Testing times: On university exams

There is no case for compulsory final year university examinations during the pandemic

Updated - July 17, 2020 12:44 am IST

Published - July 17, 2020 12:15 am IST

The Centre’s insistence, based on new University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines, that final year examinations in all universities and institutions be held in spite of the risk posed by COVID-19 is a needless complication in the national pandemic response. To expect large numbers of students to take a pen-and-paper test, or an online examination, or a combination of the two, as suggested by the UGC, is counterproductive. There is growing concern worldwide that the coronavirus infection is not always mild among young people, and more importantly, youth with mild symptoms might pass it on to older family members who could become seriously ill. The point, therefore, is not that the Centre is legally empowered to order the conduct of examinations by September-end, because higher education is in the concurrent list, but the likely harm that might follow. Also, in the unlock phase, States have been empowered to add restrictions to the Home Ministry’s orders on public activity, taking the local situation into account. Many large universities have shown commendable alacrity in devising alternatives to evaluate students in the present circumstances, including some academically rigorous technical universities. They have done away with a final examination and chosen a formula that uses best past performance of students. Given the incalculable risks involved, States such as Punjab, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal and later Delhi decided against holding final year examinations.

As the country with the third highest number of cases in the world — more than 1 million as of July 16 — the situation on COVID-19 in India is worrying. Any move to ram through a final examination scheme could endanger lives. The Centre must take its own advice, of restricting public movement and gatherings during the pandemic, seriously, and leave it to the States to determine the best course. In its defence, the Department of Higher Education has gathered data to show that 454 out of 640 universities had either conducted examinations or planned to do so, and the rest should fall in line because of the legal position. Such a hardline approach does not cohere with the imperative of a consensus pandemic response. It is relevant to point out that in the most-affected nation, the U.S., major universities are placing health and safety first and academic enterprise next. Any decision to reopen institutions and conduct examinations requires careful assessment of local conditions, and is best left to the States.

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