No Degrees without Exams, UGC tells Supreme Court

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On Monday, India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC), told the Apex Court that degrees cannot be conferred on students without final year examinations being held & that it alone is empowered to take a call on whether or not the exams can take place or should be cancelled.

State Govts can’t cancel examinations, that power lies with the UGC, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing on behalf of the UGC, told the Supreme Court in response to the stance of the Delhi & Maharashtra Govts that they have cancelled final year/ terminal semester examinations because of COVID -19.

“How can states cancel exams when UGC is empowered to confer degrees? Students cannot get degrees without exams. Such degrees will not be recognized by UGC. That is the law,” Solicitor General told a 3-Judge bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan.

The bench, which also comprised Justices R Subhash Reddy & MR Shah, was hearing a batch of petitions by students & organizations challenging the July 6 guidelines issue by UGC on holding final year examinations by September 30.

The petitioners have demanded that the apex court consider scrapping online/offline tests & instead direct the UGC to declare results by July 31 based on the past performance of students or internal assessment.

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“It’s not just about a couple of students. Any decision regarding exams impacts a large number of students,” said Mahesh Verma, vice chancellor of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University– a state government-run institution in Delhi that has promoted students based on their performance in the last semester & internal tests.

“Many of them are living in far-flung areas amid the pandemic & have no access to devices & the internet. They did not get opportunities to attend online classes. How can we take exams of students who could not be taught? … We just hope the UGC realises the present challenges & ensure that students are not impacted by their decision.”

Delhi & Maharashtra governments invoked powers under the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to scrap the exams. The Disaster Management Act is a law intended to ensure effective management of disasters & it empowers central & state governments to take measures to mitigate disaster situations. Both are among the worst affected by the pandemic.

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“The powers under it {Disaster Management Act} are sweeping as we saw when the central government & states imposed lockdowns bringing life to a standstill & effectively curtailing various fundamental rights of citizens like right to move freely. If fundamental rights can be curtailed in exercise of that law, then postponing examinations is also reasonable. Hence, in my opinion the power of states under the Disaster Management Act will trump the powers of UGC,” Supreme Court advocate Haris Beeran said.

Maharashtra announced its decision on June 19 & Delhi on July 11.

The Maharashtra government told the apex court that it took the decision to scrap the final-year exams after the State Disaster Management Authority, constituted under the Disaster Management Act, recommended this against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was submitted by Maharashtra that a majority of university vice chancellors from the state were against holding final-year examinations because of an exponential rise in Covid-19 cases in the state.

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Maharashtra has been hit the hardest among Indian states by the viral disease, reporting over 500,000 cases & 17,757 deaths till Sunday night.

The Delhi Govt also adopted a similar stance, pointing out that not all students were able to attend online classes, citing a digital divide that made online teaching inaccessible to less privileged students.

The affidavit by the Delhi Govt said that “During this extremely tough period, regular physical classes got completely interrupted. The students had no access to study material & the college libraries were closed, although getting access through online mode in such peculiar circumstances, the students did not get the kind of preparation needed to attempt a full-fledged examination”.

Delhi reported over 145,000 cases & 4,111 deaths till Sunday night.

All colleges have been shut since later March on account of Covid-19 & the lockdown imposed to fight it. In all, India imposed a 68-day lockdown between March 24 & May 31. Since then, some activities have been allowed, although educational institutions have not been allowed to reopen.

Apart from Maharashtra & Delhi, states including Odisha, Punjab, Haryana & Madhya Pradesh have cancelled university exams including final-year exams. Tamil Nadu & Karnataka had cancelled university exams except for final year/ terminal semester students.

SG said that “The affidavits by Maharashtra & Delhi are against UGC guidelines. It is the UGC which confers degrees”.

“But will the Disaster Management Act override the UGC directive?” the bench queried him, asking Mehta to respond in an affidavit.

The matter was adjourned to enable the UGC to file its response & will be heard again on August 14.

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A government official said the matter was “sub-judice” & added that the regulator’s move was keeping in mind the UGC Act & regulations related to exams & degrees.

At an event earlier in the day, education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank said the decision on exams was taken to ensure that the shadow of COVID did not fall on the degrees of students & their careers were not affected. The minister was asked a question about the opening of schools, to which he replied that a decision would be taken keeping in mind the safety of students & staff.

The UGC filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court on July 30 defending its July 6 directive that examinations be held by September-end. stating that the academic future of students will be irreparably damaged if the examinations are not held.

The final-year/ terminal semester examinations were initially scheduled to be held in July. This was based on April 29 guidelines issued by UGC based on the recommendations of an expert committee headed by Chairperson of Central University of Haryana, RC Kuhad.

Keeping in view the evolving COVID-19 situation, UGC, in June, requested the expert committee to revisit the guidelines. Based on the expert committee’s recommendations, fresh guidelines were then issued on July 6, directing that examinations be held by the end of Sept.

The guidelines say that universities could conduct the examinations in the online or offline mode & by ensuring adherence to social distancing norms.

A Coronavirus positive student was one of the petitioners raising the demand for the exams to be cancelled. Shiv Sena’s youth wing, Yuva Sena, was also a petitioner before the Court.

UGC said that “Final-year/ terminal semester examinations are important because the learning process of a dynamic interaction where the only way to figure out what the students know is to seek evidence of their knowledge. Academic evaluation of final-year students is, therefore, a very important milestone in any education system”.

Manoj Khanna, principal of Delhi University’s Ramjas College, agreed. “It would be very difficult to assess students on the basis of internal marks. It cannot be a proper form of assessment & it can be an injustice to students who prepare well for the final exams. Not taking exams won’t be justifiable.” he said.

However, many Students, are against the UGC’s insistence on conducting final-year exams. “Many state universities are promoting their final year students on the basis of last semester & internal assessment & still the UGC is adamant about conducting exams,” Amal K Simon, a final year BSc (Physics) student at Ramjas College in New Delhi, said. “The students are going through a lot of issues amid the pandemic. Families of many students are going through major financial crisis.”

Ex-UGC member Dr Inder Mohan Kapahy said that “It is an incontrovertible fact that as per the Parliamentary Act, UGC is the only agency to lay down rules for the grants of degrees for all kinds of universities: Cental, State, Deemed, Private. It has also the power to derecognise the degree awarded in violation of the UGC guidelines. However, in these unprecedented Covid pandemic times it is desirable that a legal or political fight should not mar the future of millions of final year students or inordinately delay their results. MHRD & UGC should immediately engage in a dialogue with the contending states to reach an amicable & academically sound solution”. 

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