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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

An uncritical system

Mandating final-year university exams is reflective of the shortcomings of India’s higher education system.

July 1, 2020 8:24:35 pm
university exams, university final year exams, online exams, india universities, covid-19 Inequality of internet access among the student fraternity, a lack of adequate online study material, and a nonchalance vis-a-vis the grievances of students with disabilities only scratch the surface of this system’s shortcomings. (Representational image)

Written by Noumaan Anwer

Union Minister for Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal’s statement on June 27, stressing the necessity of going forth with online examinations for final-year students in central universities, reveals glaring shortfalls and contradictions in India’s higher education system. Such decision-making indicates that those at the helm of the country’s university system define achievement and value solely on the basis of examination scores.

A long-standing criticism of the Indian university system has been its general lack of concern for critical thinking, comparative and analytical modalities of instruction and meaningful, engaging classroom discussion and participation. Universities across the world prioritise the development of these facets in recognition of the fact that they greatly accentuate the ability of a student to cope with challenging real-world scenarios once they move on to professional spheres. Indian universities, on the other hand, with their heavy focus on high percentile averages and GPAs, have become notorious for their inability to produce students who are capable of channelising knowledge into insightful and pragmatic decision-making once they leave college.

Needless to say, these trends underline the sorry state of Indian universities compared to their global counterparts. In light of disruptions to the academic year caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such contradictions are made clearer than before. Universities across the globe have tried their best to take into account the grievances of their primary stakeholders, students and teachers while formulating plans for the conclusion of this academic session, and the commencement of the next one. However, India’s central university framework increasingly contradicts this crucial principle. In ignoring multiple requests from teachers and students to cancel final semester exams on grounds of unequal access and the pointlessness of a compromised examination process, the sheer single-mindedness and lack of strategic vision of those at the helm of the Indian system is revealed.

The fact that India’s university system overly privileges numerically-defined achievement in terms of examination scores is only further underlined by its unwillingness to take into account its glaring inadequacies in conducting the massive exercise of online year-end assessments. While one of the central principles of higher education across the world has been to avoid teleological determinism, the Indian system continues to see success and continuity amid a burgeoning pandemic in terms of final exam scores.

Inequality of internet access among the student fraternity, a lack of adequate online study material, and a nonchalance vis-a-vis the grievances of students with disabilities only scratch the surface of this system’s shortcomings.

The most glaringly obvious of these — the lack of concern for critical intellectual development — fractures the ability of Indian students to compete with foreign counterparts for leading placements, internships, and fellowship programs outside the country. More importantly, however, it reduces the capacity of millions of young Indians to think analytically and critically. The central focus placed on examination scores encourages students to engage with their course material primarily as a (somewhat) unwanted necessity, meant only to secure numerically-defined academic success, rather than a fundamental part of their intellectual development.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, such objectives could prove to be even more damaging. With a declining global economy feeding increasing competition in the international job market, it is superior mental ability and adaptability that would best prepare students.

As a student of this system, none of this comes across as surprising. Meritocratic achievement that turns a blind eye to the most inalienable objectives of genuine intellectual development is ingrained in our education system from the primary level. Inflated board examination scores and a frustratingly competitive environment counteract the development of analytical and critical mental skills from the very beginning. One wonders how India seeks to improve the quality of its workforce when the objectives defining the system that prepare young individuals for it are so far removed from what is actually needed.

The writer is a student at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi

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