Academic Calendars Through a Pandemic – The ‘Relief-Package’ of Online Education

When the nation was being trumpeted into self-reliance, most people already knew what it portended – an unabashed transfer of responsibility and commitment from public institutions to private individuals.

In an economy that tottered itself into the clutches of a pandemic, self-reliance meant that state infrastructures are no longer to be relied upon and that individuals were to be left to defend their own existence.

Migrant workers trailing hundreds of kilometres on foot, some run over by goods trains while sleeping, some killed in late-night road accidents and a Supreme Court bench maintaining the ungrievability of such deaths – sum up the national identifiers of our self-reliance scheme.

The education sector in India found in the Prime Minister’s speech echoes from not very long ago, when we had pawned off ‘eminence’ to ‘reliance’. An imaginary Jio University was anointed the leader of education in 2018, much before brick and mortar gave it a body. Perhaps that was a policy-messaging for times to come – when ‘self-reliance’ called for a dismantling of the body of the university altogether, and Jio Phones with 4G data packs could substitute the need for physical classroom spaces.

The Finance Minister’s final tranche of announcements on May 17, as part of the Rs. 20 lakh-crore COVID relief package, spelt out the full deal. It made way for the top 100 universities and ‘institutes of eminence’ to start running online degree courses without any prior approvals.

Understandably, this was to be flagged as a Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme, with public-funded institutions free to partner with private tech-providers. The ranking of an institution was to be made the basis for its reduced reliance on public resources, such that the best university could potentially make itself redundant.

An illegal operationalization of the National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT) in November 2019 – first named in a policy draft which is yet to be tabled or passed in Parliament – had already served as the roadmap for private online course-offerings. Seen retrospectively, we were being prepared for the pandemic for quite sometime now.

There was talk of similar preparation to minimise the impact of future pandemics, in a set of ‘guidelines’ published by the University Grants Commission on April 29 and followed up by a meeting on the yet-veiled revised National Education Policy (NEP) on May 1.

In the latter, the Prime Minister pledged to make India a “global knowledge superpower” – the scramble for which included online classes as a necessary ladder-step. Irony galloped close behind, insofar as the UGC guidelines had already rued the lack of “adequate IT infrastructure for effective delivery of education through e-learning mode” and noted disparities in “accessibility of internet to the students, especially in remote areas”.

Yet, there were no questions asked on the possible extent of online transitioning within an economy as sharply divided as ours on the basis of class, caste, gender, religion, region and physical ability. Instead, the UGC scandalously assumed that online app-based teaching proved to be a successful antidote to the disruptions wrought in by the pandemic – and that a rigorous engagement with substantive indices of ‘access’ may be conveniently avoided by marking all online classes as “deemed to be attended by all the students/research scholars”.

Education was now officially a number-game, in as far as the costs of accessing it were privatized in the form of individual entitlements to technological gadgets or services. ‘Self-reliance’ is the magical reform code that spoke through the Draft NEP’s promise of doubling higher education enrolments while quartering the number of institutions.

The Euro-American experience – in the wake of the global recession of 2008 – had demonstrated that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were the strongest booster for expanding enrolments and reducing public spending on physical university infrastructures.

India records close to 105 million people of college-going age who cannot afford to physically attend universities. That is around 74 of every 100 potential enrolments in the sector. If the government were to partner with private ed-tech companies to offer home-based online education solutions to this massive segment of outliers, imagine the profit that might come of it.

And indeed India’s policy-dream of phasing out three-fourths of its colleges and universities would have seen an accurate compounding of that profit in savings, with an eventual shedding of lakhs of teaching jobs as well as lower-level maintenance staff at brick-and-mortar institutions.

But, what is conveniently erased from this enrolment-obsessed policy-imagination is a very ‘minor’ fact from history – that remote online learning brought graduation rates in America down to one-eighth of regular classroom courses and a quarter of community college completion levels.

Online teaching is another name for institutionalising ‘drop-outs’ as the only inevitable policy-outcome – a statistic that finds no registration in our government surveys or annual reports.

The UGC’s guidelines did not seem to care much. On the contrary, they proposed a compulsory transitioning of one-fourth of every department’s courses online. It requires little guesswork that, given the uniformity of syllabus mandated by a Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), the larger generic courses with cross-university enrolments will be the first ones to be digitized. That would automatically relieve institutions of the need for maintaining bigger or better-equipped classroom infrastructures as well as employing multiple teachers for the same course across colleges.

For now, UGC was content with dabbling in contradictions as emergency measures. It recognised the problems with holding online examinations, but also empowered universities to do so if they please. Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University were quick to pounce on that offer, with the former ordering all its affiliated colleges and several lakhs of students from across the country to take online open book examinations from July 1.

Most universities in Bengal chose to take the ‘examination’ clause very seriously – and following a meeting between Vice Chancellors and the state education minister, it was declared that institutional campuses shall soon be sanitised for exams to be initiated within one month of their reopening.

While metropolitan universities like Presidency and Jadavpur discerningly argued against holding exams across all semesters, most of the other provincial state universities – where both student and employee communities rely largely on daily commuting by passenger trains – are unflinching in their commitment to July examinations.

One wonders why examinations are so important for the self-worth of our institutions, when teaching itself has become only a matter of assumption. Is what we are going through – as people and as communities marked by class and religion – not examination enough? Has it not produced enough anxiety and collateral already? Can we for once not add examination to examination, but only wait to pass one before we are forced through the motions of another – living or dead?

More than a hundred years ago, in 1918, Rabindranath Tagore expressed his anguish about the self-alienating din of education in a poignant short story about a parrot’s training:

“The method was so overwhelming compared to the bird that one could hardly notice the bird…. There was no corn in the cage, no water either. Only heaps of pages had been torn out from heaps of books; and with the tip of a pen, those pages were being stuffed into the bird’s mouth. There was no room in the mouth for the bird to squeeze out a cry, let alone a tune. It was really a terribly pleasing sight.”

The sight provoked Tagore to reimagine the idea of the university in Visvabharati. Will the terrible pleasure of its ruin provoke us to give up on the idea altogether, and allow it to disappear online?

First published in The Citizen.
Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature at Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal.