New academic year postponed by up to three months

The new academic year for India’s universities will commence on 1 September for first-year students and 1 August for already enrolled students, instead of July for all students, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown which closed schools and universities in the country from 16 March.

Issuing its highly anticipated guidelines for the 2020-21 academic calendar, and laying down the timetable for normal operations at universities from the new academic year, the University Grants Commission (UGC), India’s higher education regulator, said exams for students in the final semester of bachelor and masters degrees could be conducted in July, and could be done online, depending on the infrastructure of individual universities and the coronavirus outlook in their area.

The guidelines for universities issued on Wednesday come after a period of uncertainty affecting some 36 million university and college students in the country.

As of 30 April, India has more than 33,000 positive COVID-19 cases and more than 1,000 fatalities, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The national lockdown which started on 24 March – a week after education institutions were closed – has been extended to 3 May. However, officials have indicated that schools, colleges and public transport may remain shut even after 3 May as COVID-19 cases continue to increase.

The UGC said, however, that the guidelines on exams are advisory and the final decision can be taken by the universities after considering the COVID-19 situation in their particular region, and after a comprehensive assessment of student preparedness and considering the residential status of the students – many students have had to return home during the lockdown and transport shutdowns could continue in some areas.

The academic year shift is longer for first-year students in light of disruptions to major entrance examinations, particularly for medical and technical institutions, which have been put on hold; and to give institutions time to process admissions during August.

Making up for lost time

The UGC said this week that the lockdown period may be considered as “deemed to be attended” by all students and if the situation demands, universities can have summer vacations for 30 days in June, but may forgo winter holidays in December to make up for lost time.

But starting the academic calendar in September shortens the academic year. Some of this will be made up by universities following a six-day working week, with around 25% of the curriculum delivered online, according to the UGC advisory. Currently universities operate on a five-day working week.

A six-month extension will be granted to MPhil and PhD students and vivas will be conducted via video-conference, the commission said.

“A COVID-19 cell will be constituted in every university which will be empowered to solve the issues of students related to the academic calendar and examinations and a COVID-19 cell in the UGC will be created for faster decision-making,” the commission said.

The commission said laboratory assignments and practical experiments can be conducted through virtual laboratories. The universities have been advised to develop virtual classrooms and video-conferencing facilities and to prepare e-content, e-lab experiments and to upload on their websites, and train teaching staff in the use of the technology.

If the COVID-19 situation continues, in order to maintain ‘social distancing’ and the safety and health of students, student grades for the semester will be allocated by awarding 50% of marks on the basis of internal evaluations by the universities, and the remaining 50% of marks based on performance in the previous semester, if available, the UGC said.

In situations where marks of the previous semester or previous year are not available, particularly in the first year of the annual pattern of examinations, 100% of evaluation may be done on the basis of internal assessments, the UGC said.

“In states where the COVID-19 situation has normalised, there will be exams in the month of July” for ongoing students.

Expert committees

The UGC set up two expert committees to look into the issues of academic loss and online education and to suggest measures to tide universities over the crisis, after holding consultations with university vice-chancellors and college principals via video- and audio-conferencing. Both panels submitted their report to the UGC on 24 April.

One committee, led by Central University of Haryana Vice-Chancellor RC Kuhad, looked into ways to conduct examinations in universities and to suggest an alternative academic calendar. It has recommended that institutions forego the winter holidays in December and work on Saturdays and public holidays to boost the number of working days.

The second committee, headed by Nageshwar Rao, vice-chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University, which delivers distance learning to more than four million students, was tasked to look at measures to improve online education.

It has proposed that universities conduct end-of-semester exams online in June if they have the required infrastructure and resources, otherwise they should announce a schedule for offline examinations after the lockdown.

P Duraisamy, vice-chancellor of the University of Madras, who was one of the special invitees to the UGC’s panel on online education, said: “Except for Delhi University, officials of all other universities believe holding end-of-semester exams online is not feasible as all students may not be able to take them.”

According to an official from Anna University, Tamil Nadu, many students do not have internet access to take online courses.

On the UGC advisory to hold exams in July, Thomas Amirtham, principal of Loyola College, Chennai, told panel members via video-conferencing that “results could be announced by August-end even if the exams were held in July”.