How Online Education Exposed West Bengal’s Fault-Ridden Education System

Kolkata: With a Trinamool Congress (TMC) party flag in hand, high school students shouted, “Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar hai hai (down with Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar).”

The students of this North Bengal institution named after the great reformer of Bengali education had been protesting after failing their uccha madhyamik or higher secondary (HS) examinations, demanding that they be passed.

Similar protests by thousands of students took place across West Bengal following the publication of the results of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education (WBCHSE) – the state’s governing body for higher secondary education – on June 10. This year, 88.44% of the students who took the HS exams passed. In 2021, however, the pass rate for these exams was 98% after the exams were called off due to the pandemic and the students were marked on their classroom assignments instead.

“Last year everyone passed without even appearing for the HS exams. This year we wrote the papers and yet we have been failed,” the protesting students reportedly said during demonstrations outside the office of the education ministry. “Don’t we deserve to get the minimum passing marks? We want to be passed. A year of our lives cannot be destroyed.”

While the HS students protested, there were also protests by students of several colleges and universities, demanding online examinations for the semesters in which they had had only online teaching. After a prolonged period of online education, colleges and universities had finally opened up for in-person classes and many had declared that their exams would similarly be held in-person.

But thousands of students of these institutions organised demonstrations against this decision; some even became violent. Many students began a hunger strike and threatened suicide if their demand for online exams was not met.

Behind the protests

The protests by HS, college and university students sent shockwaves across institutions and amongst educationists. But as inappropriate as this clamour might have seemed, the protesting students exposed several fault lines in West Bengal’s state-sponsored education system. While many of these institutional failures had existed unaddressed for years, they were made starkly clear with the advent of online education due to the pandemic.

“In our last semester we had classes in the online mode for only about two-and-half months and even then, nothing was taught properly. Professors either gave half-hearted lectures or provided PDFs and asked us to study on our own. This is how it has been since the pandemic began,” said Gaurav Sarkar, a final year student of BA (Economics) in Jadavpur University (JU).

“We have been yearning to go to our colleges and universities and study as we used to. We are ready for offline exams. But before that, our institutions need to complete the syllabus,” the JU student added.

Sarkar was echoed by Debalina Daw, an MA (English) student at West Bengal State University (WBSU) who is awaiting her final semester results. “When all our classes for the last semester were online, it was unfair to force offline exams on us,” she said.

Generally, exams conducted online cannot be invigilated due to sloppy digital infrastructure, leaving the students free to refer to their notes and textbooks while writing their papers.

The students argued that online exams would be fairer to them because many of their teachers had left the syllabi incomplete while conducting classes online. Likewise, many of the students could not even attend their online classes due to a lack of WiFi and cellular networks in their regions and in many cases, the lack even of a smartphone or other internet-connected device in their households.

According to a survey conducted among 232 college and university-going students mainly in the North Bengal districts of Darjeeling, Malda and Dakshin Dinajpur, only 14.1% of the students surveyed attended online classes regularly, while 54% managed to attend classes only three days a week. The survey was part of a 2020 paper published in Elsevier’s Children and Youth Services Review, an international journal that focuses on disadvantaged children.

“The students were also facing problems related to poor internet connectivity (32.4%), followed by the absence of a favourable environment to study at home (12.6%). Students residing in rural and remote areas may face poor internet connectivity,” the paper said. “Moreover, poor economic conditions might be a reason for the unfavourable environment and lack of separate room for their study.”

The paper substantiated what students like Sarkar and Daw told The Wire. “Only 27 (11.6%) students reported that over 50% of their syllabus was covered,” the paper said.

“The students protesting offline exams had demanded either the reduction of the syllabus, or the completion of the syllabus with in-person classes, or online exams. If the institutions did not teach us certain topics, why should they expect us to learn them on our own for exams?” asked Darpan Mukherjee, a third year law student at Bankura University.

The widespread phenomenon of unfinished syllabi across institutions in West Bengal can be defined as a consequence of the state’s Pupil to Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 40 in universities and colleges in comparison to the national average of 32. West Bengal has, for years, fared poorly in this category, but online learning exacerbated its impact due to the fact that lecturing students via a screen drastically reduces the engagement and interaction that a physical classroom offers.

“Limited class interaction and inefficient time table significantly affected the satisfaction levels among students. The peer-to-peer impact in the school environment motivates individuals to work hard and learn social skills, which may not be possible in an online setting,” said another paper in the 2020 edition of Elsevier’s Children and Youth Services Review.

The researchers behind this paper conducted several surveys among more than 1,182 students, 58.7% of whom were in the age group of 18-22. In one survey 51.4% of the students reported they had not utilised their time properly during the lockdown and their health conditions had also deteriorated significantly due to disturbances in “sleeping habits, daily fitness routines, and social interaction”. With the availability of more trained teachers, these drawbacks could have been avoided.

Teacher discrimination

The PTR alone is not a major issue in West Bengal’s higher education system. Other states have worse ratios. But coupled with underpaid and exploited part-time and contractual educators at institutions, West Bengal’s higher-than-average PTR spells danger for not just the students but the teaching faculty as well.

According to a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2019, approximately 32,000 teaching faculties were required in West Bengal’s government-aided colleges that year. But there were only “6,000 full-time faculty and 668 contractual whole time teachers and 4,688 part-time teachers, excluding 65 superannuated teachers”, the paper said.

Even though regular and part-time or contractual teachers share an equal proportion of the workload, the contractual and part-time faculties are paid considerably less than the full-time staff. Apart from questioning their competence whenever the contractual and part-time staff demand the regularisation of their employment or an increase in pay, West Bengal’s education system does not run any performance tracking procedure for them.

As a result, “to supplement their meagre income, many contractual and part-time teachers have resorted to other options such as private tuitions, small business, etc”, diverting their focus from their original job of teaching at colleges and universities and thus paying less attention to the students.

Schools in trouble

While the manner in which online education was conducted in India hurt college and university students, the worst hit among all of India’s students were those in school.

According to a 2021 report by UNESCO, only “54% of urban and 32% of the rural population of 12+ years had internet access” in India in 2019. As a result, more than 50% of Indian children were subjected to a stark digital discrimination due to online education.

The UNESCO report also stated that in digital learning, only 36% of all enrolled children received learning materials or activities from their teachers. “Of the enrolled children who didn’t receive any learning materials, 68% of parents cited schools not sending materials, while 24% of households stated not owning a smartphone as the reason,” the report said, highlighting the lukewarm efforts of institutions in educating children digitally.

The numbers turn more egregious when one looks at the results of a survey led by development economists Jean Drèze and Ritika Khera along with two Ranchi-based researchers. The 32-page report found only 23% of children in urban areas and only 8% in rural areas had adequate access to online education in 15+ Indian states, including West Bengal.

Two points mentioned in the report, which is titled ‘Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education’, should be an eye opener for West Bengal’s educationists and policy makers. The report revealed that “about half of the children currently enrolled in Grades 3-5 were unable to read more than a few words”, while at the upper-primary level (Grades 6-8), just about 50% of the children were able to read fluently.

“To some extent, the dismal results of the reading test reflect the poor quality of schooling prior to the lockout,” the report said, adding “many children have forgotten much of whatever little they had learnt earlier”.

Coupled with the oppressive irregularities in education among school-going children, the promotion of children to two grades above the pre-lockdown level proved to be a major stumbling block. “As schools reopen, children are all set to find themselves ‘thrice removed’ from their grade’s curriculum,” the report said. “This triple gap consists of (1) the pre-lockout gap, (2) the decline of literacy and related abilities during the lockout, and (3) the onward march of the curriculum in that period.”

Education vs pass marks

The ruinous repercussions of ‘promotion without progress’ were on full display in West Bengal’s madhyamik (the board exam for class 10) and uccha madhyamik in 2022. Several students failed to form basic words and sentences even in Bengali, leave alone in English. Many used their answer sheets to write memes, while some filled pages after pages with swear words.

“Students were not just promoted without any exam but they were awarded high marks. It was unbelievable how many students scored above 90% in the two board exams in 2021,” said Pabitra Sarkar, former vice chancellor of Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University and a noted educationist.

In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the pass rates of students who took the madhyamik exams were 85.49, 86.07 and 86.34 respectively. In the uccha madhyamik in the same years, the numbers were 83.75, 86.92 and 90.13 respectively. Several papers of the uccha madhyamik exams had been cancelled in 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was announced. The highest marks acquired by a student in a paper for which an exam had been conducted were awarded for the cancelled papers as well.

According to Sarkar, the current system of evaluation in West Bengal – and in India – had sustained the idea of promotion without progress for a long time even before the pandemic.

“Exams here mean sets of similar questions and answers. Students buy question banks of the last 10 years and memorise answers. Then our question paper setters have a pattern of skipping the previous year’s questions while setting papers for the current exams. Even teachers follow this pattern,” Sarkar said.

In their desperation to somehow pass the exams, students end up uneducated, said Sarkar. “Unbounded promotion in 2021 gave children the belief they could pass without studying. So, when they got the reality check this year, they couldn’t control themselves,” he said.

He blamed the students’ mental health and administrative malfeasances such as the School Service Commission (SSC) recruitment scam for the reaction of the students to failing this year’s board exams.

“Locked in their houses for days and not meeting friends and teachers in person resulted in psychological issues for many students. What worsened the problem was that many didn’t even realise what was happening to them,” Sarkar said.

The SSC scam, on the other hand, exposed how the very foundation of the state’s education has been contaminated by the TMC regime in West Bengal, claimed Sarkar. “This government doesn’t want to educate children. It is just manufacturing criminal minds en masse and leading to the lumpenisation of society,” Sarkar alleged.

“Students who think they can pass without studying will naturally inherit the idea that they can also earn a livelihood without working, and there are not many teachers left in the system who can bring them to the right path,” he added, explaining what corruption in the teacher recruitment process can do to school students.

Fear of the future

Last month, the protests by the HS students took a fatal turn when a student in Malda district, who couldn’t pass in English, died by suicide on June 18. Her parents claimed the 17-year-old had been depressed since the HS results were declared and had participated in the then ongoing students’ movement. Another incident of suicide was reported from East Bardhaman district, where a student hanged herself after failing two subjects in her HS exams. Yet another student threatened to die by suicide if she was not passed.

Alleging conspiracy and malpractice by teachers in checking their answer sheets, students also attempted to storm Bikash Bhavan, the Ministry of Education office in Kolkata, and even blocked the highways and clashed with the police.

However, Tapas Kumar Mukherjee, secretary of the WBCHSE, does not believe that the student protests are a serious issue.

“Don’t pay much attention to those protests. What the failed students did was irresponsible and unacceptable. Initially they thought by putting pressure on the authorities they might be passed. But everything is under control now. That some will pass and some will fail is what exams are about,” Mukherjee told The Wire.

Apart from the systemic failures amplified by online learning, West Bengal’s education system is also plagued by the state’s low Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education compared to the national averages, as well as low employment opportunities.

Niladry Sarkar is an independent journalist based in West Bengal.

Featured image: Students of Calcutta University raise slogans during a protest demanding online examinations, in front of the university’s campus, in Kolkata, on May 23, 2022. Photo: PTI

This article was first published on The Wire.