Much stress has befallen upon the student community, courtesy of the uncertainties created by the pandemic. All institutions of higher education across the country have been shut since mid-March, forcing examinations and fresh recruitment into an impasse. This impasse might just break with the UGC reiterating on 14th July that final year/semester examinations are a must and a new Office Memorandum from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) directing that final term examinations be compulsorily held before 30th September. This directive from MHRD came on the same day as the Home Ministry’s letter to the Union Education Secretary permitting the conduction of examinations.
The continuing mess began when an Expert Committee headed by R.C. Kuhad recommended in April that final year/semester examinations could be held in July, while intermediate semester students be graded on the basis of internal assessment of present and previous semester or examinations, wherever possible. The Commission, on 27th April, accepted these recommendations and issued guidelines based on these two days later.
Revised guidelines were announced on 6th July after the HRD Minister asked the Commission to issue “revisited guidelines” based on health and safety. A 31-point Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) has also been issued by MHA. This allows institutions to decide between online, offline and mixed mode of assessment, depending upon local factors and residential status of the students.
With science still emerging and pan-India normalcy far away, the government and the UGC have made a premature and precipitous decision by forcing through examinations at this time. Months into the pandemic, we have been acquainted with the fact that airborne transmission of this coronavirus can be possible. This means health advisory on transmission in indoor settings needs rethinking. The reality is, many educational institutions do not have the required space for housing all students at once while adhering to MHRD’s 2-metre distancing norm; and holding exams outside -where transmission rates are lower- is no solution while the heat and monsoon continue.
To conduct an offline examination, infrastructure that has enough space for all and nudges people to stay at a distance and adopt best hygiene practices, will be needed. This infrastructure will invariably take time to build and all fears about future lapses are real.
Meanwhile, conducting exams online has obvious drawbacks. Internet penetration is only about 50% in India and students aren’t used to taking examinations online. Hence, a robust online infrastructure, including access to high speed internet and possession of compatible devices, will be essential. But even if we were able to develop appropriate online infrastructure, the approach would have the inherent problem of lack of oversight and any such exam will have to be in an Open Book format. Delhi University decided to go down this dubious route on July 14th, amidst much furore.
Some have suggested that this could be an opportunity to overhaul the entire evaluation system by, for instance, increasing the reliance on project work. But this type of assessment works in tandem with traditional examinations, and not as a sole criterion.
Because every alternative to offline physical examination has flaws that limit its practicality, we must choose the path that is laden with the least amount of caveats. The HRD Ministry must issue an unequivocal directive to cancel all university and college examinations. Institutions must grade students using a fair system of computing average marks based on a candidate’s past record and provide a choice to appear for examination next year, in case one wants to improve upon their marks. The degrees received must not be marked ‘Corona Affected Degrees’ as a degree so marked could be seen as holding less credibility than a regular one, thereby nullifying the point of granting degrees based on non-conventional assessment.
Delhi, Maharashtra and at least 4 other states have already decided to cancel final year examinations considering the overall outbreak situation. Meanwhile, UGC has remained firm on its decision, contending that clause 6.1 of the UGC Regulations, 2003 binds universities to adopt UGC guidelines on examinations. Still, it may be noted that it is the general duty of the Commission under S.12 to consult with Universities or other bodies concerned while determining standards of examination, among other things. Had a proper consultation been conducted by the UGC, its guidelines would have been closer to reality.
After the Trump administration in the US announced a plan to strip international students of their visas if they were taking only online classes, top universities MIT and Howard initiated a lawsuit against this rule. The government, under pressure, had to withdraw it. Similar cannot be expected from Indian universities, who heavily hinge on government funding to function. Let’s hope the UGC realizes the impracticality of holding examinations during a pandemic and avoids a major fiasco.