The Ongoing Tug-of-War Between UGC and Students: A Primer
“You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.”
– Abraham Maslow [i]
In view of the emerging situation related to novel Coronavirus in India, the University Grants Commission (“UGC”) on July 6, 2020, has released the revised guidelines in continuation to earlier guidelines issued on April 29, 2020, based on the suggestions recommended by the expert committee. Some of the vital points from the UGC Revised Guidelines are, for instance, the universities are asked to complete the examinations by the end of September 2020 in online, offline or hybrid mode. In case a student of final year is unable to appear in the examination for whatsoever the reason(s) may be, he/she may be allowed to appear in special examinations at a later date, which may be conducted by the university as and when feasible, so that no student is put to any inconvenience or difficulty. Moreover, as per UGC, the students having backlog should compulsorily be evaluated by conducting examinations in offline, online or hybrid mode.
Soon after the UGC released the revised guidelines, the students from all over the nation took to Twitter to raise their trepidations and soon #StudentsLivesMatter and #cancelfinalyearexam started bombarding on the micro-blogging site. The students reported that the revised guidelines are tortuous and the UGC has no right to play with the lives of students’. Majority of the students requested that the results should be declared based on internal assessment, while the rest demanded another chance to improve their score, for those willing students, who may be unsatisfied with their score based on past performance. Some claimed that for the online exam, they don’t have a laptop or computer and for the offline exam, their parents won’t allow them to travel.[ii] Fuming over the decision, the students have also been sharing memes showing disagreement with the UGC’s decision. One of the students of Delhi University stated in an interview, “Just look at the irony of the situation. The same day when India was declared the third-worst country in terms of COVID-19 infections, the government decides to go ahead and declare that exams are mandatory”. Further, not only the students but also their parents are opposing the UGC’s decision. In an interview, one of the parents, whose daughter is in the final year, clearly stated, “I am not going to send my daughter for the exams. I am alright with her giving the supplementary exams later”. Many organizations such as All India Students Association (AISA), Students Federation of India (SFI) and National Students Union of India (NSUI) have also panned the UGC’s decision.
A plea has been filed before the apex court by a total of 31 students from different universities across India challenging the UGC’s Revised Guidelines.[iii]This case was attached with three others including one plea by Aaditya Thackeray’s Yuva Sena, one filed by the final year student and one petition by Yash Dubey a final year law student. The plea sought directions to the authorities to not conduct the final year examinations and to declare the results based on past performance. Since conduction of final year exams shall expose students to great risk and will amount to blatant encroachment of the basic principle of the right to health, which is an important facet of right to life. The decision poses harm to students, staff and the public interest. The petitioners also stated that students who lived in hostels and paid accommodation were forced to return back to their homes to avoid overcrowding and now they want us to come back. Further, they have also sought that directions should be given to the authorities to give a chance to students who want to improve their marks. The students are in a dilemma whether to pick up books or go round the court and fight for their rights and their lives.
UGC in No Mood to Shift from its Stance
The UGC has clearly stated in its response before the apex court that it will not revise its July 06, 2020 guidelines. In its 50 pages affidavit (which is in response to a batch of petitions challenging the UGC revised guidelines for being unfair), the Commission stated that the guidelines have been released after due consideration by taking into account all the relevant factors, most significantly the evolving situation of COVID-19. Moreover, the guidelines provide sufficient flexibility to conduct exam via three modes (offline, online or hybrid) as per the universities discretion. Further, the Commission contended that it is wrong on part of the students’ to say that the guidelines force them to appear for the exams at the cost of their health because keeping in mind the health and safety of the students’, a special chance to appear at a specially conducted exam at a later date for those who are unable to appear for the exam for whatsoever reasons as per Guideline 2 of the Revised Guidelines. Therefore, it can be seen that the guidelines do not force the students’ to appear in exams during the coronavirus, rather it offers a number of flexibilities.
The UGC clearly stated the decision of certain state governments like, Delhi and Maharashtra, who are planning to either cancel the final year exams and/or graduate students’ based on past performance is simply contrary to the UGC guidelines and actions can be taken against them. Such a decision directly disturbs the standard of higher education in the country. As per the latest data, nearly 75% of the universities have either conducted their final exams or are planning of doing so, and only a very small portion i.e. 25% of the universities are unsure. The affidavit further, cleared the air regarding an issue raised by the students that why UGC can’t follow the call taken by the CBSE and other boards to cancel exams this year. The UGC’s response to this was, “the type of exams conducted by CBSE and other boards are very dissimilar from those that are the subject matter of the guidelines. However, in the present case, we are more concerned with the final year exams, which will have an indelible effect on the academic credibility and future growth and development of the students”. [iv]
Unsatisfied with the UGC’s Response: Students File Rejoinder
The exceptionally urgent rejoinder filed before the Supreme Court raises few grumbles, for example, the guidelines failed to take into account the deteriorating situation of COVID-19, ignored the floods in Assam, Bihar and North-Eastern States, which has killed a number of people making it virtually impossible to conduct either online or offline exams, bad internet connectivity in J&K would be a hurdle for any online exam, some students have returned to their hometown and travelling back to the states to appear for the exams would pose a great risk to their health and put financial burdens on their parents. The UGC has clearly stated in its guidelines that sufficient time is given to universities to conduct the exam till the end of September 2020 after following prescribed rules relating to COVID-19. All the concerns of students’ and state government have been effectively attended by the UGC.
The Court further asked the Counsel appearing for the UGC, if the Disaster Management Act (“DMA”) would have an overriding effect on the UGC directive? The court also asked the UGC to file its response on the affidavits filed by Maharashtra and Delhi in the said matter. To which the UGC replied that the states couldn’t change the rules of the UGC as only it is empowered to prescribe rules for conferring degree. Promoting the students without conducting the final year exams will not be in their interest and degrees granted by the states will not be recognised and would act unilaterally. The UGC, in its affidavit, stated that Maharashtra could not fall back on the DMA to violate into a domain exclusively earmarked for the commission. Further, it was stated that Maharashtra could not cite developments at the grassroots level to supersede UGC’s guidelines and allow students to graduate without giving the exams. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the advocate for the students, argued that nobody is against the final-year exams in regular times; rather against the exams in pandemic time. It was also argued that the revised guidelines are a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and do not ruminate the issues of transport and accessibility.[v]Further, Senior Counsel, Shyam Divan, appearing for the Yuva Sena, referred to the provisions of the DMA and argued that any distinctive authority could not exert its power when certain decisions have been taken by the State Disaster Management Authorities under the powers conferred to it by the DMA. The Supreme Court heard the case next on August 18.
Where Does the Case Currently Stand?
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi began highlighting the gravity of the situation and said India is third in the world in the most number of COVID positive cases. Senior Advocate Arvind Datar began making submissions for the State of Maharashtra. He pointed out how badly the State is affected, and therefore, shed light on the issues relating to the conduct of examination in the entire state. In questions relating to the DMA, Justice Ashok Bhushan explains the scope arrogated to an authority under the DMA and said, “Only the authorities can decide what is in their welfare. Students are not competent enough to decide”. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta began his submissions that the Universities can seek for the deadline to be pushed, however, they cannot take the decision to confer degrees without holding exams. The Standard Operating Procedure issued by UGC talks about thermal scanning, masks and social distancing. All these steps have been taken to ensure that students’ health was fine. The Supreme Court’s final order has been reserved and the parties have been directed to file their written submissions within a period of three days.
The longer the Commission and states tussle away over whether degrees can be awarded while cancelling final year exams, the worse is the suffering of affected students. Given the spread of COVID-19, Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Odisha, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have challenged the DMA to take these decisions. However, the Commission is insisting that its authority still outplays that of the states, and it alone can take a call on whether or not university exams can be cancelled. This is yet another contestation of authority that everyone must now wait for the Supreme Court to sort out. Considering what future will be like if degrees are granted based on past performance? No one has the idea till when the havoc of COVID-19 will end. What if the situation persists for another year, then what? Will the universities start granting degrees without exams for the years to come? If exams will get cancelled now, then this practice may affect the entire education system, reason being, this tool can be used by many in the future saying there were floods in our state or some other exigency, please grant us the degree.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court rejected the plea filed by 11 students to postpone the JEE Mains and NEET exams due to the pandemic. Justice Arun Mishra stated, “Life cannot be stopped. We have to move ahead with all safeguards… Can we just stop exams? We should move on“. The court further stated that we cannot put the career of students in jeopardy by interfering with the decision of National Testing Agency to hold the examination in September. Therefore, in the author’s opinion cancelling exam is not a solution and the UGC guidelines are a right move for the future of the education sector. A number of efforts are being made at all levels by the Commission to keep the wheel of education rolling during these unprecedented times. We may also have to scale up our efforts. There is a need to settle into the new reality for the foreseeable future. The future may have a number of uncertainties but difficult times call for quick appropriate decisions. The students should continue to prepare and study for the exams and shouldn’t be under the impression that the Court has stayed the notice. There is no doubt that the revised guidelines make it tighter for the students to appear for exams. However, it is a necessary step to protect the academic future.
[i] PatrikEdblad, ‘This is how to feel fulfilled: Advice from Abraham Maslow’, Medium, June 12, 2017, available at- https://medium.com/better-humans/this-is-how-to-feel-fulfilled-advice-from-abraham-maslow-cfc427064c84.
[ii] M Saraswathy, ‘Online exams are welcome, but what about students without laptops, internet access?’, Money Control, May 30, 2020, available at- https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/business/economy/online-exams-are-welcome-but-what-about-students-without-laptops-internet-access-5335741.html.
[iii] Praneeth K & Ors. v. University Grants Commission & Ors, July 31, 2020, Writ Petition(s) Civil No(s). 724/2020.
iv Tribune News Service, ‘UGC refuses to relent on Sept 30 deadline for final year exams’, The Tribune, July 30, 2020, available at- https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/ugc-refuses-to-relent-on-sept-30-deadline-for-final-year-exams-119999.
[v] Poulomi Ghosh, ‘UGC Final year Examination Hearing: If Educational Institutions Are Closed, Why Hold Exams? Abhishek Manu Singhvi in Supreme Court’, India.com, August 14, 2020, available at- https://www.india.com/news/india/ugc-final-year-examination-hearing-if-educational-institutions-are-closed-why-hold-exams-abhishek-manu-singhvi-in-supreme-court-4111244/.
Authored by Preeti Ahluwalia, Advocate at Chambers of Mr. Ashok Singh, Senior Advocate.