In a press conference during the early days of the lockdown, Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao referred to the academic year 1948-49. Examinations couldn’t be conducted then due to the turbulent situation prevalent in the State. Rao stated that all students were declared as ‘passed without exams’ and that batch came to be known as the ‘Jai Hind Batch’. This evoked laughter among mediapersons, compelling Rao to clarify that there were many intelligent students in that batch and some became successful officers and judges.
Both the Chief Minister’s reference and his defence of ‘Jai Hind’ are relevant in the context of the ongoing debate concerning whether exams should be conducted for the final year and final semester students.
The University Grants Commission (UGC), in its meeting on July 6, revised its April 29 guidelines and advised universities and States to complete the examinations for the final semester students by September 20. It left the form of evaluation — online or offline or using a blended method — to individual universities. The UGC circular further states that universities and colleges must hold special examinations for those students who may not take this examination for any reason.
This evoked a sharp response from a section of students and a few political parties, including the Congress. A few student organisations have been running a campaign against examinations and the expert opinion is divided. In these circumstances, it is important to understand the decision of the UGC and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in the right perspective.
After the US and China, India is the largest education hub in the world. The All India Survey on Higher Education, 2018-19, states that there are 37.4 million students, of which over 36% belong to traditional courses relating to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, 17% are from core sciences, 13.5% from engineering and 14% from commerce streams. The rest belong to other vocational and management-related courses. There are over 50,000 colleges and 993 universities. Over 60% of the Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) are in rural areas.
Teaching, learning and evaluation are three seminal components of any education system. During the last few years, the UGC has been insisting on outcome-based education, necessitating a shift from teacher-centric to learner-centric models. The UGC also envisaged ambitious learning outcomes to make students confident and competent in addition to nurturing values and ethics.
For the academic year 2019-20, the second semester has been disrupted due to Covid-19. The Union government announced a lockdown from March 24 but many States, including Telangana, went for a lockdown prior to the national lockdown. It took a while before the academic circles realised that the pandemic was not going to subside soon. After this, colleges opted for online teaching methods. However, due to limitations of technology, students in rural areas experienced technical glitches in accessing these online classes.
The UGC circular, understandably, came after the clearance of the MHA and at the behest of MHRD. It is easy for any dispensation, especially for university administration, to cancel examinations and declare results as per the performance in the intermediary semester and internal examinations. The administration can avoid the tedious and cumbersome process of setting question papers, conducting examinations, evaluation, tabulation and declaration of results. But why has the UGC taken a decision to conduct examinations and why has it laid down a detailed protocol to conduct examinations during these testing times?
Exams by nature are based on physical and social distancing. Exams provide a transparent, objective and observable set of parameters to assess students. Not having examinations have short-term and long-term impacts. In the short-term, the job market ecosystem uses exam results as a primary screening mechanism. In the absence of exams, the industry will have to have additional pre-screenings for fresh graduates that they wish to hire, thus increasing the cost of hiring. Some firms may even choose not to hire and look for lateral hiring.
In the long-term, we could have the stigma of a large number of students being branded as ‘Corona batch’. The decision of the MHRD is well-calibrated to shield students from such future ignominy.
It is evident that course work has not been completed during the final semester. It is also a fact that by the time States announced a lockdown, a large part of the course work was completed through regular modes of instruction. Universities as autonomous bodies can decide to evaluate students based on the syllabus covered before the lockdown. Since the examination is only for the final semester students, it is not difficult to follow Covid norms both for UG and PG students. Students could be given the option to choose between online and offline modes. Teachers will have the additional work of preparing multiple question papers and testing patterns, but they should take this as a challenge.
The debate also brings to the fore a few lacunae in the current education and examination systems. Covid has taught us that we need to reform our examination systems in a manner that students’ future would not hinge on the final semester examination alone.
The ensuing New Education Policy should bring in fresh thinking on these lines. The very idea of closed-book exams in today’s world of the internet should be relooked at and the focus should be on testing conceptual understanding and analytical capabilities of students. With 2,50,000 villages having broadband and optic fiber connectivity under the BharatNet project by 2021, online education should be made an important channel for pedagogy.
There is also a legitimate question, which the critics of the MHRD decision put forth — that it has allowed a few HEIs under the central government to cancel the final semester exams and announce results based on their April 29th guidelines. We should have a rule that equally applies to all and these HEIs under Central government must also be asked to conduct exams. Let us all be Exam Warriors this academic year fighting under the “Exams for all” mantra.
(The author is Professor, Osmania University, and Member, Executive Committee, National Assessment and Accreditation Council)
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