Institutes should be given financial assistance to create safe campuses for students and staff
The state of campuses of higher education institutes in India is at its nadir currently. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire country to its knees and people struggled to access basic healthcare facilities. But there is still a lack of serious consideration for the safety of campuses, which may be among the most vulnerable sites for the spread of infection at the community level. Apart from routine advisories in the form of notifications for standard operating procedures, protocols or guidelines issued from time to time at the apex level by the University Grants Commission (UGC), and at the State level by the respective Education Departments, nothing concrete has been done on the ground.
Campuses that house hostels, libraries, common rooms-cum-washrooms, canteens, auditoriums, gymnasiums, playgrounds, administrative offices, staff rooms, guest houses and staff quarters, besides classrooms and laboratories, require resources to change and modify their current settings for COVID-19-appropriate behaviour. Taking the ‘business-as-usual’ approach could lead to risking the lives of both students and employees on a very large scale. On May 10 this year, the UGC suggested a slew of measures that higher education institutes should adopt to fight the COVID-19 crisis. It recommended, inter alia, constituting a task force and setting up helplines, roping in counsellors and mentors for providing mental health support and enabling the well-being of all stakeholders, and creating a team of well-informed volunteers trained in life skills, including the NCC and the NSS. However, it did not mention the means and mechanisms for training the workforce for these specialised tasks. In the absence of that, such measures remain empty efforts.
The abysmal financial state of higher education institutes, especially State-run universities, combined with a lack of will on the part of State governments already overwhelmed by the vaccination drive, has exacerbated the situation. Reports of deaths of several teachers in prominent universities highlight the loss of the national intellectual capital and scholarship.
The UGC in its order dated November 5 last year listed guidelines for colleges to reopen post the lockdown. It recommended that State governments estimate and prepare for the required procurement of essentials, such as disinfectants and face masks, in each of their districts and zones in consultation with higher education institutes; it also asked them to draw out a plan for distribution. Universities and colleges were instructed to ensure a sufficient supply of these items to students, faculty and staff. The UGC also suggested that higher education institutes set up on-campus facilities for the isolation of symptomatic persons and for quarantining of those who were in contact with infected persons. Alternatively, they could tie up with State-run hospitals or other approved premises, as suggested by local authorities, for providing essentials to quarantined or isolated persons.
The need for quick action
But these measures are far from reality. Explicit budgetary allocations for higher education institutes for COVID-19 management were found to be missing in the States’ annual budgets. This apathy on the part of institutes and policymakers (both at the Central and State levels) could endanger lives and may lead to a complete shutdown of academic activities in the time to come.
It is incumbent upon the UGC to direct State governments to generously provide financial assistance to higher education institutes for managing the COVID-19 crisis. The resources could come from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for the year 2021-22, which was released by the Department of Expenditure at the recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs much before the normal schedule, in view of the extraordinary public health crisis.