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The case for reopening our colleges

Policymakers are worried about public health, at least for the youth enrolled in educational institutions.Premium
Policymakers are worried about public health, at least for the youth enrolled in educational institutions.

  • India’s higher educational institutes have to make up for the learning losses while honing new teaching styles
  • University finances are under pressure just when they need more resource—increased number of classes and additional faculty. The backlog that needs to be covered is enormous

We have been discussing learning losses at the primary school level, but the elephant in the room, university education, remains unexplored.

It is almost certain that our university and college campuses continue to be one of the most vulnerable sites of virus spread with the threat of a third wave of coronavirus looming large in the country. By and large, a large section of the youth have not been vaccinated yet and ensuring compliance to covid-appropriate behaviour such as wearing masks, social distancing and maintaining basic hygiene has been rather challenging, especially among the youth. Many senior teaching and non-teaching staff within the campuses, therefore, face a greater risk from exposure and are certainly among the most vulnerable.

Last year, the reports of several deaths from some of our campuses left us horrified—one particular central university reportedly lost more than 60 active and retired professors during the second wave. In such a situation, several academics have argued that there are dangers to reopening universities without factoring in its dire consequences, including increased morbidity and mortality.

We now have grim predictions that the third wave may hit later than expected, and with the winter season coming in with all its associated health risks, the picture is rather bleak. There are also growing concerns about the population residing in India’s rural regions, which have recorded relatively lower morbidity and mortality rates, but will now stand exposed as non-vaccinated students and labour will migrate back to cities for work and education.

It was earlier taken for granted that if two-thirds of a population was either vaccinated or infected, herd immunity would set in. However, with the circulation and spread of new and far more dangerous variants of the covid-19 virus, this figure has jumped to 90%. That would certainly take a long time to happen, with uncertain supplies of vaccines, and the difficulties in getting a remote and hesitant population inoculated.

These challenges have given rise to several pressing questions and are currently triggering a policy dilemma.

Should we open our colleges now? How soon should students in universities get back into the classroom? Are we going back to business as usual or will we now have hybrid teaching—where students go online for lectures, to the campus for taking exams, to libraries for research and to the laboratories for experiments? Should we have a system where lectures, the mainstay of our pedagogy for centuries, are offered virtually; if so will these be in real time or through recorded talks? Across the world, higher education came to a standstill last year. The full impact of this will be seen over a few years, as the supply of skilled human resources falls. Should we not take corrective measures quickly?

On the other hand, there is data that clearly shows that death rates have plummeted despite only 25% of the population being fully vaccinated. Some believe that there is no clear and present danger anymore. In any case, educators have found a way out. The country’s most well-placed institutions ran classes seamlessly despite the horror during the first and the second waves. With web-based platforms replacing the chalk-and-board model, modern education in the tertiary sector can face up to any challenges that may come with the third wave. The debate goes on but meanwhile, we must find a middle path that would ensure adequate access to healthcare even as we push for the reopening of higher educational institutes going ahead.

Public policy enigma

When you must choose between health and education, what would you prefer? Historically, in Indian policy circles, education has always won. The public expenditure on education is three times that on health. More than 50% of children go to state-run schools while less than 25% have access to public hospitals. It is only now, after 18 months of fighting a deadly pandemic, that the debate has shifted. Wherever there is talk about opening schools, colleges and universities, the focus is on hygiene, sanitation and distancing. For possibly the first time, public policy is worried about the basic tenets of public health, at least for the youth enrolled in educational institutions.

In this binary, a middle path is difficult to reach. Over the past year-and-a-half, a majority of students have had either limited or no access to learning opportunities. A privileged few attended online classes, hired tutorial support, worked on portals and apps that created a new market and made some progress towards educational outcomes. A large number of students have dropped out and this number could be higher than 25 million—the global estimate shared by the United Nations more than a year ago. The setback to educational goals has never been as devastating in living history as it has been through the last 18 months.

Policymakers are cognizant of these losses, which is why there is an effort to reopen colleges across India. However, the guidelines issued by the central education ministry and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are vague and difficult to implement.

States that have suffered the most, such as Maharashtra and Delhi, are being cautious while Kerala has again taken a big bold step in resuming classroom-based higher education. The Telangana government had mandated attendance in its higher education sector starting 1 September, but the high court struck it down, and now attendance is optional. The education ministry has categorically permitted schools and higher educational institutions to open after 15 October, in phases. While the ministry has said that states and individual universities can decide based on local situations, it has left little discretion with them. There continues to be confusion on attendance norms, and as a result, even where schools have reopened, attendance in classrooms are still poor. There is also no clarity on fee collection and colleges have suffered hugely on this account, with a large number of students refusing to pay fees.

The UGC, on the other hand, has given a long list of dos and dont’s, leaving little room for local decision-making. It has asked colleges to open in phases, allow laboratories to be used, not permit visitors, nor allow cultural activities.

The difficult proposition for all universities, however, is that the UGC has mandated that hostels can be opened but with only one inmate in one room. This makes it almost impossible for any college or university to consider opening their campuses.

State governments have also been cautious and have played safe in directing their higher educational institutions to reopen after the festival season. West Bengal will open after the Durga puja festival; Punjab and Haryana will do so sometime in November. Kerala opened its higher educational institutions early in October and this seems to be working fine.

These are baby steps that other states will watch closely. India, meanwhile, has lessons to learn from the experience of universities in the rest of the world.

Across the world

When a series of ill-fated decisions were made in the US, pushing universities to open classes for the fall semester, the outcomes were disastrous. Almost the same happened in the UK. The higher education sector simply fell into chaos as hostels and dorms turned into super spreaders. The risks that these universities were taking were serious, as students got infected with a good chance of developing serious post covid-19 complications and could easily catalyze infections in their neighborhoods. Teachers and non-teaching staff were particularly vulnerable to contracting the infection through students travelling from all parts of the world.

Japanese universities have been loath to start in-person classes after reopening after the summer break. Classes are mostly being held online with some access to laboratories being allowed. Despite a strong push by university administrators on vaccination, there has been considerable delay in reaching universal coverage among students and therefore the wariness towards reopening universities continues. The focus remains on vaccinating everyone and with supply being uncertain, most universities continue to run their programs online. The dread of a new variant is real, and no one is taking chances.

European universities, meanwhile, have been opening their classes after a vigorous round of vaccinations and through September many campuses saw students coming in and attend in-person classes. Germany is yet to do so but is readying for the same. Predictably, there have been surges in cases leading to temporary lockdowns and restrictions on socializing and meeting outsiders, but classes have started and with some adjustments by way of a hybrid model, most campuses are either already opened or ready to open soon.

The to-do list

While reopening campuses, Indian universities must keep in mind the inequity that has already crept in.

Apart from many students completely missing out on classes because of access issues, there have been several pedagogical concerns with this sudden shift to online teaching. There is evidence now on how language learning has suffered, with drop in comprehension and this is further exaggerating the problem that students face in learning new concepts. Most online teaching has been in English and with a vast majority unfamiliar with the language, there has been a serious break in learning. In most Indian classrooms, teachers use bilingual skills to help those who are not proficient in the language of instruction. This was not usually possible on web-based platforms or through recorded lectures.

Second, students who went home to small towns and villages were almost always disconnected and the gap between them and the privileged is now considerable. It would be important for all courses to correct this divide. Nevertheless, university finances are under pressure just when they need more resources by way of increased number of classes and additional faculty. The backlog that needs to be covered is enormous and this will need innovative time-tabling and building a pedagogy that enables students to catch up.

The faculty will need to be trained and coached in a big way, too. Our teaching styles, honed over a few centuries on the chalk-and-blackboard model, must alter significantly to move to hybrid teaching. What was remarkable was that hapless teachers were asked to become virtual examiners even as they grappled with the shift to online teaching. After years of making three copies of examination papers, sealing them in the presence of Controllers of Exams, opening one on the eve of the exam, walking down sternly invigilating students scribbling their answers in grim exam halls, professors found themselves trying to replicate the same with students sitting far away on their laptops and phones with videos switched off. In most cases, such evaluation was farcical. If this mode of examination must succeed, we need to equip our faculty with tools, software and skills to hold online examinations.

And finally, there is a huge responsibility on the central and state governments. With the economy on a downside and concomitant loss of tax revenue, state budgets have been under huge stress and are likely to remain so for a while. However, some countries such as Bangladesh, Nigeria and Philippines, recognizing the critical role of sustaining education quality and stopping dropouts, have increased their education spend by 4%. A recent World Bank study, unfortunately, also shows how India has reduced its spending on education. This is simply catastrophic at a time when we needed to spend twice the amount we do. We have actually gone down to spending 2.6% of our budget on education in 2020-21 from about 3% the previous year.

There is no choice as we move forward. With all necessary precautions in place, we will have to open our colleges and universities quickly. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of catching up to do. Faculty strength that has dropped significantly, with many losing their lives to covid-19, will have to be replenished and even increased. As unemployment stays high and incomes drop due to the faltering economy, more and more students will join public universities. They will need laboratories and digital infrastructure. If we are to get back to the path of achieving 9% real growth and grow ourselves into a $5 trillion economy—even as the target date gets pushed by a couple of years now—the education sector simply cannot be kept on hold.

Amir Ullah Khan is a research director at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice and teaches public policy at the Indian School of Business and Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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