills development as their top three priorities in the postpandemic period.2

A visible shift in how education is consumed calls for a change in the way education is delivered. Higher education institutions need to be conscious of evolving student preferences as they reopen campuses and revamp education delivery in the postpandemic world. They also need to walk that extra mile to ensure that education reaches every doorstep in the nation.

A three-step framework to meet shifting learner needs

As higher education institutions gear up to build back better, the following three-step framework can guide them:

  1. Empower learners to chart their education pathways
  2. Leverage traditional and unconventional partnerships to bolster learning
  3. Ensure widespread diffusion of education

Higher education institutions cannot bring about this change all by themselves. Stakeholders, including students, industry, and the government will need to play a crucial role to enable institutions to take the next big leap and build a self-reliant higher education system.

Empower learners to chart their own education pathways

Giving students the freedom and autonomy to decide how and what they learn can boost motivation and help them develop critical life skills such as risk-taking and problem-solving.3 Brown University, in the United States, allows students to be “the architect of their own education.” For over 50 years, the university has followed an open curriculum where students, instead of completing a set of core courses, can explore and sample a range of subjects before making their choice on what to pursue in depth.4

As academicians and students in the Indian higher education brace for new beginnings, an immediate next step could be assessing how students can take greater ownership of their education, chart their own pathways, and pursue education at their own pace. This autonomy could pave the way for lifelong, self-driven learning.

Design flexible courses and programmes

More than 60% of the deans we surveyed said that the pandemic has shifted student priorities; among other things is a preference for greater academic flexibility. Students agree. A majority of those we surveyed, listed increased flexibility in learning as the second most important priority.5

Institutions can start by implementing the four-year undergraduate programme with multiple entry and exit options as envisaged in the National Education Policy 2020. This programme is designed to give students the choice to earn a certificate after completing one year, a diploma after two years and a bachelor’s degree after three years.6 Students who wish to pursue research in the future can opt for the four-year degree with a research option.

The Ministry of Education and University Grants Commission (UGC) have asked all 45 central universities to implement the four-year undergraduate programme.7 Delhi University will soon be implementing it, starting with the 2022–23 academic batch session.8 Other institutions, including Lucknow University and Bangalore University, will also be following suit.9

Additionally, institutions can adopt and advance the use of alternative credentials, including stackable credentials. Adult learners or those who are juggling multiple priorities such as work and parenting, along with education, will find such credentials particularly helpful. As the name suggests, stackable or microcredentials can be either stand-alone or stackable toward a degree. Relatively new, these credentials can help students quickly learn a specialised subject or learn new skills.10 A study focussed on North America suggests that stacking can lead to a four-percentage-point increase in employment, particularly in health and business.11

Stackable credentials are gaining ground across the world. Academic institutions in Europe, including Switzerland and Belgium, follow a structured path toward stacking short postgraduate courses.12 Some universities in the United States are also promoting the use of microcourses that are stackable toward a degree. For instance, the Western Governors University introduced an IT MicroBachelors programme in 2020 for students across the globe. Though the programme permits on-demand learning for busy adults looking to add new skills to their profile, it is also suited for those intending to pursue a bachelor’s degree, as it stacks into seven distinct IT bachelor’s degree programmes, including bachelor of science (BS) in computer science, BS in cloud and systems administration, and BS in data management.13

Provide multidisciplinary options

Real-world problems are often multidisciplinary and employers are increasingly scouting for talent with multiple specialisations.14 Educational institutions can cater to this need by designing programmes that allow students to specialise in multiple disciplines instead of confining them to disciplinary boundaries.

More than 70% of the deans surveyed think that introducing or expanding multidisciplinary courses is one of their top priorities to prepare students for the future of work.15 As suggested by one of the deans at the summit, “Students pursuing humanities should be encouraged to learn STEM courses and vice versa. This will build a future talent that is capable of forming a holistic approach to societal or business problems.”

Our previous studies, “Towards student centricity” and “Building resilience and self-reliance” also highlighted the benefits of this approach.

This is the direction that the Multi-Disciplinary Education and Research University model proposed by the National Education Policy aims to take by helping universities depart from rigid disciplinary boundaries and enable students to specialise in a range of subjects.

Some Indian universities have already adopted the model. For instance, IIT Bombay’s liberal arts, sciences and engineering programme is a novel, bespoke programme designed to promote interdisciplinary learning. Introduced in 2021, the course offers students the opportunity to graduate with a BS degree in five fields: engineering sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, art and design.16 From artificial intelligence (AI) and EdTech to biology, students will have various options to choose from. Students can also consult faculty and further customise the course if they wish to.17

Highlights from the Deans Summit 2021: Empower learners to chart their own education pathways

Leverage traditional and unconventional partnerships to bolster learning

Collaboration with key players in areas allied to the Indian higher education space, such as industry, can help educational institutions form a better understanding of in-demand skills and learning needs, improve outcomes and build a robust talent pool.18 However, it’s critical to move beyond transactional or ad hoc partnership models and build deeper relationships for sustained improvement in student outcomes and benefits to all stakeholders.

Additionally, institutions need to tap into the capabilities of the emerging nontraditional actors in the higher education space, namely massive open online courses (MOOCs) and EdTech firms. These nontraditional partners, with their on-demand resources and student-centred, personalised offerings, are suited to further the ambition of lifelong learning.19

Strengthen traditional academia-industry partnerships to nurture PURPLE superpowers

The pandemic-led acceleration in the switch to digital has dramatically altered the employment landscape. A recent Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) report indicates that this switch has fuelled demand for technical skills, including cloud computing, AI, data science and cybersecurity, among others.20 Besides, even outside the technology sector, companies expect graduates seeking employment to have technology skills apart from domain knowledge.21

However, the supply of talent has not matched demand. A NASSCOM report highlights that by 2026, India is likely to face a shortage of 1.4–1.9 million technology professionals.22

Partnerships between higher educational institutions and industries can help mitigate this shortage. While these partnerships have existed for a long time, it may now be time to take them to the next level for codesigning curricula and developing courses that are in line with industry needs.23 More than 65% of the students in our survey suggested that institutions should cocreate curriculum with the industry to plug the talent gap.24

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has collaborated with several colleges across the globe through its AWS Educate programme. In the United States, AWS first partnered with Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University to help them integrate cloud computing into their curriculum. Similar collaborations are now in place with other universities and colleges in the country.25 More recently, in India, seven engineering colleges across the nation integrated the AWS cloud computing course into their curricula.26

Corporate skills academies are another emerging avenue that institutions can explore to collaboratively address the digital-talent deficit. These academies, which companies are increasingly setting up, provide learners with an immersive, hands-on experience as they pick up the skills they need to deliver outcomes. Recently, the Indian Institute of Management, Raipur, tied up with the NSE Academy, a subsidiary of the National Stock Exchange to introduce certification programmes in finance and financial technologies, primarily for working professionals.27

As important as digital skills, critical business skills have also seen a massive uptick in demand. Employers are increasingly looking for candidates who can adapt and respond well to technological changes. A CII report highlights that creativity and social intelligence will likely be vital for most jobs created between 2022 and 2030.28

Essentially, companies expect graduates to develop “purple skills” or “fusion skills”—a good mix of technical and business skills.29 As figure 1 shows, “purple skills” are a combination of technical (red) and business (blue) skills, spanning the spectrum—from AI and cloud computing to collaboration, inclusive leadership and cultural intelligence.30

Though higher educational institutions could help students develop some of these crucial business skills, partnerships with the industry can provide hands-on experience and help create a robust talent pipeline. Consider ThingQbator (a combination of the internet of things and incubator), a CSR initiative by Cisco in collaboration with NASSCOM Foundation31—a virtual makerspace for budding innovators to translate their ideas into prototypes and, potentially, businesses.32 Since its inception in 2018, the platform has supported over 10,000 students.33 In December 2021, it partnered with 18 Indian universities to help students develop an entrepreneurial mindset and create innovative solutions for real-world problems.34

Foster alliances with unconventional partners to support on-demand learning

Indian institutions are increasingly tapping into nontraditional actors that have become prominent in the education space in the last few years, primarily MOOCs and EdTech firms.

Even before the pandemic, India was the second largest national group to be enrolled in MOOCs.35 Since the onset of the pandemic, MOOCs have recorded an exponential increase in demand. They are among the most favoured platforms for students to develop in-demand skills: Seventy-eight per cent of the students in our survey prefer MOOCs or EdTech platforms, while 63% believe their institutions should tie up with MOOC providers to enhance the learning experience.36

MOOCs provide a range of benefits to students, including self-paced learning, opportunities to collaborate with global learners and often, free access to course materials. They have essentially turned education into a public good by offering anyone with resources the opportunity to enroll.37 At the same time, MOOCs can enable universities to improve students’ employability, businesses to meet their talent needs and governments to provide critical skills to citizens at scale.

EdTech companies differ from MOOCs in that they provide an enhanced learning experience apart from supporting self-paced learning. These platforms leverage AI to enable personalised and immersive learning.38 Some also provide additional features such as communities, flipped classrooms and gamified learning.39 Like MOOCs, the EdTech sector has seen a boom since the pandemic started. Between January to September 2021, the EdTech sector recorded deals amounting to over US$3 billion.40

MOOCs and EdTech platforms are also an excellent resource for learners in remote pockets of the country, as India’s national MOOC platform, SWAYAM, is doing. This can help widen the outreach of education. Unlike most other MOOC providers, SWAYAM allows students to earn academic credits.41

However, the government will need to keep a close watch on the forces driving the rapid adoption of such platforms. A recent UGC warning directed both EdTech companies and institutions, especially the former, to discontinue providing degrees and diplomas using franchise agreements with UGC-recognized institutions.42

Highlights from the Deans Summit 2021: Leverage traditional and unconventional partnerships to bolster learning

Ensure widespread diffusion of education

As of 2020, nearly 93% of rural youth had not received any vocational training.43 Eliminating geographical, socioeconomic and other barriers to learning is essential to enable equitable education across the nation. While higher education institutions will play a central role, other stakeholders will be equally critical.

The government, for one, can be a catalyst. In the recent budget for instance, the government expanded the PM eVidya programme from 12 to 200 TV channels to provide supplementary education in regional languages for classes I–XII.44 In 2020, the government launched the eVidya scheme to permit the top 100 universities in the country to provide online courses with the broader objective of promoting digital learning.45

Higher education institutions can act as conveners and mobilise different stakeholders’ competencies to design and execute innovative solutions that increase the spread of education. In addition to leveraging MOOCs and EdTech portals, the collective ingenuity of educational institutions and traditional partners (industry, government and nonprofits) will be necessary to drive action on the ground for nationwide diffusion.

Designing nuanced models for education delivery at a regional level and evaluating their impact can offer a starting point.

Implement the hub and spoke model of education delivery

The hub and spoke model can have far-reaching effects on the delivery of education. The ambitious Digital University announced in India’s Budget 2022 will follow this model, with public universities acting as hubs and local institutions serving as the spokes.46

The Virtual Classroom Hub and Spoke Model project, launched by Gram Vikas, an Indian nonprofit, in partnership with Oracle, was implemented in schools across three districts in Odisha during 2016–17. While the project aimed to advance primary education, the model carries important implications for the higher education sector.47

The project set up a central hub to produce e-learning pedagogical materials, hire education experts, and install IT infrastructure to deliver lessons to spokes—schools across the state. Participating schools were provided facilities such as desktop computers and smart televisions. And the teachers received training in computer fundamentals. The project reached out to over 1,300 students and 50 teachers across the three districts. Meanwhile, computer connectivity helped evoke students’ curiosity and enabled them to get familiar with the devices.48

The proposed Digital University, a much more ambitious initiative, can help advance quality education and personalise learning experience for the masses, if implemented appropriately.

Facilitate regional clusters to address local skills imbalances

One of the key contributors to competitiveness is talent. Often, it’s hard for businesses to find local talent that meets their needs, mostly owing to a skills gap. Regional clusters, which are “geographically concentrated group of interrelated companies, industries, and educational institutions in a specific field to advance regional competitiveness and growth,” can address such skills imbalances.49 Educational institutions can work closely with businesses to align their learning programmes with local skills demands, while businesses can provide training and internship opportunities to students. The regional and local governments can play their part by using their funding capacity and regulatory powers to propel investments in reskilling.50

One such initiative is Skills Strengthening for Industrial Value Enforcement, a joint effort by the World Bank and the Government of India, launched in 2020 to improve the quality and relevance of Industrial Training Institutes’ (ITIs) skills training.51 In early 2021, the government selected 19 clusters from different regions across the country, each of which will receive Rs. 1 crore over three years to impart industrial training to ITI students and prepare them for the workforce.52

More such initiatives are required to plug the local skills gap, strengthen regional competitiveness and promote a thriving local economy.

Highlights from the Dean Summit 2021: Ensure widespread diffusion of education

During the lab sessions, the deans and educators underlined some of the key actions that stakeholders in the Indian higher education sector will need to take to maximise learning outcomes and ensure learning for all.

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Redesigning the architecture for a resilient and student-centric future

The pandemic has dramatically changed the way education is consumed. Indian higher education institutions are bracing themselves for a new start. So are students—They are no longer tied to the traditional time-bound degree. Instead, they want skills development to be an integral part of the curricula and want to learn at their own pace and chart their own education pathways.

The onus is on each stakeholder in the Indian education system to keep the student at the center as they redesign the higher education architecture. Industries can work closely with students to help adopt essential digital and business skills while meeting their own talent needs. Governments, on the other hand, can be a catalyst and provide an impetus to the wider dissemination of learning. Unconventional stakeholders such as MOOC providers and EdTech firms can support academic flexibility and expand the outreach of education while sustaining their own growth momentum.

Inputs from students themselves will be key to shaping outcomes and instilling confidence, which has been shaken by pandemic-driven disruptions. Gathering regular students’ and educators’ feedback will be important for decision-making and establishing trust in the whole higher education system.

Deloitte Higher Education

The higher education community is at an inflection point—College and university leaders, including presidents, chancellors, provosts, as well as finance, technology, and HR leaders are facing unprecedented disruption across the academic enterprise. Deloitte understands the unique culture of higher education and we take an issue-based approach to serving our clients. On these disruptive issues in higher education, think Deloitte: Financial and operational efficiency, technology transformation, student experience, cybersecurity, and organizational leadership. 

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  1. Jeffrey Selingo et al., The hybrid campus: Three major shifts for the post-COVID university, Deloitte Insights, January 27, 2021.

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  2. Deloitte survey analysis.

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  3. Brown University, “The open curriculum ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  4. Ibid.

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  5. Deloitte survey analysis.

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  6. Ministry of Human Resource Development, “National Education Policy 2020 ,” accessed March 11, 2022.

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  7. IANS, “4-yr undergrad course likely to be implemented in all central universities ,” Business Standard, October 17, 2021.

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  8. Soniya Agrawal, “DU to implement 4-yr UG programme from 2022, giving students multiple entry-exit options ,” The Print, August 25, 2021.

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  9. Abhishek Mishra,” Lucknow University launches flexible 4-year bachelor degree course with research ,” India Today, June 26, 2021.

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  10. Western Governors University, “Making sense of micro-credentials ,” April 10, 2020.

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  11. Katharine E. Meyer, Kelli A. Bird, and Benjamin L. Castleman, “Stacking the deck for employment success: Labor market returns to stackable credentials ,” Brown University, January 2022.

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  12. OECD, “Micro-credential innovations in higher education: Who, what and why? ,” OECD Education Policy and Perspectives, no. 39, September 22, 2021.

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  13. Western Governors University, “WGU’s new IT MicroBachelors™ program lets students earn work-ready credentials along the path to a degree ,” January 13, 2020.

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  14. Singapore Management University, “Disciplinary and multidisciplinary knowledge ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  15. Deloitte survey analysis.

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  16. Ritika Chopra, “Explained: What’s new in higher education? ,” The Indian Express, September 7, 2021.

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  17. Yogita Rao, “IIT Bombay launches liberal arts, sciences and engineering programme ,” The Times of India, June 30, 2021.

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  18. Elsevier, “University-industry collaboration ,” January 27, 2021; The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Industry-university partnerships prepare students for careers ,” October 25, 2017.

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  19. Daniel Seaton, “How MOOC collaboration could aid on-campus teaching and learning ,” Inside Higher Ed, December 5, 2018.

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  20. Shweta Jha, Prashant Choudhary, and Elim Panda, India skills report 2022 , Wheebox, accessed March 22, 2022.

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  21. Vikas Gupta, Future is purple: Overcoming the digital skills gap with purple people , Deloitte, November 25, 2020.

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  22. Bismah Malik, “India could face a shortage of 14-19 lakh techies by 2026: Nasscom-Zinnov report ,”, February 17, 2022.

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  23. Kelly Field, “Tech giants and 2-year colleges are teaming up to teach in-demand skills ,” Higher ed dive, September 4, 2019.

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  24. Deloitte survey analysis.

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  25. Elin Johnson, “Virginia goes big on cloud degrees ,” Inside Higher Ed, October 1, 2019.

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  26. Prabhjote Gill, “These 7 Indian engineering colleges have integrated AWS cloud computing into their courses ,” Business Insider India, July 11, 2020.

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  27. Edugraph, “IIM Raipur partners with NSE Academy to launch certification programmes in finance ,” Telegraph India, February 25, 2022.

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  28. Jha, Choudhary, and Panda, India skills report 2022 .

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  29. Rajeev Mandloi, “How to be the ‘purple squirrel’ employers are looking for ,” Harvard Business Review, February 07, 2020; OECD, “Skills for 2030 ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  30. Gupta, Future is purple ; Tom Davenport, Purple people: The heart of cognitive systems engineering , Deloitte, November 18, 2015.

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  31. John Sarkar, “Cisco & NASSCOM Foundation pick top 10 most enterprising start-up ideas ,” The Times of India, December 23, 2021.

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  32. Cisco thingQubator, “Home ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  33. Sarkar, “Cisco & NASSCOM Foundation pick top 10 most enterprising start-up ideas .

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  34. Ibid.

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  35. Karanam Pushpanadham, “Massive Open Online Courses: The emerging landscape of digital learning in India ,” UNESCO, 2019.

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  36. Deans Summit—Student survey analysis.

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  37. University of Toronto, “Digital pedagogy—A guide for librarians, faculty, and students ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  38. Neetin Agrawal, “How has the rise of Edtech platforms enabled students to do self-study for upcoming competitive exams? ,” India Today, September 20, 2021.

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  39. Vijay T S, “Edtech is set to grow in the age of Covid-19 and beyond ,” Forbes India, January 18, 2022.

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  40. Ibid.

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  41. The Economic Times, “A MOOC boost for higher education ,” July 26, 2021.

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  42. Thomas Abraham, “UGC, AICTE warn edtechs, educational institutes against offering courses through franchise agreements ,” CNBC TV18, January 17, 2022.

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  43. Pearl Tiwari, “Importance of skilling and re-skilling in rural India ,” The Times of India, September 8, 2020.

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  44., “Union Budget 2022–2023 ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  45. Nandini, “PM eVidya programme for digital education in India: Everything you need to know ,” The Hindustan Times, May 17, 2020.

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  46. News 18, “All you need to know about India’s upcoming digital university ,” February 3, 2022.

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  47. Gram Vikas, “Oracle virtual classroom—Hub and spoke model ,” accessed March 22, 2022.

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  48. Ibid.

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  49. Michael E. Porter, “Clusters and the new economics of competition ,” Harvard Business Review, November–December 1998; Kirsten Petersen, “Clusters and clustering policy: A guide for regional and local policy makers ,” European Union, March 2010.

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  50. James Wilson, “Supporting skills for industry through clusters ,” European Cluster Collaboration Platform, September 2020.

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  51. Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, “Skill strengthening for industrial value enhancement (STRIVE) ,” August 10, 2020.

    View in Article
  52. Knowledge & News Network, “Two industrial clusters from Haryana selected for skill development project ,” February 24, 2021.

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The authors would like to thank Sonal PandeySukanya Pattnaik, and Amreen Ahmed for contributing their time and critical inputs in drafting this report.

Cover artwork: Stephanie Dalton Cowan

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