A premier science institution in the country has called its third and fourth-year BSMS students back during the pandemic, only to vacate hostels. Students of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram (IISER TVM) are left with two choices: either hundreds of them will have to brave the risk of COVID-19 exposure and return to Kerala from other parts of India, or trust the institution with shifting and storage.
Students, however, are not confident about the second option. The administration, according to students, has repeatedly said that they aren't willing to take on the responsibility of safely shifting their belongings. The students had left behind everything, including certificates, passports and other important documents, when the institution was shut in March. They had not expected it to remain closed for so long. "I can't trust the administration with my documents since they have repeated that they won't be responsible if they lose something. They have offered to do a live recording of the shifting. But even then something can go missing and they can just say it wasn't captured on the camera," one student said. A majority wanted their rooms to be left untouched.
Students reportedly went into a frenzy after the institution sent them a mail on November 11, saying they need to vacate hostels by November 20. But now the institution has pushed the deadline to the first week of December, according to the administration.
The sudden decision of asking continuing students to vacate hostels was to make space for first-year students joining the BS-MS course, as per students. This year, UGC had issued a guideline to ensure everyone gets single occupancy rooms during the pandemic. So the institution needs to make arrangements for the existing 1125 students. In addition, the number of BSMS students is 280, higher than previous years, because of new courses added.
The administration insists that they have sufficient number of single occupancy rooms for everyone, but those need to be furnished. "IISER TVM has over 1550 hostel rooms which would be sufficient for the present student strength. Around 300 rooms in recently commissioned hostel blocks need to be furnished and readied for occupation," the administration said.
This is a year when IISER TVM has been in charge of admissions to all IISERs in the country. Its process should have set precedents in admissions during a pandemic. Yet other science institutions are handling the situation better, students observe. They point out how institutions like IISc Bangalore has, in their annual calendar, given priority to senior students allowing them to come back to campus rather than first-year students. IISER Bhopal has asked all its students to return to campus. "The administration told us that universally every institution was giving priority to first-year students. They aren't ready to consider other possibilities," a student said.
Students prefer to return to the campus to complete the course, rather than do a two-way trip only to vacate their hostel rooms. A student said, "Senior students have more on-campus work to be done. Moreover in the current arrangement, our lab classes will happen during summer vacations. Summers are an important time for senior students to bag internships. If we aren't allowed to be back, we will lose out on this precious time."
The administration told us they are in talks with the state government regarding bringing back students. "The state has been approached for obtaining permission for bringing back PhD scholars, project students etc. at each stage. IISER TVM is working with the local health authorities on the protocol to be followed while bringing back PhD scholars and other students as and when the necessary permissions are available," they said.
The institution was asked if they were considering a virtual reopening for the first-year students. The administration said, "While it is desirable to start the fresh batches in the regular classroom setting, if the pandemic situation demands it, online instruction for them is also viable. For all batches conducting the laboratory courses is the main challenge."
Around 40% of the students come from other states, according to the institution administration. A student in North India said, "I have to spend close to two days by train to reach the state. I am not ready to take the risk (of COVID-19 exposure). Moreover, none of us stay right next to a station and will be forced to take public transport, or spend huge sums on cabs. COVID-19 has affected some families financially as well with parents losing jobs. A majority of the students outside Kerala will not be able to travel."
Students who live in North Kerala have made plans to travel in groups, booking a tempo. However not everyone can afford the additional travel expenses.
The cost becomes even higher for those coming from far-flung towns of India. A student explained, "Suppose people decide to travel and choose flights to keep it safe. Someone in a remote town in the North East will have to first take a cab to Guwahati, head to Calcutta perhaps in a flight, take another flight to Chennai or Thiruvananthapuram, and finally a cab to the institution. The two-way travel would cost them Rs 60,000 at the very least."
The administration responded, "The proportion of students from out of state is not very high particularly at IISER TVM... this and sufficient spare capacity should allow IISER TVM to have sufficient rooms vacant to deal with any eventuality." There are, however, about 160 students who would be coming from other states.