Row over Indian universities’ Covid-hit exams reaches Supreme Court

Hundreds of thousands left in limbo and questioning whether the country has the resources to hold tests safely during Covid-19 crisis

July 30, 2020
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Supreme Court of India

In early August, India’s Supreme Court will hear a case that may affect hundreds of thousands of final-year university students waiting on the status of their exams and degrees.

The court accepted petitions in July by students who challenged University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines saying that all final-year exams must be held by 30 September. The government has already backtracked from its original goal of holding exams by mid-July and reopening campuses by September.

The complainants say that online exams may not be accessible to economically disadvantaged students, while in-person exams could endanger safety. They cited problems with basic needs such as “transport and lodging facilities, as well as flood situations in many states”, according to The Times of India. 

Their demand is that final marks be based on past performance instead of exams. Otherwise, the granting of degrees and subsequent job hunting could be delayed for months, at a time when young people are already facing a challenging job market.  

India’s infrastructure has been buckling under the strain of Covid-19, with a record 52,000 new cases reported on 30 July. It is the most affected country in Asia, with more than 1.5 million infections and nearly 35,000 deaths.

Most universities have not been able to conduct final tests, either online or offline. In an 18 July statement, the UGC said that only 194 out of 755 universities had managed to hold exams, with an additional 366 planning on holding exams in August or September, and 27 new private universities exempt. That still left 168 universities without exam plans.  

The UGC pointed out that top universities in Western countries, as well as Asian states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, had managed to hold exams. However, India’s internet penetration rate is less than 50 per cent, compared with more than 90 per cent in the regions mentioned above.

Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of Delhi and a lawmaker who holds the education portfolio, wrote in The Indian Express that university classes were “almost entirely washed out” this year, and that the government was not listening to concerns about a lack of facilities and access.

“When students pointed out the stark digital divide in the country, the UGC began advocating offline or ‘blended’ online-plus-offline exams,” Mr Sisodia wrote. “This timeline is cruel at a time when a poor economic outlook, lack of jobs in the market and a global health crisis are already troubling the youth.”

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and National Law Universities managed to assess final-year students by other means, and state institutions under the Delhi government would do the same. However, that still left many other universities in the lurch.

Nandini Sundar, a sociology professor at the Delhi School of Economics, told Times Higher Education that the University of Delhi was going ahead with exams, despite opposition from many students and faculty.

“Many of them are in places with low connectivity, or in difficult home situations where it’s difficult to study and give exams,” she said. “We proposed an alternative model based on previous semester marks, but the university is refusing to listen.”

Sanjay Mishra, an adviser at India’s Department of Science and Technology, speaking in a personal capacity, told THE that some institutions, such as the IIT, have state-of-the-art technology resources and trained teachers, but “about 80 per cent of students in the higher education sector study in colleges, and the majority of [those colleges] lack the ICT infrastructure and trained human resources needed to conduct online examinations 100 per cent”.

He felt the hybrid mode suggested by the UGC might be “difficult, but not impossible, if necessary planning and preparation is done”. 

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