The coronavirus outbreak dealt a severe blow to the education sector as institutions were shut down, students were restricted to homes, and exams ceased to be the immediate priority. The sector was virtually on crutches for over a year as the online mode became the teaching model. With schools and colleges now reopening, questions surface surrounding the reforms required for the education sector at a time when the state budget is to be placed.
The Founder Vice-Chancellor of St Xavier’s University, Dr John Felix Raj speaks to Soumyadip Mullick about the measures that need to be adopted.
Q: What are some of the challenges that lie ahead of the ailing education sector that suffered due to Covid, especially in West Bengal?
A: Covid has affected all aspects of our life, including education. Finally, we are back to normal. Life is slowly improving. We need to come out of the new normal, the virtual mode, and get accustomed once again to the old normal, the conventional mode.
Technology came in handy during Covid. Online mode of teaching-learning, in the absence of face-toface classes, rescued us, but cannot remain permanent. It is a passing, temporary phenomenon. Now we are switching over to in-person teaching-learning. The challenge is to combine both conventional and virtual modes and introduce a blended mode. We need to take advantage of the technological growth and use facilities for a better environment in schools and colleges.
Q: What is the expectation from the 2022-23 state budget for education and what are some reformative measures required to resuscitate the sector?
A: Government should increase its expenditure on education and bring the poor and the worst affected people into the mainstream and establish more financial aid like student credit cards introduced by the state government. Switching over to in-person classes will be gradual but smooth. We need to take risks and move forward now. Covid should not remain a pandemic forever.
Q: The rate of dropouts increased in Bengal during the pandemic. What should the state government do to deal with the problem? Are virtual classes a boon or a bane?
A: Mutual reassurance and understanding between educational institutions and parents are needed immediately. Government should take bold steps and make clear announcements with regard to Covid restrictions and the opening of institutions. We must use technology for improving methods of education.
Virtual mode came as a boon during the pandemic. It cannot remain a boon for long. It misses the human element in education. The virtual model has taught us a lesson that online can supplement the existing conventional system.
Q: The state government is drafting policies to opt for a PPP model for education which many fear may deprive underprivileged students of their right to education due to high fees. Is it a legitimate concern?
A: It is a good move to introduce a PPP model. We tried initially and proposed to the state government a PPP model for our university. But it did not work out. The model needs to be spelt out clearly as two parties are involved. I am personally not in favour of this. Instead of the PPP model, grant in aid from the state must continue on the basis of the performance of colleges and universities. Government should come forward and support academically outstanding colleges and universities. There can be a system of evaluation of these institutions. Government aid must be based on performance.
That private institutions charge high fees is not always true. Many of them have good scholarship schemes. Service to the poor and disadvantaged students should be a part of the performance of these institutions.
Q: What are the solutions that could help students cope with their syllabus now that colleges have reopened?
A: Now that institutions have reopened, classes must be planned out well and be regular to complete the syllabus. Exams may be postponed for some time, but not delayed indefinitely. They need to work extra, overtime, to complete the syllabus, overcome the gap and set the semester system in order. St. Xavier’s university has begun classes in full swing and students are responding well. Classes are going smoothly. Institutions may have to, if more time is required, sacrifice their summer vacation for classes or exams.
Q: What are some initiatives taken by St Xavier’s University to help students and ensure Covid safety?
A: Classes have begun for all students; Covid restrictions are followed. Hostels are open. The whole campus was sanitised before they came for classes. Now regular sanitisation takes place. We have a health centre for any eventuality. Students are regularly advised about Covid restrictions. No mask, no attendance in class. Entry and exit into the campus are monitored. By God’s grace, we have not had any Covid case so far on the campus.
Q: Do you feel there should be more teacher exchange programmes among the Universities/colleges in the state?
A: Yes, collaboration and networking among colleges and universities must take place. Good colleges and universities must share their best practices and even facilities with other institutions.
We are functioning as islands today. There must be schemes to promote these exchanges. We are more concerned about offshore exchanges than in-house exchanges. Teachers yes. Why even students of different institutions must be brought in small groups for academic and outreach exchanges. This will benefit all.
We need to also introduce a social dimension or thrust it into our education. We have a programme called ‘university to village’, and ‘village to university’. Our students have to fulfill 60 hours of rural exposure during their study. All these help them to become leaders.