While students across the country struggle with the challenges of online education and the digital divide, an important body in universities that many have forgotten is the equal opportunity office (EOO). Formulated under the 11th Five Year Plan, when Sukhadeo Thorat was the chairperson of the University Grants Commission, it was a move to ensure inclusion in education with schemes like remedial coaching, hostel facilities and special fellowships for students from SC, ST, OBC and minority backgrounds, persons with disabilities, women and other marginalised sections of society. All universities were supposed to set up EOOs to bring these schemes under one umbrella for effective implementation. At a time when just these people are struggling to catch up with online education, how has the EOO been doing?
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was one of the first institutions to set up an EOO. According to its terms of reference, its mandate is to maintain social harmony among various sections of the university; to undertake activities, including working out schemes to improve the performance of students from marginalised sections of society; coordinating with the government and other funding agencies to mobilise resources for their educational empowerment; and to help them overcome barriers, including discrimination. In the past, the EOO has been involved in efforts to make the campus disabled-friendly, to develop the Helen Keller unit in the library, has provided laptops with assistive software to visually impaired students and financial assistance for participation in international conferences. The JNU website has some information regarding the assistance given to students until 2014 but no updates since. Even the JNU annual reports used to include the EOO’s activities every year, but the 50th annual report for 2019-2020 doesn’t even mention the office.
During the anti-fee-hike protests in 2019, the JNU vice-chancellor said the EOO could consider helping students who couldn’t afford the fee hike. But at a time when attending classes has become so difficult, why has the office been so sidelined?
A circular by the JNU administration in March 2020 directing all students to immediately vacate their hostels was just the beginning of hardships for the JNU students’ community. Though the efforts of the students’ union and progressive organisations on campus were able to ensure students were not forcibly vacated from their hostels, many had left in a hurry, leaving their study materials and even laptops behind. This was followed by a crisis called the online mode of education and a lack of conducive learning spaces. The digital divide is a grim reality, evident from the recently released National Family Health Survey 5 fact sheet: in Bihar, where a large number of JNU students come from, only 20.6% of women have ever used the internet.
In addition, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns adversely affected the income of the majority of India’s population, and the students among them were further set back by delayed disbursement of their scholarships. The University Grants Commission (Grievances Redressal) Regulation 2012 states that nonpayment or delay in scholarships constitute valid grievances.
But despite multiple letters and representations to the JNU administration and the commission, scholarships have not been awarded on time and the university has not declared results on time. There have also been severe issues with the disbursal of JNU’s merit-cum-seans scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate students as well. As per the university’s rules, a day-scholar is eligible for a monthly scholarship of Rs 800 and a hosteller for Rs 2000. While this is a questionable distinction, the JNU administration has since denied the Rs 2,000 emolument to students of the 2020 batch, as they have not been allotted hostels yet.
A large number of students have been continuously writing to the administration to resolve this issue and facilitate their entry into campus, but their pleas have gone unacknowledged.
The EOO should have been proactive in this situation but was not. Remedial classes organised by many centres were also stalled in this period. Additionally, the EOO has not provided any financial support to students since the pandemic’s onset nor has made effort to provide internet connections and laptops required for students to attend their online classes. This should be seen together with the fact that almost a hundred students have dropped out from JNU’s School of Social Sciences – most of them from marginalised communities – between July 2019 and March 2021.
Despite multiple emails to EOO chief advisors Binod Kumar Kanaujia and Sudheer Pratap Singh (the latter is also the dean of students, in charge of the general welfare of students), there have been no concrete efforts to solve the prevailing issues. While the EOO could have, as per its mandate, endeavoured to provide all the necessary support, including laptops, hostel access and scholarships, it did not. At the same time, the university’s COVID-19 task force has ignored the issues related to online education.
When offices like the EOO don’t perform their responsibilities to the fullest, even “top-ranked” universities in the country, with ample resources, will fall short on count of supporting their students. The pandemic has certainly stressed JNU, as it has all of the country’s centres of learning, but it is less to blame in the present case than the administration’s apathy and misplaced priorities.