A Peek Into the Orwellian World of Educational Institutions During COVID-19

On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the entire nation to a complete halt by announcing the lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus. The suddenness of the event compelled the entire educational system to resort to the temporal suspension of human interaction, nearly throwing the entire system into an abyss.

While citizens are still grappling with the crisis, many schools and colleges have invented a ‘theatre of cruelty’ of sorts – one which is structured around novel forms of digital surveillance, management bullying, unilateral authoritarianism and verbal threats to teachers.

Even as versions of the lockdown continue, the resemblance of a ‘theatre of cruelty’ has intensified to unmanageable proportions, forcing many teachers to either succumb to managerial diktats or consider the possibility of forceful unemployment. Another option is to consider an alternative career trajectory, but that’s not a particularly viable one at this juncture.

Speaking with teachers employed in various schools and colleges in Mumbai revealed the vulnerabilities many of them face, while exposing the ‘dark side’ of the institutions they work at. In this article, I break down the “Orwellian” world articulated by the teachers I spoke to.

Digital surveillance

With no sign of respite from the pandemic and the imminent danger of losing cash flows, administrators of schools and colleges have resorted to the ‘panoptic gaze’ of technologies such as Zoom and Google Meet. Teachers have been compelled to conduct online classes without having been provided any adequate training on delivery, pedagogy and the practicalities of handling such platforms.

Anita, a primary school teacher, spoke of how her supervisor would join the virtual class at the behest of management to oversee whether she was “teaching properly or not”.

“The supervisor’s intention was not merely to evaluate the online teaching, but to monitor and control the process. Later, the supervisor’s spying behaviour became a routine and everyday affair. We were eventually asked to record the classes and send reports to the administrators after a session,” said Anita.

Digital surveillance at call centres is a well-known management strategy to control the labour process and regulate bodies and material practices, but the COVID-19 pandemic has given fertile ground to erect the ‘panopticon’ in the education sector as well.

Management bullying

In an incident telling of the ongoing organisational pathology, Sanjay spoke of how management mandated that teachers compulsorily host four-five sessions a day despite not providing the technological infrastructure to do so.

“I spoke to management one morning about poor connectivity, but they didn’t listen. On the same day, at around 8 pm, the principal called an urgent meeting where she said that everyone has to adhere to the allotted sessions and any deviation would result in pay cuts and termination. There are many teachers who had to accept cutbacks because they couldn’t conduct the required number of classes,” Sanjay said.

“I must say, over these last four months, the bullying culture and aggression has intensified beyond reparation. I feel stressed and unmotivated,” he added.

Also read: My Mother, a School Teacher, and Her Struggles With Technology

Another teacher, Sujata, who is also a mother of two children, spoke about the work-life balance disruption due to pressure from the management and the demand to work endlessly. She told me that her husband has been out of a job for the last four months and that raising a family in such times has been a challenge. Because of that, she said that she accepts whatever work is assigned to her.

“Teachers are highly underpaid, so I cannot afford to refuse work otherwise my whole family would starve. I get financial support from my parents to meet day-to-day expenses,” she said.

Verbal threats and terror of targets

Another stream of narratives recounted by a few teachers hinted toward the toxic culture of intimidation and target-oriented pressure. Ram, a college professor, spoke to me about the management’s diktat to ‘softly’ intimate parents to pay fees for the semester.

“The management is telling us to ask parents for fee payment, while the government has strictly instructed not to force parents and students to pay fees at this point. My dean told me that if I don’t ask parents, then the management wouldn’t credit my salary. The dean doesn’t want to take the risk of calling parents but is forcing us to do his dirty work,” he said.

“Meanwhile, some reports appeared in a newspaper about parents complaining about colleges and schools demanding fees, so the dean kept quiet on the matter. But a few weeks later, he made a similar exhortation,” he added.

Another college professor, Advait, narrated the mounting pressure on him to attract students to take admission – which is not the role of an academic. Yet, he said he has to perform unrelated work so as to survive in the ruthless academic environment of today.

“I’m working in a small management institute and it’s the time of year for placements and admissions. Neither is my domain, but the director has given targets to each faculty and staff member to lure students to take admission. I don’t know how I am going to fulfil the demand,” he said.

For some at this point, the pandemic is far less terrifying than the organisational pathology at play, full of threats, bullying and management diktats that surely do more harm to the well-being, academic integrity and democratic ethos of teachers.

I urge administrators, education ministries, policy makers and management at various institutions to mull over this ‘dark reality’ of totalitarian power, take cognisance of it and fix our dehumanised education system.

Ritesh Kumar is an academic teaching in a private management institute in Mumbai. He recently completed his doctoral program from TISS, Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Akshay Chauhan/Unsplash