On mandatory exams and a willfully ignorant court

The UGC justifies its controversial circular mandating final examinations with the claim that “examinations give confidence and satisfaction to the students”. A survey with 25 university students severely contradicts this and flags some critical issues.

By Sayantan Datta

Trigger Warning: mention of suicide, a verbal depiction of anxiety

“Exams increase competition, maybe, but not competence. And, examinations are not inclusive because they are in a certain language of merit, which isn’t accessible to everyone. Exams constrict merit into exclusive boundaries.” – Vaishali Khandekar, PhD student, IIT Hyderabad

In April this year, while the country was in a Covid-19-induced lockdown and most educational institutes had indefinitely shut down, the University Grants Commission (UGC) brought out a circular that directed universities to conduct their final-year exams by the end of July 2020. Sensing the pandemic’s increasing severity, another UGC circular was released on July 6th; examinations would now have to be conducted mandatorily but the deadline was now extended to the end of September 2020. By this time various state governments had already decided to not conduct final-year exams during the pandemic as they lacked infrastructure to conduct these safely. The UGC’s enforcement did not go down well with students either, and it didn’t take long for a batch of petitions to challenge this in the Supreme Court (SC). In one of these petitions, a group of 31 students across the country cited risk to the students’ health and wellbeing as the basis of their protestation. The SC’s verdict, however, was in favour of the UGC.

Before the SC’s verdict, a few universities such as the University of Hyderabad (UoH) had already declared their final-year results based on internal assessments and previous marksheets, sans exams.  That didn’t spare them from this mandate, though. Minutes of a UGC meeting held in August demanded that even universities which had declared results would have to adhere to the demands of this circular. In response, the UoH withdrew its declared results. At the time of writing this report, students from the university are preparing for their final-year exams. Undoubtedly, these events seem to have caused a furore of anxiety and uncertainty among students, researchers and educators. To get a sense of how these decisions might be impacting them, we conducted a survey that received responses from 25 university students (mostly from the science disciplines).

While most students expressed their confusion and contempt over this mandate, Akash Gautam, an assistant professor at the UoH and one of the three science educators and researchers among the respondents, offers a more inclusive approach that could have been. “If these examinations must be held, it is important that universities become active participants in making these examinations accessible to students. Examinations should either be conducted in the ‘correspondence format’ from their homes, or, for students who do not have access to computers and good internet, the UGC must team up with universities to create (at least) district-level centres equipped with computer facilities.” Many of the student respondents, the key stakeholders, stated that it would have been a lot easier if they had access to campus. “Being given an opportunity to go back to campus would help tremendously. All my notes and resources I need for exam preparation are either in my hostel room or library. Plus, the campus environment might be able to give me some mental peace, which is sorely lacking in living with my family. Being able to focus for long periods has become very difficult lately and is affecting my preparation.”

“Adversity reveals the character of individuals and institutions”

Before getting further into what the survey reveals, it is useful to do a critical reading of the situation. Following their retraction of the initial results, Appa Rao Podile, the Vice-Chancellor of UoH, wrote an open letter to the UoH community. In it, he says, “Adversity reveals the character of individuals and institutions”. While “adversity” is self-explanatory, the inclusion of “character” demands some scrutiny. I decided to go through the SC judgement and the UGC circular in detail to understand better.

It is well known that educational institutions in India work with a casteist and classist understanding of merit. Biases can be detected even in the SC judgement and the UGC circular in question. These documents reveal the desire to quantify merit and competence using final-year examinations, and the purpose of this quantification does not seem to be the advancement of students and people from marginalised communities in India. The UGC circular clearly states: “The performance in examinations gives confidence and satisfaction to the students and is a reflection of competence, performance and credibility that is  necessary for global acceptability.”

Moreover, in point 45 of the judgement, the SC refers to a report from the UGC when it was first formed in 1956: “The report emphasised on the need for higher standards in Universities dealing with standards of teaching and examinations.” Education is a way of upward mobility for marginalised people, but the UGC’s and SC’s fixation with “higher standards” makes this upward mobility much more difficult to achieve. The “higher standards” rhetoric has strong casteist and classist overtones, as it ignores the fact that marginalised people do not have the systemic and systematic privileges to achieve these arbitrarily set standards as easily as upper caste and class people. Vaishali Khandekar, a Dalit PhD student in Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, says, “Exams increase competition, maybe, but not competence. And, examinations are not inclusive because they are in a certain language of merit, which isn’t accessible to everyone. Exams constrict merit into exclusive boundaries.” In an education system where some students are already at a disadvantage due to their caste, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., all that this enforced “adversity” reveals is the discriminatory “character” of higher education in India and the exclusive outlook of the individuals running the show.

Eighty-five per cent of the respondents of the survey were B.Sc. and M.Sc. students in their final year, while the rest were students in varying stages of their studies, science researchers and educators. About 80% of the respondents were from state and central universities, and the rest were from research institutions and private universities. All the respondents were aware of the UGC mandate, while 96% of them knew about the SC judgement.

Notably, about 70% of respondents mentioned that their universities had already declared the final-year results. About three-fourths of these respondents mentioned that their universities have withdrawn the results after the SC judgement and mounting pressure from UGC. How does such a sudden withdrawal of results affect students? Most of these students had already moved on with their lives. Some of them have registered for their next courses, degrees or PhDs and some of them have started jobs. The survey shows that the sudden withdrawal of results and the consequent pressure to prepare for their exams have had a negative impact on the students. For example, a student from Delhi University wrote that they had to let go of their offer from a prestigious university in the United Kingdom. For this student, “global acceptability” will have to wait.

In an education system where some students are already at a disadvantage due to their caste, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., all that this enforced “adversity” reveals is the discriminatory “character” of higher education in India and the exclusive outlook of the individuals running the show.

Double blow for access and mental health

The next key issue that came up is that of access. The UGC and the SC’s assumption that students can prepare for and appear in the exams from their homes portrays a deep (and willful?) ignorance. They seem comfortable in assuming that all students have stable internet connections, good functioning computers, and personal spaces where they can study undisturbed. The reality, in fact, is far from this. Even if the technology is acquired somehow, students living with their families may not have the appropriate environment to sit through the critical final examinations. The UGC and the SC seem to presume that all universities are equally equipped to conduct online examinations. This, despite various state governments having informed them they lack infrastructure for such a feat. The SC’s verdict does mention that the universities can contact the UGC for help, it remains to be seen if and how the UGC can offer support.

This unforeseen chaos in an already stressful academic life has strongly affected students’ mental health. About 65% of the respondents reported this. One of them, who is suffering from extreme test anxiety, mentions, “It (the judgement) stopped me completely [and] paralysed me. I am unable to work, study or do anything. I can’t talk to people, because then [I] won’t be able to control my emotions. I am getting more anxiety attacks. My guts ache because of the knots [I] feel. I am sleep deprived. I feel weak a lot of times, [and I have] numbness in my limbs…”

In an education system that judges competence and merit solely by examinations and attendance in class, it is no surprise that many of us are so bitterly attached to our performance in examinations. When decisions from the top are confusing, it is common for students to feel depressed, and importantly, harassed. One of the respondents mentions that the chaos surrounding the final-year exam crisis led to the death of a friend by suicide and that the stress has now percolated to their own life as well. There are various other reasons mental health has taken such a hit. Students who had moved on with their lives after the first declaration of their final results, now find themself re-living the anxious anticipation of their fate. With the first results withdrawn, they now have to go back to coursework material after a gap of three months. Some have had to give up paid internships, jobs, higher degrees, etc. that were conditional on these exam results, catapulting them back into a position of uncertainty. Students who had to leave their hostels and come back home in a hurry no longer have access to coursework materials to help them prepare. In the midst of all this, some students also have to deal with Covid-19 and sick family members. In such a scenario, one must question this mandatory implementation of final-year exams. Does it really evaluate students’ competence, or is it just another burden that hinders their ability to perform?

The classic public-private divide also rears its head in the survey responses. Respondents from private universities say they have not been affected by the mandate and the judgement. This contrast can be explained by multiple factors. Firstly, private universities follow their own ways of evaluation, and many courses are evaluated by year-long assignments rather than a singular “final-year examination”. Besides, students going to private universities tend to come from relatively better class backgrounds, enabling them higher access to the facilities required. Also, the admission criteria of quite a few private universities, for example, Ashoka University, don’t exclusively depend on the applicant’s performance in final-year exams, but test them on a more comprehensive skill- and knowledge-based system (these evaluation systems can still be exclusionary in their own ways, but that is not the focus of this article). The fact that private universities are relatively less influenced by UGC mandates also explains why students from public universities have been hit harder by the SC judgement.

From the margins

Brahminical cis-heteropatriarchal institutions like the UGC maintain its “sanctity” (as if an agraharam) by using final-year exams, the purpose of which is to judge the privileged to be competent and to put undue pressure on marginalised people. As with most problematic policies, the UGC mandate and the SC judgement has affected students coming from marginalised backgrounds the most. The seven respondents who self-reported their marginalisations in the survey were from marginalised castes, sexualities, class or genders (all were marginalised in more than one way). Two of them were also persons with disabilities.

Biological families often reflect the brahminical cis-heteropatriarchal structure of society and their effect on these students can be toxic. Due to the pandemic, a lot of queer-trans students have had to move in with their biological families, and are being denied access to resources at home owing to their identities. Family spaces that are unaccepting of their children, are often violent in many ways and contribute to the already distressed mental health of students. One respondent mentions that they believe their queerness is the reason for the lack of emotional support from their family: “It has become harder and harder to make simple conversations with my family, which makes this anxiety surrounding the exams worse.”

It is time we realise what the real “adversity” is: an education system that works best for the privileged and disallows marginalised people.


Note: This article is part of TheLifeofScience.com’s Season 5 series which is being supported by DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

By TLoS Team | Published on Sep 27, 2020 in News, Views