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Manifestation of Power Dynamics in Higher Educational Institutions during the Pandemic

Manifestation of Power Dynamics in Higher Educational Institutions during the Pandemic

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Annesha Mukherjee, Satyaki Dasgupta and K Chandra Shekar

The outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020 saw a number of reports highlighting the plight of students in the country because administrations of higher educational institutions asked them to vacate their hostels. In this light, we conducted a survey among students in September using Google forms, focusing on the problems faced by them. We received 208 responses from hostel residents of public and public autonomous institutions, which include Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), University of HYderabad (UoH), Visva Bharati University (VBU), International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS), Central University of Andhra Pradesh (CUAP), Delhi University (DU) and Indira Gandhi Institute of Development and Research (IGIDR).

The University Grants Commission (UGC) under the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued regular notices 5th March onwards regarding the adoption of safety precautions in the wake of COVID-19, asking universities and colleges to facilitate work from home for all stakeholders. However, institutions started issuing notices since the second week of March, instructing students to vacate their hostels in a short period of time. In our sample, 119 respondents were present in the hostel when such a notice was issued. About 53%   of such students approached respective Student Unions, NGOs, government organisations and other external agencies to seek a solution which would allow them to stay back in hostel. st. “Valid reasons” had to be provided by students who wished to stay back. 51.26 percent of the respondents reported that they were asked to do the same. Additionally, 36.13 percent were asked to sign an undertaking which stated that they would be solely responsible in case of any mishap. a total of 33 out of 119 students in our sample to stayed back in their institutions hostels. This article discusses the problems faced by those 33 hostel residents.

Amidst a national lockdown, it may seem appropriate for institutional administrations to ask students to return to their homes. However, it is important to acknowledge the skewed power dynamics in favour of the administration. Experiences of these students, during pandemic, laid bare absolute powerless of Indian students in renowned institutions of higher learning mduring the pandemic.

Institutional Pressures

Although provision of basic services such as food, water, internet and electricity in standard notion are understood as basic rights hostel residents in reality they are seldom so. Administration entrusted with responsibility of providing these services, often use their control over such provisions as their tool to coax students in doing something against their wish. They can make life of students miserable by threatening to or actually cutting supplies of these basic services. Administration can effectively make their decisions without considering students’ opinion because faculties, who have power to grade these students, are often toeing the administration line instead of remaining independent. Students knowing the partisan approach of faculty are unable to formally raise the complaint against administration

In spite of the UGC issuing a circular on 27th March that institutes should undertake appropriate safety measures for “students still residing in hostels” , in our survey we find that students were continuously discouraged to reside in hostels in myriad ways. This was done primarily by exerting their power and control over supplies of basic services in hostels.

More than half of the respondents who stayed back were repeatedly asked to vacate their rooms; one-third had face discontinuation of essential services like food, water, internet, electricity, etc.; 21.1 percent reported that institutions threatened to discontinue these services; and one-third reported that they were asked to pay more than usual for these services. These instances portray institutions power and control over students. They can be creating pressure on them to abide by the institutions’ decisions that may effectively be a compromise on students right.

Discrimination faced by students

We have considered two forms of discrimination in order to explore such practices in colleges and universities: institutional and relational. The former includes denial of equal opportunities, services and supportive mechanisms to facilitate the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC). It is well understood that parents of these socially disadvantaged students face significant economic hardships and limited living spaces and associated infrastructure for academic activities. Therefore, it is more likely that students from such social groups are to seek refuge in institutional spaces during pandemic times. The latter form of discrimination includes verbal abuse, name calling, differentiated use of services like drinking water, canteen spaces and bathrooms. In our sample survey, we find that one-third of the respondents who stayed back, as expected, majority of them belonging to SC, ST and OBC, expressed their concerns regarding discriminatory practices by both the administration and the students.

We thereby see a resurfacing of the Brahmanical trait of untouchability against deprived castes. One such instance is the account by a Dalit student in JNU. Thus, it is extremely important to recognise the instances of discrimination faced by Dalit Bahujans in educational institutions.

Identifying the problem and the way forward

Although students are the primary stakeholders in an educational institute, there is an inherent vulnerability among them because they often fear setbacks in their academic career which can be potentially caused by the administration. Moreover, we see that the hierarchical nature of institutions generally excludes students from the process of decision making in many contexts. In fact, their decision to judge the validity of the reasons cited by students to stay back displays the absolute power administrations possess. Relieving themselves of any responsibility in case of the problems faced by students, shows the administrations’ reluctance to undertake institutional responsibilities in particular towards socially and economically disadvantaged students who may not consider their ‘homes’ as safer than their institute. The low number of students who stayed back in the hostel after challenging the decision of the administrations through NGOs, unions, etc. shows the skewed power hierarchy and their weak bargaining power. When institutions do not keep in mind the differentiated needs of students from disadvtaged backgrounds and impose a blanket decision as we saw during the national lockdown, they fail to maintain their accountability in true spirit towards their own students.. Students may not be able to push their interest confidently because, in situation of conflict with administration, faculties instead playing as a non-partisan mediator often help administration in implementing their decisions.

Such skewed power relations within institutions of higher learning seems like a antithesis. These institutions are expected to produce leaders and scientists with critical independent thinking. It hard to see things changing in near future. If anything, the attitudinal change of people who man administrative offices is the first pre-requisite. Faculties are in a position to communicate and sensitise administrative staff about the rights of students. There is an urgent need to facilitate a collaborative space among faculties, students and staff, especially involving those who belong to marginalised sections, in order address the issue of skewed power dynamics apparent in higher educational institutions. This will help to create an inclusive educational space.



Annesha Mukherjee and K Chandra Shekar are PhD scholars at Centre for Development Studies, Kerala.

Satyaki Dasgupta is a Graduate student at Colorado State University, Colorado