Last Monday, when top officials of the human resource development (HRD) ministry returned to Shastri Bhavan for a key meeting after a weeks-long lockdown hiatus, two issues were on the top of their mind.
The first was rescuing the academic calendar from the Covid scourge, which had hit not just one but two academic years: The 2019-20 session that was winding to a close and the 2020-21 one that was to begin .
At stake was the future of more than 10 million students across India who had written their school-leaving examinations (some were still to finish it because examinations in a few subjects are yet to be held) and another few million who were in their final year of college education and preparing for jobs.
But with the 21-day initial lockdown getting extended to May 3, finishing exams and evaluating answer sheets, a complex logistical exercise involving thousands teachers, appears daunting now.
“Completing the exam process is foremost on our minds. But at this moment, it is just wait and watch,” said a top official on condition of anonymity, hinting that declaring results using criteria like past performance in class or internal assessment was a real possibility now.
The second issue was even more tangled: Fees
With schools and colleges shut for the foreseeable future and the lockdown battering middle class incomes, the demand for a fee waiver has united political parties and civil society alike. But any such decision could be thorny both economically and legally.
On March 31, the Akhil Bharati Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote to the ministry demanding that fees not be charged, especially from the poor. The rival National Students Union of India, the student wing of the Congress party, made an identical demand.
A second senior HRD official admitted that the issue was examined but added that the ministry had to take into account the concerns of educational institutions, who had a large number of people on their payrolls and couldn’t be supported by the government. To complicate matters further, the Delhi high court ruled last week that tuition fees of schools should not be waived because classes were still continuing online.
March and April are always busy months in the education calendar with millions of students transitioning out of school into college, and millions more getting out of the education system into jobs.
Moreover, for months, top officials in the ministry were putting finishing touches to two flagship programmes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, the New Education Policy (NEP) that mooted sweeping changes in the board examination format and the Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat (EBSB) campaign to promote national unity. A number of key consultations on the 500-page recommendations for the NEP were scheduled in March and April.
But as the coronavirus ripped its way through India in the first week of March, minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ and top officials quickly realised that it was not business as usual and that scheduled meetings needed to be pushed on the back burner.
“This should have been a time when we ought to have rolled out the New Education Policy. Instead we are looking at reworking the upcoming academic calendar. Now, everything will have to be relooked at,” said a third top ministry official.
“Wearing masks and looking like surgeons in an operation theatre, the minister, higher education secretary Amit Khare and nearly a dozen top officials have repeatedly held meetings to discover prescriptions on the future of the upcoming year. But given the multitude of problems, there are no ready-made prescriptions available,” said a fourth top ministry official.
Many of those meetings have discussed the politically sensitive issue of fees.
“The number of representation on the fee issue, directly or through social media, have been huge. And representations have come not just from students or parents but even from schools and colleges. The AICTE [All India Council for Technical Education], HRD, CBSE [Central Board for Secondary Education], and even the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office], people have written to us. This has been one of the toughest issues on which the ministry has been trying to take a balanced view,” said a fifth official on condition of anonymity.
India’s engineering education regulator, AICTE, has issued detailed instructions asking colleges not to pressure students for fees in the upcoming session. It also directed more than 10,000 colleges under it to not remove any staff member.
“We received complaints that some colleges especially those imparting the Post Graduate Diploma in Management were demanding fees. Therefore, AICTE decided to give these directions,” said the council’s chairperson Anil Sahasrabuddhe.
The pandemic has seeded anxiety and uncertainty in millions of students, their parents and teachers, as they oscillate between waiting for the academic year to end and preparing for college or job interviews.
Arsh Malik, a Class 12 student at a government school in north east Delhi’s Yamuna Vihar, said that the wait for board exams was exhausting. “There are so many rumours on the internet about board exams. Some say they will happen, some say they will get cancelled. I have five exams pending.”
Samridhi Sinha has another problem: Preparing for the JEE that is considered among the toughest examinations in the country. “We are facing the pressure of a competitive exam. And the uncertainty is only adding to our pressure. How much to study, how much test practice to take. These are all factors,” she said.
The uncertainty has left schools in a fix.
“Students and parents are worried if exams will be conducted and under what circumstances. Will they be conducted if there is still a hot spot or containment zone in the city? If yes, how will students reach there?” asked Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Delhi’s Springdales Public School.
Jyoti Arora, Principal of Mount Abu School in Rohini, said the school has started revision classes for Class 12 students for exams. “We want them to be ready for the exam whenever the CBSE announces the fresh dates,” she said.
There is a view within the ministry that the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) should reduce the curriculum load on students in the next session to make up for the lost time. A similar view was articulated by Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia at a meting last week. “However, we are in the midst of the crisis and still don’t know how much time would be lost,” said a senior CBSE official, who wished not to be named.
A second challenge is reshaping the college calendar.
“In addition to the pressure to complete the unfinished academic tasks due to lockdown, students face uncertain future temporarily due to COVID-19 situation. Teachers should maintain a positive and reassuring behaviour with students to draw their attention away from scary thoughts of future,” said M Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
A panel of vice-chancellors has given broad recommendations – online tests, assignment-based or open book exams, common entrance test for varsities, six-day working weeks and deemed attendance during the lockdown period – but policy makers fear a single or even a few solutions may not meet the needs of a diverse set of Indian varsities.
“There are varsities near hot spots and those in green zones. There are big ones and small ones. One set of instructions may not be enough,” said a top UGC official.
A section of the ministry is of the opinion that campuses are not opening anytime soon. Yet, they have to remain prepared. “Online is the apparent solution. However, not everyone is online ready. There is lack of online content in regional languages,” said a sixth ministry official.
Textbooks are available online. Yet, the feedback from the ground reflected that many students needed physical copies. Consequently, after discussions with the ministry of home affairs (MHA), shops selling students’ books were allowed to open.
Many have raised questions about the digital divide and it hurting learning outcomes. Internet connectivity is not same across India and many fear that students from economically and socially weaker sections may not have the resources during these constrained times to spend extra money for purchasing data or internet services.
“Three fourth of students come from socially and economically weaker sections, who are facing serious challenges in terms of accessibility of network and availability of hardware,” said Delhi University executive council member Rajesh Jha. “But we are committed to compensate the deficiencies as and when this lockdown gets over,” he added.
The ministry admits that no clear course has been charted yet. “These aspects have been discussed. There are no easy solutions though,” admitted a seventh ministry official.
The idea of conducting examinations online has found few takers owing to problems of students in vernacular medium and concern over unfair practices.
“It seems universities can promote intermediate students based on other evaluation criteria than just exams. However, I feel, for final year students, who are passing out, an exam is desirable,” said Pankaj Mittal, the secretary general of Association of Indian Universities.
Online classrooms have also pose other challenges. Most schools were using the Zoom app to hold classes till the MHA warned that the site was not secure.
The Indian Institutes of Management, meanwhile, have a different problem.
“Several IIMs depend on executive education and training to generate revenue. The biggest challenge will be generation and continuity of executive education revenue. At IIM Rohtak, we are fully prepared to offer any general or customised executive education and training programs online,” said the institute’s director Dheeraj Sharma.
Within the ministry, even as officials spend extended hours in meetings, talking over videoconference to colleagues working from home, the mood is sombre.
Every few days, news that someone in an important establishment — be it the armed forces, medical fraternity or a key government functionary — has tested positive for Covid-19 sends everyone into shock. Plus, cases in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Niti Aayog and the civil aviation ministry have put everyone on edge.
The day-to-day functioning of the ministry has also changed considerably. The endless stream of tea and water offered to senior officers and important visitors is gone, and so is the long line of people outside the chambers of top secretaries and the minister.
“The meetings are fewer, attended by lesser number of people, and even officials of NCERT and CBSE, regulars in normal circumstances, come in fewer numbers. Videoconferences are the norm,” the second official added.
As education falls in the concurrent list of the Constitution, the HRD ministry is planning to hold a series of consultation with states to brainstorm on issues. But officials admit that the focus is on firefighting and managing the current crisis and all future planning has been put on hold. “This is a time when all planning has come to a standstill,” said the second official quoted above.
But he held out hope. “Education is a sector that deals with the young. We hope that with the energy of the youth we will manage to overcome this issues while ensuring that teaching learning activity is not hindered.”