May 31, 2020

Post Pandemic Education: Knowledge or Privilege

Dipsita Dhar

ON May 20, 2020 various Left students’ organisations along with the elected students’ unions across the country under the banner of ‘All India Forum to Save Public Education’ gave a nationwide protest call, demanding safe return of students stuck outside, rejecting online examination and against the political targeting of student activists. The demands of fee waivers for current semester and immediate disbursement of fellowships were also raised. The campaign received huge participation across the country. From Assam, West Bengal to Gujarat, from Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand to Tamil Nadu, Kerala students came down to streets, or in their balcony with the demands written on placards and posters. Their photographs were put at different social media platforms and an attempt was made to seek the attention of the ministry of HRD and other authorities. The reason for the student community to take up this protest: Complete lack from the government, in imagining a post-Covid education system, which is not only functional but also inclusive.

As the release of the joint forum reads, the so-called online mode is neither effective nor inclusive. Attendance in the online classes conducted by teachers has been considerably low. A big reason is that the penetration of high-speed internet with adequate amounts of data required is not uniform across the country. Students in various central and state universities come from various social and economic background and it is patently obvious that an exclusionary model such as online education would be least suited to the requirements of the student community of this country in current scenario. Moreover, there are also security concerns that range from unwanted entry of outsiders into ‘zoom’ classes and harassment of female teachers and students. The government through UGC has been trying to create a buzz around online education through portals like SWAYAM and formation of committees. These steps are however indicative of the shallow approach to education which skips over real issues of privatisation, profiteering and inequality due to lack of funding. It is also possible that the promotion of online education is done with a view to discourage learning in any mode which demands investment and building up of infrastructure. Thus, online education could be a weapon in the hands of the establishment ready to absolve responsibility and let the educational sphere be run over by forces of profit seeking and commercialisation.

Another issue is that this pandemic has occurred at a time when the semester was about to culminate. This has resulted in millions of students anxious about their future. It is our considered opinion that there should be a common academic calendar for all universities to allow students flexibility in their examinations as well as the prospect of choosing another university after the same. There must be special considerations for all the final year students in deciding this calendar.

Students coming from marginalised backgrounds are reliant on various government grants and fellowships to sustain themselves and fund their education. Due to the lockdown, a lot of students have been stranded at different places, mostly away from either their university or permanent residence. This has meant additional financial strains on the students. This strain has also been aggregated as a result of job losses, crop failures and other hazardous side effects of the lockdown. Hence it becomes even more imperative that fellowships are disbursed promptly. Various fellowships such as JRF/SRF, Non-NET, Contingency, MANF, RGNF and the single girl child fellowships from UGC/CSIR/MHRD or Ministry of Social Justice need a mechanism for speedy disbursal during such times which will definitely pacify the impact of lockdown. The UGC and vice chancellors of various universities must devise a mechanism to disburse fellowships and address the academic distress faced by student.

It is a matter of grave concern that cost of transportation threatens to skyrocket in the post Covid scenario. Despite the price of crude oil reaching at one of its lowest, the government did not take any measure to reduce the burden on the passengers; they further approved a hike on the bus fares (as we have seen In West Bengal) and made it inaccessible for many specially residing in the commuters’ zone. The cost of travel in trains and the reduced capacities plus additional surveillance can hit the students along with other vulnerable sections quite hard and result in difficulties for students to travel back to their places of study from remote hinterlands.

Another worrying trend that was observed during this pandemic was the blatant effort from the government’s side to curb down the basic democratic rights of students. The UAPA was amended in July 2019 to designate even individuals as suspects of terror and detain them under various provisions of that act. It was designed to target anyone who disagreed with the policy of institutionalizing sectarian divisions and hatred in the country. The recent arrests of students like Safoora Zargar, Meeran Hiader and harassment of many others in the name of investigating the communal riots in Delhi while at the same time doing nothing against those who actually incited riots speaking volumes of the intent of the present government. The devious and divisive laws like the CAA and the threat of and all India NRC to further marginalise the Muslims in the country was met with heroic resistance by the student community of the country. The arrests during a time when the lockdown is in place, tells us a lot about the coercive and discriminatory nature of a state controlled by right wing reactionaries who want to crush any dissent and are not shy of targeting even students.

The protest not only raised the criticism of the current government but instrumentally proposed few alternatives too. Keeping the good old demand of more public expenditure in education intact, some particular demands regarding the post pandemic education were put forward.
• Government must directly transfer a minimum amount of money to the students in their bank account, so that immediate crisis of survival is taken care of.
• Government must waive the fee of three months at least; so that no student is forced to leave studies due to lack of money.
• Hostels must not charge the fee during the lockdown. Government must intervene and negotiate the rent on behalf of the students who are staying at rented accommodations.
• A lot of students with mental health issues are found to be suffering more during the lockdown, there needs to be an institutional mechanism to provide support during this difficult time.
• Ensure safe return of the migrant workers and payment of pending wages of all the workers working across universities.
• A common consensus regarding the time, mode and syllabus of examination needs to be built by taking into consideration the opinion of all the stakeholders which does not hamper the inclusivity.
• Digital mode of learning needs to be rejected in toto, until there is an accessible digital infrastructure for all. No forceful imposition will be tolerated.  

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have made the demand for ‘education for all’ more pertinent. The inefficiency of the capitalist state in ensuring human dignity and livelihood is yet again clear as day light. Its apathy towards migrant laborers and an overnight shift into digitisation of education further exposes its class biasness. Education was made to be a privilege in all the previous Indian societies, starting from the exclusive access to upper caste and men to the recent efforts of secluding it to the only people with money and other additional digital aids. The struggle for a non-discriminatory, equitable education system will be strengthened post pandemic, like never before.