“I’m at a loss about what to do next,” said Radha Gola. “College admission remains elusive until our marks are in hand. My parents are asking me to marry; they say that my academic journey need not continue.” Radha, a 17-year-old student from Agra’s Smt. Baijanti Devi Inter College, a private school affiliated to the Uttar Pradesh Board, is one among the thousands of class X students in Uttar Pradesh grappling with a curious crisis that emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: they were issued blank mark sheets.
After a long struggle, the students finally went to court, which ordered the Uttar Pradesh Board to compute, assess, and allocate marks for all the petitioners before November 15, 2023. As students wait for the board to comply, their lives are on hold.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a devastating toll on education in India’s most populous State, it took a turn for the worse when the Uttar Pradesh Board of High School and Intermediate Education distributed blank mark sheets to over 30,000 students, including Radha, who completed class X in the 2020-21 academic year. When board examinations were cancelled due to the pandemic, schools were asked to promote students and assign marks based on their performance in pre-board examinations and class IX. However, thousands of students such as Radha got mark sheets that simply stated they had been promoted and did not contain marks.
These students are now unable to enrol in colleges, which demand marks to give them seats. With colleges refusing to admit them, a distressing chain of reactions has been set off—many male students are forced to take on daily wage work to meet household expenses while female students like Radha are being nudged into marriage and compelled to abandon their education.
Passing the buck
Nobody wants to take responsibility for the situation. Authorities are pointing fingers at schools, alleging that they failed to upload the students’ marks, while school officials maintain that they did submit the required information but that the Uttar Pradesh Board website did not accept the details, possibly due to technical issues.
The frustrated and anxious students made repeated visits to the offices of the Secondary Education Department, but their efforts yielded no results. District Inspector of schools in Agra, Manoj Kumar, told Frontline that the Uttar Pradesh Board had stipulated that if previous performance details were not found, students would be promoted without marks. But college administrations are still insisting on seeing marks.
In November 2022, 89 students filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court, where they submitted that the mark sheets issued to them did not have any percentages or marks and contained only the word “promoted”. The petition stated: “The submission, therefore, is that on account of non-award of marks to the petitioners, they are being deprived of taking admission in further courses where they always come across the requirement of disclosing their marks and percentage obtained in High School examinations.”
On August 2 this year, the court observed: “Having heard learned counsel for the parties, I find that the issue involved is quite simple in nature. Whereas the Government has taken care by promoting the students without actually appearing in the examinations or on account of some misconception, if any, the institutions did not upload the marks of the students in consonance with the directions and consequently, the mechanism of award of marks, as prescribed in a government order failed and ultimately resulted into non-award of marks or its non-disclosure in the concerned marksheets.”
The court included a directive to the Uttar Pradesh Board to ensure that correct marks were given to all the petitioners before November 15.
The fallout of the situation is particularly bad for female students. Statistics show they are already under-represented in higher secondary education. Once colleges close their doors to them, their families push them into early marriage. Male students suffer differently. Ankit Singh, 18, a student of Smt. Baijanti Devi Inter College, said: “My ambition was to join the National Defence Academy [NDA], but when I tried to fill the entrance form in 2021, it was declined because of my blank mark sheet. I was told I would be blacklisted if I submitted the form without my class X marks.”
Last year, Ankit took up a job at a petrol pump for a salary of about Rs.8,000 a month. He was diagnosed with depression. “I have had to leave my studies. My dreams of entering the NDA are crushed as the age limit is 19.” His father, a gas cylinder vendor, cannot afford a private college education. The blank mark sheet seems to have ended Ankit’s future.
India’s vanishing schools
Other students lost out on scholarships and free coaching opportunities. Muskan Baghel told Frontline: “I was unable to get the Uttar Pradesh government scholarship for class XI because of the blank marksheet. I contacted school authorities, the District Magistrate, and even the Chief Minister’s Jansuwai portal [integrated grievance redressal system], but no action was taken.”
She could not apply for free coaching either as they do not take in students without mark sheets. Her father, a milk vendor, cannot afford paid coaching. Thankfully, on the basis of the Allahabad High Court order, Muskan has now got admission into Agra College. But there is still fear. “I worry that my admission might get cancelled if the Uttar Pradesh Board fails to follow the court’s guidelines and release our mark sheets by November,” she said.
- The Uttar Pradesh Board of High School and Intermediate Education distributed blank mark sheets to over 30,000 students who completed class X in the 2020-21 academic year.
- In November 2022, 89 students filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court, where they submitted that the mark sheets issued to them did not have any percentages or marks and contained only the word “promoted”
- The court ordered the Uttar Pradesh Board to compute, assess, and allocate marks for all the petitioners before November 15, 2023.
Confusion between schools and UP Board
Naresh Paras, an Agra-based child rights activist, said that over 2,000 students are affected in Agra district alone. “Because of the confusion between the schools and the Uttar Pradesh Board, these students are suffering. Neither the board cares nor have the schools tried to fix it,” he said. According to Paras, the students wrote letters to local MLAs, the Mayor, Baby Rani Maurya (Minister of Child Development and Nutrition of Uttar Pradesh), and Satya Pal Singh Baghel (Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare). The students also staged a dharna near the Taj Mahal. “Over 2022 and 2023, they even sent letters to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office, the Prime Minister, the President, and the Union and State Ministers of Education. They tried talking to Chief Minister Adityanath when he was in Agra for an inaugural ceremony but to no avail,” added Paras.
Paras said the students turned to the courts after every other route was exhausted. “Nine months after the case was filed, the order has finally come in the students’ favour. But many students have already left studies by now. They may never be able go back. Whether this can be truly deemed justice is the question,” he said. Cheeni Vimal is one such student. She could not get admission in a public college and had to opt for a private one, but her father, Anil Vimal, who works at a shoe factory, is worried about the fees. He told Frontline that he is unsure if he will be able to pay for the full course with his meagre income.
Every year, tens of lakhs of students appear for the Uttar Pradesh Board exams for classes X and XII. During the pandemic, for up to 19 months when educational institutions were closed, schools and colleges went online, but a large majority of students fell through the gap because they could not attend online classes. They had no device at home. For the 2023 examinations, which were conducted after a gap of three years, more than 58 lakh students registered for the two board examinations.
The government sees dropout rates as a formidable hurdle in reaching the ambitious target set by the new National Education Policy: to attain a 100 per cent Gross Enrolment Ratio at the school level by 2030. In Uttar Pradesh, the average dropout rate is already categorised as alarmingly high, particularly in the eastern districts of Basti, Badaun, Etawah, Ghazipur, Etah, Mahoba, Hardoi, and Azamgarh.
ALSO READ: Education in the time of pandemic
According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2022, while the enrolment of girls in schools improved in 2022, the considerable drop at the higher secondary level is worrisome. Against a national average of 2 per cent, the percentage of girls in the age group of 11-14 years who are not enrolled in schools in Uttar Pradesh is 4 per cent.
In the 15-16 age group, Uttar Pradesh has the second highest number of girls not enrolled in schools; Madhya Pradesh has the highest. Only three states—Madhya Pradesh (17 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (15 per cent), and Chhattisgarh (11.2 per cent)—have more than 10 per cent of girls in this age group who are out of school; the national average is 7.9 per cent. The survey was conducted in 2,096 villages across 70 districts of Uttar Pradesh and included 91,158 children in the age group of 3-16 from 41,910 households.
When getting girls into the education system is such a major issue, the government and authorities should take greater care to ensure that those who are already in do not suffer because of such administrative negligence.