Students protest against university holding in-person exams

In the second week of August, dozens of students from Nepal’s massive Tribhuvan University took to the streets demanding the cancellation of in-person examinations. They carried placards, with some saying, “No vaccine, no exams”, and launched a Twitter campaign – #canceltuexam.

The students resorted to demonstrating after the administration of the university – one of the largest in the world, with 415,000 students enrolled in 2021 – refused to cancel physical examinations until students are vaccinated, or shift to online testing.

Established in 1959, Tribhuvan University is the oldest in the country. It is located at Kirtipur, an ancient town near Kathmandu, and sprawls across 155 hectares.

The university is conducting physical exams at a time when the daily count of coronavirus cases in Nepal is more than 3,000 and at least 25 people are losing their lives to COVID-19 every day.

Tribhuvan University (TU) runs more than 300 programmes, from bachelor to PhD degree level. But apart from half a dozen programmes in the education stream, it has been conducting in-person exams for all courses. The students say they are risking their lives by taking tests.

“If we can study online, why doesn’t the university hold virtual tests or validate the internal evaluations?” asked Shweta Siwakoti, a bachelor degree of information management student from the Nepal Commerce Campus. “The university administration is forcing the students to take the tests at the cost of their health.”

Although the government has issued public protocols banning gatherings of more than 25 people in an effort to thwart the spread of COVID-19, students claim that 80 to 90 people are crammed into rooms while taking tests.

Students from a dozen colleges are sitting exams at single centres in Kathmandu and other big cities. Padma Kanya Campus, for instance, hosts exams for 11 colleges in Kathmandu. Students complain that the exam centres are not following health safety protocols.

On 10 August, police intervened in demonstrations at Padma Kanya Campus held by examinees opposing physical exams. On 11 August, the government decided to administer COVID-19 vaccines to students with examination admission cards.

However, the university did not allow a window period following vaccination.

“Someone should tell the university administrators that the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t work the very day it is administered,” said a business administration student at Sainik Awasiya Mahavidyalaya in Bhaktapur, a military college. The student was speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What would the TU lose if it allowed a break of three weeks for the vaccination and continued the test.” In Nepal, the government is administering vaccines with a minimum gap of 21 days between two doses.

Officials rubbish student claims

Officials at Tribhuvan University rubbished student claims that they are not paying due attention to safety measures. They argue that conducting examinations is necessary, as they have piled up since last year.

Dr Dharma Kanta Banskota, the vice-chancellor, said there were various problems for a university with huge enrolment to shift to online tests. “Significant numbers of our students aren’t even able to do their exams online. How can we conduct online tests for them?” he said.

“Also, enrolment in many of the programmes is over 10,000 each. The existing internet server cannot bear the load to conduct the tests of all these students. And we cannot conduct separate exams for a single programme.”

Banskota said that due to the massive student numbers, it was also not possible to track if students taking the tests were genuine. “It is pointless to conduct a test which lacks credibility,” he said.

Unnecessary delays

Students, however, argue that it has been a year-and-a-half that Nepal has been under the threat of pandemic. Had the university prioritised this, it could have prepared to conduct virtual tests by now.

“TU’s reluctance to shift to virtual examinations has wasted more than a year of our life,” said Tika Bhandari, a masters student majoring in physics. “Despite the risk, we had to sit for the test because we don’t want to lose one more year.” Bhandari joined the two-year programme in April 2018, which would have been completed last year, had the university conducted exams on time.

Last year, the university had announced that the third semester would commence from the first week of April 2020. But examinations were postponed indefinitely after the government imposed a lockdown starting on 24 March as a measure to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Although teaching and learning activities moved to the virtual medium amid the pandemic, the university waited until December 2020, for coronavirus cases to subside, to hold some physical tests.

Bhandari took fourth semester exams in the first week of August. “My friends from the bachelor’s level who had gone to the United States for masters study have already enrolled for a PhD after completing masters. I will have to wait for a few more months just for the masters result,” said Bhandari. “It is because of TU’s incompetency to conduct virtual tests.”

First year bachelor degree students are taking tests for the first time in two years, while business administration students are taking fourth semester examinations at a time when they would have been taking sixth semester tests, had they been held on time.

Vice-Chancellor Banskota said he was in favour of shifting to online tests, which have already started for some programmes in the education stream.

“We have trained our teaching and administrative staff in information technology and have hired 70 IT experts to support the adoption of an online system,” he said. “We are also preparing to expand the capacity of the internet server.

“It is hard to adopt a new system immediately. We are doing it gradually.”