The University Grants Commission’s (UGC) guidelines of July 6, 2020 on conducting final-year examinations for university students have created a storm. The commission’s insistence on online or pen-paper or a blend of the two modes in conducting examinations, albeit with a much delayed timeline, has been widely criticised. Punjab, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Delhi, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have already raised objections. Uttar Pradesh has announced that its universities will hold examinations. Delhi University students have termed the decision arbitrary and discriminatory, and have challenged it in the Delhi High Court.
The guidelines state that performance in examinations is necessary for “reflection of competence, performance and credibility that is necessary for global acceptability”. In the latest UGC communication, 182 universities have already conducted the examinations and 234 are planning to hold them in August and September.
Editorial | Testing times: On university exams
It is a matter of concern that our education system continues to be examination-centric and these guidelines fail to take into account the fact that the validity of examinations fundamentally depends on their reliability. Most examinations in India merely test an ability to recall facts or information rather than an understanding of those facts or an ability to use them in practical situations. Most teachers too are not trained in setting good papers particularly for online open-book examinations. Certification through examination is important but cannot and should not be the sole goal of education. Hundreds of our students every year take unfortunate steps because of examination stress. A one size fits all cannot apply to our universities as we have all kinds of universities, i.e. unitary, affiliating, private and subject specific.
There is nothing like the UGC in the United States. The UGC was fundamentally meant to be the fund granting institution as is clear from its nomenclature. But the UGC Act 1956 does confer on it the power of ‘coordination and determination of standards’ in universities as well and, therefore, it has become the regulator of higher education.
Today, the higher education sector is overregulated and underfunded. The present government at the Centre wants to replace the UGC with a higher education commission. The United Progressive Alliance too had introduced a bill on similar lines. Since universities are autonomous bodies, in these testing times this autonomy can help us in finding solutions keeping in view the specific situation of each university.
In fact the first set of guidelines regarding examinations and academic calendar was issued by the UGC on April 29 and was demonstrative of UGC Chairman Prof. D.P. Singh’s flexible and inclusive approach, allowing universities to promote students not in their final year, on the basis of a combination of internal evaluation and marks/grades in previous semesters. These guidelines gave much flexibility to universities and were welcomed. However, this scheme was not extended to final-year students.
Before the new UGC guidelines were released, Rajasthan, Haryana and Maharashtra had already cancelled examinations for final-year students.
Let the cooperative federalism rather than ego guide us in this matter.
While the decision has been justified by reference to other universities across the world, the systems that these universities are following are largely accommodative of students’ concerns. In fact in foreign universities, each teacher has the freedom to devise his own evaluation mechanism.
The shadow of the virus
India has just attained the dubious distinction of having one million cases of the novel coronavirus and a number of States are bringing back lockdowns of various types; so, the September 2020 deadline does not inspire much confidence. If the virus continues to spread, no university administration will be in a position to announce examinations, and students will continue to be in a limbo about their future.
While the guidelines state that the decision has been taken keeping in view the future of the students — jobs and higher education — these prospects are, in fact, harmed by this decision. In normal circumstances, examinations would have been conducted and either results announced or provisional certificates given by this time. These help students who are graduating confirm their admissions in institutes of higher education or report at their places of employment by furnishing proof of them having completed the course. The current system does not provide for any such possibility.
Although universities which are smaller in size of student intake have started online classes, big traditional universities and the colleges affiliated thereto already lack the assurance of starting of the next academic year.
More discrimination possible
In case the infection does not subside (which seems to be the real prospect as per the World Health Organization’s latest communication), it would mean that the UGC either extends the deadline further or universities are forced to conduct online exams. In the latter case, the UGC would have imposed a patently discriminatory policy on the students — issues with access to the Internet, electricity and study materials, as well as a lack of a study environment in homes would go unaddressed — and it would only manifest the disparity prevalent in the education system. In the former case, it only furthers the uncertainty, and even if the UGC decides to allow universities not to conduct examinations, this entire exercise would be pointless.
In any case, the period of four to six months would have impacted students differently. The elite, with the privilege of being unaffected by the crisis caused by the infection as well as its economic ramifications will be much better placed than their peers without the same level of assuredness. The whole purpose of university acting as an equaliser will be lost. Students from a humble background, from remote areas and those with doctors/health workers as parents or are coronavirus positive in families would be at a disadvantage.
Also read | Exams should be flexible and fair
Finally, what is baffling is the idea that just one semester of examinations will be determinative of the integrity and value of a degree for which students would have worked hard for six to 10 semesters, and have also appeared for internal examinations for the sixth or 10th semester. It is difficult to understand why the last semester examination is so sacrosanct when our curriculum follows the cumulative rather than the hierarchical system.
We expect that better sense will prevail and the UGC will eventually take the decision that would be equitable, fair, pragmatic and beneficial and not one that is risky and exclusionary of any set of students. Unprecedented times call for bold steps and unprecedented decisions, and the UGC must act accordingly. Let the voices of sanity be taken into account and results be declared taking into account student performance in earlier semesters and internal evaluation of the final semester. Let the mental health of students and their anxieties be taken into account. Heavens are not going to fall if we discard the examination-centric view, at least in this emergency for just one semester.
Faizan Mustafa is Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR University of Law. Sughosh Joshi is a student at NALSAR. The views expressed are personal