The higher education regulator admits that it cannot ensure students are safe and on equal footing going into the exams. Then what right does it have to knowingly put their lives and careers at risk?
On April 29, the University Grants Commission, India’s higher education regulator, issued guidelines for conducting online exams for final year students of bachelor’s and master’s courses. Accordingly, the universities of Delhi and Panjab, among others, scheduled the exams. But as students and teachers opposed holding the exams amid a raging pandemic, human resource development minister Ramesh Pokhriyal asked the UGC to revisit the guidelines. The UGC responded by cancelling the exams, only to do an about-turn a week later and declare that the exams must be compulsorily held by the end of September.
Remarkably, the rationale offered by the UGC for going ahead with the exams amid a pandemic is quite thin.
On July 9, Bhushan Patwardhan, the vice chairman of the UGC, appeared on Rajdeep Sardesai’s show, News Unlocked, on India Today. Sardesai played a video of some students expressing their concerns about the proposed exams, and asked Patwardhan why they weren’t being heeded.
“We had issued guidelines on April 29. We were expecting that the universities would prepare in this time,” Patwardhan replied. “Awarding degrees without examination is not something we should encourage.”
It is clear that even the country’s top universities aren’t equipped to hold online exams. Take Delhi University’s mock exams held on July 6. The students faced multiple glitches when they sat for the test. Some had trouble registering, while others received wrong question papers. For many, the server timed out and they couldn’t upload their answer sheets. For students who didn’t have access to the internet, the university arranged for common centres. But students claimed the centres were either closed or hadn’t received instructions from the university about the exam.
Can the UGC assure students across the country that they won’t face such problems when they sit for the actual exams?
In Kashmir, as Newslaundry has reported, most students could not even take online classes during the lockdown. The region has suffered under a communications blackout, full or partial, for nearly a year now. Most of the people in the valley can access only slow 2G internet.
The UGC has proposed setting up common test centres in Kashmir and the Northeast. But this arrangement could potentially expose the students to the risk of coronavirus infection. Today, in much of the country, healthcare systems are collapsing, uncertainty and fear abound, and mental health problems are on the rise. In this situation, compelling students to take exams is insensitive, if not cruel.
Sardesai, in fact, did ask if the UGC could guarantee the students being told to appear for exams at common centres would be safe. “See, no one can give any guarantee,” Patwardhan replied. “The situation is evolving so rapidly that we do not know what will happen tomorrow. But when we’re opening liquor shops and other commercial establishments, the same concerns can be expressed.”
Since the UGC can’t guarantee the safety of the students, what right does it have to knowingly put their lives at risk?
Moreover, the opening of liquor shops can’t be compared to forcing exams on students. Buying liquor is voluntary, taking exams isn’t. And for a student’s future, they don’t hold the same significance. It is a strawman argument.
Patwardhan’s argument that degrees can’t be awarded without exams sounds fair. But its premise is defeated by the UGC’s decision to promote first and second year students without exams. Why is there an exception for those in the final year? Does one semester or year determine a student’s performance through their course?
Pokhriyal, backing the UGC’s decision, argued that exams were essential for “global acceptance”. But the minister failed to see that most universities abroad have either postponed their exams to the next year or promoted students without them. And if a student can be awarded a degree based on other methods of evaluation, why wouldn’t it be as valid?
More importantly, if students haven’t had a semester’s worth of teaching, what are the exams assessing?
Replying to Sardesai’s question about Delhi University postponing the exams twice but refusing to cancel them, Patwardhan replied, “Our stance is very clear from the beginning. We have to maintain academic credibility. It is about the future of students. We cannot take decisions based on instantaneous emotional causes.”
At one point in the interview, he said, “For pleasing students temporarily, we should not spoil their career in the long term.”
How does one define academic credibility? Is it derived from forcing students to appear for exams amid a pandemic even though alternative methods of assessment are available? India’s school education boards, CBSE and ICSE, have already cancelled their pending exams and premier institutions such as IITs have decided to promote students without exams. What is the UGC alone fixated on conducting standardised tests?
Moreover, final year college and university students are adult men and women. They are well capable of making decisions about their future. To put their opposition to the online exams down to “instantaneous emotions” is to dismiss their agency and the validity of their judgements about their own lives.
Patwardhan goes on, “If we encourage a degree without examination, we would be giving a very wrong message.”
Conducting exams as some sort of a moral exercise and forcing the students to take to the streets in a pandemic wouldn’t send out a wrong message? If “academic credibility” – whatever that might mean – is held to be more important than the wellbeing of students, what does it say about the character of our educational institutions?
Newslaundry has reported about the plight of students who live in remote areas and can’t afford a smartphone, let alone an internet connection.
Brijesh Chowdhary, a student at the Delhi School of Journalism, lives in Guhna village of Haryana. Attending classes was hard for him even before the lockdown. He would walk or hitchhike from his home to the main road and take a bus to Sonepat. Since he could not afford the bus fare from there, Chowdhary said, he would take a passenger train to Azadpur, Delhi. From there, he would walk about a kilometre to board a Delhi Transport Corporation bus to Vishwavidyalaya, and then walk to his college. Chowdhary’s family are farmers. “This year our harvest was late so we couldn’t earn much. Farmers do not have enough savings and we sometimes have to struggle to get food in our village. Internet connectivity is poor, so I have been unable to attend most classes. If they go ahead with online exams, I will have to drop a year.”
Students with disabilities have additional concerns. Deepak Kumar Gupta, a visually impaired student at Delhi University, has petitioned the vice chancellor against online exams. He believes that they are discriminatory to large segments of India’s student population.
"Visually challenged students require certain assistive devices as well as certain modes of accessible features. The website must be structured in the way that we ask through assistive devices like screen readers,” he explained. “Also, many of us don’t have laptops as some of us are economically backward. There is a deep connection between disability and poverty. Most of us don’t have access to the internet and among those who do very few know how to operate it. Other than that, the material on the internet is often in an inaccessible format. We are not trained to use Skype, Zoom, or any of these apps used by the teachers. And different teachers use different platforms making it difficult for us to navigate online learning.”
Delhi University has proposed providing scribes for students with disabilities. But how feasible it would be in a pandemic is unclear. Asked about such students, Patwardhan replied, “If there is a will, there is a way. In the remotest of remote areas, students can go to governing bodies such as the panchayat if you are able to properly structure these examinations.”
This line of argument has long been used to justify class divide and now it’s being employed to invisible the digital divide. One might ask what measures the UGC has taken to bridge the digital divide among the students whose interests it claims to safeguard? Students and teachers have been agitating ever since the exams were announced. Their protests have fallen on deaf ears, however. They even contested the UGC’s decision in the Delhi High Court, but to no avail.
Afterwards, the UGC said those who are unable to take the exams can appear later. But given the limited availability and accessibility of online education and the internet generally in this country, one is compelled to ask: who are these exams being held for? The handful of privileged students with access to the internet and online educational resources?
Patwardhan concluded his argument by saying, “Postponement is one thing and cancellation of exams is another. We can postpone them if the situation in September is not right. This is about their future. I have talked to students who are protesting against the exams. After I talk to them they agree that exams are necessary.” He evidently hasn’t spoken with students who are in no condition to take the exams. Students like Brijesh Chowdhary.