Saturday, 24 July, 2021

Tertiary Education During Pandemic

Kushal Pokharel


With the COVID-19 pandemic, the countries across the world have adopted online education to cope with the new situation. Unlike many other developed and developing nations, Nepal has found it more challenging to transition into the digital mode of education owing to the inadequate digital infrastructure and resources in the country. In the absence of timely decision on academic calendar to meet the demand of the current situation, students’ learning is now at stake. Many universities have put on hold their virtual classes and examinations. Worse, the changing notices of the universities in the form of conflicting circulars continue to baffle students. With the repeated series of lockdown and its temporary relaxation, universities have found themselves in an extremely difficult state.

The managerial capacity of universities has become bitterly exposed. The problem of handling a situation of an unprecedented crisis for an ill-prepared university system has been further compounded by the unpredictability regarding the reopening of colleges and universities. The deceptive nature of the virus continues to elude the entire globe and its educational implications are huge. As a matter of fact, virtual classes that had begun after a few months of the lockdown gradually lost their momentum due to poor supervision and leadership. The university officials need to be serious about those students having no access to internet. However, university management severely faltered in this arena. Furthermore, the inability to devise a robust monitoring mechanism to track the progress of learners, including the role of teachers, has further aggravated the scenario. Without embracing the need to garner the trust of students and faculties, universities have opted for a one-sided response whether it be the issue of managing classes or holding exams. Consultations with college faculties and students seem to be hugely missing while making a response to the pandemic.
More importantly, universities in Nepal haven’t been able to train the teachers in virtual pedagogy. With a strong intent, this could have been accomplished through some webinars. Majority of faculties not accustomed to the virtual mode of teaching had tough time taking online classes. Consequently, the effectiveness of such classes became questionable and universities rolled back their decisions in most cases.
Universities’ dillydallying gesture over the management of examinations is a matter of grave concern. Barring few universities namely the Kathmandu University and the Open University, and more recently Purbanchal University that has decided to take home based time bound exams, other universities have remained largely indecisive over this issue. Setting an example of quality management, Mid-Western University has formulated a Digital, Virtual and Alternative Teaching-Learning and Operating Systems Policy Guidelines 2020 to manage education during the pandemic. The vacation of leading university positions including that of Vice Chancellor for an extended period of time has also complicated the matter.
With conventional exam-centric mindset reigning supreme among the university officials, any interest to explore alternative options of examination management ranging from open book to oral examinations seems to be nowhere in the sight. In fact, the open book exam stands as the most standard form of assessment practiced by leading universities of the world where each of students is assigned separate tasks and given a stipulated time to submit their answers.
Even the fate of the semester system is similar. While managing semester should have been relatively easy, universities have shown sheer reluctance to resume classes. This is also indicative of the state of entrepreneurial thinking in tertiary education. Faculty autonomy that lies at the heart of the semester system has not been duly acknowledged. Why can’t our universities entrust their faculties to conduct examinations online? Why would a typical three-hour examination be relevant even in these testing times?
Amid this scenario, anxiety and fear is growing among university students’. With most of the students staying at their own village during the pandemic, getting them ready for exams in near future seem very impractical. Even if the universities now decide to take examinations in a physical mode, students are not prepared psychologically or academically for this. Prior to reaching any decisions that directly impact students, it is vital for the university management to take students’ concerns into account. Otherwise, the outcome will be pretty detrimental.

Opportune moment
Universities also have an opportune moment to introspect their teaching strategies adopted so far and planning for the future. As the COVID-19 seems to stay for longer period of time, finding a robust strategy to smoothen the virtual learning has become really urgent. Instead of focusing on opening the academic institutions physically, universities need to contemplate over the KU or the Open University model that has already been proven a success in these testing times. Making students’ hostage on the pretext of the pandemic is simply unacceptable. Breaking the physical barriers of learning by showcasing exemplary leadership in crisis is the only way to restore the waning faith in our institutions of higher learning.

(Pokharel is a social science and research faculty.