Since March 22, 2020, educational institutions across the country have been shut in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. Unlocking began June 1, 2020, however schools and colleges have not been permitted to resume regular operations. More than ten months down the line, over 37.4 million young students of the country are desperately waiting to go back to the classroom. Their careers are in the lurch. Several girls and students from underprivileged sections might never see their school or college again. Who is to blame for the colossal losses that students have suffered owing to the closure of their educational institutions?
A peculiar case is of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which is home to over 8,000 students. More than half of these are research scholars. What makes a social science institute unique is that the classroom and field cannot be isolated from each other. Simply put, the classroom becomes the field, and the field is nothing short of a classroom. The indefinite closure of the university has thus brought our academic endeavours to a staggering halt. Every nook and corner of our campus holds potential for teaching and learning; we observe, interact, debate, dissent, and expand our intellectual horizons. Our classes are not confined by four walls, but stretch across the campus and beyond.
Long story short, we are being deprived of our basic right of education by not being allowed to enter our own universities.
A progressive university space such as ours welcomes students from all walks of life. Students from a remote village in the Northeast to those from a town in Afghanistan celebrate coming together to learn and grow in a vibrant campus and university space. Since the past several months, those without access to electronic gadgets and unlimited internet connectivity are being excluded from the teaching-learning process for no fault of theirs. The digital divide has deepened the very inequalities of caste, class, religion and gender that the university space aims to deconstruct.
A survey of around 530 research scholars in JNU revealed the distress that students were undergoing during the lockdown after the university shut. While more than 85% of the respondents now require an extension for submission, a shocking 54% worry that they might have to drop out if they continue to be deprived of access to academic resources and lab facilities. Besides, around 66% of the scholars had not received their fellowships since March 2020. The resultant stress and anxiety have jeopardised both the mental health and physical health of young students. How will India become atmanirbhar if its youth are driven to misery and despair?
Moreover, the digital mode has reduced the meaningful process of education to a mere ritualistic exercise of syllabus completion and evaluation. As young students of one of the premier universities in the country, we are agonised by the disenchantment of online lectures and the meaninglessness of the assessment that follows. Marx’s theories come to life when we experience alienation in the virtual classroom. The university has degenerated into a factory; and each student into a commodity that the former is manufacturing in thousands every year.
How many more Aishwarya Reddys would be driven to end their lives and forgotten before we understand that online learning is no panacea? The digital transition cannot occur without adequate infrastructural support in an unequal country such as ours. Several underprivileged students like her are suffering for no fault of theirs. What was done to bridge the digital divide after the tragic incident? Universities are still not allowing disadvantaged students access to otherwise unaffordable academic resources. Students continue to wait for their fellowships long due. All our educational institutions have failed us. Our losses are neither quantifiable nor compensable. The longer this deadlock continues, we have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Despite several letters, resolutions, protests and dharnas in the past many months, the apathetic administration of JNU refuses to open its doors for its students of the Social Sciences, Arts and Aesthetics, and Language schools. Our research remains incomplete, our learning remains pointless. Religious institutions too have opened, but the gates of educational institutions remain locked. Likewise, the futures of millions of young students remain locked in uncertainty. Several students are being forced to drop out owing to lack of resources and no access to digital modes of learning. You must stop it before it is too late.
All is not lost yet, minister. Please allow us to access what is rightfully ours and reclaim our university spaces. Let us go back to our classrooms and learn to question, so that we may become responsible citizens of the self-reliant India the prime minister wants to build. Closed schools and colleges cannot produce leaders for a better tomorrow. Our future, and that of the country by extension, is in your hands. Let us go back to our universities and do what we must do – educate, agitate and organise, as Dr B.R. Ambedkar rightly advised us.
Aishwarya Bhuta is a Master’s student at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Featured image credit: PTI