The statements by Human Resource and Development minister Ramesh Pokhriyal and UGC vice chairman Bhushan Patwardhan against the cancellation of final semester examinations in the midst of the intensifying pandemic is centred on the necessity of examinations for awarding a degree. In a recent interview to Outlook, the UGC vice chairman argues that the degrees granted to students without examination will lose their value. These “corona degrees” will be known as such for the rest of their lives and will not carry much weight for job interviews.
Such a perception, however, is totally erroneous on several counts. First and foremost, a sense is being created that the students are being let off without any examinations. It should be boldly underlined here that the students have been continuously taking examinations after the end of each semester and that there is no overarching final examination in our university system. All the semesters are modular and autonomous of each other; a student is examined on the courses covered only in that semester and not on courses covered overall for all the years of the programme together. So, in the current semester-based undergraduate (or postgraduate) education system there is no “antim pariksha” or final examination (to quote the HRD minister). It is strange that the minister or the education authorities seem to be unaware of this simple fact.
Second, the degrees are not being granted without examinations; far from it. The Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) that the UGC implemented in the country has a uniform modular structure. Consequently, Delhi University also follows the standardised credit system for its different undergraduate programmes. For example, any BA (honours) programme has overall 26 courses amounting to 148 credits. Of these, over the last five semesters, examinations have been held for 22 courses amounting to 124 credits. So, already about 84 per cent of the programme has been completed and students have written 22 sets of exams over the past two-and-a-half years to cover these. Of the rest 24 credits (about 16 per cent weight of the total), which was supposed to have been covered in the current semester, 25 per cent of the assessment is based on internal assessment, which has also been completed. That means only 12 per cent of the overall assessment (final degree) is incomplete, and we have been suggesting assessing this 12 per cent component only on some basis of averaging internal evaluation and past examination performance. Why should an entire degree be derogatorily called “corona degree” for averaging only such a small component of the total, that too based on past examinations only?
The UGC has already suggested a process of averaging (without current semester examinations) for all intermediate semesters. So, those students will also ultimately have a degree with a component of their examinations not being held. In fact, in the second year, the semester credits (28) are higher than that in the third year (24). So if examinations can be exempted for courses comprising 28 credits for the intermediate semester students, why can’t they be exempted for courses comprising 24 credits for the final-semester students?
The objection that averaging may harm a student because she could have got higher grades in an actual exam is also not sustainable because anyway, all students should be given the chance to improve their grades when a manual offline examination will be feasible.
Finally, the most important point to be emphasised is that we are opposing the examinations (online or offline) at this juncture based on serious grounds of equity, access, security and safety in the current contingent situation. Examinations anyway are hardly any test of a student’s ability and comprehension in a situation where normal classroom teaching has not taken place and most of them, caught in a sudden lockdown situation (often back home), lack the essential study material. Particularly, students from economically weaker and socially deprived sections will suffer the most as they often lack personal infrastructure like laptops and uninterrupted high-speed internet required to prepare for and write the online examinations.
Further, the very sanctity of the online examination process is severely compromised because there is no way to prevent unfair means, including the use of money in this situation. Somebody can be paid to write the exams on a student’s behalf when all you need is mere access to a password to write the online exam. This is not merely an issue of personal ethics and corruption; it is, above all, also an equity issue. Those who will use money power and be corrupt will get better marks compared to the honest students. So, the online examination system favours the corrupt and puts the honest hard-working students in a disadvantaged position. This is the last thing an examination system should do. Further, won’t a degree based on such farcical examination process not be a devalued one?
Finally, what is also shocking is the way the central authorities of higher education are playing with the mindset and future of the students. Students have jobs and admissions (to prestigious foreign universities) at stake; they cannot eternally wait as the UGC’s recommendation for extending the exam deadlines suggests. Delhi University postponed the exams twice, each time merely days before the scheduled exams, and is planning to hold them a month later now. The mental trauma this generates in such repeated postponement can destabilise any student and it will be extremely unfair to make them go through this tense process once again. Students in many states who were told that their exams have been cancelled are out of any exam preparation mindset. To suddenly tell them now that they have to go back to an exam mode is cruel, to say the least.
Till now the MHRD, UGC, and Delhi University have shown extreme insensitivity to the students and also a baffling lack of understanding about the detailed examination process. It is high time that they recognise the concrete realities of the current contingency and act rationally for the benefit of lakhs of students and reverse their position on conducting examinations for the final semester.
(Saumyajit Bhattacharya teaches economics in Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal)
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