It has been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic touched our lives and changed it forever. As things started to ‘normalise’, the second wave hit the country. Our health infrastructure was least prepared to face it, let alone handle it.
The pandemic can be said to be beyond our control, but the academic rigour being faced by university students in these tough times is not beyond the control of institutions. But unfortunately, most universities have failed to put up a strong and empathetic front on this issue. The very institutions that were made for the welfare of the student community have exacerbated the crisis for them. So, it is high time that we asked – is this pandemic an external one or exacerbated by our very own institutions?
The pandemic has not left anyone untouched. Some students have been directly impacted with COVID-19, while others have indirectly experienced its repercussions. Many students are struggling with arranging beds, oxygen cylinders and plasma for their kin. Where one would expect respite from academics in these extraordinary situations, the institutions are pretending as if nothing has happened. They are adamant on their vow of upholding ‘academic rigour’.
Some students have lost their lives, while almost everyone has seen their loved and dear ones passing away. Does this not affect mental health? It feels like this question hardly matters for many institutions that seek to show no humanity.
Institutions have mostly acted indifferently, giving no or negligible exemptions in submission deadlines and attendance criteria nor any substantial reduction in syllabi and fees. While a few institutions have stood by their students in these tough times by providing them week-long vacations due to second peak of COVID-19, it is not enough. You do not have a normal student in front of you today who is asking for concessions. You have students who have been staring at their computer screens for more than a year now, who have been mentally and emotionally affected by all that is happening around them in the world today. This indicates that all is not ‘normal’.
Though online learning has been a saviour in today’s time, which made it possible for millions of students to continue their education; any more exertion of students would work to their detriment. Most of the institutions today acclaim that their teaching-learning system has been unaffected by the pandemic. Their system might have remained unaffected (however, for most it did not), but the teaching-learning ‘process’ definitely suffered. Marks might not have suffered; education and knowledge did suffer. And the worst part, the institutions failed to play their part by not doing the best they could.
There has been a case recently where unfortunately a student from the National Law University Jodhpur succumbed to COVID-19. While struggling for his life in the hospital, he would ask his friends to log into online classes in his place because he didn’t want to miss out on the daily attendance. Even during his last days, he was worried about tests, classes and projects. This highlights the harsh and unsympathetic attitude shown by our esteemed institutions to uphold their high standards, which the delicate lives of students in today’s unprecedented times, cannot meet.
We need some respite, to hold ourselves together and to stand with our families and friends, who have all suffered a lot. I interviewed a student from Delhi University (DU) who had tested positive for COVID-19. She told me that even after testing negative after 14 days, due to the adverse impact of high dosage of the medicines, she had to undergo liver treatment for another month. Because of this, she could not attend a single class during that period. After one-and-a-half month of sickness, weakness persisted and she felt stressed.
“It felt like your career and college life are constantly moving forward whereas you are stuck and can’t help yourself. It took me two-three months to gain back the same strength and energy; physically and mentally,” she said.
On a positive note, DU suspended its online classes till May 16, 2021, as per a notification issued on May 4, 2021. “It was really very relieving,” she added. “Since we students, were already missing so much on our personal lives due to health issues. It was quite relaxing to know that you at least won’t have to miss on your academic life for a while.”
Moreover, since the admissions were delayed in 2020 due to the first wave of the pandemic, many institutions had to compensate for the lost time by increasing the syllabus for each semester. For instance, the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, increased a course each for the first four trimesters. DU cancelled the mid-semester break of students and shortened the duration of end-semester break to cover up the syllabus. With such increased workload and reduced holidays, it became all the more difficult for students to cope up in these unprecedented times.
“My family was suffering from COVID and I was overwhelmed with care work. I anticipated a mid-semester break to regain my strength and to start refocusing on academics after my family recovered. However, I was diagnosed COVID-positive. We did not even get a break. I was studying continuously from 2 months while there were continuously so many medical problems in my family. I was very distressed,” recounts a DU student.
Most institutions are dealing with students’ Covid-related grievances on a case-to-case basis. A student needs to produce a medical report or lab-test report as a proof that they tested positive for COVID-19. However, this is extremely difficult for many where testing infrastructure is not adequate. Also, these reports might account for physicall illness, but what about the mental trauma that many students are facing?
Any leniency provided by institutions would definitely incur losses in terms of their so called ‘standards’. However, these can be covered up and compensated for at a later stage. The benefits accrued by providing some relaxation in this tensed environment would overweigh the losses incurred. More importantly, it would help build trust between the student body and the institutions which would go a long way in enhancing and improving the education system. A life is more important than any academic standard today.
The institutions express their fear about the long-term detriment to the quality and standard of education that would happen if they give any exemptions and show compassion today. However, I would like to point it out, just by being as rigid as ever in these uncertain times, the quality of education has already been compromised with. Any knowledge can only be properly imparted if it is received well by a student. By providing some relief, the institutions would only enhance the quality of education.
If the mental health of students can be addressed now, there is a long life ahead to cover up for everything else that we lose.
Shivi Dangi is an undergraduate law student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.