Even a Pandemic Cannot Deter the UGC

The discipline of Engineering is all about technical innovation, out of the box thinking, advanced logical reasoning and a natural technical curiosity about your field. These traits can help you become a good engineer but they are not enough to get you into India’s prestigious engineering colleges. Cracking the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) Mains and Advanced is the only way to get into the Indian Institute of Technologies, a chain of top engineering colleges in India. You can crack this exam if you are good at time management and solving complex mathematical, physics and chemistry questions. Your research skills, technical innovation and in-built curiosity is replaced with a one of its kind problem solving blueprint that JEE exams focus on. It can be concluded that getting into IIT is not the same as studying at an IIT. Instead of developing traits that make you a good engineer, an aspiring student spends all her time and energy on working to crack a specialised and specific kind of exam.

The same context can be applied to Social Sciences as well. If one aims to get into a top-tier Social Sciences University or College (Like Delhi University or St. Stephens College), they have to do extremely well in their 12th grade board examinations. Even if they aspire to get into a reputed University like JNU (undergraduate or postgraduate) they have to clear an MCQ based examination to qualify. It is shocking how a subjective discipline like Political Science or History can be judged based on an objective test.

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The entrance exams, 12th boards and the JEE, all suffer from the same form of policy paralysis that has affected the Indian education system from the beginning, and that is the one-size-fits-all form of solution. For the student, this particular entrance exam is like a do or die situation to get into the university or college of their choice. This system is deeply embedded across Indian institutions, so much so that the University Grant Commission (UGC) is also following the same pattern when it comes to its decision on the final year examinations this year.

The reluctance of the UGC to cancel the final year student’s examination is a vindication of this one-size-fits-all approach. The UGC believes that if the final year exams are not held then students lose out on career opportunities and the university loses its academic credibility.

The UGC, in a press release on 6th July, stated that “Academic evaluation of students is (a) very important milestone in any education system. 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 acceptance”.

In 2019, the Times Higher Education Index did not find any Indian university at the top 300 rank. A total of six Indian universities appeared between the 300–500 rank. It is clear that Indian universities do not stand well in global rankings. UGC’s statement of global acceptance and credibility is highly questionable. In fact such a statement was extremely amusing for the students studying in these universities as they know the true repute and credibility of their particular university.

Faizan Mustafa and Sughosh Joshi have talked about the UGC’s decision to cancel all other semester exams except the final year exams. It seems to be emphasising that the final semester examination is more determinative of students academic performance than their last 5/7/9 semesters. The treatment of final semester examination as sacrosanct creates an enormous pressure on the students. Such pressure usually affects the mental and emotional well being of the students. According to Hindustan Times, an Indian student takes his life every hour.

The UGC needs to understand that final year examinations are not a benchmark for academic rigour, career opportunities and intelligence. In fact, passing students with previous semester results offers more merit to the students in terms of future planning. Graduating students will enter the job market (a terrible one though) and look out for opportunities, students who want to study further will be looking at other universities and not waste a year. Most employers and good universities do not look solely at marks but also consider other aspects like extra-curricular and other relevant skills.

The UGC wants to conduct the final year exams somewhere in September 2020. With India reaching one million cases in Mid-July and almost seeing 40,000 cases a day, it is extremely unlikely that September will offer a safe environment for the conduct of exams. In such a scenario, the UGC might extend the date by another three months and deprive students of their degree, something which they have worked very hard for.

The UGC has failed to consult their biggest stakeholders, the students. There is a growing demand from students to cancel the final semester paper. The UGC is in consultation with professional academics and former vice-chancellors of various universities for the conduct of exams but there is no report of students being asked their views. This shows a form of paternal attitude towards the students where other people decide the right approach for them.

UGC has ignored the recommendation of Maharashtra, Haryana and Rajasthan, states that have already cancelled their exams before the UGC notice of final semester exam. Aditya Thackeray, a young minister from the Maharashtra government, has filed a petition against the final semester exam decision.

The insistence on conducting final year examination points to a system that has an over-reliance on marks. Marks do matter but they are not enough to give you a job today. Soft skills and extracurricular go a long way in deciding one’s career, they also improve the student’s personality and the student himself realises his aptitude. However, UGC is stuck in a colonial era where your performance was judged by your marks. It is extremely shameful that a 50 year old government body like the UGC has not been able to think beyond marks. As the apex educational body it decides the statutes for all other universities under it and these statutes revolve around an ideology where marks are more important than anything else.

One can just wonder why Indian universities do not make it to the top 100 global ranking list.

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