Friday the 13th, March 2020, an unforgettable day. Just as I was finishing a lecture for our very first batch of MSc (Mathematics) students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of my colleagues came and announced that classes have been suspended until March 31 due to the COVID-19 crisis. I was happy to have finished teaching my class before the announcement came, but it was unsettling. Students were quite confused whether to stay on campus or go home; most of them decided to go home and requested us to send them assignments during this three-week period. I told them to revise some of the basic materials, since the Measure Theory course that I was teaching was quite new and unfamiliar to them. At that point, we didn’t realize how long it would be. It seemed like a mid-semester break, which would have been appreciated by all the students since they had had virtually no winter break in December.
The immediate impact
I thought I would utilize this break to work with my PhD students, both of who are in the sixth year. They both needed to submit their theses by the end of June 2020, but one of them had already gone home to visit his parents and returned only the following week. Soon after, the Delhi government announced closing all educational institutions on March 19, and then the JNU administration asked students to vacate their hostels within 48 hours. Admittedly it was for their own good, but our students were worried: they couldn’t get train tickets so quickly and were also concerned about the risk of catching COVID-19 in crowded trains and buses. Then on March 24th, the nationwide lockdown until April 14 was announced. It still seemed like just a two week extension of what JNU had already announced, and at that time, about 10 to 12 percent of the students (including overseas students) were still on campus.
As it happens, one of my PhD students is from a remote place in Rajasthan and the other lives in Munirka, across from the main gate of JNU. At this stage in their research, we had had frequent one-on-one discussions at the blackboard – this is an absolute must for research in mathematics. Neither of the students has good internet connectivity where they live, and this limits their access to online resources. We manage some discussion over phone, WhatsApp or email, but this is no substitute for face-to-face discussion. They also need advice about their synopses, the lay-out of chapters and also to continue research, for which online meetings do not work well.
The deadlines for thesis submission have been extended recently by UGC and JNU, but there has been no announcement yet as to whether hostel accommodation and financial support will also be provided. This is an extremely important requirement for our students: not only do they need a fellowship to survive, but they also provide support for their families. As events keep unfolding, it is clear that they are likely to lose a year in terms of finding a job; everything seems to have come to a standstill. Another student at JNU working with one of my colleagues is waiting since late March to have his PhD thesis defence. Holding it online is not an option since he has very poor internet connection at his home.
As for the Masters students, this was just their second semester at JNU. Coming from very varied backgrounds, they have found it difficult to learn without lectures, through material provided in Google Classroom. Some of the students are from rural backgrounds and from small towns where the internet connectivity is, as mentioned, not good, and in some cases even a steady supply of electric power is not available.
In part this is due to the fact that JNU has always encouraged students from less developed areas of India to come for higher education. This has been done through a combination of a low fee structure and a system of counting for social and economic deprivation in the entrance examinations. Across the country, districts where the development indices are below the national average have been identified and a specific number of so-called deprivation points are awarded to students who have studied for their previous degrees in such districts. It is noteworthy to add that women students are awarded additional deprivation points that are added to the students’ entrance exam score to bring them at par with those who have had better opportunities/facilities in terms of education. Due to these encouraging steps, JNU has on an average more students hailing from less developed regions, compared to other urban universities/institutions. (Unfortunately, students applying for MPhil and PhD programmes do not get the benefit of deprivation points from 2017 onwards).
Thus for many of our students, the condition at home may not be suitable for studies. The learning process becomes discriminatory in effect since in a classroom at the University all have more or less equal access. More opportunities to learn are available to those with good internet connection and other facilities. In a class, one can gauge from the expression on the students’ faces whether they have understood a particular concept or not. Students can also ask about their difficulties there and then or can come to my office later and ask for clarification, and they have been doing so. However, they do not seem as enthusiastic or comfortable asking me over email or in Google Classroom. Some of them seem to have forgotten what was taught before the lockdown; it could be due to other pressing demands on them in this unusual situation, or the environment may not be conducive to study. This is very surprising as I know that most of these students are sincere and had even applied for summer internships.
Now the emphasis is more on finishing the syllabus and conducting exams, regardless of whether the students learn or not. The present situation leaves me with the feeling that somehow we are failing as teachers – we are short-changing our students. I feel responsible and want to teach our students effectively, but now this seems a distant goal. Regardless of calibre, I feel our students will suffer in the long run.
During the first lockdown period, I kept counting days and thinking that even if it would stretch till the end of April, we could teach in a classroom in May and part of June and then conduct exams in June. Now it is past mid-May and the uncertainty over everything (we are currently in the fourth lockdown period) seems to be affecting students and faculty alike. The lockdown wall keeps shifting like a mirage.
The effect of this pandemic will also be felt on next year’s new admissions. We are still under the lockdown and the deadline for some of the entrance exams applications are imminent, including my own university’s. How would students who do not have internet connectivity apply now? The terminal students may even lose a year of study if they cannot apply. This will bring more divide between rural versus urban and poor versus rich. Education should be for all, yet we do not even pay attention to this ‘minor’ problem. It is as if we simply have to fill the admission quota and we forget the humans behind it.
On a personal front, I am using this opportunity to finish some pending research work. I am also catching up on reading both math and fiction. But for how long? I am afraid that this may pull us all down and I am worried about the future. For a mathematician, discussing ideas in person using a blackboard is very important, not to mention holding a book or attending a seminar in person, and something seems to be amiss without these elements of an academic life. Now we are all attending webinars but it is just not the same, neither for the speaker nor for the audience. Mathematics education is likely to suffer greatly if it is not delivered in person. It is simply impossible to communicate some of the ideas via a purely online mode.
A major fallout of this pandemic is that we had to suspend all activities of the Indian Women and Mathematics (IWM). These are initiatives that encourage young women to take up a teaching and research career in mathematics. IWM activities are sponsored and supported by the National Board of Higher Mathematics (NBHM) of the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India, and the Committee for Women in Mathematics (CWM) of the International Mathematical Union (IMU). As a part of IWM activities, there are regional workshops and popular lectures by distinguished women mathematicians from India and abroad, which largely took place in non-metro cities. These occasions are a rare experience for young students and teachers alike at these places where seminars and interactions with mathematicians from outside are non-existent otherwise (see here for more details). An IWM regional workshop had been planned this July in Chhattisgarh (at IIT Bhilai) for the benefit of students from Chattisgarh and neighbouring states. We had also planned an IWM annual conference in Karnataka (at IIT Dharwad). Both these activities had to be indefinitely postponed. There are other proposals to have workshops in Rajasthan and Kerala later in the year, which are on hold. It is not clear when these IWM activities can resume. This break creates a vacuum in academic life and is likely to have long-term repercussions.
Although it has been said that we need to adjust to the new normal, I am worried for the next generation. As it is, our young urban population has screen-addiction that contributes to many of them lacking in social skills. Now we are asking them to observe social distancing and to communicate online and this can only encourage screen-addiction! I am afraid that this will diminish real communication and social skills further, reducing tolerance in general.
With the additional effect of the economic depression, the higher education budget, which had already seen a cut in recent times, will be effectively reduced further. This will have a major impact on the university education in India, which caters to almost all of the student community, barring a few. Unfortunately, the system is such that it pours much more money into those elite institutions which cater to a minuscule proportion of students. A place like JNU, which is accessible to urban and rural students alike, where the class divide is less, where students from a humble background can dream of higher education, saw a major upheaval towards the end of 2019 due to a significant fee hike, and it could become inaccessible for some of the students who could benefit earlier. This is despite the fact that the budget of such a university to support students is minuscule compared to one of those institutions where admittedly students pay higher fees but also get much more subsidy as the actual cost of their programs is far higher.
The right to education, especially higher education, already depends on numerous social and economic factors, The COVID crisis will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The cries of underprivileged students will be drowned in the general tumult of the economic depression, as it is with the cries of the migrant population in the current crisis.
Riddhi Shah is a Professor of Mathematics at the School of Physical Sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.