Public universities could be damaged “beyond repair” by the fallout from the COVID-19 disaster in India, experts have warned.
Higher education institutions have not been spared by the second deadly wave sweeping the country, which reports more than 400,000 new infections a day, with headlines filled with tragic news on campuses. At the Central University of Gujarat, students and colleagues transported the dean of nanoscience, Indrani Banerjee, to three hospitals before dying from lack of oxygen.
Several academics contacted by Times Higher Education reported being infected or caring for sick family members.
Campuses have been closed with exams taking place online or postponed.
“The quality of education is affected because there is no substitute for face-to-face learning,” said Pankaj Mittal, secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities.
Pushkar, director of the Goa International Center, said he doesn’t think policymakers are “thinking ahead” about issues that will affect the next academic year, like admissions and exams.
“The majority of universities do not have the capacity to do either [online or in-person exams] under current conditions, ”he said.
Longer-term, he feared that public institutions would “become even more cash-deprived in the post-COVID era. They were already in crisis and will be irreparably hit by the pandemic. “
The latest COVID-19 wave halted what was to be the implementation of the ambitious National Education Policy, which described the major expansion and internationalization of India’s higher education system.
Eldho Mathews, senior researcher in Indian higher education, said Times Higher Education that “the future attractiveness of Indian cities as educational centers, both for Indian and foreign students, would be affected.”
India’s most recent shutdown comes after a 10-month lockdown in 2020, which caused a major disruption to teaching and research. Universities reopened in January with great hope as a nationwide vaccination campaign was launched. But this opening only lasted a few months.
“We believed that we were building the momentum lost in our academic work and in our plans for extension and growth in teaching and research, [but] we’re back on our knees, ”said LS Shashidhara, dean of research at Ashoka University.
There has been widespread disappointment within the academic community that neither the government nor the public has listened to scientific advice to wear masks and avoid mass gatherings for election rallies and spiritual events.
Himanshu Negandhi, a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Delhi, said “public complacency towards the disease should be addressed” and the government should focus on “the strict application of the guidelines and the compliance with preventive measures ”.
Siddharth Sridhar, clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said that “policymakers have dropped the ball this time around in India. The first warning signs of an alarming transmission at the end of March were ignored. “
He said it was “vitally important” that governments listen to scientists. “Academics in microbiology, epidemiology and public health certainly have their work cut out for this crisis: collecting data in a time of chaos, promoting vaccination and stopping community transmission through grassroots activism,” he said. he added.
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, described the situation in India as “exceptionally serious and urgent”, citing correspondence from colleagues in Delhi who were desperate for medical help for their families and colleagues.
“The consensus is, ‘the whole system fell apart,’ said Marginson.