The pandemic of 2019 brought with it new challenges. Life has been pushed to the periphery while the government is placing lockdowns to save precious human lives. This new normal which nobody could have foreseen is probably going to last longer than anyone had anticipated. However, if we are to live with this, it will take more than mere survival and much more than finding two square meals a day. The pandemic came like a meteor shower which nobody was prepared for. Our survival instincts have somehow helped us stay alive for more than two months.
While the healthcare sector took an unprecedented hit, we almost forgot about another important facet of our life: education. Now this may be prioritised after basic health but by no means can be ignored any further in "the new normal". This new normal has called for new norms and this time, instead of the government taking the initiative, they are being set up by private schools and universities.
In the past three months, while everything was thriving on a bare minimum, the education sector was somehow resilient enough to mutate against the foreign antigen. One could not only see a vast difference in the quality of education being provided by the different players in the education sector in the days of pandemic but may also trace the path of change.
The government-run educational institutions are struggling with basic infrastructure needs, irrespective of their enormous funds and resources. The private sector with efforts to live on and collect fees came out with various ideas of teaching. The system that was till today unimaginable without a classroom with its teachers mostly unacquainted with technological advancements in most parts of India, somehow managed to have WhatsApp classrooms with voice notes and PowerPoint presentations, if not Zoom or Google classrooms. The government sector in several States could only follow leads, even then struggling to deploy the required training and infrastructure. On the other hand, the private sector altered the prejudices against online education, and students were evaluated in online exams. The new ringmaster of the norms is the top rung of the private sector; the institutions in the second or third rung are trying to follow, in the fear of being thrown out of the race, while the government-administered institutions lose their quality, market share and hence credentials and authority. As a student of a government institution, the playing field for higher education or jobs is same; yet these differences will keep on increasing and their manifestations will be reflected in society if the government does not increase its pace to catch up with the private sector.
Education surely has socialist seeds. It was seen as a necessity for all by our policymakers. It was not until the pandemic created a void that we could introspect on the existing fault lines and power of control with such precision. Education has gradually become a fiercely competitive industry, which has become independent of government intervention and influence. With private players investing heavily and unaided private schools proliferating in unprecedented numbers, the education sector can turn out into a capitalist dystopia. According to the AISHE report, the number of private universities has increased from 181 in 2014-15 to 304 in 2018-19.
If this disparity does not concern you, then let me draw your attention to another pattern that has unfolded in the past two months. April witnessed a tussle between private institutions and the public administration, in relation to fee collection. While some State governments barred the private institutes from collecting fees, others allowed it, to save the teachers and workers from a cash crunch. In those parts where the governments tried to regulate the fee collection such as in Delhi, the private sector undertook fierce lobbying and the best that the government could do was to halt the fee hike. In J&K, the administration tried to balance the interests by allowing fee collection but limiting the collection of annual charges. Karnataka recently came up with an altogether different ruling to curtail primary school teaching via online mode and not allow schools to collect fee in this regard; the outcome of this policy we are yet to witness.
With the government issuing incoherent, erratic and impractical orders one after another, the schools and colleges have taken a collective stand, with private sector tasting the power of collective identity and unionisation. The big players in the industry are not only sailing without friction, but are in fact setting the norm. The medium and small players don’t know what to do, whether they should stop teaching and stop taking fee or experiment with online education and continue to pay from their exhaustible resources, thereby dying a slow death. The government institutions are definitely not affected by cash crunch but the students’ education is in misery, with schools almost kicked out of the competitive race and top-ranked national universities unable to figure out what to do next.
The lack of uniform rules and procedures across the country in education will create a fault line making this sector into a brutally competitive industry where the welfare of children has become "the last concern". Who is doing what and why, nobody knows. It is time for the government to introspect and set the tone for its futuristic policy, to attain legitimacy, credentials, and authority.