Tuesday, Mar 21, 2023

When Campus Is Safer Than Home: Is It Time Universities Bring Back Vulnerable Students?

When Campus Is Safer Than Home: Is It Time Universities Bring Back Vulnerable Students?

When the Covid crisis broke in March, most universities sent their students back home out of concern for their safety. As the crisis prolongs itself, it is time for our institutions of higher education to think about the need to bring the most vulnerable students back to campus, which will provide them a far safer and more stable space than their homes can really do.

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The girl in Haryana who walks to stand in line for grocery for three hours every day; the boy in Kashmir who walks a mile to get to a place with just about enough connectivity to access his classes on the phone. The girl in rural Tamil Nadu who has to climb on the rooftop of her hut to get enough bandwidth to participate in zoom classes; the textile worker in Uttar Pradesh who cannot take any calls in the morning when his son uses his phone for his classes, the only device in the house where he can do so. The high academic achiever from a village in Maharashtra who had to withdraw from college mid-semester as suddenly back home, she has to cook and clean for her family. The clinically depressed boy who had to suddenly leave his supportive network of friends and college counsellors to return home where his sexual abuser awaits him. 

These are just a handful of the stories of students who had to leave college, vacate hostel rooms, to return to the “safety” of their homes as the Covid-19 crisis swallowed university campuses nationwide. Teeming with people and rich in social interaction, colleges are dangerous breeding grounds for the killer virus. Back home is the safe place to be while instruction continues through the virtual efficiency of Zoom, the Google Classroom, or Microsoft Teams. And so shall it remain, as colleges and universities plan their autumn semesters, and the period indefinitely ahead while the pandemic continues to spread terror amidst hearts and lungs worldwide.

Who are our students for whom home is far from a safe space? At best, a space for oppression and exclusion where internet bandwidth for even a segment of a class is a rare luxury? 

When the Covid crisis broke in March, most universities sent their students back home out of concern for their safety. As the crisis prolongs itself, it is time for our institutions of higher education to think about the need to bring the most vulnerable students back to campus, which will provide them a far safer and more stable space than their homes can ever do. If their homes even qualify as homes.  

Universities, especially residential universities, are ironic equalizers where students are usually asked to leave back home their pain and privilege alike. I remember this well from my own teaching years at Stanford where students of radically staggered means sat in the same class and slept in the same dorm – till Spring Break, when one went for a luxury holiday in the south of France and the other went back to a grimy neighbourhood of crime and poverty in Oakland, just across the bay from campus.

Across the world, the Covid crisis has been a catastrophic climax to the inequalities of “home” students leave behind for the relative safety and stability of the university campus. Universities in the US, especially those with high poor and minority populations, are now attending to this problem, and some of them have been making the case for a reopened campus as the safer space for students from vulnerable communities. 

As we teach our classes on Zoom, we hesitate to ask them to turn on their cameras. Will that affect their learning bandwidth? Will it reveal a home they don’t want revealed?  

Should we let them stay home? Or should we invite them back, offering spaces their homes perhaps can’t? Educators and administrators reveal a range of perspectives, a range of circumstances.

Samridh Kudesia is a core team member of the Plaksha Tech Leaders Fellowship which is now online till October, with the decision on the rest of the semester to be taken depending on how things unfold in September. Even with instructions online, the university has offered its students the option to come to campus, and this decision is clearly taken with the more disadvantaged students in mind. Apart from the physical community, Kudesia points out, campuses offer access to labs and specialized learning spaces, along with the assurance of high-speed broadband for digital services. The latter, a staple for online and remote instruction, while a certainty in some homes, is a distant dream in many others. It becomes clear to the universities that such students deserve a life on campus, if only to avail instruction offered online.  

Many vulnerable students come from remote and difficult terrains, where this is a particularly thorny issue. Dr Subhayu Bhattacharya, as assistant professor of English in Mirik College, Darjeeling, points to the problem of dependable internet connectivity in hilly areas, which also offer uneven facilities with transport and accessibility. While these makes home conditions difficult, the issue of remote learning from home is complicated by that of work and employment. “At a time,” Dr Bhattacharya says, “when most casual workers in the Darjeeling district are undergoing severe stress, owing to the stalling of tourism and the cutting of expenditure in agri industries like the tea industry, most students in the vicinity of our college provide a valuable helping hand to their family. In such circumstances, accessibility of the internet as a pedagogic medium is a blessing to them as it allows them to pursue their education while doing a part-time job in essential service shops and services for instance.” The combination of work and learning that addresses family needs in dire economic times inevitably makes the students’ decision return to campus a deeply loaded one.   

The mandate to vacate campuses quickly in the wake of the Covid crisis came to face intense criticism worldwide. While international students faced the uncertainty of the streets even on elite university campuses in the US, vulnerable student communities faced the same under similar orders here in India. Anindita Ghosh, a guest faculty member of English at Maitreyi College, Delhi, argues that “it would be thoughtful of universities and institutes of higher education to open their residential wings for students of vulnerable communities, low income families or no family, remote or rural areas, unstable households, strife prone areas or areas under natural calamities.” She feels it was irresponsible of university hostels to ask students to vacate premises overnight on the eve of the Covid-induced lockdown in March. “Almost every day,” she says, “we hear a shocking news about how a student at IIT Kanpur had secretly locked himself in his hostel room for two months during the lockdown when the hostels were vacant, or students of Delhi University seeking legal aid to be allowed to stay in their hostels during the lockdown, or our students with 2G internet access in Kashmir fear an academic year loss when their classes are conducted remotely.” 

Given such a host of problems, Ghosh feels that students from disadvantaged groups should be brought back to hostels. However such an option will also require a range of health and safety measures, ranging from single occupancy rooms, extra cleaning services, social distancing measures in dining and other common areas, health and testing services. These are, however, likely to be expensive and there is every likelihood that students may be expected to bear the cost of these measures. At a moment like this, therefore, it is more important than ever that government funds, including aid for this emergency situation, be used prudently.   

Newer, non-traditional learning initiatives set up to address the particular learning and growth needs of disadvantaged communities in remote and rural locations have been especially alert to the need for safe spaces for their students. The PanIIT Alumni Foundation have sought to institutionalize the IITian spirit through Residential Kaushal Colleges, Residential Skill Gurukuls and Kaushal Vidya Academy to build India’s first best-in-class, a public-vocational-education system that is economically viable. A staff member from the PanIIT Alumni Reach for India Foundation points out that the viability of digital learning was a real concern for their students, for many of whom “writing their name in English was challenging when they joined the institute.”

“When the lockdown was announced in March,” they indicate, “we didn’t ask all students to leave. Those who could, went back and the rest who faced difficulties back home continued staying on campus. This varied from region to region based on how remote our campus was. Eg. Sahibganj still has approx. 80 students who couldn’t travel back whereas students from Ranchi campus travelled back home.” As campus reopens, especially for such disadvantaged students, the institute needs to be a home as well as a learning space. This, they recognize, will be a sharp challenge as they have many shared spaces as dormitories, dining areas, and washrooms for students. Communal living, after all, is the essential principle behind residential life – and it is the very reality of communal life that has become the threat.

While many Indian families and educators worry about the predicament of students whose plans of going overseas have been thrown in disarray by the global chaos, we need to be particularly sensitive to the international students who have come to India from adverse circumstances – for whom home and campus offer different points of the razor’s edge. A student from Afghanistan, now a student at a leading private university in India, points to the high internet cost in her country, which make sustained online learning prohibitive. The least we can do for such students is to provide a safe and nurturing campus space. Roorkee Institute of Technology in Uttarakhand has set a particularly devastating example here. The two students from Nigeria and Ghana who were brutally beaten up on that campus by the vigilante group appointed by campus authorities following accusation of social isolation rules is sadly, testimony of our institutional mismanagement as well as the systemic racism and inhospitality students of certain nations and background have long endured in India. There is no way we can let the pandemic become an excuse for further chaos and misbehaviour to students seeking safe spaces in our college campuses.

(With research input by Harshita Tripathi)


(Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education, and is the author of several books, including, College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar.)