The student support system in India must be transformed

The traditional idea of the university considers higher education as a community of scholars, thereby assigning an equal and participatory status to students. If we go by this idea, then students’ voices are central to the process of higher education as an act of critical thinking and students are important stakeholders in the higher education system.

However, the situation at India’s public universities seems to run entirely against this idea of the university. The prevailing conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed that students are merely at the receiving end of top-down policy directives. In order to sustain critical thinking and education for social transformation, policy-makers need to do an in-depth review of the existing situation in the light of students’ experiences and perspectives.

This may provide a nuanced understanding of how to frame and institutionalise student-centred policy reforms to bring them back to the centre of the higher education system.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Alien spaces

After the first death reported due to COVID-19 in India on 12 March, several universities in Delhi closed the teaching-learning process down. Then after the announcement of the first sudden official lockdown on 25 March, all universities in India asked their resident students to vacate their hostels immediately. Students living in private accommodation were also asked to leave their rented houses.

It is important to note that the public transport system was immediately halted and no thought was given to how students could make a safe return to their home towns.

Some students were reported to have spent several nights outside their university gates in the open with their belongings. It seemed as if the universities which were their home away from home had suddenly become alien spaces for them.

Interstate borders were sealed, leading to restrictions on people’s mobility and throughout this phase no system was developed to track whether students had reached their homes safely.

Some students, who refused to leave their hostels until they had been provided with safe transportation and continued to stay, faced problems with their food supply and other support services and several of them were reported to have had to survive without basic facilities for days.

There was no provision for health check-ups and no testing facility inside the campuses and once the students had left the university gates to buy food supplies or due to a health emergency, they found it difficult to get back in.

The safety of students – who could have contracted the virus during unsafe travel – was jeopardised in order to maintain student-free campuses.

The process of easing the lockdown started in different phases beginning on 1 June. However, no clear guidelines were issued by higher education institutions with regard to unlocking public universities.

With the ‘4.0 unlock’ of universities, starting from 4 September, PhD and postgraduate students following technical and professional programmes involving laboratory or experimental work were able to return to universities on an individual basis.

However, no guidelines have been issued for the phased return of scholars in the social sciences and humanities to date.

The online teaching-learning process

Although face-to-face teaching-learning has been suspended since the first lockdown in Indian public universities, the University Grants Commission recommended to universities that they start online classes from May onwards so as to complete the semester and carry out delayed online exams for final-year students.

It seems that the social and economic backgrounds of these students were not considered when these guidelines were issued.

There is a stark divide among students belonging to urban and rural areas in terms of access to digital resources. Within urban areas, there is a further divide in terms of the affordability of digital resources and their quality. In a survey conducted among students who are currently enrolled in higher education in India, it was found that only 25% have access to the internet and only 9% have a computer with internet access at home.

The shift from campus learning to online classes has, therefore, further accentuated the already existing social gap between students at Indian public universities. This digital inequality has combined with social and economic inequality to further marginalise students from disadvantaged sections of society.

The role of the language used in the digital teaching-learning process in creating meaningful learning experiences was also not considered by teachers and administrators. With limited learning material and online sessions available only in English, students from rural areas who are not well versed in the English language faced possible exclusion from discussions held during online classes.

In face-to-face classes, although the formal medium of instruction in higher education is English, many students are given the option to choose from English or Hindi language for examinations and many teachers adopt a mix of languages as the medium of instruction, allowing students to raise questions in both Hindi and English.

Also, remote access to online journals and learning resources is not provided by several universities, leading to reduced engagement for scholars stuck at home due to university lockdowns.

Further, even in the absence of face-to-face classes, there has been no relaxation of university fees. In fact, several universities have increased their fees and students are not even allowed to gather to protest against this.

There is also a huge delay in reimbursement of fellowships for doctoral scholars and students from marginalised sections of society.

In the absence of funds to support their education, several students have been left with no other choice than to drop out of higher education. Doctoral scholars have faced the additional challenge of having to suddenly move to rented houses with no access to university libraries.

Gender – the invisible challenge

The gender impact of COVID-19 is not talked about in any policy guidelines. Female students across the world are facing the double pressure of carrying out their studies alongside domestic demands with little or no help. Social attitudes in India, especially in rural areas, mean that female students face discrimination in terms of access to resources and educational opportunities compared to their male relatives.

So far, female scholars have not been allowed any extended deadlines or received any flexibility over the provision of online lectures. This is likely to create a huge gender divide in terms of academic output in the future.

Online exams and mental health

In the midst of the health emergency, the University Grants Commission forced universities to conduct face-to-face end of semester exams and entrance exams for new admissions to professional courses in September. Several students protested about this decision and demanded a delay or the cancellation of the exams. However, their protests went unheard in the face of officials’ insistence on maintaining the efficiency of the system.

It was reported that some students travelled hundreds of kilometres, sometimes on foot, to reach exam centres and many of them missed the chance to sit the exams because they arrived a few minutes late.

This lack of empathy towards students during a pandemic clearly highlights how their voices are not heard within the higher education system.

There were also three cases of suicide by students reportedly linked to these exams, underlining the failure of the system to provide adequate mental health counselling to students.

Towards meaningful, inclusive higher education

Higher education is a catalyst for social change and transformation. In order to develop meaningful learning experiences during and post pandemic, we need policy reforms aimed at developing a much-needed student support system.

We need regional digital resource centres for students from marginalised sections of society and remote areas. Universities should provide remote access for students to online learning resources, such as journals and e-books.

Plans should be developed to bring students from remote areas back to universities in a phased manner in order to continue their higher education.

The University Grants Commission should allocate specific funding to provide financial help to students in need and timely reimbursement of funds.

Teachers, too, need to create pedagogies that include students from all sections of society and provide psychological support to help students deal with the crisis with hope and optimism.

The shift to online learning, though adopted in haste due to the pandemic, does not seem to be a temporary one. The New Education Policy document 2020 has emphasised the need to rely more on digital teaching and learning.

The lessons learned from students’ experiences during the pandemic should definitely be taken into account for the effective and sustainable development of higher education in India in the present and post-pandemic scenario.

Monika Maini is a doctoral researcher at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India. This article has been selected for the Semyonov awards at the IPA Symposium of the XI International Russian Higher Education conference organised by the Higher School of Economics, Moscow.