College students in India are being forced to take exams despite the risks of Covid-19

To attend or not to attend.
To attend or not to attend.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Tejas Kalyankar was watching the news with his father on the evening of July 9 when the final-year undergraduate student at Mumbai’s MD College learned about the fate of his final exams. Then rage and anxiety kicked in.

The University Grants Commission (UGC), India’s higher education regulatory body, had made it mandatory for all universities in the country to hold final examinations before September, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the following days, Kalyankar, who is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and hyper-anxiety, started having frequent panic attacks. “Sometimes I would just lock myself up in the room…I’m ready for an exam but I don’t know if it’s even possible (to) conduct them,” said the mass media student, who is currently living with his parents in Kolhapur, a small town around 370 kilometres from India’s financial hub Mumbai.

Kalyankar is one of the thousands of final-year students in India who are traumatised by UGC’s decision. Experts have highlighted the implausibility of conducting large-scale online exams in India as many students live in rural areas with no access to smart devices and poor internet connectivity. Many students who were attending colleges in cities have also moved back to their native places due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

UGC’s guidelines leave universities with only two options: Postpone the exams for students who are unable to appear for online exams and delay their graduation indefinitely, or force them to travel all the way to cities to give their exams while risking their health. What is concerning is that out of the 945 universities in India, 194 have already conducted final exams without much consideration for their students.

“Basically the provision favours a select few students who are able to give the exam on the scheduled date because they live nearby or have access to high-speed internet. And I think that shows the urban and rural divide in our country,” said Sahil Parsekar, president of Aam Aadmi Party’s student wing in Maharashtra.

Over 30 students from various universities, who had contracted Covid-19, have taken UGC to court over its decision to make final exams mandatory, and the next hearing in the case is scheduled on Aug. 10. But many students don’t even have the luxury to wait for the court’s decision as universities are going ahead with their exam schedules.

Delhi University (DU), for instance, begins its examinations on Aug.10.

Lack of preparation

Universities, on their part, are trying to tweak their practices to accommodate students. But these measures are not enough.

DU, in adherence to UGC’s guidelines, has conceived an open book online examination for its students this year. But open book examination is a flawed method for testing students of DU because it requires “a different way of pedagogy altogether,” Rajib Ray, president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Union and a philosophy professor at Kirori Mal College, told Quartz.

Between July 4 and July 8, DU conducted mock online exams, which were littered with issues ranging from viruses that infected the computers of students to servers crashing repeatedly, and insufficient time provided to students with disabilities. A few students who gave the mock tests grew so anxious that they expressed suicidal intentions.

“If this can happen at one of India’s best universities, imagine what it would be like for smaller institutions,” Ray said. UGC’s guidelines are forcing the institution “to get into unnecessary wrangles and wasting our time,” he added.

What are the options?

As per Ray, a good way to evaluate the performance of students in the current circumstances would be to cancel the final exams and grade them based on their internal assessment, which currently comprises 25% of their grade.

“We are fighting over only 16% of the overall grade. Students have already been evaluated for five semesters. This is just one semester, whose internal assessment has already been done for most students,” Ray said. “First- and second-year students are getting a pass. Why can’t we just calculate the average and award the final year students with a degree? It’s not a convenience issue. It’s a global pandemic after all.”

Ray’s suggestion is not out of the ordinary. In fact, it is an idea that the UGC had toyed with earlier. But it later revised its guidelines, stating that the final year/terminal semester examinations “will have a lasting and indelible effect on the academic credibility, career opportunities, and future progress of the students.”

The regulatory body also cited examples of universities in the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong that have conducted exams despite the pandemic.

But the infrastructure and options available to Indian students are far from what those in developed countries enjoy. A 2018 National Sample Survey report on education found that only 24% of Indian households have access to internet services. When it comes to rural households, which comprise 66% of the country’s population, that number falls to only 15%.

India’s internet speeds, for both fixed broadband and mobile networks, are the worst compared to all these countries, according to Ookla’s Speedtest Market Reports for June.

Hanging in the balance

Arahat Dhivare, who lives in Ajmir Saundane, a remote village in Maharashtra, said he doesn’t know what he would do if his university decided to hold final exams. The journalism student at Ruia College in Mumbai had appeared for less than half of his final papers before he had to leave the city because of the lockdown. He said he would have to travel to the city even if the university conducted an online exam since he doesn’t have a strong internet connection at the place where he is currently living.

But Dhivare said he can’t make the journey to the city either, as all transportation in his area is closed due to the pandemic. And even if he was able to travel to the city, he wouldn’t know where to live, since many hostels have turned into containment zones.

“I know all my subjects. I wouldn’t mind giving the exams. But I don’t want to catch Covid-19. And this is not just me; I know many friends who are in a similar position,” he said.

He needs a job to support his family and to find work, he must get his degree. But he also has a grandmother who is a heart patient. Dhivare is scared that if he ventures out to give the exam, he might pass on the virus to her, risking her life. “The government’s job is to take care of its people. But I don’t see them even considering us. Aren’t our lives valuable?” Dhivare said.