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Delhi: Cautious restart

October 16, 2020

– Autar Nehru (Delhi)

The academic year for higher education institutions which should have begun in July/ August is scheduled to begin from November 1 this year, according to latest UGC guidelines issued on September 22. The two national higher education regulators — University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) — have directed all universities and colleges in India to adopt and implement a new set of guidelines for first year undergraduate and postgrad programmes including completion of the admission process by the end of this month (October). It’s pertinent to note that India has the world’s third largest higher education system with over 1,000 universities and 52,000 colleges with an aggregate enrolment of 37.4 million students (2019). It has been shuttered since mid-March because of the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak.

The revised UGC Guidelines on Academic Calendar for the First Year of Under-Graduate and Post Graduate Students of the Universities for the Session 2020-21 in view of Covid-19 Pandemic has been drawn up by an expert committee constituted in April this year. The committee presented its first set of guidelines on April 29, which were revised on July 6. Though the number of Covid positive cases is still rising as are fatalities, the five unlocks announced by the Union home ministry have steadily opened up economic and livelihood activities. However, education institutions are among the last being cautiously unlocked.

Under the latest (September 22) guidelines, admission into first year study programmes for 2020-21 have to be completed by October 31. Subsequently, the last date to fill up remaining vacant seats is November 30. Classes for fresh batches of undergrad and postgrad students will begin from November 1, and semester exams will be held between March 8-26, 2021. The second semester will begin in the first week of April (2021) and exams held between August 9-21. The next academic year will begin end-August.

“The modes of teaching, conduct of examinations, importance of physical and social distancing etc, shall remain unchanged and shall remain mandatory in that respect,” say the guidelines, which will be subject to state regulations related to the pandemic

To make up for lost time — the new academic year should have begun three months ago — the guidelines suggest eliminating festival holidays and vacations so that this batch of students will get their final results for the timely award of degrees in August next year. It also directs higher education institutions (HEIs) a six-days per week schedule for this and the next (2021-22) academic years.

With a large number of India’s 52,000 colleges and 1,000 universities sited in the country’s ill-planned metros where land is scarce and expensive, HEI campuses tend to be crowded and cramped. Therefore sanitation, hygiene and social distancing are challenging propositions. In the circumstances, HEI managements are advised to tie up with hospitals and clinics in their neighbourhood for testing and other processes. However, the successful conduct of IIT-JEE and NEET public examinations has inspired college and university managements, giving them confidence that they will be able to cope when they reopen campuses on November 1.

“The detailed UGC guidelines for resumption of lectures and classes are welcome. In addition, we have designed our own system to ensure continuous learning for our students without compromising their health and safety. Since April, we have been holding online classes and conducting exams on schedule. Once the new academic year classes begin, we will offer a blend of online and classroom interaction combined with flexible attendance schedules which will safeguard students,” says Aditya Berlia, co-founder and pro chancellor of the privately promoted Apeejay Stya University, Gurgaon (estb.2010).

The firm and unambiguous UGC/ AICTE guidelines on restarting on-campus classes and operations have been enthusiastically welcomed by students fed up with prolonged homestay learning. “Most college and university students are mature adults well-aware that sanitisation, masks and social distancing are preconditions of resumption of on-campus education. We need to balance calculated risk of contracting Covid-19 against losing a whole year and jeopardising our careers,” says Antarish Rana, a first year student of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi.

Admittedly, opening up university campuses at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging countrywide and shows little sign of abating, is a risky proposition. But in the larger interest of students it has to be taken. With adequate safeguards which are likely to test the management capabilities of HEIs.

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