An international online symposium of university teachers resolves to form a forum to address the major disruption in academics caused by COVID-19 pandemic

Published : March 01, 2021 17:13 IST

Students at a college in Srinagar when it reopened on February 15 after prolonged closure because of COVID-19. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

In an international online symposium titled “Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education in South Asia”, organised by the Bombay University and College Teachers’ Union (BUCTU), it has been resolved to form a South Asian Forum for Higher Education in order to address the major disruption in academics suffered by millions of students in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

An official statement from BUCTU said the online meet involved speakers from neighbouring countries, who struggle with similar socio-economic disparities and lack of adequate and quality education. The symposium also highlighted several country- and region-specific features.

Madhu Paranjape, general secretary, BUCTU, said: “The agenda for inclusive and equitable quality education in general, higher education in particular, must come on forefronts of public movements in the participating countries.” In fact, BUCTU will be reaching out to SAARC nations that could not participate in this conference. A report will be sent to UNESCO.

In order to understand the impact of the pandemic on Indian students, BUCTU conducted a survey of 23,000 students across income brackets in Mumbai. Speaking about the findings of the survey, Gulabrao Raje, president BUCTU, said: “The Survey revealed that 80 per cent of respondents’ families have suffered loss of income during the lockdown. Further, 28 per cent of respondents will not be able to pay the fees and 40 per cent expressed financial difficulty in switching over to online mode, indicating that a large section of students will drop out of higher education.”

Tapati Mukhopadhyay, keynote speaker and president Maharashtra Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations (MFUCTO), brought into sharp focus the impact on 37 million students and large sections of teachers in higher education by the closure of 39,000 colleges and 900 universities in the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mukhopadhyay said the push for online education by the government, taking advantage of this crisis, has accentuated urban-rural, urban-elite and urban-poor disparities. It has adversely impacted the access to education for students from marginalised sections, with those belonging to backward castes and minorities being the worst affected. Governments should increase budgetary allocation and declare financial packages to prevent students from dropping out.

Speaking from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Mahfuza Khanam, president, Asiatic Society Bangladesh and Syndicate member, University of Dhaka, said online education in Bangladesh has been a huge setback because of the lack of infrastructure and technical support. She said students, particularly in rural areas, could not shift easily to online education as basic requirements such as regular electricity supply and Internet access was not available.

Dr Shyama Banneheka, president, Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA), Faculty of Dental Sciences, University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, presented a paper which addressed the structural changes in the system of free education in Sri Lanka. He said Sri Lanka has provided free education since 1945. However, because of online learning, expenditure by students had increased. Moreover, he said, the absence of any assistance from the government for providing infrastructure, devices, training and licensed software had created multiple challenges for the faculty and there were concerns about maintaining quality, equity and ethics.

Providing a sociological perspective of the present crisis in traditional societies such as Pakistan, Dr Jamil Ahmad (Chitrali), former president, Peshawar University Teachers Association (PUTA), Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Peshawar, said many traditional communities such as the Pashtuns faced massive decline in education during the lockdown.

With no assistance forthcoming from their unskilled parents, they are in a vacuum, he said. Concurring with other speakers regarding non-feasibility of remote learning, particularly in science education, Dr Jamil highlighted the adverse impact of online education on teaching in social sciences and on societal affairs in the given atmosphere of radicalism and extremism in the region. He stressed the need for teachers to collaborate in South Asia to apply pressure on governments for more investment in education post-COVID-19.

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