Union Human Resource Development Minister Shri Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, on July 6, released UGC Revised Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for the Universities amidst the ongoing crisis created by COVID-19 pandemic. While he reasserted that the system of grading will remain unchanged for intermediate semesters and will be based on internal assessments as stated in previous Guidelines laid down by the UGC, the exams of final year students (or terminal semesters) have to be compulsorily conducted by the end of September by the respective universities.
The new Guidelines cited reasons such as ensuring academic credibility, career opportunities and future progress of students globally and have thus put efforts in justifying the exams for final year students during this pandemic. After this announcement by the Minister on Twitter, a huge outrage among the final year students was apparently visible when hashtags such as #StudentsLivesMatter started trending the following day.
The Revised Guidelines state that academic evaluation of students is a very important milestone in an education system and that a student’s performance in the examinations gives confidence and satisfaction to them. While they are quite correct in this respect, the point they missed out is the completion of the syllabus in a proper way. When the colleges shut down on March 15, much less than 50% of our sixth-semester syllabus was completed, and later on, the teachers were asked to take online classes during the lockdown period.
The classes were not any better than self-teaching as we had to teach ourselves using the notes sent through WhatsApp groups. The doubts were also to be asked through WhatsApp messages and every one in our class was having difficulty in grasping the basic concepts. It was nowhere near to what we used to get in a classroom.
I am studying in a government college affiliated under a state university, and around 80% of the students in our class are from far-flung areas. Lack of network connectivity in those regions made the situation much worse. I noticed less than 50% overall attendance in the mere 4-5 live classes through Google Hangouts, which too were made possible entirely due to the initiative taken by the teachers. I was often disconnected from the class due to poor network connection, and thus, the learning was disrupted all of a sudden. Unavailability of the blackboard for teaching the concepts made everything more complicated.
The Guidelines emphasize on 6 points, and the first one talks about the modes of examination. It has suggested the universities to make use of three modes — offline (pen and paper)/ online/ blended (online + offline). The prevailing situation of data infrastructure makes sending even an assignment in the form of a small PDF file very difficult in rural regions. These conditions will thus strike out the possibility of online exams altogether. Exams in offline mode are the only viable option for universities at this point in time, but this will surely put the lives of students as well as the teachers at risk.
The next point talks about the provision of Examination through Special Chance which entitles universities with the responsibility of holding special exams for those who are unable to appear in the terminal semester examinations (for whatsoever reasons) which are to be finished by September. Now, this option itself is pretty confusing. On the one hand, institutions are not even able to figure out some way to conduct the one and only final exam that has to be compulsorily completed; while on the other hand, they are talking about holding special exams for those who are unable to appear in the regular terminal semester examination. This doesn’t make much sense as there are no detailed guidelines about what type of specials exams are they or how will they be conducted.
Almost everyone will agree that backlogs can be considered as part and parcel of the semester system. Thus, the fourth point itself talks about conducting exams for the same. But, holding exams for those papers is indeed a humongous task for the universities. The struggle would be no less than conducting regular exams since huge numbers of university students have backlogs in one or more papers. Most importantly, making sure that no student is left out in this process is yet another challenge.
Now, let us assume for a split second that the universities are able to conduct examinations (which seem to be extremely impractical now) as per the guidelines, but fair and timely evaluation of the answer scripts will be the next road-block. Remember that we are talking about the final year students here, and they have to get themselves admitted for further degrees in different parts of the country. Thus, failure to provide timely results by any university may cause students to suffer from immense psychological pressure.
The announcement of compulsory conduction of exams during these hard times itself has caused huge outrage among the student fraternity. When exams that were to be held in July were called off, everyone was almost sure that the grading will be done based on previous semester results and was trying to concentrate on the preparations of entrance examinations of various universities. As we, the final year students, were getting deeper into the preparations for entrance exams, this declaration by the honourable minister came out of the blue and with it, brought back the confusion once again, more intense than ever.
So, is conducting final year examination the only option left for grading and ‘to ensure academic credibility; career opportunities and future progress of students globally’?
The short answer is “NO”. There could’ve been other options as well, keeping in view the current scenario and without compromising the health of the students. The new Guidelines have assured of following proper measures laid down by the Health Ministry, but not having optimum infrastructures in some institutes may lead to unanticipated consequences.
Moreover, many students have to travel long distances in trains and buses to reach their respective institutes, thus increasing the risk of infection during the commute. Not only this, but the government has also failed to take into account the adverse financial conditions of a large number of families during this COVID-19 crisis. Some of them may not be able to afford tickets for trains and other public transports, let alone personal protective equipment like gloves and face-covers, which are a must while travelling from one place to another.
In my opinion, grading the final year students based on their past performances would have made more sense. There would have been more data available at their disposal for this purpose as compared to the data available for lower semesters. They could’ve predicted precisely the average percentage that one usually scores in a semester. Picking up a certain percentage of marks from this average and combining it with the performances in internal assessments done using the limited number of online classes and assignments would have been more helpful than conducting exams and thus risking lives of lakhs of people.
Examinations are an important part of one’s academic life and excelling in them surely boosts their morale as well as confidence. However, during these times of worldwide crisis, nothing can be more important than one’s life. With no treatment available at our disposal for its effective treatment and no guarantee of cure makes the decision of conducting exams even more complicated. Neither can we overlook the potential chaos that is expected to be caused by this decision nor can we avoid the infections that are bound to increase in rapid strides over a period of time in future.
While we, the students, are trying our level best to concentrate on our studies, we will be grateful if the government comes up with an innovative approach of grading, rather than making students seem like test subjects as is reflected by some of the tweets below: