Boarding gets better: Apps, appliances give college hostels a makeover

Hostel years can be bittersweet — it’s when your best campus memories are made, but it can also be fraught with hassles. Not every hostel is equipped to mimic the convenience of home. The first few days are marked with running around to buy essentials like a bucket, pillows and blankets. Mid-semester, you’re often scrambling to get an important document printed. If it’s the day before the presentation, you’re probably spending it hustling to get your suit ironed.

But students and administrations are now collaborating to manage resources and offer comforts big and small, using a mix of technology, entrepreneurship and an overall more professional approach.

“Historically, educational institutions in India saw hostels as just a place to stay and provided minimal facilities. But today we recognise that providing modern living spaces is important to complement the learning experience,” says Rishikesh Krishnan, director of IIM Indore. Among these new facilities are student-led business ventures that help with moving into a hostel, help with laundry, student-managed facilities such as printing, cooking and a university-wide focus on the nutrient value of mess food.

Students as problem-solvers

In March last year, 25-year old Adarsh Kedia and his friends were talking about starting their own venture. Kedia was in the final year of pursuing a postgraduate diploma in management from the IFIM, a business school in Bengaluru. “Someone narrated what a hassle it had been for him when he first moved to campus,” he recalls. Students living on campus are expected to bring their own essentials such as mattress, pillow, blanket, bedsheets and bucket. “It was difficult or expensive to transport,” he says.

They got the idea they needed – a website that would sell ready bundles of hostel essentials, plus options items such as yoga mat, laundry bag and clothes hangers. The company, Hostel Backpack, was launched in July 2016. “You can pre-order it through the website, or we take orders on campus,” says Kedia. The bundle, depending on what items you wish to include, costs between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000.

At IFIM, you can pre-order hostel essentials such as buckets and pillows, or buy them when you arrive, through a student initiative called Hostel Backpack.

At IIM Indore, laundry was a persistent challenge of student life. Each hostel would have a common washing machine for students. “Schedule clashes, managing repairs, breakdowns, and hygiene— there were several problems,” says KR. Apoorv Mittal, 24, who graduated from the five-year integrated programme in management last year, says that washing, drying and ironing would cost students several hours every week.

“Around three years ago, the institute was looking at centralising laundry within the campus and got students of the entrepreneurship cell to set it up,” Mittal says. A committee comprising Mittal and seven other students came up with Xpressomat, an online system (an app and website) through which students could book slots for their clothes to be picked up, washed, ironed and returned by a cleaning service within two to three days.

“The college provided the space and equipment, and the students managed it, hiring people and overlooking the operations,” Mittal says. “Students would have to pay an additional Rs 400 a month, but save time and the hassle of finding and coordinating independently with a laundryman in an unknown city.”

Another initiative at IIM-Indore, began four years ago, and helped streamline students’ printing dilemmas. A common printer was installed for two to three hostels, and a student committee was set up to take care of its maintenance, ensuring there was always enough paper and ink. “It got students to be more involved and take ownership of college facilities. It also gave them practical management training,” adds Unni KR

Taking ownership

If students are not directly solving problems, they are being involved with helping making hostels more like home. And perhaps no hostel problem hurts quite like mess food – mass produced meals tend to be dull, repetitive and often unhygienic. Starting the term from July 2018, Panjab University is trying to bring more professionalism to the system.

“At a meeting last year, there was a suggestion by the university’s institute of hotel management to help the mess function better,” says M Rajivlochan, director of the university’s internal quality assurance cell. “We have always had a dietician, but there will now be more rigorous checks on whether the students are getting a balanced diet. In a week, they should be served dal, fish, vegetables. Right now, there is irregularity,” he says.

As part of the upgrade, mess workers will have to wear gloves and caps in the kitchen, “and a committee, which will include students and professors, will conduct monthly checks on all factors, such as hygiene, quality of vegetables and so on,” says Rajivlochan. “That way, even students take up responsibility.”

IIM Bangalore set up a portal called Sarvam, three years ago, where students can register complaints, such as those related to plumbing or malfunctioning of equipment.

“They can track progress, put it on priority and even give feedback,” says Komala Devi, the hostel administration officer. Students can also schedule specific times to have their room cleaned. “Instead of going to the hostel office to raise a complaint, which is time-consuming, you can log into the portal from your room. So now, during emergencies such as plumbing or malfunctioning corridor lights, we raise a complaint and put it on high-priority. It gets solved within the hour,” says Eshwar Gowda, 25, currently in the second year of the postgraduate programme in management.

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