Students of the Tribal Residential Hostel, Bowenpally, prepare for exams in Hyderabad. Photo: The Times of India

India’s university examination chiefs have resisted widespread pressure stemming from the pandemic and ordered that all exams be complete by the end of September.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) ruling set out guidelines for the conduct of exams, which could be online, in person or a mixture of both.

Resistance to the exams has been widespread, based partly on health fears and partly on exam security and students’ lack of access to technology.

A petition signed by 200,000 students, a letter with eminent academicians including an ex-chairman of the UGC as its signatories, and several student groups have urged the central government to scrap the final-year exams or at least do away with its latest directives.

This fresh directive is binding and overrules any exam cancellation decisions by state governments. It adds a provision for special examinations later for students who can’t make the exams.

However, this provision leaves the universities with the prerogative to act as they see fit and does not compel them to meet the requests of students.

India was relatively quick to acknowledge the threat of Covid-19, and acted promptly with a decently enforced lockdown. However it failed to estimate the persistence and severity of the contagion and prepare for the consequences.

The government also overdid its optimism. The procedure to phase out the nationwide lockdown was poorly timed and ill-advised, coming in the wake of a hundred thousand infections.

It took the UGC more than three months from the advent of the contagion in India to realize that it needed to revisit its guidelines.

However, this consciousness only worsened things. Adamant to obey the distinctly Indian style of bureaucratic deliberation and procrastination termed as due process, it took the UGC several weeks to conduct a decisive final meeting to issue the authoritative ruling, causing the exams date to shift from early July to the end of September.

The July date was a product of naive optimism about the situation getting better in a few months. In its defense, the delay allowed for the severity of the threat to sink in and conditioned people to observe “social distancing.” But further delaying a firm decision on the exams for a month during the easing of the lockdown greatly multiplied the risk.

The state of Karnataka recently witnessed a quantum leap in the number of active infections. Thirty-two students who sat the state’s secondary school graduation exams in the last week of June reportedly tested positive for the virus a week later.

In spite of all this, a number of state universities in Karnataka, including the umbrella Public State University Visvesvaraya Technological University, opted for a wholly offline examination within a tight timeframe.

This is likely to result in a dangerously large influx of students from all parts of the country followed by a subsequent, just as dangerous, outflow as they depart, in addition to staying huddled in a hostel or even worse, scouting for the scarce accommodation in the city.

This risk is especially pronounced for engineering colleges, which are near the IT hub Bangalore and attract enrollment from all over India.

But compelling universities to hold only online exams at such short notice would have made it hard to maintain the sanctity of the process and ensure fairness.

Only 11% of households in India own any computer, including outdated models that cannot keep up with the demands of online testing.

Less than a quarter of Indians own smartphones, a consideration for the hypothetical scenario where mobile apps can be made secure and vigilant enough reasonably to uphold the order, discipline, and decorum of examination. Moreover, less than half of the households in India have electricity for the better part of the day.

Further, India’s performance on Internet connectivity, quality, and accessibility statistics is poor and has deteriorated through 2020. Last year, India fell to 131st in mobile Internet speed and continues to hover around that position.

In terms of fixed broadband speed, India consistently remains out of the top 50. The foolhardy attempt of trying to implement nationwide exclusively online testing would only impede India’s social mobility further, deepen the socio-economic divide, and aggravate the alienation of the marginalized sections of society.

Had the UGC obliged each university to conduct its final exams such that students could elect to sit them online or offline, it would not only have been inclusive but would have ensured that few enough students turn up in person for social distancing to be enforced.

There were a number of other inclusive and safe options and risk mitigators available as well, such as extrapolation of midterm examination marks or evaluation based on an assigned research project.

India is stuck in a seeming conflict between education and public health. However, if it stops seeing the conflict in absolute terms, and tries a mixed approach as it has done through every crisis, it might just find a way out of the dilemma.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.