Exams&the pandemic

UGC's guidelines to conduct university exams: Test of the times

Print edition : September 25, 2020

At a protest against the UGC’s decision to hold final-year exams, in New Delhi on July 21. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Students maintaining COVID-19 protocol before appearing for the JEE (Main) at St. Joseph’s College in Kozhikode on September 2. Photo: K. Ragesh

Microbiology students of Maharani’s Science College, Bengaluru, attending preparatory classes ahead of their final-year exams, on September 1. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The Centre’s decision to hold final-year examinations amid the raging pandemic displays a complete lack of sensitivity to students’ concerns, the digital divide and the spiralling cases.

On August 28, in a judgment with far-reaching consequences, the Supreme Court upheld guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC) on July 6 directing institutions of higher learning to conduct examinations for final semester students by September 30.

This came on the heels of an August 17 order by the apex court for the conduct of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical courses and the Joint Entrance Examination for engineering programmes in the first week of September. The Supreme Court gave the go-ahead despite a request from six Chief Ministers of opposition-ruled States for a review of its order.

While approving the new guidelines, a bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, M.R. Shah and R. Subhash Reddy observed that the UGC’s objective was to ensure that all universities followed a uniform academic calendar and that final/terminal examinations were held. The UGC’s revised guidelines, which were a complete reversal of its advisory of April 29, decreed that examinations be conducted in offline (pen and paper), online or blended (online plus offline) modes while observing the COVID-19 protocol. On April 29, the UGC issued guidelines that were advisory in nature, giving each university the freedom to draw its own plan.

A petition in the Supreme Court said the revised guidelines ignored the threat to life posed by the pandemic in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Delhi, where cases were increasing. It also said that State governments had imposed or implemented various degrees of lockdown. On June 19, the Maharashtra government issued a notice cancelling terminal/final year exams and resolved to award grades and degrees on the basis of previous marks and internal assessments.

Narrow debate

While the Union government displayed a complete lack of sensitivity to the concerns expressed, the digital divide, and the spiralling case numbers, and adopted an “exams at any cost” approach, the courts also took a narrow legalistic view of the issue. In this entire saga the debate was confined to whether the UGC had the authority and the right to decide a deadline for examinations. By reducing the issue to a matter of jurisdiction and right, both the government and the apex court order turned a blind eye to those students who had become doubly disadvantaged because of the effects of the pandemic.

Even as the UGC set a deadline, the apex court said that under the jurisdiction of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, any State government or Union Territory could seek an extension of the deadline if it believed that it could not conduct the exams by September 30. But it was clear from the Supreme Court order that there could be no indefinite postponement.

Clutch of petitions

Students, college teachers and youth associations filed a clutch of petitions both for and against the July 6 UGC guidelines and a Union Home Ministry order issued on the same date that directed end-semester examinations to be held by September 30.

With the entire country in the grip of the pandemic and given the issue of limited digital access for online examinations, parents, students and teacher associations appealed to the government and the UGC to not insist on holding exams as both teaching and learning had been severely compromised following the closure of all schools and institutions of higher education since March. They requested that the end/terminal semester students be assessed and awarded degrees on the basis of their past performance and internal assessments. It was also seemingly illogical that mid-semester students would be promoted to the next semester on the basis of past assessments but end-semester students who had been internally assessed over the earlier semesters and had taken exams as well were being pushed to giving the final term examinations.

The apex court also heard a set of petitions challenging the decision of the Maharashtra and West Bengal governments to not hold final year examinations. The Delhi High Court, on July 14, ordered that examinations be held using the open book method. This order was challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds that while students in other States were being evaluated by internal assessment and past performance, Delhi University students were being deprived of equal opportunities of admission and post-graduate employment because of the High Court order.

The clutch of petitions included one by 31 undergraduate and post-graduate students across 13 States and the National Capital Territory of Delhi. They said that the decision of the UGC and the Human Resource Development and Union Home Ministries was arbitrary, whimsical and detrimental to the health and safety of lakhs of students as well as in violation of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. They averred that several examination boards, such as the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), which conducts the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) and Indian School Certificate (ISC) examinations for classes 10 and 12 respectively, and the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had cancelled their examinations and declared results on the basis of past performance and assessment. (The CBSE and CISCE had cancelled exams scheduled in the first and second weeks of July.)

They also said the decision to hold examinations was discriminatory and arbitrary because intermediate semester students had been exempted from appearing for examinations owing to pandemic concerns but final year students did not get such an exemption.

The writ petition pleaded that the results of final year/final term students be declared on the basis of their past performance and internal assessments on or before July 31, 2020, and degrees be awarded to successful students on the same basis. It also pleaded that those willing students who were dissatisfied with their past performance in internal assessments and previous exams could be given a repeat chance.

The petitioners also pointed out that the Tamil Nadu government and the Punjab Higher Education Minister had written to the HRD Ministry expressing their inability to hold exams in view of the pandemic and had urged the UGC to review its decision. More than half a dozen States had expressed concerns in view of the risks involved.

In West Bengal, the college and university teachers’ associations met Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the two sides reached a consensus for evolving an alternative method of marking the examinations and awarding the results by the end of July. Clearly, different State governments and the teaching community were applying their minds on how best to resolve the situation without affecting the students. Overall, the argument made sense as the objective was that students would be graded on time and get their degrees so that they could appear for other admissions. The deadline of September 30 was neither here nor there.

In Maharashtra, the State Disaster Management Authority held a meeting on June 18 and resolved that examinations for professional courses could not be held. On June 19, the State government issued a notification with details of how grading would be done for both professional and non-professional courses. (The COVID-19 situation in Maharashtra has significantly worsened since.)

At least three State governments that had written to the Home Ministry explained their inability to conduct examinations and submitted affidavits in the Supreme Court. Interestingly, the court decided that it was not required of it send notices to all State governments and Union Territories seeking their views but that the cases could be decided by hearing out what the State governments of Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal and NCT of Delhi had stated in their affidavits. Those against the UGC guidelines averred that the Home Ministry in its guidelines of July 29 had decreed that outside containment zones, schools, colleges and coaching centres would remain closed until August 31.

It was also contended that as Section 72 of the Disaster Management Act 2005 had overriding powers, it could supersede the UGC guidelines; that Section 12 of the UGC Act itself mandated that guidelines could be framed only in consultation with the universities. This was not done and neither were all universities consulted before the guidelines were framed. The guidelines were also silent on the state of the pandemic.

In the case of Maharashtra, it was stated that in Pune, a hub of education, students had left for their homes. Poor infrastructure, inadequate public transport, and the digital divide were the other issues that came up in the hearing. The Advocate General for Odisha and counsel for Maharashtra pointed out the logistical issues involved in taking examinations given the spread of the pandemic and said that the UGC guidelines could not be thrust on the entire country given that the pandemic was at different levels in different States. Several educational institutions had been converted into COVID care centres and hospitals. The Odisha counsel pointed out that online exams were not an option as the majority of students belonged to the lower- and middle-income groups and did not have desktops or laptops or even a decent smartphone.

The legality of the guidelines was also questioned. Counsel for the petitioners from West Bengal averred that colleges were not located on university campuses and that local trains and metros were not functional. The effects of Cyclone Amphan were still there. There was also a lack of digital infrastructure. Even counsel for the Delhi government submitted that online infrastructure was inadequate for the purpose of conducting exams.

The apex court ruled that the guidelines were not beyond the domain of the UGC, and that “ample latitude was given” to universities and colleges to conduct exams, offline and online. Instead of the previous deadline of July 31 to conduct exams, the revised guidelines had set September 30 as the new deadline. The order acknowledged that in the months following the lockdown, teaching could not take place in colleges and universities and neither could examinations be held. But the UGC had the statutory powers to conduct examinations.

Basically, the court held that there was nothing technically wrong with the revised guidelines and that they were in continuation of the previous advisory/guidelines of April 29. The guidelines had taken note of the COVID situation, it held, and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued for the conduct of examinations were proof that the Central government was concerned.

As for the overriding nature of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) over other issues, the court gave precedence to the Home Ministry’s July 6 decision permitting the conduct of examinations in universities and educational institutions. The State government and the SDMA had no jurisdiction to decide that final-year students could be promoted on the basis of previous assessments. The date for completion of examination was fixed to maintain “uniformity in the academic calendar”, it said.

In the discussions, what has been ignored is that striking a balance between protecting health, the right of students to an education and upholding academic standards cannot be reduced only to the question of how safe is it to hold examinations in a given situation with regard to the pandemic. What needs to be considered is whether it is wise to impose on governments and administrations the additional burden of dealing with examinations on a large scale at a time when they need to direct their efforts towards controlling the pandemic.

Exams as be-all and end-all

Examinations are also far from being the be-all and end-all of the education process: they are either part of assessing how much students have learnt and comparing it across students or a way of selecting students for entry into a process of learning. The two court orders deal with these two different types of examinations. Both, however, do not have the same significance because alternatives to entrance exams may be more difficult to find as compared to end-term examinations where numerous other assessment options exist.

Therefore, whether it was optimal for the system to be burdened with both was also something that could have been considered but was not.

More importantly, with educational institutions being closed for months and online education serving as a poor substitute that is not even accessible to all, should not the question of how teaching and learning are to be restored be given priority over examinations, including in the matters of administrative effort and investment of resources?

What is the point of examinations without the processes that either precede or follow them? Moreover, how are examinations under present conditions fair to all since the pandemic conditions are likely to produce differentials in performance which have to do with reasons other than ability?

The fresh guidelines for Unlock 4, which arrived post the Supreme Court order, continue to prohibit the opening up of educational institutions. More than 66,000 persons have succumbed to the virus so far, with both casualties and cases spiking in July and August. These are some of the questions that ought to have been considered by the Central government and the court before setting a rigid deadline.