UGC's revised guidelines: Testing times for students

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Outside the Ministry of Human Resource Development in New Delhi on July 2, supporters of the National Students’ Union of India protesting against the UGC and demanding the cancellation of final year examinations. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

State governments and the teaching community are opposed to the UGC’s July 6 directive, which insists that final year students have to write final term examinations if they want to get their degrees.

Educational institutions across the country have been closed since March, and when they will reopen remains under a cloud of uncertainty as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Against this background, the revised guidelines the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued on July 6 directing universities to conduct final year examinations by September end raises pertinent questions. The guidelines are in direct conflict with the decision made by several higher education institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology, and State governments such as Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry to cancel examinations in view of the pandemic. The UGC “revised” its guidelines as the ones it issued on April 29 had not accounted for the pandemic lasting as long as it has. However, they are applicable only to the terminal year or semester examinations; the previous guidelines have been retained for other examinations. Further, while the earlier guidelines were “advisory” in nature, the tone of the revised ones have an element of coercion and compulsion.

The new directives seem to have the go-ahead of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). A press release the MHA issued on July 6 and an Office Memorandum the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) issued on the same day had identical interpretations of the UGC guidelines. The MHA’s press release stated: “The final term examinations are to be compulsorily conducted as per the UGC guidelines and academic calendar for the universities and as per the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) approved by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.”

Objections from States

At least four State governments, national teacher associations and their federations and student bodies have objected to this given the rise in COVID-19 cases. On July 11, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal wrote to the Prime Minister saying that the State government had, after consulting all stakeholders and vice chancellors, issued an advisory on June 26 to all State-aided universities and colleges asking them to provide “due weightage to the internal assessment and the performance of the candidate in the previous semesters in order to ensure transparency”. This advisory, she wrote, was “issued in the interest, health, safety and future of the students”. The State’s colleges and universities were also advised to hold special examinations after the situation became normal for those students who wished to appear in a formal examination instead of an alternative evaluation method. State-aided institutions had already taken the steps as per the advisory, which, Mamata Banerjee wrote, was “overwhelmingly appreciated” by “students, parents and other stakeholders” as evidenced by the “hundreds of emails” sent by students and the teaching community. The Prime Minister was urged to “get the matter re-examined immediately and restore the earlier advisory of the UGC” to protect the interests of students.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami of Tamil Nadu expressed similar concerns. He wrote to Union HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal reminding him that the UGC had in its April 29 guidelines given universities and colleges “flexibility” to conduct examinations without any restrictions, guidelines or directions from the appropriate government or authority. The new guidelines had many constraints, Palaniswami wrote, arguing that it would be difficult for some students to reach examination centres. Online examinations, he said, were equally infeasible as there were “various issues relating to digital access”. He pointed out that many government and private educational institutions were being used as COVID-19 care centres where asymptomatic people who had tested positive for the disease were being quarantined and that this was likely to continue for some time. Requesting that States be given the freedom to work out their “own assessment methods, without compromising on the quality and academic credibility”, the Chief Minister wrote that apex authorities such as the UGC and the All India Council for Technical Education could be directed to “endorse the respective decisions of the State governments which would be based on the local prevailing COVID-19 conditions”. The Delhi government decided to cancel all Delhi State university examinations, including the finals. It declared that final year students would be awarded degrees on the basis of previous assessments while intermediary semester students would be promoted to the next semester on the basis of internal assessments.

‘Sham of an exam’

The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) described the UGC’s move as forcing a “sham of an exam” on students by legitimising the Amazon-run DU-Open Book Exam method of examinations, which teachers had been opposing. According to the DUTA, even the Union HRD Minister had, via a tweet on April 26, expressed reservations about the open book examination and had asked the UGC to reconsider it. The DUTA felt that it defied logic to insist on examinations for final semester students while allowing first year and second year students to be assessed on the basis of internal assessments. It pointed out that final year students had been completely assessed in previous semesters and internally assessed for the current semester and could easily be awarded degrees on the basis of this if first and second year students could be “passed” with a much more limited assessment and without an examination. The insistence on using the barometer of a single “examination” as a tool to award the final degree defies the purpose of a holistic education.

The Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers’ Associations (FEDCUTA) slammed the UGC guidelines for being self-contradictory, echoing the DUTA’s arguments by highlighting the fact that the guidelines were applicable only to final year students “who had gone through several rounds of formal evaluation and assessments while pursuing their courses” and not to “students at the earlier and more foundational stages of courses [who] were evaluated to a much lesser extent”. The FEDCUTA argued that for final year students “only a small part of the total evaluation” was pending when colleges and universities were shut down. Yet, according to the UGC, they could not be promoted without examinations but the intermediate semester students could be. This would also mean that the date of completion of the year/semester for final year students would be stretched beyond September, whereas other students would finish their term in mid August. The final year students, however, have a greater need to complete early as delaying the process until September 30 or later could deprive them of the chance of taking up job opportunities, one of the reasons the UGC/MHRD/MHA cited as the justification for insisting that examinations be completed by September 30.

The FEDCUTA argued that a “combination of their [the students’] past assessment and internal assessment” was more likely to serve as an “accurate index of their overall learning and performance” and therefore provided a sounder basis for the award of degrees than examinations in the current extraordinary conditions posed by the pandemic. The conduct of examinations with pen and paper in an offline mode being impossible for most universities, the insistence on examinations, the FEDCUTA said, was because the UGC and the government wanted to promote online examinations. Online examinations, the FEDCUTA argued, can “never match up to the standards of regular examinations in terms of the evaluation process and preserving its integrity”. It was pointed out that teachers and students have opposed it as they felt that it was “discriminatory” and promoted “dishonesty” and would lead to a distorted assessment that would be skewed against honest students and those from underprivileged backgrounds. Such examinations also would have no provisions for keeping out unfair means and malpractice like cheating, thereby undermining the credibility of the degree being awarded, the FEDCUTA said. Teachers also asked why there was an emphasis on examinations rather than on learning as part of the education process, which stands completely disrupted given the severe limitations of online education.

Education is one of the areas badly hit by the continuous lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational institutions were the first to be shut down when the disease began to spread. It was in this context that the UGC issued its guidelines in April acknowledging that most universities would not be able to conduct examinations online. The situation, the FEDCUTA argued, “could not have changed so dramatically between April and July as to render that assessment invalid”. Teachers attribute this shift in the UGC’s position to pressure from the government and commercial interests that hoped to make money from the examination process and see this as being in tune with the thrust on privatisation in the 2019 National Policy on Education.

The All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO), which represents teachers in State universities and colleges, has also slammed the guidelines, stating that the UGC “has not taken into consideration the COVID-19 situation in various parts of the country”. Conducting end semester examinations even by September 30 would be extremely dangerous in its view. The AIFUCTO argued that continuous evaluation offered a far more credible system than one end-semester evaluation. It pointed out that several universities abroad had decided to cancel examinations and award grades on the basis of internal evaluations. Many students who had got campus placements would suffer if their pass certificates were delayed because they had to write examinations.

Professor S. Subburaju, national secretary of the AIFUCTO, told Frontline that in April the UGC issued guidelines allowing universities to assess students in the manner they deemed fit but inexplicably revised this position in July. “In Tamil Nadu, the [COVID-19] situation is very bad. The UGC has itself maintained that the semester system as a method of continuous evaluation is best, and in Tamil Nadu, we have a system where 25 per cent of evaluation is based on internal assessment and 75 per cent evaluation is based on examination. There are ways of dealing with the new situation that COVID-19 has posed,” he said. A combination of marks scored in internal assessment, marks allotted for attendance and the previous semesters’ average can be used to evaluate final semester students without compelling them to write examinations to get a degree, he argued. “The government wants to push online courses. The UGC has very cleverly given the option of offline or online exams fully aware that offline will not be possible under the circumstances. Online exams are also not possible as more than 70 per cent of campuses do not have Wi-Fi facilities. Many students from rural backgrounds also do not have Internet access in their homes,” he said. It would be “absurd”, he said, to promote online education for students in regular courses when faculty resources were available. Information communication technology could only be a supplement to teaching; it should never replace the existing form of teaching and learning, which was more interactive, he added. There were federal concerns also, he said.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led government in Tamil Nadu, Subburaju said, which was normally inclined to listening to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, had also conveyed its misgivings about the UGC directive. “The public is against it as the COVID situation is bad in Tamil Nadu. And online exams can bring a new host of problems like cheating and other frauds. There is also no justification to make students wait till the situation normalises. We can easily assess the end semester students on the basis of other parameters without insisting on an examination,” he said.

Completely disregarding these concerns, the UGC issued a press note on July 18 arguing that examinations were an integral part of the education system and a measure of students’ learning, skills, knowledge and other competencies. It cited the example of a few countries that had conducted examinations or were conducting them with an option of online, offline or a blended form of examinations. The press release made it abundantly clear that the UGC had issued its revised guidelines on July 6 as per the directions of the MHA, the MHRD and the report of an expert committee. Interestingly, the guidelines have come at a time when the daily spike in the cases has been in the range of 30,000-40,000 and is showing an upward trend. According to the UGC, however, of the 945 universities in the country, 755 had responded and informed it of the status of the conduct of examinations. The UGC claimed that 194 had already conducted examinations and 366 were planning to conduct them in August/September. The UGC statement, however, did not reveal which universities had responded nor other specifics such as how many of the examinations conducted or to be conducted were in the online mode. The statement also did not reflect the opinions of the State governments concerned or of teachers and students in these universities.

Meanwhile, 31 students from 13 States have petitioned the Supreme Court to quash the UGC’s July 6 circular in view of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, pleading that the results of the final year students should be calculated on the basis of the performance of past semesters. This is the second such petition to be filed: the Yuva Sena, the youth wing of the Shiv Sena, had also petitioned the Supreme Court on similar grounds.

The Yuva Sena is headed by Aaditya Thackeray, who is a Cabinet Minister in the Shiv Sena-led coalition government in Maharashtra. Thackeray has also written to the UGC and the MHRD on two occasions requesting them to call off the final year examinations given the spread of the pandemic.

Home Ministry’s role

The deep involvement of the MHA in deciding on the necessity of final semester examinations, even as its own national COVID-19 management guidelines and directives do not yet allow the reopening of educational institutions for face-to-face teaching and learning, raises intriguing questions about the intent behind the UGC directive. The contention that academic standards have to be upheld does not quite hold water given the inconsistencies within the guidelines. Any end semester examination only evaluates students on what they learnt in the courses prescribed for that particular semester. If a degree is likely to be significantly devalued by the elimination of one among several end semester examinations taken over a course of study, how does it matter whether it is an intermediate or a final semester examination that is dropped? This is the kind of question that neither the UGC nor the Central government seems willing to answer.