EdJustice People's Campaign conducted a webinar on 22nd May on the theme ‘Unlocking the Covid Impact on Public Education in India.’ The panelists consisted of Dr. Nand Kumar, HOD Humanities, DTU, Dr. Rajesh Kumar Jha, Executive Council Member, Delhi University and Pratishta Kohli from Delhi University and Somu Anand from Patna University as student representatives. The session was moderated by Sikta Deo, News Anchor and Journalist.
In these difficult times the future of public education remains uncertain as policy makers grapple with the idea of introducing a ‘new normal’ to cater to the needs of all stakeholders involved. In light of this development, the webinar aimed to focus on digitization of education, the role of regulatory bodies in aiding this process, a revision in curriculum and understanding the affect of the pandemic on students and professors across the country.
The discussion began with understanding the diverse issues caused by the pandemic. Pratishta Kohli being a third year student discussed the immediate concern of terminal year students as; focusing on your future goals including pursuing a masters degree, giving an entrance examination or planning to enter the job market. All these plans are affected as they are delayed, postponed and the length of the year reduces significantly. According to her second year students are also missing out on opportunities of exploring their subjects, as it is one of the most crucial years to set your professional goals and understand your interests better. One’s socio-economic factors play a key role in how the current situation is affecting them.
Mr. Jha took the discussion further, by talking about how the public sector today is heavily influnced by private players and is trying to emulate them. This takes place in the form of commercialization of education and computerization of education. He very emphatically stated the digitization of education today is definitely the way forward to supplement but not replace traditional teaching. The UGC has currently constitued a committee under Professor Nageshwar Rao, Vice-Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University that is suppose to look into the modes and methods of promoting online education. He spoke about how professors don’t have any problem with teaching online courses, but this shouldn’t lead to any cost-cutting by the UGC, which could be debilitating to restoring classroom teaching as well as any other university costs.
Dr. Nand Kumar clearly differentiated the way digital teaching would affect different universities. When it comes to private universities, or even automonomous public universities like Indian Institutes of Technology or Delhi Technological University, they are in a position to adapt to the new changes. According to him DTU’s and NSIT’s population is mostly Delhi based which makes them more likely to have the facilities for online examinations, as well as other digital teaching. Whereas students of Delhi University which is a central university, are much more diversely situated all over the country, a majority coming from towns and cities where remote access is inaccessible or weak. Thus there is a clear divide between technical and non-technical universities too.
Somu Anand’s insight on the digital divide gave all viewers a reality check when he discussed the situation of his hometown in Bihar. He spoke about a clear-cut caste and class divide, where it was a big deal for even Brahmin students to own a phone. He stated that it was an extremely idealistic and privileged notion that all students will have an equal access to online classes as well as online exams, which is not statistically accurate.
Personally when I read DU’s guidelines regarding the examinations on their website, I was extremely upset and angry at the ignorance perpetuated by a central university, blindsiding so many students, especially those in their terminal year. According to statistics around 74 percent of the surveyed students responded against the idea. “Around 32.4% of students said that they don’t even have devices such as smartphones or laptops to appear in the online exams,” 
When it comes to discussing the future of public education in India and the reforms to be brought in, it seems like a herculean task ahead. Dr. Jha spoke about the decreasing funds for higher education that have been reducing every year. He spoke about an increase in the ‘Economically Weaker Section’ category increasing by 25% , no additional funding for infrastructure, vacant seats in DU for professors not being filled, as hindering factors for progress in the future. Contractual nature of employing professors where there is no job security leads to problems in planning an evolved and holisitic education curriculum.
According to Mr. Kumar the three A’s “Accessibility, Availability and Approachability” are words we need to incorporate in our vocabularly when it comes to digitization of education. Acting appropriately when it comes to government intervention is essential, especially consulting both teachers and professors involved when one makes new education policies. This starts with the online examinations set to be conducted in July for Delhi University, where testing should be mixed and have both offline and online elements. The only way to move forward is to practically look at the needs of children and teachers and come up with a new and improved but most importantly inclusive policy to benefit every single individual.
Diya Narag is a third year student of political science at Lady Shri Ram College for Women and a volunteer at EdJustice People's Campaign.