On July 6, revising its guidelines on examinations and the academic calendar for central universities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University Grants Commission (UGC) made the terminal semester or final year examinations mandatory, while extending the period of their conduct till September –end this year. Soon after the announcement, social media platforms were flooded with posts – from the students’ and teachers’ community across the country – expressing their ire.
Newsclick spoke over the phone with Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) President Rajib Ray to understand the implication of UGC’s revised guidelines and whether these must be seen in line with the recently announced initiatives by the Centre to “boost” the education sector. Edited excerpts:
Q: How do you read the revised UGC guidelines on examinations and academic calendar for universities?
RR: UGC has, through its guidelines, postponed the final year examinations till September end; and it does not say that it will happen only in September. So the examinations are supposed to end by that period.
In most states, [while waiting for the UGC’s revision], the [state] governments had announced that the exams are not going to take place. (At least seven states, including Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, among others had cancelled college examinations). Even states like Gujarat were initially thinking of holding the examination and then there were reports that they have taken it back [read postpone].
These states had asked for cancellation of exams. However, now with the UGC guidelines, they will have to announce the examinations that were cancelled; so it [presents] a problem for students, even in those state universities.
As far as Delhi University is concerned, the problem was not only online exams, it was online open book examination. (The university exams are scheduled to begin from July 10 – despite opposition from students and teachers). This is because we [teachers] did not teach students in the manner of an open book assessment. So, when in April, we were informed that it will be an open book online examination [in view of the pandemic], it created a problem.
Can you explain why teachers and students are protesting against online examinations?
During the whole COVID period, say, since March last week, teachers have been facing problems while interacting with students on online platforms. (Universities and colleges in Delhi have been ordered to shut since March 19). The process is discriminatory; excluding many who do not have access to proper internet facilities. Nearly 50% of our students are not in Delhi at this moment [theyhave gone back to their native places].
In such a scenario, what would be the sanctity of an open book online examination? Does it allow the poorer students to get to all kind of resources? The inequality quotient of our country is pretty high. What about all kinds of malpractices that may come up? These concerns are very much there and hence, the protest.
On the other side, we cannot even delay the examinations. Initially, DUTA also demanded conducting the pen/paper test – the traditional mode of evaluation – but we have changed our position since the surge in COVID cases continues. We formulated certain [alternative] evaluating schemes, like considering marks scored in the previous year examinations, taking the internal assessment model, give advantage to the student for a higher [risk] graded situation by giving them certain basis points etc. All these suggestions came from students’ and teachers’ organisations.
But, all of a sudden, now we realised that these suggestion were thrown into the dustbin by UGC, which made it compulsory to conduct final year examinations. [The regulatory body] had initially shown signs of understanding [students’ plight], but it has gone back on that now. And I see a massive influence of private vested interests [in that], whose platforms will be utilised for the examination system in most public institutions.
[Though], I must be just to them [UGC] also, that in the guidelines, a choice is being given [to universities] to conduct exams online, offline or in blended mode.
How has been the experience of DU students so far when it comes to the online mock tests?
I have been saying this repeatedly that they [DU administration] have made a mockery of mock tests. Question papers of specific courses are not available. Students are not able to get into the systems. OTP [one time password] is not going to students’ mobile phones. You can see the kind of agony which students have gone through in the past 72 hours on social media platforms. I am not sure about the university’s server but as far as DUTA’s email is concerned, we have received thousands of grievances.
It would be judicious on the part of UGC and the university to cancel the trap of this online open book examination immediately.
Do you see the COVID situation improving in the coming months, paving the way for conduct of examinations – even through online means?
In Delhi, the situation is grim. And, in the past two days also, many states which were slowly moving out of the lockdown, have gone back to the restrictive mode. The [COVID positive] cases are still increasing, with no vaccine around the corner.
In no way do I agree with the kind of confidence being shown by the Centre at present. [However], I hope that I am wrong, because if the situation turns grimmer, it will be worse for the country.
So, yes, we will have to face it [COVID-19]. We have to be more flexible but not at the cost of life and security of our students. Any delay (in exams) is not good for current and successive batches; keeping students in secrecy, making changes at the 11th hour cannot continue.
The Central government is also bringing reforms in the education sector, pushing further for online education. How do you read these changes?
As a teacher of philosophy and an activist, I am not denying the role to be played by online education or online mediums. We need to digitalise. We need to move to different platforms in order to reach to more students. Our fear against the online thing is that in the long run, and even in the short run, the government might try to do away with teaching jobs altogether.
We have over 4,500 teachers who are working in ad-hoc capacity as assistant professors in DU colleges, including the university department. So, even if the online component in universities is increased, the government must ensure teaching jobs. (On May 17, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced raising online component in conventional universities from existing 20% to 40%). We will have to stop the government’s agenda [to cut teaching jobs], which was there, even before COVID-19 was on the horizon.
Several educationists have termed online education as ‘exclusionary’ in nature. What will be the cost of switching to this mode and who will be made to bear it?
The costs have to be borne by the State; we cannot exclude students belonging to marginalised sections from the ambit of education. We have to reach these students, even in COVID times. This requires infrastructure development by the government. We [DUTA] did a survey in DU and realised that most students do not have basic resources at the moment, [to enable education through online means].
What role do you see the private sector playing in developing that very infrastructure?
Private investments in the education sector have been happening for over two decades now; we have cautioned the government about it. When it comes to investment in education, unfortunately, governments – including the previous ones – have failed the sector. Now [in times of pandemic], if we have to make a quantum jump, we need more public investment than ever at all levels of education -- elementary, senior secondary or higher education.
What the government is trying to say is that this can happen only through private investment. And, as teachers, we believe that this can happen through public money, if the governments are made to pay.
Unfortunately, the present [Central] government is not pumping in grants to public institutions. Of course, this has been happening over the years, but there is a hastening of that process in the past few years. With COVID, we are watching the trailer of what this path has led us to. The country must wake up to this now.
Among others, a National Education Policy (NEP) – a draft of which was presented last year – is also in the pipeline. What do you think will be the effects of introducing it now?
We will be fooling ourselves if we still think NEP to be in draft form. Many of the policy [decisions] proposed in it are already seeing implementation. The thrust on online education, changes in medical schemes, all these things are already here.
The Central government is having a free run in carrying out these ‘evil’ changes (as students and teachers can’t protest on streets due to lockdown). The only way the government can be made to realise this, is through an effective struggle by the citizens of the country.