Letter to MHRD from Jawharlal Nehru University Students’ Union
Subject: Regarding issues of evaluation, academic backlog, and scholarships in JNU in view of the lockdown
The situation that humanity as a whole is faced with at this current juncture is as you know, unprecedented. Following the forced shut down of schools and educational institutions due to the outbreak of COVID-19, formal academic engagement across the world has ground to a halt. The UNESCO in this regard went on to state in a press release on the 26th of March that over 1.5 billion children and youth in 165 countries were affected by school and university closures. While the situation that citizens in general and students in particular are faced with collectively is certainly unprecedented, one must however take into account its differentiated impacts, and how without a uniform and substantive policy framework in place this could lead to increasing dropouts, furthering of gendered gaps in the educational outcomes, and the further entrenchment of marginalisation of historically deprived sections of the society from spaces of learning.
As you yourself have acknowledged in the past, the Jawaharlal Nehru University is one of the premier institutes of higher education in this country. As such, the University is home to over 8,500 students hailing from all over India and indeed from across the world. It is in this regard that as the duly elected representatives of the student community in JNU, we have found recent news reports regarding the formalisation of academic engagement, classes, and examinations via online means such as e-mail, WhatsApp, etc to be extremely distressing due to a number of reasons which we shall attempt to elaborate on to some degree below.
As per data collected by the University, as on 01.09.2019, there were 8,805 students enrolled in JNU. Of this, 63% of the total student population come from the following 5 states – 1,896 from the state of Uttar Pradesh, 1,515 from Bihar, 917 from Delhi, 617 from Rajasthan, and 603 from West Bengal. It is to be noted in this regard that despite being a residential campus, failing reasonable assurances on part of the JNU Administration regarding the provision of food and healthcare within the University, most students were forced to engage in unnecessary travel on their part and travel back to their respective houses. As such, if classes and indeed exams were indeed to be held via online means, it would simply be impossible for many students to engage with their academic responsibilities. With respect to the 5 above-mentioned states, it is to be noted as per data collected by the NSSO, that considering the rural and urban populace together, the percentage of households with internet facility is 18.4%, 15.4%, 55.7%, 26.7%, and 16.5% for UP, Bihar, Delhi, Rajasthan, and West Bengal respectively.
Furthermore, the disparities in internet connectivity are even more stark when one considers the spatial location of a household. As per the above report, we see that while 42% of urban households were seen to have internet facilities, the number drops to just 14.9% for rural households. 2011 Census statistics show us that in India, over 67% of all households utilise electricity as their main source of lighting. Needless to say, the distribution of the same exhibits stark geographical and regional disparities – while almost 93% of all urban households have access to electricity as their main source of lighting, the same figure for rural households is much lesser, falling to just over 55%. This is of particular importance to JNU since according to the Annual Reports of the University, students coming into the University from rural households composed 45%, 44%, and 44% of the total incoming population for the 2018 – 19, 2017 – 18, and 2016 – 17 academic years respectively,,. The lack of adequate infrastructure and network coverage is also to be noted in this regard by way of how despite rural settlements being much more numerous than their urban counterparts, they account for just under 40% of all mobile network towers.
The above annual reports in this regard also go on to note how of the total incoming student population for the academic years 2018 – 19, 2017 – 18, and 2016 – 17, 43%, 40%, and 43% respectively come from families whose monthly incomes are less than Rs. 12,000 per month. It is also to be noted in this regard that notwithstanding repeated appeals to the JNU Administration, the timely disbursal of scholarships to such students during these testing times have not been undertaken, pushing students and families therefore towards further precarity. The economic impact of the pandemic on households across the country has been noted repeatedly in various reports and need not be delved into further detail here. It is thus that in a situation wherein even the pre-COVID-19 economic reality of our country was such that affordability was often cited as a prime obstacle in the adoption of ICT services by the masses owing to the lack of discretionary money to spend on internet connectivity, to insist on the same when millions of working class families are struggling to feed themselves is to be seen as being patently unjust and exclusionary.
JNU has often been cited as a model university for its gender-just and inclusive policies. In this regard, it is to be noted that over 47% of all enrolled students in the University are women. These students often have had to overcome immense normative social and familial pressures in order to pursue their education in a university such as this. As such, it is imperative for policy makers to understand how on their return back to their households, many women students continue to face traditional restrictions owing to social structures in place that hamper their access to ICT. In light of the pandemic it is also important to note how upon their return to their households, there is a differential division of caring and domestic responsibilities skewed against women, inhibiting their ability to engage adequately with any academic activities. In this regard, the inhibitive cost of accessing the internet as stated above and the failure to provision adequately for the disbursal of much-needed scholarships must necessarily also be seen as intersecting with gender norms in a society such as ours. To push through engagement with academic responsibilities in this regard via online means would in light of the above only ensure that there is a further marginalisation of women from spaces of higher education.
Much has been written on how the struggle to contain the pandemic in Jammu & Kashmir has been incapacitated to a large degree owing to continued curbs and restrictions on the ability to access the internet. Even doctors in this regard in J&K have gone on state that downloading essential guidelines from websites of WHO, CDC, and ICMR have become a near impossible task. JNU, in this respect, is home to 222 students from Jammu and Kashmir who study across various Schools and Centres in the University, as on 01.09.2019. By urging students and faculty in such dreary circumstances to carry on with classes and examinations via online means would necessarily imply that all such students would be cut off from the ability to access classes and lectures, let alone write examinations.
It is with respect to the above that we appeal that any decision that would push forth online academic engagements be seriously reconsidered. To expect that any semblance of normalcy will be restored by stating that all academic engagements are to be completed as per the regular academic timetable in light of one of the most disruptive events that any of us would have faced collectively in our lifetimes would be misguided. Doing so would rather make already vulnerable sections of the society face increasing amounts of pressure when the need of the hour is collective social solidarity. The UGC’s directive to universities and colleges in this respect regarding the need to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of students during these trying times is a welcome step. It is to be noted here that following your directive, the JNUSU has also submitted a request before the JNU Administration to allow for measures such as a mental health helpline number for the students of the University. To this end, we appeal that the implementation of the same be taken up in earnest.
Keeping in mind that post exams a significant number of final-year students would be looking to apply to various universities across the country to pursue their higher education, we appeal that a uniform academic timetable be implemented across the country. This is also necessitated by the fact that multiple boards including the CBSE stands either cancelled or postponed. As such, we also appeal that classes resume in full-swing only post the removal of lockdown, allowing students enough time to travel back to the University. It is our submission that a uniform extension of at least 3 months be provided wherein all academic backlogs with respect to the completion of classes and lectures be undertaken normally in classrooms, with sufficient allowance following this for the conclusion of exams. Also, the submission time for research scholars, whether it be submission of synopsis or final thesis, must be extended till the end of this year. Furthermore, we appeal that the disbursal of all fellowships and scholarships be taken up as a matter of urgent priority. In order to enable students who seek to apply to other countries for their further education, we appeal that an attempt is made to whatever extent possible towards the synchronisation of academic calendars with other countries as well. In summation, we hope that you shall take into urgent consideration the following suggestions:
- Recommend an extension of academic activities across universities, along with entrance examinations, until the end of the lockdown. University functioning should only resume after the COVID-19 crisis abates, with adequate notice for students to return. Proper extension, for classes and evaluation should be provided, to minimise any form of academic loss.
- For research degrees (M.Phil. and Ph.D.), extension should be provided to all batches and not just the terminal batches. As libraries, laboratories, archives, and all similar spaces are closed indefinitely, and the possibility of embarking upon fieldwork for students of Social Sciences is out of the question, the MHRD must make an exception to the rules for the completion and submission of theses/synopses and grant all research scholars adequate extensions. As the situation we are currently dealing is beyond extraordinary, our measures must keep up with the scope of the crisis.
- While there has been much discussion uponthe mode of academic engagement to be undertaken during the period of the lockdown, a negligible quantity of attention has been granted to the question of fellowships awarded to students. Sir, we wish to bring to your attention the fact that these fellowships not only aid students for their studies, but also grant them the ability to continue their education in the face of economic adversity, which has only exacerbated due to the pandemic. Therefore, it is requested that an alternative mode for the timely disbursal of fellowships be explored and adopted at the earliest.
- The formation of committees to deliberate the possibility of academic and evaluative activities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a welcome step, however the exclusion of students’ representation, the most important stakeholder in the academic process, is regrettable and needs urgent remedy. We, therefore wish to appeal you to make it possible for elected student bodies from across the country to represent their institutions and student bodies at the deliberations currently underway before any decision is taken for the same.
- In this time of crisis, extraordinary steps shall be required. Therefore, we appeal you to direct UGC to release emergency funds for setting up a helpline1 for mental health and counselling.
We hope that our concerns and suggestions in this regard will be given due consideration and acted upon.
Aishe Ghosh (President), Saket Moon (Vice President), Satish Chandra Yadav ( General Secretary), Md. Danish (Joint Secretary) – JNUSU