A rigorous higher education system ensures quality throughout the course. COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works for students and their anxieties have been multiplied. The author criticises the Indian higher education system and argues that UGC guidelines need to be student-centric in their approach.
2020 has been about an international health emergency affecting almost every aspect of our routine lifestyles. Students have been particularly affected. As COVID-19 infections double every few days, states like Punjab, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal and Delhi decided against holding final year examinations.
Thinkers and statesmen must pave ways to cope with the pandemic and essentiality of education, but unfortunately that is far from the case. The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are bent on worsening the students’ plight.
The UGC had issued guidelines on examinations that propose to conduct the examinations in July 2020. However, the UGC requested its expert committee to revisit the guidelines for examinations and the academic calendar as the number of COVID-19 cases are likely to rise further. The Report of the Expert Committee recommended against scrapping the final semester (or final-year) examinations.
Recent guidelines of the UGC are not clear as to how the so-called “academic credibility, career opportunities and future progress of students” can be ensured if the health of such students is given least importance and their lives are obnoxiously put in danger? Any move to ram through a final examination scheme could endanger lives.
Forcing students to appear in the final year University Examination is flagrantly violative of their Right to Life, as enshrined within Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India the court has interpreted the dignity and health within the ambit of life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Union of India (1995 SCC (3) 42), the court had expressly opined that right to health was also an integral factor to lead a meaningful life and for the right to life under Part III.
“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 its reliability.”
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 its 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 Non-access to the internet, electricity and study materials, as well as a lack of a study environment in homes would only manifest the disparity prevalent in the education system.
A flawed system
What is baffling is the idea that just one semester of examinations (final) will determine the integrity and value of a degree that students worked hard for six to ten semesters. It is difficult to understand why the last semester examination is so sacrosanct when the curriculum follows the cumulative rather than the hierarchical system.
The UGC’s decision to enforce exams for final-year students, while cancelling other semester exams, shows its poor understanding of the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) adopted by India’s universities.
“It is difficult to understand why the last semester examination is so sacrosanct when the curriculum follows the cumulative rather than the hierarchical system.”
Under the CBCS, the academic years are split into semesters that carry more or less equal weightage towards awarding degrees to graduates. Every semester is equal and independent of other semesters. The central focus placed on examination scores encourages students to engage with their course material primarily as a (somewhat) unwanted necessity, meant only to secure numerically-defined academic success, rather than a fundamental part of their intellectual development.
While one of the central principles of higher education across the world has been to avoid teleological determinism, the Indian system continues to see success and continuity amid a burgeoning pandemic in terms of final exam scores.
The premier universities in India also cater to the academic demands of students from across the border, which poses another issue of difference in time-zone for conducting online exams.
Students, irrespective of their nationality, should not be troubled and dismayed due to an issue wholly out of their control. Not to forget that the UGC guidelines have ignored the plight of lakhs of students belonging to Bihar, Assam and North Eastern States, which are presently witnessing incessant floods.
Certification through examination is important but cannot and should not be the sole goal of education. 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. It could consider a combination of internal evaluation and marks and grades in previous semesters. These guidelines gave much flexibility to universities and were welcomed.
However, this scheme was not extended to final-year students.
“In these difficult times, as it steps into an uncertain future, the centre needs to stand with our youth, not against them.”
The whole purpose of university acting as an equaliser will be lost. Students from humble backgrounds and from remote areas would be at a disadvantage. The mental health of students and their anxieties ought to be taken into account. The academic evaluation and examination system should not impact the well-being of the students.
Some 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. Four Indian Institutes of Technology located in Kanpur, Kharagpur, Mumbai and Roorkee have already decided not to hold final year exams for students in view of the frequently increasing and rapid widespread of COVID-19 in the country and all students were passed en bloc.
India currently has the third highest number of cases in the world. While “higher education” falls in the concurrent list, any decision to reopen institutions and conduct examinations requires careful assessment of local conditions, and is best left to the states.
The coronavirus pandemic is a once-in-a-century event. Students are feeling disenfranchised by the utter disconnect between their problems and decision-makers in the central government.
The UGC needs to revisit its guidelines immediately and take a humane and rational approach in this matter. In these difficult times, as it steps into an uncertain future, the centre needs to stand with our youth, not against them.
(The author is a final year law student at Aligarh Muslim University. Views expressed are personal.)