The Examination Crisis:
Health or Education?
By: Diva Tripathi
"Life can throw challenges at you at all stages, but you need to look up, accept them and punch them back with grace."
A year ago, nobody could have possibly imagined that a challenge in the form of an infinitely small virus could change the ways of the world to such a great extent. Living in the post-covid era, it's time to battle the odds, address the problems and mount up the right solutions.
We know that the post-covid stature in India has put all sections of the society in a major dilemma. The economy is crumbling under pressure, lives are at stake, people are losing livelihoods and students, the most vulnerable section out of all of them are facing innumerable challenges.
This pandemic has had a negative impact on so many people all around the world but out of all, the students are suffering the most and it's high time we face this particular issue.
With the current situation going on, all their graduation dates, jobs, internships, examinations etc. have been greatly disturbed. The future is bleak and in such trying times, both the delay and the impulsiveness in vital decisions like those of the conduction of examinations, norms related to it and the conferral can bring immense havoc and uncertainty in the lives of students.
The UGC or the University Grants Commission is a statutory body established by the Government of India in 1953, responsible for the coordination and maintenance of teaching standards, examinations and university education. All the major universities of India come under this body and thus, the notices imposed by the UGC are upheld in all of them.
Earlier, the final year exams were to be conducted during the month of July but due to the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 cases in the country and the imposition of a four month long lockdown, the exams were consequently postponed.
On 6th July, 2020, the UGC issued a statement regarding the conduction of examinations for the final year students of various courses. According to it, all the universities registered under the UGC were to conduct term-end examinations by September, 2020 for final year students to earn their respective degrees.
This statement was announced by the Union Human Resource Development Minister, Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal, who mentioned, "In view of the safety, career progression and placements of the students and their larger interests, it has been decided that-
Intermediate semester students will be evaluated based on internal assessment.
Evaluation of the terminal semester students which was to be done through examinations in the month of July will now be done through the examinations conducted by the end of September 2020, following the guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.”
Although the UGC did not specify the medium in which the examination is to be taken yet, it was firm enough to mention that under no circumstances will the examinations for the final year students be cancelled.
This move by the UGC was widely reprimanded and received massive backlash by the students, their parents and the educational fraternity. Hash tags like 'student lives matter' and 'postpone final year examinations' trended on all kinds of social media platforms. Various petitions and pleas were filed against the guidelines issued by the UGC by different student bodies. These petitions were specially drafted by law students and included a detailed explanation on why conduction of examinations could be detrimental for the students. The Yuva Sena, headed by Mr. Aditya Thackeray, also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against holding final year examinations in September.
The reason stated by the above entities mainly highlighted the following -
Firstly, due to the onset of an unprecedented lockdown, students had to vacate their hostels hurriedly and thus, weren't able to carry most of their luggage to their hometowns. This luggage included essentials like books and other preparatory materials too.
Secondly, due to the lack of resources and various technological glitches in many regions, students will be forced to give their examinations in the conventional pen-paper mode.
This will definitely risk the lives of the appearing students, invigilators and other staff members. Moreover, it is to be noted that the covid-19 spreads via human to human transmission and so the increase in the number of patients after such a mass gathering is inevitable.
Also, since examination times are stressful periods marked by great chaos, anxiety and pressure, even after taking all necessary precautions, due to different priorities, one cannot be sure of protecting themself from the disease.
In April, 2020, due to the sudden rise in the cases of covid-19, the examinations which were to occur in the month of July were deferred. This decision was made when the total covid case count was merely 350. Today, lndia stands third in the world in purview of the number of covid cases and in this sensitive time frame, it is definitely not advisable to risk the lives of so many people and increase the pressure and burden on the healthcare sector. The intriguing point here is that if the government was so reluctant to conduct the examinations when the case count was comparatively much lower, why can't they prioritize the health and well-being of students and other citizens now when the disease has almost reached its peak? The question which should be put up before the officials is whether the conduction of examinations so important that the government is willing to risk the lives of young citizens of our country?
Thirdly, even if the authorities decide to take the examinations via online mode, do they have any means to check and make sure that-
All students have access to a personal computer with good internet connectivity?
All students have a quiet and personalised space in order to concentrate on their examinations for the given time duration?
No server crashes or other technological errors take place during the duration in which lakhs of students access the same website at the same time?
All these points were presented to the Supreme Court by a number of students via their PILs. In response to them, the UGC has justified its stand by submitting an affidavit stating that the decision has been taken to 'protect the academic future of students' and that that a student's performance in his final terms would give him a sense of upliftment and confidence. It also mentioned that not holding examinations would affect the standards of higher education.
Clearly contradicting the above, I'd like to discuss how various reputed institutions like Delhi University and IIMs are conducting their respective examinations and what consequences the students are facing.
These institutions, in order to follow the precautionary measures issued for covid, have made substantial last minute changes to their entrance tests. Now, all their examinations are to be conducted online via a home personal computer usually with a compulsory videocam. Many of them have also cancelled their follow up levels such as the WATs, interviews, fitness tests, etc. Due to this digitalization, a large number of students have been adversely affected. These changes have not only caused anxiousness among the test-takers but also, due to the lack of resources, many aspirants have lost their chance to appear for the examinations. Overall, the methods being used to conduct examinations, especially the entrance tests, have taken a huge toll on the future plans and mental health of the students.
In mid-August, it was also announced that the JEE and the NEET will be conducted between 1st to 6th September, 2020 and 13th September, 2020 respectively. It should be noted that around 2 million students collectively register for both these examinations and hence, for most of them, their safety was the primary concern. Many students and their families filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to postpone these examinations in lieu of the current pandemic but unfortunately, The Supreme Court has declared its decision in favour of the NTA. And despite the innumerable letters and unanimous protest by the students, the government is still determined to conduct the examinations on the announced dates itself. Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal also stated, "Over 17 lakh candidates have already downloaded their admit cards for JEE and NEET, and this shows that the students want the exams to be conducted at any cost."
So, deferring from his statement, all the digital protests organised by the students, presenting their viewpoint were pretty futile. The only provision that the NTA has provided in order to safeguard the health of the students is the addition of some centres and the right to change centres if desired. Other than this, no notice or statement has been issued regarding the steps taken to maintain social distancing outside the exam centre or the imposition of other precautionary measures in order to combat Covid-19.
At present, the amount of uncertainty and stress present amidst the students is unreal. The youth is tensed. Many esteemed officials, lawyers and personnel from the educational fraternity have spoken in favor of the students against the UGC and the NTA and yet, the government is adamant about keeping all the dates the same. Coming back to the UGC, it has also stated that its guidelines have to be adopted by all educational institutions. According to its statement, around 75 percent of universities have either conducted their final exams or are in the process of doing so. This tells us that the voice of the students hasn't received much importance.
The government has been pushing the Monsoon session of the Upper and the Lower House for quite some time now. This is in lieu of the covid-19 pandemic. The government is trying it's best to protect the MPs and make sure that no crowded meetings take place as it will risk their lives. Many ministers blatantly refused to attend the parliamentary sessions stating reasons like 'high susceptibility' and 'non-maintenance of social distancing'. Moreover, currently all the hearings and decisions involving the Supreme Court are conducted in virtual mode. It is made sure that physical contact is as limited as possible. The pertinent question is that if the most honorable body of our country, the MLAs and thousands of other citizens feel so insecure about their safety and that they refrain from stepping out of their places at all costs then can't the students expect some sensitivity regarding the same from the Supreme Court and the UGC?
Now, with the Supreme Court also ruling in the favour of The UGC, lakhs of students will be forced to give their examinations in a crowded centre. Many of them, due to safety reasons, will back out. These students will have to repeat their final year and delay all their job prospects. Others, who reluctantly appear for the examinations, will go back to their homes and if by chance, they get exposed to the virus, they'll spread it forward and infect their near ones including infants and senior citizens. Is it too much to ask for the students’ safety and ensuring that under no circumstances is anyone’s future, career or health jeopardized in such trying times? Must we choose between health and education?