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Covid-19 & Education: Sternest Test

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The UGC’s announcement that final-year exams are compulsory in the midst of the pandemic drew petitions from students across the country even as some central varsities are keen to conduct them online

By Shaheen Parween

An announcement by the University Grants Commission (UGC) on July 6 making final-year university examinations compulsory has evoked consternation from both students and teachers and led to the filing of petitions in various courts.

On July 11, college students across the country observed protests demanding that final-year exams be cancelled without further delay due to Covid-19. The protests were called by the All India Forum To Save Public Education. The student body in its press release stated: “This distressing document is a clear indication that the central government instead of seeking a solution to the pandemic is trying to convert a crisis which is a reflection of its failure to respond appropriately to the health emergency, into an opportunity to carry forward a fundamentally anti-people, anti-student, and anti-academic agenda in higher education.”

A petition was filed in the Delhi High Court by a final-year PG student, Anupam, along with other students of Delhi University seeking direction against a notification on June 27, 2020, by Delhi University to conduct the remote open book examination for final-year students of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including students of the School of Open Learning and Non-Collegiate Women’s Education Board. The petitioners have also prayed to Delhi University to evaluate final-year students based on the results of the previous years or semesters in the same manner as it planned to promote first- and second-year students. The Court directed the UGC and the HRD ministry to take a specific stand as to whether they recommend cancellation of final-year examinations or not.

But on July 13, Delhi University told the Delhi High Court that it “shall conduct the examinations for the final semester/term/year students of all undergraduate and postgraduate courses”, including the School of Open Learning and Non-Collegiate Women’s Education Board, from August 17, in the online Open Book Examinations mode “remotely”. The exams will conclude on September 8, 2020.

“For such students who are unable to appear in the examinations in OBE mode remotely, scheduled to begin from August 17, 2020, it has been decided to conduct an additional phase of examinations through online/offline/blended mechanism, for the purpose of providing another opportunity to the students. This additional opportunity is being afforded as a one-time measure in view of the Covid-19 pandemic and is elaborated hereunder,” it added.

In Pune, a final-year law student, Anshritha Rai from ILS Law College, wrote to the chief justice of Bombay High Court seeking cancellation of semester examinations in the light of Covid-19. She raised concerns for the safety of those involved in the examination process and stated: “Conducting pan-India examinations in the midst of the novel pandemic would be equivalent to turning a blind eye to the interests and genuine concerns of the student fraternity.”

Meanwhile, former UGC chairman Sukhadeo Thorat in a letter to the present incumbent, Dhirendra Pal Singh, stressed the demands by students across the country to scrap the final-year exams. Thorat stated: “The UGC’s latest advisory on examinations is unfortunate because it takes us backwards rather than forward. It effectively extends the period for holding of exams (for final-year/semester cohorts) until September, the second such postponement. And it creates fresh uncertainty for states that had already decided to cancel exams.” Thorat suggested: “Using alternative methods of evaluation based on each student’s own past performance (in exams conducted in normal times) offers a fair solution and brings closure, with the option of retaking the exam when normalcy is restored.”

The Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers’ Associations also expressed displeasure at the UGC’s decision to conduct final-year examinations, defying “all logic, academic or otherwise”. In a letter addressed to the UGC chairman on July 10, the Federation accused it of “coming under pressure from the government and from commercial interests which are hoping to make money from the online examination process by providing their ‘services’ for a fee.”

However, there were others who were aggrieved over the move to cancel exams. Dhananjay Kulkarni, a former professor and also ex-senate member of Savitribai Phule Pune University, was one of them. He filed a petition before the Bombay High Court against the state government’s announcement cancelling examinations for all final-year courses, both professional and non-professional, in view of Covid-19. Kulkarni in his petition submitted: “UGC had nowhere mentioned in their guidelines that examinations should be cancelled. While in the previous guideline, it mentioned that examinations should be conducted in July, now it mentions that examinations should be conducted in September. Cancelling the examination is not at all academic and giving students a degree without examination will affect their career.”

Apart from the petitions filed before various High Courts, students have filed more than 100 petitions on change.org, asking the government to scrap the final-year exams. Soon after UGC’s announcement, #StudentsLivesMatter started trending on Twitter.

Awaiting the final call of UGC, seven states had earlier cancelled the final-year exams. These were Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, West Bengal, Odisha, and Kerala. Notwithstanding this, UGC made it clear that it would ask all the states to review their decisions in conformity with its revised guidelines issued on July 6. But this has not been received well by the states which are struggling to combat the surge in Covid-19 cases.

On July 11, Maharashtra, which has the highest number of cases in India, announced cancellation of university examinations and promotion of final-year university students based on past assessments, including those with backlogs. Higher and Technical Education Minister Uday Samant said: “The Maharashtra Disaster Management Act gives the state government powers to overrule any decision in such circumstances.” He added: “We will not hold the examinations in present circumstances. If some Vice-Chancellor holds examinations it will be at his risk. If students are infected I will instruct the police to file an FIR (First Information Report) against the concerned VC and Registrar of the University for playing with the students’ safety.”

Similarly on July 12, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia announced that state universities have been asked to cancel all examinations and evaluate students based on their past academic record.

Other states, including Punjab and Rajasthan, have expressed their reluctance to conduct the exams and have written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking review of the UGC’s directive. However, BJP-ruled states, including Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, have started preparing for conducting the final-year examinations according to UGC’s latest guidelines.

To add to the students’ distress, many institutions, including several central universities, are eager to conduct examinations online. This is cause for concern given poor internet connectivity in a ma­jority of Indian households.

The recent online mock test series conducted by Delhi University for the upcoming exams turned out to be futile as students encountered a number of problems, with some unable to access the question paper.

Meanwhile in a welcome departure, on July 13, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) informed the Supreme Court of its decision not to hold exams for the May semester that were scheduled to be held in July-August “in the interest of the students” amid the Covid-19 pandemic situation. The petition was filed by the president of the “India Wide Parents Association”, Anubha Shrivastava Sahai, who sought quashing of the notification that allowed chartered accountant aspirants to “opt out” of the CA exams this year due to Covid-19. This, according to the petitioner, is in violation of the fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India.

The ICAI has said it has decided to cancel the May 2020 exams and merge them with the November 2020 exams, with due carryover of all benefits already available to students, including fees paid and exemptions.

While the ICAI’s decision has brought respite to CA students, millions of other students are making efforts to reach out to the UGC to reverse its decision to conduct final-year exams and to promote students based on their past performances.

Is that asking for much?

Lead picture: sunriseread.com

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