Prashant Singh, a final-year university student in Noida said there are no trains available from his hometown Varanasi to New Delhi yet due to the partial lockdown. He was pinning hopes on the apex court to cancel examinations amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
“How am I supposed to travel? I am hearing that my institute will now hold exams by September 15. This feels like punishment when we were told since June that exams won’t be conducted,” he said.
Even as the final-year examinations have been made mandatory by the Supreme Court in its judgement on August 28, students are expressing concerns about this decision. The SC said that students cannot be promoted without being giving examinations.
The confusion arose because state governments such as Maharashtra and West Bengal had said in June itself that final-year examinations would be cancelled. Maharashtra went a step ahead to say that students will be promoted on the basis of their performance in their previous semesters.
Twenty-one-year old Ayushi Nadkarni said the students have to suffer due to the clash between the Centre and States.
“Today’s judgement makes it very clear that the UGC guidelines will prevail and that universities cannot take a decision to not hold exams. If that is the law, why did Maharashtra universities agree to cancel exams? Don't student lives matter?” she questioned.
While Nadkarni is due to appear for the final year examinations for an undergraduate English literature programme from Mumbai, she went back to her hometown in Wardha in May 2020.
“I have not prepared for the exams because I was under the impression that exams have been cancelled. Now we are suddenly told that exams will be held. Inter-state transport is still restricted and quarantine norms are being mandatory. So if I have to quarantine for 14 days in Mumbai, where will I stay?” questioned Nadkarni since she has vacated the hostel which clearly stated that outsiders won’t be allowed due to COVID-19.
If quarantine rules are followed, then almost 100,000 outstation students studying in places like Mumbai and Pune would have to spend 15-17 days in these locations just for writing an examination.
As of August 27, a total of 75,760 new COVID-19 cases were added in India taking the total tally to 3.39 million. The death toll increased by 1,023 to 60,472.
"India is all set to overtake Brazil to become the second-most coronavirus-infected country. But UGC has misplaced priorities in insisting that exams be held even in this condition. There seems to be no regard for students," said 22-year-old Zainab Sheikh from Hyderabad who is scheduled to give her final year exams in science.
Students still confused about the examination date
While the top court said that examinations have to be conducted to get a degree, it has given freedom to the states and union territories to approach the UGC seeking a deadline extension.
Yuva Sena secretary Varun Sardesai has said the Maharashtra government will meet and discuss the further course of action on holding final year examinations.
“We are sure Maharashtra government will prioritise health and well-being of students over everything else,” he said.
Similarly, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said that examinations won’t be conducted in September in the state. She added that the state would request to see if examinations can be taken offline/online before Durga Puja in October.
However, this indecisiveness of the states only means confusion for students. Saptarshi Mondol who has gone back to his native town in Uttar Dinajpur wants the state government to take a strong stand on the UGC matter.
“I cannot travel now because two family members have tested positive. The state government should give a final date and ensure that exams are not mandatorily conducted in September,” he added.
While state governments can make a request to the UGC for extension of the September 30 deadline to hold exams, the university body is free to allow or reject the request.
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Nashik's Asmit Saxena is part of a containment zone and is worried about how he will be able to give the examinations. His institute has unofficially said that offline exams will be conducted.
"Am I not putting others at risk if I am asked to report to an examination centre? What was the urgency to hold exams and why couldn't past performance be used to promote us? UGC's decision is illogical and puts our life and that of others at danger," he said.
The SC in its order has said that UGC guidelines and standard operating protocols show a 'deep concern' about the health of all stakeholders, be it students or exam functionaries.
For those eyeing international education, further delays in examinations could prove costly.
Ahmedabad's Roopal Trivedi who has secured provisional admission into an Australian university for a postgraduate programme in psychology is worried that her seat will be given to someone else.
"I have time till November to submit my final marksheet and degree certificates. Now if exams are postponed to October by the state government, then I may lose out on my admission but I am also apprehensive of writing offline exams. The best option would have been to just promote students based on internal assessments," she said.
Online exams could post accessibility concerns
The UGC in its July 6 guidelines had said that all final-year examinations have to be conducted before September 30. The body had said that universities can conduct these exams on an online mode, offline mode or blended mode with a mix of offline and online tests.
This means that if a student is unable to give the examination in a physical centre due to COVID-19 fears, he/she can give the tests online. However, not all universities may allow this model.
When it comes to online tests, students rue that this will be discriminatory to those who don’t have access to laptops or computers.
“Amidst a pandemic when both my parents have lost their jobs, how am I supposed to afford a laptop? Is it necessary to hold exams risking one’s life?” said Allahabad’s Bhaavya Singh.
At the undergraduate level itself, close to 6.4 million students give final year examinations every year. Add postgraduate and doctoral programmes and the number would touch 8 million.
“The UGC has conveniently said that exams can be conducted online as well. But who will bear the cost for computers? Universities have already indicated that they won’t be able to bear the cost,” said Bengaluru-based final-year student Kavita Lobo.
She also wants the UGC to explain that when CBSE and ICSE/ISC board examinations can be cancelled, then why not final-year exams.
Holding home exams make no difference
Holding online examinations or blended models has been suggested as an alternative to physical examinations. Delhi University, for instance, has instituted a system of open-book examinations for students and those who cannot appear in these will be given a chance to give physical exams in September.
Students, however, are of the view that holding open-book exams just takes away the credibility and that is it better to cancel exams.
“Having OBE where students can sit at home and give tests makes no sense. How is this testing a candidate’s aptitude? It is strange that the UGC is ready to get the testing structure completely diluted but won’t cancel examinations,” said Coimbatore’s Srividya Shankar who is appearing for her commerce final year exams.
For now, it is a wait-and-watch for students. Examination dates for final examinations across universities will be released over the next two weeks. And for those states who manage to get the September 30 deadline, the period of uncertainty for students will get longer.