There is growing opposition within Maharashtra’s students and parents communities against a UGC (University Grants Commission) July 6 order directing universities to conduct final year exams of affiliated colleges for the academic year 2019- 20 by end-September. With Maharashtra recording the highest number of Covid-19 positive cases in India — 441,000 and 15,576 deaths (August 2) — the state’s Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government had cancelled final year exams of 1 million final year college and university students statewide.
However, UGC is adamant these examinations are held. In this connection, several cases are being heard in the Bombay high court as well as in the Supreme Court. The latest petitioner is the Maharashtra Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation (MFUCTO) representing 30,000 teachers from 11 nonagricultural and undergrad colleges in India’s most industrialised state (pop.115 million).
Although the petitioners are unsympathetic, UGC had already deferred the date of the final year exam from July (as per its April 29 guideline) to September following recommendations of an expert committee under the chairmanship of R.C. Kuhad, vice chancellor of Central University, Haryana. The new order allows universities options to conduct the examination online, offline (pen and paper) or a combination of both. Stating that certification based on credible evaluation is a “very important milestone in any education system”, UGC justifies formal examinations as critical to provide “credibility that is necessary for global acceptability”.
The state government which endorsed UGC’s earlier directive had directed universities to hold final year university exams in July despite no let-up in the Covid spike. However, it has made a U-turn after the Yuva Sena, the Shiv Sena’s youth wing headed by Aditya Thackeray, son of chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and minister of tourism and environment, called for cancellation of the examinations. Writing to UGC (May 17), the state government proposed cancellation of exams questioning the “feasibility of conducting exams of approximately 8-10 lakh students while maintaining safety protocols”. On May 31, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced a cabinet decision to cancel the final year college and university exams invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act (1897) and Disaster Management Act (2005).
Not prepared to accept the state government’s decision, UGC has challenged the executive order. Its argument in the apex court is that these Acts cannot “render the statutory provisions of another special Act such as the University Grants Commission Act (1956) nugatory”.
“UGC has to consider how impractical it is to conduct examinations in these extraordinary times. If social distancing norms are observed, each exam centre will accommodate only ten students. This means 60,000-70,000 teachers will have to be deployed as supervisors. Moreover, it’s pertinent to note that 23 percent of college students are from EWS (economically weaker section) households. Their homes and even some of the nearest exam centres don’t have stable electricity, let alone Internet connection. That’s why online assessments of the past two years have been delayed by four-five months. Therefore, online exams are likely to prove very difficult, if not impossible. The better option would be for colleges to self-assess and provide provisional results — until exams are held later in the year — so students can apply for jobs asap,” says Tapti Mukhopadhyay, president of MFUCTO. There’s an element of disingenuousness in Mukhopadhyay’s argument. At a time when the economy is in lockdown and unemployment is at its highest in 45 years, the expectation that university graduates will land jobs on the strength of provisional certificates issued by colleges affiliated with universities, is naive. There’s considerable merit in UGC’s argument that Maharashtra’s 49 universities have had sufficient time to prepare for final year exams originally scheduled for July. Clearly, UGC members are aware that certifying graduates without examinations will devalue students’ degrees and bring Maharashtra’s universities into disrepute. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Supreme Court which is set to deliver its verdict on August 14.
Dipta Joshi (Mumbai)
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