By Mariam Sheikh
As learning shifts to digital spaces in Pakistan, the COVID-19 crisis has brought forward clear existing differences in the educational experiences of students across the country. Students are suddenly forced into a cobweb of anxieties, uncertainties and new realities, without any or little institutional support. Higher Education Commission (HEC) has announced the closure of university campuses until May 31, directing universities with a digital infrastructure to shift to online classes and the ill-equipped ones to give a semester break. Such a policy is a strong expression of regionalism as the technological capacity of universities, internet connectivity and spatial limitations vary across areas. It is a failed response that is unapologetically dodging the influence of the pandemic on students’ lives and learning.
While some students can safely return to the comforts of home and afford the luxury of attending online lectures on their laptops, many students have returned to their homes in the peripheral areas with no access to internet and electricity facilities. Regions including FATA, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir do not have 3G mobile phone services and those that do, have slow connectivity. In response to online classes, students in Parachinar and Waziristan have voiced their concerns on social media, with some walking distances of 3 or 4 kilometers to access the internet. Unexpected traffic has burdened the internet and slowed down connectivity within urban areas as well. Additionally, it is equally important to recognize the pandemic influence on female students, who shoulder an excessive burden in responding to their household needs, including taking care of the elderly. In such precedented circumstances, online classes are only intensifying the divide in educational achievement, excluding those who are already subject to different modes of socio-economic inequality.
Revising the philosophy of higher education is acquiring more significance than ever. Even in desperate times like these, the logic of the market is desperate to hold onto the profits made through educational delivery. Despite having poor digital infrastructure, universities including University of Central Punjab, Forman Christian College and University of South Asia have insisted on having online classes. For upcoming semesters enrolments, they are working to develop online payment methods for tuition fees. An ad hoc approach is being adopted by university administrations, settling on digital solutions that work momentarily. Alongside this, faculty members are relying largely on personal resources to quickly develop content for online teaching. Many are operating a strange territory of digital teaching platforms for the first time. To not compromise on learning, HEC’s response to the pandemic is leaving behind a segment of isolated and deprived students, thereby, provoking inequity.
Most students are contending with many daunting challenges as they reorganize daily life and think about their future – their grades, potentially late graduation, finding employment, financial security and immediate needs such as housing, safety and medical care. In such disturbing times, how can universities continue business as usual? Why are efforts to provide a humanistic response absent from our higher education system?
It is obvious how the Ministry of Education (MoE) is dismissing the multiple inconveniences students face and how many are struggling to achieve a sense of normalcy. With the continuation of online classes and pressures to pay tuition fees online, education remains only accessible to those who can afford a seamless connection to Wi-Fi, a personal computer and the mental as well as physical space which is free from distractions. MoE’s approach is an oversight of the sacrifices made by students for attaining education; the distances they travel, the life savings they invest and their expectations of how securing an official degree can transform the trajectory of their life. A poorly thought response will only continue to reinforce higher education as a money-making machine and perpetuate the obsession with academic productivity amidst a global catastrophe.
In these unprecedented circumstances, students continue to fight boldly against online classes and tuition fee payments. Progressive Students Collective (PSC) is employing the power of social media to bring attention to the realities of students whose normal lives and modes of learning have been turned down by the pandemic. Collective action by students has involved written letters and petitions to university Vice-Chancellors, pushing them to suspend tuition fee payments and online classes until they are can implement a carefully planned long-term solution, with inclusive and fair administrative measures. The pushback has met some success with Government College University and UET Lahore announcing a semester break.
At this moment, a humanistic response is needed by higher education to address the shared trauma of students and relieve their future vulnerabilities. Support needs to be established to accommodate the students who are facing heightened uncertainty and individual dilemmas. Faculty members must lead the way to use digital spaces as a site for thinking together and prioritizing the socio-emotional needs of students. While universities take their time to develop answers to the variegated challenges, teachers must rethink how to serve the needs of their students by centering on life and empathy.