Testing Times: Questioning the Class Gap in the UGC Guidelines

Sahil M Parsekar

On 6th July, University Grants Commission (hereinafter referred to as UGC) published a revised set of guidelines for conducting examinations for final year students across the country, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines have been delivered to universities and colleges which now have to prepare for conducting the terminal semester examinations.

Halfway through the month of May, India had crossed 1 lakh confirmed COVID cases. The state of Maharashtra was severely affected by the pandemic and therefore, by 22nd June, the state’s education minister Uday Samant with the approval of the state’s chief minister Uddhav Thackeray decided to cancel the exams for final year students. Students’ exams were already in question since the outbreak of the deadly virus. Barring the terminal semester, all other exams had been first postponed and eventually cancelled. The issue then remained whether the final year exams should also be cancelled. The decision to dispense off the final year exams by the Maharashtra State Govt sparked a series of events. Within 24 hours of the announcement that brought great relief to lakhs of students nationwide, Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari intervened as the Chancellor of all State Universities, a position he holds ex-officio. The Governor claimed his authority over the universities under chapter 3 of the Maharashtra Public Universities Act, advising the state govt to abide by the UGC guidelines.

On 24th June, the Union Ministry for Human Resource Development advised UGC to revise the guidelines issued on April 29. Accordingly, by 6th July, UGC had issued revised guidelines, demanding the states to conduct examinations for all final year students, either offline or online or a combination of both. These guidelines were met with strong condemnation from the student community. Many student organizations criticized the guidelines and demanded its immediate retraction. The state governments of Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, and Odissa wrote to the Prime Minister to reconsider the decision to conduct exams, prescribed under these guidelines. The Prime Minister is yet to respond. However, a keen observation of the guidelines unveils a small loophole.

The guidelines briefly state that examinations must be conducted, for the “academic credibility, career options and future progress of students”. However, the interesting aspect of the entire guideline is the second provision prescribed in it. The second provision contradicts the UGC guidelines and creates a loophole in the argument ascribed in the document. The following is the second provision:

    1. Provision of Examination through Special Chance 

In case a student of the terminal semester/ final year is unable to appear in the examination conducted by the University for whatsoever the reason(s) may be, he/she may be given opportunity to appear in special examinations for such course(s)/ paper(s), which may be conducted by the university as and when feasible, so that the student is not put to any inconvenience/ disadvantage. The above provision shall be applicable only for the current academic session 2019-20 as a one-time measure.

Primarily, this provision accepts that the students are in a position where it is nearly impossible for them to appear for examinations. In fact there are several reasons for it. Many students are themselves stuck in COVID containment zones. On the other hand, many universities/colleges also land in COVID containment zones. In certain states, several hostels are now converted into COVID facilities by state govt, thereby making it impractical for students to come back to their hostels. There have been cases where students left their hostels thinking that the lockdown will last for a short period and hence they kept their academic material including IDs at their hostel rooms. Students who are to return from their homes to the university and have their hostels converted to COVID facilities are not given any help for alternate accommodation or payment to arrange on their own. Students residing near their colleges will have to put their family at risk because they have to return to their home after every exam, because college cannot arrange separate quarantine facilities at this scale. If these reasons are not enough, there is also the issue of safety during the travel that the student will have to go through and of course the declining mental health of the student community.

After acknowledging the possibility of the above-stated reasons, the second provision moves to propose a solution. It comforts the students that a “special examination” shall be conducted by the college/university for those who are unable to attend examinations in September. The problem here lies that it does not give a specific timeline of when these exams can be conducted. It only uses the term “as and when feasible”.

Ignoring the vagueness of this provision, we should also look at the problem that this will pose: what if the timeline of a special exam faces the same or worse public health circumstances?

If COVID cases continue to rise, will such a “special examination” still be conducted? If not, won’t this be unjust to the students of the same batch who would give exams in September? If, to avoid such differential treatment in the backdrop of the possibility of rising COVID cases, these exams are postponed again, how long will the students have to wait for being declared as graduates? If we address the problem of the students who have already secured jobs, campus placements, admissions in foreign colleges and many other opportunities, the UGC again tampers with their prospects. The guidelines issued by the UGC in fact, is conducting in the name of “career options and future progress of the students”. What is to happen to the career options and future progress of the students who could not appear for exams this September and could not graduate in the year 2020, despite having secured their place in companies or academic institutions? The indecision and incompetence of the authorities in putting the lives and careers of students at risk.

With the second provision in place, the UGC in reality, gives scope for students to call for a boycott. 31 students from across the country have submitted their petitions against the UGC guidelines. A bench consisting of Judges Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy, and MR Shah is hearing the matter.

UGC guidelines are not merely a reflection of the fact that state policies do not represent ground reality but also that such policy implementation is an impractical and dangerous gamble on students’ lives. The second provision’s differentiation of students between those who can give the exams in September and those who will have to wait for the “special examinations”, narrates a specific form of division. If colleges or universities decide to conduct written exams, students who come from villages will not have the means to appear for them; primarily, because it will be unsafe to travel and secondly, because even if they do, they will find it difficult to get accommodation for the duration of the exam.

Comparatively, it is easier for students who live near the universities, that is to say, for those who reside in cities, to reach to their respective exam halls. This just proves once again that there is a gaping urban-rural divide in India which has been completely ignored by the new UGC guidelines.  Alternatively, if online exams are conducted, students who have access to internet will have an advantage over students who do not. Here, we are not talking of internet connectivity, but only one’s access to high-speed internet facility. Poor students are less likely to get such an access. This contravenes the basic principle of equality enshrined in our Constitution.

Thus on the question of implementation, the guidelines affect different classes of society differently. The UGC has thus crafted guidelines which cater to the urban rich, while sacrificing the rural poor to the wide ambit of the exam-centric education system of this country. In a country which has already witnessed a large migrating population dying of hunger and thirst, while walking back to their homes, it is appalling that their children and the children of farmers and factory workers will have to face a dark future if they refuse to attend their exams on the grounds of inaccessibility, lack of facilities, or simply to protect their lives and that of their families.

Sahil M Parsekar, CYSS Maharashtra President, having worked as a psephologist for the AAP in 2020 Delhi elections, studied political management and governance from MIT School of Government.

Photo Credits: The India Today Group

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