The University Grants Commission (UGC) revisited its earlier guidelines regarding the conduct of final term examinations. The examinations must be compulsorily conducted to “protect academic credibility and quality”, the revised guidelines said. At the same time, the Delhi University administration has also been under the scanner to conduct Open Book Examinations (OBE) despite reported multi-faceted failures in the same.
Both the decisions come in the background of India entering the league of top three worst-affected COVID-19 countries. The justifiability of a seemingly arbitrary order without due discussions with stakeholders is being debated among various sections of the citizenry.
Without a coherent action plan in place and volatile border situations, India seems to be dealing with a battered economy, rising COVID-19 cases, ill-equipped healthcare infrastructure as well as diplomatic skirmishes. Yet, the focus as it is evident, is on implementing a unilateral decision, putting thousands of students’ lives at stake, without caring about the on-ground situation.
The internet accessibility in India still has not been able to penetrate to the lowest rung. While it’s estimated India will have 650 million users by 2023, the number is about half of the total population that’s pegged to be around 1.3 billion. In areas with poor connectivity and frequent power cuts, it’s almost impossible to take online tests.
The DU boasts of an inclusive student base from throughout the country but it doesn’t seem to take into account the spectrum of problems that different sections might face.
To put things in perspective, the UT of Jammu & Kashmir still doesn’t have 4G connectivity speeds restored and students have to avail the 2G services. It would be a cruel and insensitive remark on the part of the authorities to expect students to take the examinations with the bandwidth that is not even feasible for a simple Google search.
The idea that one plan suits all is not only untenable for execution but also unbecoming of democratic processes.
Apart from the systemic marginalization that physically disabled students face, the planning of an entire examination without caring for how PwD students would access the tests shows the myopic vision of the government. Even if scribes are provided, there is no guarantee that they won’t be virus carriers, especially at a time when apprehension regarding community transmission is at its peak.
Education is a subject on the concurrent list and following the conventions of federal democracy, the states should be rightly allowed to frame rules that fit the situation at hand. The UGC guidelines should be advisory and not mandatory, the Maharashtra government said, reiterating its stand that conducting examinations for more than 10 lakh students was infeasible.
Unfortunately, the entire process smacks of political vendetta and opportunism. At least five of the seven states that have cancelled their final term examinations – Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, West Bengal, Rajasthan are non-BJP ruled states. That student would become the pawns in a political game, risking their lives reflects the sorry state of affairs we are in.
Not that the technological and logistical front of the plan is watertight either. The portal reportedly kept on crashing during the mocks and the upper limit on the size of uploaded files was just 5MB, and an average answer sheet on scanning accounts to 30-35 MB. In such a situation, the students were expectedly confused but the teachers were in no better state either. This Twitter thread by the daughter of a teacher employed in DU describes the plight.
With the portal being faulty, there is no way the teachers can resolve queries regarding its failure. Furthermore, the Ad-Hoc teachers haven’t been given a letter a continuation that technically means they’re not on duty, she goes on to point out in the thread.
The list of issues seems to be endless with the students trying to voice them on various platforms.
“The teachers are not trained in online pedagogy nor have we been provided with sufficient study material. In the three hours that we have been allotted, we are expected to log in, download the question paper, write the answers, scan the copy and upload it on the portal which is impossible”, a student of Gargi college said.
When the premier institute of the country is going through this, one can only imagine the plight of students enrolled in colleges, in remote areas. It is an open secret that government-run portals are not user-friendly, prone to crashes and face frequent server failures. The irony of putting the careers of students at stake to maintain academic credibility is probably an irony lost on the government.
A slew of confusing orders issued one after the other have also left the students feeling bitter.
“We had been mentally prepared that we would take the examinations but then the state government cancelled it. So, we started preparing for entrances into Master’s programmes but now that the UGC has changed its decision, we are confused. Moreover, this will severely affect those living in remote locations and having no access to the internet. With private hostels disallowing students to stay, it would also be a problem equally if the examinations are conducted offline”, Stutee Sampriti, a student of the BJB College, Bhubaneswar said.
The problem of connectivity seems to be disproportionately affecting students in the rural belt in an adverse manner.
“I stay in a village that has poor connectivity and bandwidth. After the ravaging effects of the Cyclone Fani last year, almost all networks except a couple of major ones are largely inaccessible. Even if examinations are conducted offline, I would have to commute to the college in Bhubaneswar using a bus which is highly prone to being a carrier of virus”, Swikruti Mishra, a Sociology major and resident of Sakhigopal, Puri quipped.
The authorities don’t seem to be prepared for an offline examination either which the UGC has a provision for, as well. Last month, 32 students appearing for their SSC examinations in Karnataka tested positive for the virus, showing how vulnerable centres are.
Indeed, it seems the government has not taken into account intersectional issues of location, class and gender that are objective indicators in assessing the accessibility of any resource.
As the contagion seems to take a more aggressive turn each passing day, with the WHO acknowledging the possibility of it being airborne, we can only hope the government learns from its mistakes and doesn’t put the lives of students at stake. Students have been protesting online, with hashtags of “StudentLivesMatter” trending on Twitter.
Whether it does bring about a change or is ignored proactively is a question only time shall answer. For now, the situation seems grim and the authorities cannot seem to care less.