The University Grants Commission has directed that final exams should be held, with Covid-19 precautions observed and in a possible hybrid form. Proceedings in the Supreme Court on the issue are examining the likely options which affect the future of all students
By Sujit Bhar
The Supreme Court on August 18 reserved its judgment on the very sensitive issue of holding final exams for students amid the Covid-19 environment. The hearing is complete, but the top court asked all the parties to file their written submissions, if any, in three days. Looking at the dilemma of students concerning their future, it is pertinent to look at some of the arguments placed before the apex court.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has directed that final exams should be held, with all precautions observed and in a possible hybrid form. It has set a deadline of September 30. Many students appealed to the Court for the complete cancellation of the exams, asking to be assessed by their performances in earlier semesters, instead. There have been some state universities which support the cancellation theory, though regular exams have started in online mode, including in Delhi University.
The issue is not just of the completion of a course by a student, but looking ahead, at his/her future in the wider world. Technically, if the student is passed, in an en masse decision, his/her job or higher study prospects would be ruined.
Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta tried to emphasise this point before the bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and MR Shah. There were three issues to be looked into. The first, whether the UGC had the power to issue such a directive during the pandemic. Second, whether the students’ demand for cancellation was fair. Third, whether enough and ample precautions could be taken so that students were not infected by the coronavirus. The appeal comprised issues about students who would simply not be able to appear for the exams due to unavoidable circumstances—Covid-19-affected, flood-marooned, internet connectivity-starved, living in quarantined zones, financial inability, etc.
Mehta made a strong point when he said: “Universities can seek for the postponement of exams, but they cannot take the decision to confer degrees without holding exams.” This has merit, considering the students’ future. He was following up on senior advocate Vinay Navare’s comment. Navare had said: “At the most, in its widest amplitude, the deadline can be moved. But, states cannot be directed to not hold the exams at all.” Regarding the power of the UGC, Navare said that the decision taken by it was “within the four corners of its powers. It does not exceed its power”.
There seems to be a technicality in this. Before making his final submission, Mehta had pointed out that “under the Disaster Management Act, the central government does have the supremacy to decide.” The UGC guidelines were sent out after getting the nod from the centre. That is the logic Mehta went with, but first it was necessary to establish that the UGC was not exceeding its powers and that there are enough safety precautions available for the entire process (the offline part of it) to take place.
First, it was submitted that UGC guidelines issued on July 6 were framed after taking into account recommendations made by the Prof RC Kuhad (vice-chancellor, Central University of Haryana) Committee. Hence, the UGC had not issued a unilateral directive of holding the exams.
This has been explained by Prof (retd) Dhananjay Raghunath Kulkarni. He said that in view of Sections 12 and 26 of the UGC Act and the 2003 regulations issued by the UGC regarding minimum standards of instruction for formal higher education, all universities are bound by the revised guidelines issued by the UGC. He explained that initially the UGC had issued guidelines in April, pursuant to the report of the Kuhad Committee, which also comprised various experts and senior officers of the UGC.
However, considering the evolving situation of the pandemic, in June, the UGC requested the committee to revisit the guidelines on exams and the academic calendar for the universities. The committee submitted a report recommending that terminal semester and final-year exams should be conducted by September in offline or online or blended mode.
Based on this report, revised guidelines were issued which recommended the conduct of terminal semester and final year university exams by September. However, the mode of conducting the exams has been left open to the concerned universities.
That part having been cleared, Mehta said: “The conducting of final-year exams is a must. One cannot say that holding it is arbitrary.” As an example, he pointed out that recently many universities had conducted (and are conducting) the final-term examinations—online, offline and in hybrid mode. He said: “Final year is the degree year, so exams cannot be done away with.” Thereby, some light was shed on whether the UGC guidelines were advisory in nature or mandatory.
Advocate Kishor Lambat, representing the intervener, highlighted the fact that there were parents who had lost jobs and students were facing financial hardships. Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava said these exams would directly affect the health of lakhs of students and hence health experts should have been consulted.
Senior advocate Meenakshi Arora (she is representing one of the petitioners) said: “Some students can give exams now, some can’t. The leftover students will lose out on opportunities and jobs later on.” The counsel for the Delhi government said: “The most hard-hit will be the poor, the downtrodden and those without any access to technology. Unless (of course) you decide to give them all tablets.”
The health issue, of course, was uppermost. What has been done about it? Mehta pointed out that “the Standard Operating Procedure issued by UGC talks about thermal scanning, masks and social distancing. All these steps have been taken to ensure that students’ health was fine.”
Justice Bhushan interjected: “The UGC guidelines say that all the health-related guidelines have to be followed… You cannot say that they have not considered the public health, the guidelines.” The judge had earlier said that “…if it is permissible, then all the universities can evolve their own modalities.”
West Bengal Advocate General Kishore Datta said that the UGC had not taken into account the extraordinary situation in view of Covid-19 and decisions were taken as if it was 2019 or 2018. “They (UGC) are not concerned with public health,” he said. Senior advocate Jaideep Gupta, representing an organisation of teachers from West Bengal, said: “The UGC did not hold ‘effective consultation’ as was required. If they had consulted even one person per state, they would have understood the difficulties.”
If all bases have been covered so far, one can deduce the following:
- Technically, the UGC’s action (its directive to have exams) was legally tenable, especially supported by the Kuhad Committee recommendations.
- The SC bench pointed out that SOPs have to be followed while holding physical exams and the UGC and universities would be aware of such SOPs.
- The SG submitted that such SOPs would be in place.
- The on-going first- and second-year exams—offline, online and hybrid—would point to a situation where it would be technically feasible to hold the final exams as well.
- There has been no clear argument against the future of students being jeopardised if exams are cancelled.
- The very fact that a degree can only be awarded after an exam is held has also not been argued.
In this context, senior advocate Arvind Datar’s comment is important. He said that the UGC can say, “don’t award a degree without holding of an exam, but it cannot say that you hold the exam by 30th September at any cost.”
Then he looked at the guidelines, saying the “uniform guidelines… for universities across the country” cannot be valid, because Covid isn’t hurting the same all over. “Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi have been worst hit… therefore same guidelines cannot be applied across the country.” At the end of three hours of hearing, it seemed a good thing that the government wants students to actually sit for exams, do well and shine in their lives, Covid or no Covid. How to help students who simply have no way of sitting for the exams would, unfortunately, have to be a political decision.
Lead picture: UNI