Supreme court rules that students must sit final exams

India’s Supreme Court has ruled that final year examinations for college and university students must be held by 30 September, despite student petitions to the court for more flexibility due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

With its ruling, the court has backed higher education regulatory body the University Grants Commission (UGC), which has insisted that examinations are necessary to maintain higher education and says its word is final when it comes to higher education in the country.

In a 160-page ruling on 28 August, India’s apex court said if any of the country’s federal states feel they cannot conduct exams by the end of September due to the coronavirus pandemic, they can postpone exams and must approach the UGC for new exam dates.

Individual states cannot unilaterally decide to postpone exams beyond 30 September and the UGC’s approval would be required for any changes, the court said. It also said no state can graduate final-year students without final examinations, as ordered by the UGC.

At least eight states – Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal – had earlier decided to cancel final-year exams amid the pandemic before the UGC guidelines were issued on 6 July to hold them by the end of September.

In Maharashtra, the state worst hit by the virus, all the exams in colleges were cancelled under the National Disaster Management Act. Maharashtra decided to promote the students and after the UGC guidelines were issued in July, the state government also opposed the order to conduct the exams.

The government of the eastern state of Odisha had cancelled the final year exams in June. But after the court ruling officials of the Odisha Higher Education Department said universities in the state would chalk out an examination schedule.

Asoka Kumar Das, vice-chairman of Odisha State Higher Education Council, said: “Necessary steps would be taken after consulting with universities.”

In its ruling, the court said state disaster management authorities could postpone exams but did not have the authority to direct universities to promote students based on previous performance as student assessments are the prerogative of the UGC.

A nationwide lockdown was imposed in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and all colleges have been closed since then. Some states and students wanted examinations to be cancelled and insisted promotion should be on the basis of internal assessment or previous years’ performance.

But according to UGC rules, a degree cannot be granted without examination. Exams are normally held in July but were postponed due to the pandemic. Some 620 universities out of nearly 820 in the country have either completed final-year exams or are in the process of doing so.

Mixed reaction to ruling

There were mixed reactions to the court’s ruling. Some students and academics said the decision to hold exams at a time when coronavirus cases have been increasing across the country was not right.

A record single-day spike of 78,761 virus cases took India’s COVID-19 tally to 3,542,733, on 30 August, according to health ministry data.

Others said many students did not have fair access to online classes. However, some academics said academic evaluation of students is critical in any education system.

Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said: “The decision to hold exams was in the best interests of the students’ future.”

Delhi University officials said no student would be at a disadvantage as exams would be conducted in both offline and online mode in the open book format, which would give the students more flexibility. Open book mode allows students to refer to notes and other approved materials during examinations.

Abhishek Agrawal, a final-year commerce student in Pune, Maharashtra, said “classes could not take place due to the epidemic and lockdown. In such a situation, holding the examinations despite not having the required number of classes is an arbitrary decision.”

“Many final-year students have cleared job interviews or taken admission in higher courses. They should be given degree certificates at the earliest so that their future can be secured,” he added.

An official of the Higher Education Department in the education ministry said the UGC allows universities to conduct exams in offline, online or blended mode and the decision on the mode of exam lies with the university alone.

“Assessment of graduating students is crucial for future studies or employment,” the official added.

He said “home-based exams can also be conducted under online mode. Universities can conduct the exams online if feasible. Delhi University is holding an open book exam.”

Delhi University is the first public institution in India to conduct online exams during the pandemic, with some exams held earlier this month. Oher universities are planning to follow suit, but many students said they fear technical glitches and poor connectivity during online exams.

During a Delhi University exam on 10 August, students and parents reported that the site crashed. The university has said it will conduct a second phase of the open book blended online-offline exam from 14 September for those who could not upload their exam sheets the first time. The university said the repeat exam was a one-time measure in view of the pandemic.

In Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra state, a meeting of a panel of vice-chancellors was held on 30 August to discuss holding final-year exams in the state, as ordered by the UGC. Sources from the University of Mumbai said suggestions during the meeting included online exams. The committee also suggested pushing the exams to October, with UGC approval.

The state government of Tamil Nadu in southern India is planning to hold final-year exams in online mode after a 29 August meeting of the department held with vice-chancellors of state universities.