As students across the country worry about the uncertainty surrounding the engineering, medical and law entrance examinations, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal stressed that the safety of our students is of utmost importance and that exams would come later. “The decision will depend on the prevalent situation. We care about our students’ safety first, they are our future, we are focusing on their well-being amid the pandemic,” said the HRD Minister. Will IIT JEE, NEET and the other entrances be cancelled? The question still remains.

The HRD Minister spoke candidly about the challenges and solutions related to education in a POST-COVID world with Prabhu Chawla, Editorial Director, The New Indian Express during Express Expressions, a series of webcasts by The New Indian Express. They were also joined by S Vaidhyasubramaniam, Vice-Chancellor, Sastra Deemed University.

Pokhriyal stated that the past two months have been difficult. “I worked for almost 16-18 hours every day. Some students were in hostels, some on the roads, schools were not in their regular working conditions, so handling the situation was not an easy task. Then there were decisions that had to be taken about competitive exams, university exams, board exams, and more — there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t have to make a significant decision. In these two months, we interacted with our 33 crore students, more than one crore teachers and students’ parents through online conferences. We also directly spoke to the states’ education ministers on a daily basis to make important decisions about schools and higher education. I have also spent some time writing stories that are majorly inspired by the incidents that took place over the past few months,” he said.

However, he added that the Central government has come up with various means for students to not lose out on their academic time. “UGC is working towards making online education possible in the country, it is taking steps in the right direction. We are working day and night to create greater reach and make online education accessible to all. We have tried our best to make it possible for rural students to also study online through television sets if not laptops or phones wherever possible. We update the SWAYAM portal’s content regularly, DIKSHA portal is also there, E-Paathshala has CBSE study material in almost 15 languages. Students who do not have access to the internet, they can watch lessons on TV 24/7, on several channels. The aim is to reach the last child in India’s villages. We are not sitting idle and I believe we will succeed,” added Pokhriyal.

The government is also ready to collaborate with companies, organisations who come up with apps that can help students. “We already set up the Aarogya Setu app for people’s safety. Similarly, the National Test Abhyas app for NEET students has all kinds of materials and also mock tests. More than 6,50,000 downloads have been done already, 11,21,000 have taken the mock tests. We will help them in every way possible,” assured the minister.

Responding to Prabhu Chawla ‘s query about the reopening of schools, Pokhriyal said, “It depends on the schools a lot as to how prepared they are to open with all the necessary precautions in place. What I can assure is that whenever we decide to open schools, we will first speak to the state governments, the Home Ministry, and follow all necessary guidelines provided by the Health Ministry. However, what matters the most now is the safety of our students. Education is equally important but we need to take precautions first as the situation demands.”

When Sastra’s S Vaidhyasubramaniam asked the minister about the COVID-19 pandemic acting as a learning opportunity for us and what policy changes will we see, Pokhriyal said, “Changes are happening on its own, situations like this mold policy as well as laws and execute them as well. With this unprecedented crisis and then the lockdown, various means to sustain education have also come out of it, like learning from the comfort of our homes, now we will form policies accordingly, create new curriculums and how to make them more engaging and interactive. All of this will happen with time.”

He also added that ancient knowledge and new technology can help us reach the top spot. “Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, Aryabhatta these were all born in India, now scientists, researchers around the world have developed concepts, experimented and made advancements in science based on them. We are combining both ancient knowledge, new innovations, and science in our new National Education Policy,” he added. Speaking more about NEP, he said, “NEP has the ability to face any kind of challenge in the upcoming future. What we have learned while formulating the NEP and amid the pandemic is that online education is extremely important.”

Pokhriyal said he wants to create a system so robust that Indian parents do not have to send their children abroad for higher studies.
“We are losing out on talent and they do not typically come back to India. But we have state-of-the-art facilities in our schools, colleges and we have more number of institutes so if they stay here, the students will get equal opportunities. Our aim is to bring in international students and we are already on that road. Through our Study in India programme, we already have over 50,000 registrations and this will increase I believe. Our IITs, IIMs, IIITs, are all among top institutes of the world, students are working in renowned companies, leading in several sectors — this shows that we have the capability to churn out world-class professionals in every stream,” he stated.

In his final comments, the HRD Minister concluded by saying, “The PM’s policies including Make in India, Digital India, Start-up India — these are all steps in the right direction to build a new India. The NEP will provide most of the answers and solutions to the future of education in India.”

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