A Pandemic and the Process of Manufacturing a Conundrum

Husna Hasan

COVID-19, like any pandemic humanity has faced, has instilled a collective conscience on the citizens of this planet. True, few aberrations followed, like when the world saw instances of xenophobia and members of the Chinese-American community were attacked as a result. But the virus made people conscious of the importance of personal cleanliness, immunity, social distancing and the safety and well-being of not just themselves, but their neighbors as well. However, even as the virus affected the lives of more than half of the world’s population, some people were far worse affected than others, not by the disease itself, but by the mismanagement of a system that had started to show its protrusions even before the pandemic which aggravated due to the Covid crisis. The system of public education which has been subjected to a rise in cost similarly is soon going to be the prerogative of those who can afford it.

The student resistance movement in public institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University against the almost three-hundred percent fee-hike was countered by sound judgements. As per the observations of Gurbachan Singh, a visiting faculty at Indian Statistical Institute, owing to the economic hamstring the country is facing, and the increase in both the maintenance cost and expenditure, the fee-hike was conveyed as an attempt to maintain the quality of education in these institutions. The rationale seems to fall apart when universities insist on students paying the revised fees even in the face of uncertainty regarding when they will attend regular classes. Educational institutions across the country have all started a new term with online video and audio equipments. Despite the debate around digital equity, students have convinced themselves that online education is the best alternative available to them. What the students find hardly convincing is that their institutions are demanding the same amount of fees that had been subjected to a sudden and unpredicted hike to be paid for a term that would require only the staff, a screen, and the internet. In a system that only requires them to be physically present on the other side of the screen but has a deterministic influence on the quality of education depending on the bandwidth of the internet and the quality of online learning equipment, the students are forced to pay the ‘normalized’ fees in addition to bearing the procurement and maintenance cost of the equipment. Ideally, colleges should have collectively decided upon a reduced fee structure. In the absence of such a measure, colleges should proactively consider waiving additional fees, like the library, examination, and laboratory fees.

According to an article published in the scientific American, until a vaccine is deemed working and found fit for mass production, and collective immunity developed in the population, Covid 19 is here to stay. Amidst the uncertainties of when the world can go back to normal, it is praiseworthy that institutions like the IIT are offering online certificate courses, diplomas, and the world’s first online degree course in data science. However, regular offline students who are under the impression that they might be able to get back to their campuses soon have the universities feeding on their ambitions by charging them the regular fees. Paradoxically, the Central Board of Secondary Education has asked schools to delete entire portions of the syllabus to reduce the burden on their students. This should be read alongside the decision of Jamia Millia University to hold proctored exams with the university insisting that the students should have their own laptop/PC. Indian educational scenario seems to be on a slippery slope and a comprehensive syllabus and affordable fee are its casualties. If not checked, this can lead to furthering of the digital divide.

It would take some time for non-profit think tanks to assort the data on the post-Covid suicide statistics. Any attribute of the statistic ranging from a mere ‘the fear of missing out’ to ‘systematic exclusion’ can be sure to draw its lines back to the college fee conundrum. If it happens, it is something the government cannot easily wash its hands off.

Conclusions and Final Thoughts

The country should adopt a concerted effort to prevent this from happening. The government for instance, can think about investing more on self-paced online courses. SWAYAM, the Indian version of internationally acclaimed online course platforms like Coursera and Edx should perform up to its mark, considering that professors and lecturers from elite educational institutions are the contributors to its contents. A nationwide campaign should be convened to demonstrate the ease of taking up courses online. The point is to bring to attention the advantage of a self-paced course as opposed to a schedule based course that can be completed anytime within the course duration. This should be supplemented by clarity and guarantee in the transfer of online course credits to the overall credits bank. The course instructors should also be provided with incentives as an encouragement to enrich and make the contents livelier.

A virtual education scenario is the future. It is a fact that should not be overlooked. Educators should be made aware that this can lead to a more relevant and efficient curriculum. This would only serve to change the role of teachers from substitutes of Wikipedia to mentors.  Most importantly, educational institutions across the country should stop profiteering from education and genuinely consider lowering its cost. It should be ensured that colleges and schools do not resort to using the pandemic as a shield to wring profit, instead, are focused on meeting their asserted objectives. If the country wants to focus on making things right, it should first start by making certain wrongs right.

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