Pandemic and the Education of First-Generation Students: An Ambedkarite Response | Asim Siddiqui

by Critical Asia

by Asim Siddiqui, Dec. 2021】

When the pandemic and the associated lockdown hit India in March 2020, the education system was as clueless about the future as most other domains, including the healthcare system, unfortunately. However, over the next few months every domain recalibrated itself to the new realities of living with the pandemic and frequent lockdowns. Education system,   (primary, secondary  and higher education) , also tried to adapt to the new context by using online teaching tools and remote classes. It is in this context that the challenges of the first-generation students were overlooked to a large extent. Even after two years since the pandemic hit, these challenges have continued unabated and therefore it is an urgent need to address them, to cease any  further accentuation of  the inequalities in education.

Similar to other aspects of the lockdown, there was no planning for how education would continue.   However, with the shutdown of all schools, colleges and universities including hostels, the only option to continue education was through online classes with teachers and  students connecting  remotely from their home.  The biggest disparity in accessing online education was the limited infrastructure to access online classes as most first-generation students come from poor marginalized families. These challenges included a device with stable internet connection, basic digital literacy, a space that is quiet and comfortable from where classes can be taken and focused on, a home where the labour of the student is not expected to be used in other activities such as farm work or domestic work, as well as the understanding from other family and community members about creating a conducive environment for education. Compared to a student from an elite or even middle-class home where these above challenges are largely absent, the first-generation students faced all of these and more as their learning took a severe blow. Moreover, they also lacked educational support from their families since  they are the first to be formally educated, as compared to those whose generations of families are educated. Thus, their dependence on teachers to clarify concepts and lesson plans was  even more, which was substantially hampered by the online mode. 

Many of these above-mentioned challenges are present for first-generation students even in a non-pandemic time, and therefore the presence  of hostels and residential education is of utmost necessity. Of course, when we hear about the residential school system, we are reminded of terrible stories and imageries from colonial residential schools for indigenous communities like in Canada and other settler colonized countries. However, on the other hand,  in India,  the marginalized communities are forced to be in such terrible living conditions, that taking online classes from home is equally unimaginable. Therefore, a residential education system that understands and engages with both sides of the problem and ensures a safe and educationally conducive residential space is required. This also includes provision of nutritious food and availability of academic material which otherwise can become a challenge for first-generation students. And yet,  all of these important aspects were ignored in the lockdown announcement as all hostels and residential educational spaces were also asked to be closed by government orders and still remain closed after almost two years.

Another important dimension of education covers the social and emotional aspects of learners. With online education, most students struggled with socio-emotional aspects of learning as online education became an individualized space with no opportunities for socialization. Here again the first-generation students had to deal with more than their fair share of the problem. Education, as we know, is not only a space to learn individually but also to build social relationships with others who come from different  backgrounds. The need to build social and cultural capital i.e. to build social networks, communicative skills (especially in English), confidence and self-esteem, as well as to receive exposure to different ways of thinking and imagining future possibilities, is higher with first-generation students as compared to students from more privileged backgrounds. With online education, these aspects of socio-emotional learning are also ignored completely resulting in retracting the advances that were made towards building social and cultural capital for first-generation students.

Thus, to think about the future of education for first-generation students after the pandemic, we need to be cognizant of the numerous social disadvantages that these students faced. To reduce education to mere transaction of content, whether in offline or online mode, will do a great disservice to these students and will further exacerbate the inequalities in the society. It is here that we desperately need an Ambedkarite imagination of liberatory education to ensure that the first-generation students get to substantively experience their right to education. Ambedkar, as a first-generation University student himself, overcame many social disadvantages to become a renowned scholar and a mass leader. His understanding of what education can do for the upliftment of socially marginalized communities, came from his own lived experience of overcoming all kinds of difficulties and therefore has a deeper synthesis of everything required. His conception of liberatory education includes all dimensions of human experience that need to be cultivated for a first-generation student – critical thinking, historical understanding of how societies have been shaped, well-resourced infrastructure and provision of academic material, conducive environment for pursuing inquiry, developing 21st century skills, socio-emotional support to build confidence and curiosity, recognition of the effects of social marginalization, and finally liberation from oppressive ideologies and practices.

There are already interesting models to learn from within India that have tried to address these challenges of residential education and socio-emotional learning in pre-pandemic times, which need to be replicated in the current situation and future. Telangana Social Welfare and Tribal Welfare residential schools and colleges are a shining example of putting Ambedkar’s liberatory praxis into educational reality for first-generation students. These schools not only provide good quality education in government schools for first-generation Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students, they also ensure that the students get nutritious food, develop communication and digital skills, excel at sports,  as well as gain confidence and self-esteem which engenders  a substantial impact on the growth of the students. Without having a residential schooling system for first-generation students, such a transformation is unthinkable. Having said that,  more than the infrastructure of the residences, what is more important is the substantive aspect of education that is required for first-generation students as the Telangana model has proved. To think of education for the first-generation in the future, we really need to break away from the imagination of the default student being from a plush middle-class home, and instead think of education as a liberatory praxis which can liberate first-generation students from many bondages that the society ties them into. This requires us to put our Constitutional values of equality, liberty, fraternity, and dignity of all individuals at the heart of our educational praxis to ensure that our education system works towards decreasing inequalities of our society rather than accentuating them.

Asim Siddiqui, Azim Premji University, India

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