Updated: July 16, 2020 9:24:22 am
One of the core duties of governments during natural disasters like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is to soften the blow of the crisis. The hardships people have undergone as a result of the pandemic are unprecedented. Governments have taken important measures, ranging from issuing a moratorium on EMI payments and delaying the deadline for filing tax returns, to providing free ration and financial assistance to the underprivileged sections of society. A class of citizens who have also borne a disproportionate burden of this crisis is students in colleges and universities. But they do not appear to have the ear of the Central government.
With university and college classes being almost completely washed out, students have had a raw deal this year. The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are bent on worsening their plight. The worst-hit are final-year students — who would ordinarily graduate in June, but this year, they find themselves at the mercy of the UGC. In its latest guidelines, the central body for maintaining higher educational standards in the country has mandated the conducting of final year examinations, even as it recommended the cancellation of intermediate semester examinations. To circumvent the impossibility of conducting a physical exam during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UGC first recommended online exams. When students pointed out the stark digital divide in the country, the UGC has begun advocating offline or “blended” online plus offline exams.
The UGC’s decision to enforce exams for final-year students, while cancelling other semester exams, betrays its poor understanding of the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) adopted by India’s universities. Under the CBCS, the academic years are split into semesters that carry more or less equal weightage towards awarding degrees to graduates. Every semester is equal and independent of other semesters. But the UGC’s guidelines reveal that it does not understand this simple truth. The Centre believes that final semester exams are “exit” exams and, therefore, more important. Nothing could be further from the truth. The basis for cancelling intermediate semester exams applies just as much to final semester exams.
Technical arguments against exams aside, the fundamental reason we should not hold exams is straightforward. Universities provide education to students, and based on this education, students are assessed through exams. When the coronavirus disrupted the teaching-learning process, it negated the very basis of exams. What will we test our students on? Do we expect them to have deep insights into their final-semester syllabus by birth? The coronavirus pandemic is a once-in-a-century event and if we do not rise to the occasion and respond to it appropriately, we will be failing our citizens. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures.
It is not that examinations are the only way to assess students. The reliance on written, subjective-type exams has already stagnated our university courses and the way they are taught at colleges. The world’s finest educational institutions have cancelled exams during the pandemic and chosen to conduct internal assessments. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the National Law Universities (NLUs) are India’s premier centres of education. They have all completed their evaluation of final-year students through internal assessments and granted them degrees. The Delhi government’s Ambedkar University has always followed a system of continuous evaluation, which does not place an undue premium on end-semester examinations.
In this vein, the Delhi government has also directed state universities to scrap exams for final-year students, and devise alternate mechanisms to assess students. But the fate of lakhs of students across the country studying in central universities like Delhi University, or in state universities that have not yet cancelled exams, hangs in the balance.
The UGC guidelines require universities to complete all final-semester exams by the end of September. This timeline is cruel at a time when a poor economic outlook, lack of jobs in the market and a global health crisis are already troubling the youth. They were looking forward to receiving their degrees and moving on from their student lives to looking for jobs so they could begin to support themselves and their households. But now, they will likely finish their exams in September (four months too late), receive degrees by November and their lives will have been set back by several months.
It is a tragedy of our times that during a historic global crisis, the Centre is taking unilateral decisions on student matters without any concern for their mental and emotional well-being. Students are feeling disenfranchised by the utter disconnect between their problems and decision-makers in the Central government. In these difficult times, as they step into an uncertain future, the Centre needs to stand with our youth, not against them. The UGC needs to revisit its guidelines immediately and take a humane and rational approach in this matter. If we force students to carry out this farce, we will have miserably failed our younger generation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 16, 2020 under the title ‘Let’s not fail the young’. The writer is deputy chief minister of Delhi and also holds the education portfolio
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