Blog Series Part 4: A Tale of Students in Higher Education in India and Abroad: Life under Lockdown by Nandini Sen and colleagues
The effects of Covid-19 have been considerable and far-reaching. In this four part blog series, Nandini Sen, Anusua Singh Roy, Jayanta Bhattacharya, and Subrata Shankar Bagchi explore the impacts of Covid-19 within an Indian context. The first piece outlines the methodology of their research, the second focuses on Covid-19’s impact on India’s informal economy, the third examines the relationship between the pandemic and gender-based violence, and the final piece takes a closer look at the mental health challenges postgraduate students face in this current climate.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought India to the brink of a catastrophic disaster which has far-reaching consequences on the Indian economy, well-being, and education. Students in higher education (HE) are shrouded within the cloud of uncertainty, frustration, dejection, and discouragement related to mental health conditions and a fear of financial bankruptcy after leaving their parental care. Higher education is not a priority of the Indian government, as is evident from the 2020-21 budget allotment towards it, a meagre 1.3% of the total expenditure. Therefore, the apprehension of further neglect of students in HE is gaining more ground during this period of resource scarcity. The plot thickens as we see that in this pandemic the Reserve Bank of India has injected huge funds to revive the sick economy by giving incentives to the financial sector, industries, and businesses, however simply forgetting to respond to the crisis of the students in HE.
Following guidelines laid out by the University Grants Commission and other apex education bodies, Covid-19 has led to the temporary closure of approximately 1000 universities and 40,000 colleges, impacting 37.5 million enrolled candidates and 1.4 million employed faculty. Classroom teaching, which is the backbone of teaching within Indian universities, is withheld indefinitely. Online teaching efforts initiated by a few teachers are creating a digital divide among students as high-speed internet connection may be a dream for several students in higher education. The sudden closure of colleges and universities has caused the academic calendar to become completely chaotic, resulting in cancellation of examinations and students’ progress. The Central government has stopped research funds for basic research, a situation that is likely to be exacerbated in the aftermath of the pandemic. For instance, IIT Delhi is the first HE institute in India to obtain a mandate from the Indian Council for Medical Research for conducting polymerase chain reaction tests for Covid-19.
The plight of female students is particularly severe in the current situation. This lockdown has resulted in cascading effects in the households of these students. Many are contemplating early exit from higher education in order to support their families. Female students are facing pressures to get married as soon as possible since their parents are no longer prepared to wait ‘indefinitely’. Gender-based inequalities are further compounded by an increased pressure on female students to perform household chores and their increased vulnerability to domestic abuse.
Lack of clarity around future employment and the climate of uncertainty have aggravated mental health issues. If the Government ignores the well-being of HE students and fails to provide mitigating measures, the Indian social fabric, economic development, research-based knowledge expansion, and gender-equality will be destroyed. It is unlikely that these students will be in a position to question state authority, let alone ask for what they might be entitled to. They face a lonely journey with little financial support, whereas their counterparts in Western countries such as the UK and Germany might receive financial and emotional support from their Universities or Governments.
Equally worryingly, thousands of international Indian HE students, for example in the UK, are also facing the severe consequences of the current public health measures. They are unable to leave the UK due to the lockdown and are dependent on food charities due to financial hardship. They have been made redundant from their part-time jobs and cannot meet basic living costs.  The Indian National Students’ Association and National Indian Students Alumni Union (NISAU) are receiving persistent calls from a huge number of students (3000) who request for food and accommodation.  Both organisations are trying to provide solutions and distribute food to stranded students from India. Labour MP for Ealing Southall, wrote to the UK education secretary, calling for universities to arrange money and minimum services from hardship funds, which are often discriminatory, for international students.  A few UK Universities and NGOs like NISAU are reaching out to support and help international Indian students tackle their challenges of accommodation, mental health, and food. 
 S. Alexander and N. Kwatra, ‘In fight against coronavirus, India’s universities have lagged far behind China’s‘, (Live Mint, 6 April 2020).
 ‘RBI Announces ₹ 50,000 crore Special Liquidity Facility for Mutual Funds (SLF-MF)‘, (Reserve Bank of India, 27 April 2020).
 KPMG, ‘Higher education in India and Covid-19‘, (KPMG, 2020).
 J. Lau, ‘India’s IITs join Covid-19 fight‘, (Times Higher Education, 29 April 2020).
 A. Packham, ‘“I can’t afford rent”: the students facing hardship during lockdown‘, The Guardian (24 April 2020).
 A. Fazackerley, ‘Indian students trapped in UK by coronavirus “actually starving”‘, The Guardian (1 May 2020).
Nandini Sen is an anthropologist and has done her PhD at University of Frankfurt. She is a visiting research scholar at School of Social Sciences, Heriot Watt University. Her academic article Women and Gender in Rabindranath Tagore’s Short Stories from Anthropological Perspectives Challenging Kinship and Marriage is published in Anthropological Journal of European Culture in November 2016. Her book, South Asian Urban Marginalisation: A Waste-Picker Community in Calcutta, India., Routledge/Taylor and Francis (2018) has fetched both fame and critical reviews by academic colleagues and academics.
Dr Anusua Singh Roy is a Postdoctoral research fellow, Statistician at the School of Health Sciences at Queen Margaret University. Research interests include the use of national data sets in longitudinal, cross-sectional and survival probabilistic modelling to address health related and participation outcomes in children with disabilities and individuals with severe mental illness.
Subrata Shankar Bagchi is the Chair Professor in Anthropology at University of Calcutta and researcher on various socio-cultural issues in India.
Image by Nathan Dumalo on Unsplash.