Educational Injustice, Courts, and Mental Health
Our country is currently ranked number 3 in the world amongst the worst affected countries by the Covid19 infection, with over 8 lakh 20 thousand cases and more than 21 thousand deaths. The cases are steadily increasing and the curve does not seem to flatten. In such a situation the prime concern of the central government should be reducing the spread of the infection and improving the available healthcare infrastructure, but for some reason, the focus of the Central government has been on education and more primarily examinations.
University Grants Commission is the body in the country which makes decisions and directs the universities to follow some instructions. In April the UGC gave ‘recommendations’ for universities to pass the intermediate year students based on their internal marks and previous performance but recommended the final year exams be taken. This was April when the country had not yet hit its 1 lakh cases. Many states like Maharashtra, Odisha, Haryana, West Bengal, Rajasthan after this decided to pass the final year students as well without taking their exam. Even IITs decided to cancel exams for the final year students. Although many universities were hellbent on conducting exams and one such university was the University of Delhi.
The university chose to conduct exams online, but as late as July 1st. The main concern with such a decision of the university is the diversity of the students; wherein students come from different states, different economic strata, EWS categories and PWD categories. Such a diverse student body thus leads to a digital divide which the university was in denial of for a long time. To get the university to understand this divide, a case was filed in June calling the university’s examination discriminatory and exclusionary to those who do not have access to internet and gadgets.
The case resulted in the university finally accepting the digital divide and stating that such children can use ‘Common Service Centres’ which provide internet and computers, much like internet cafes. The solution however was not implemented properly by the university. A report by ‘The Quint’ shows that various CSCs in Haryana, Punjab and Assam when contacted stated that they had received no information from the University of Delhi. Within Delhi only 3 district managers were aware of the notification. One district manager from Punjab even states that not all CSCs have proper infrastructure to conduct exams. When students raised these concerns and took to social media about their various complaints and failed attempts to contact CSCs, the university simply ignored them.
The University of Delhi at this point had paid no heed to the students of PWD category and the students who may need scribes. A second case was filed for the students of this category and then the University of Delhi distributed numbers and money for the students of PWD category to afford scribes. Although no one has information whether all students who needed it were reached or not.
The University had promised mock exams one week before the main exams. The date was now 26th June and exams were supposed to start from 1st July but there was no update about the mock exams. The same court instructed the university to compulsorily hold mock exams. Seeing this the university realised it was unprepared and postponed the exams by 10 days in order to prepare their portal for the mocks. The mocks were then scheduled to be held from 10th of July.
This not only added to the already existing mental stress and pressures of the students but it also was a huge problem to the future of the students. Especially those who had accepted jobs, fellowships, and had deadlines to submit their final transcript by 31st July which is by when the university had promised our final results.
A third case was then filed for the PWD students claiming that the university has not done much for them. During this case the university decided to postpone exams due to their unpreparedness without informing the court, this is what led the court wanting to hold contempt proceedings against the university and realising the university had been lying to the court about its preparedness. The case was being fought by former education minister Kapil Sibal, who then pointed out all the lies and faults of the university.
Mock examinations began on the 4th and it was national news that they did not work at all, from servers crashing, to people being unable to download papers or upload them. The university shirked its responsibility to provide the students with some examples of the OBE pattern and gave the students random papers unrelated to their course or subject. Two more cases were filed in the Delhi High Court, one by 17 petitioners from different colleges and one by 5 petitioners from Lady Shri Ram College, me being one of them. The case was seeking cancellation of these exams due to the failed mocks and the future of children being in jeopardy. In front of the judge the university first claimed that the mock examinations had no problems on the second and third day but that was not the reality.
In the midst of all this came the role of UGC. On 24th of June when the third case against the University of Delhi was ongoing, the UGC announced a meeting was held and that the exams for all final years would be cancelled but then the wind changed. The Education Minister stated in the news that final year exams would happen. On 6th July the court instructed UGC to take out final guidelines and not delay the matter anymore and instructed the University of Delhi to come up with alternatives to exams as the previous guidelines of UGC allowed for alternatives. On the same date in the evening by 8pm, UGC took out guidelines which were the opposite of what they had stated 2 weeks ago, mandating exams for final years.
Looking at this, the court was unable to tell the University of Delhi to cancel exams and in turn could not do anything when the university officials stated that the exams may now once again be postponed to mid-August with no clear timeline. The single judge in our hearing who was empathetic to the students, their mental health and their future stated that the UGC guidelines were unfair and unfortunate and gave the University of Delhi levy. The 2 petitions were joined by 2 more on the next date which was 8th July and all 4 petitions were transferred to a divided bench where the case being led by Kapil Sibal was still ongoing.
On 9th the hearing was held on 5 petitions against University of Delhi together, but the court which was at first suggesting alternatives was unable to do so due to the new UGC guidelines. The University has now been instructed to give a firm schedule on the next hearing. One really thinks from the entire situation and pattern whether the decision really was UGC’s or were they pressured by the central government. It also shows that the government is using this time to push their agenda of 2019’s NEP ignoring the digital divide. The MHRD made taking these exams compulsory, taking the power away from states, adding stress to the students and hampering their future to their fullest potential. To top it with a cherry, the guidelines give all universities time till the end of September, 2020 to conduct these examinations. The question arises if we even are a democracy anymore.
A few problems with the guidelines are:
The UGC gives the argument that top universities like MIT, Cambridge and Harvard chose to take exams. What the UGC fails to see is that those are first world countries with much better technology. Secondly, those universities held exams in May-June not hampering the future of the students. Thirdly, the government in those countries did not interfere in their decision unlike our central government which is mandating exams. And fourthly, yes those are top universities and thus they have the infrastructure and knowledge to hold such exams, Indian universities on the other hand do not even come in the Top 400 universities globally.
The UGC and education minister talk about our exams as ‘final year’ exams but the problem with such a statement is that it ignores the semester system which is followed in India. In such a system all semesters are equal, in fact in University of Delhi, semester 3 and 4 have higher weightage of credits (28 credits each) whereas semesters 5 and 6 have lesser weightage (24 credits each). So, if the intermediate semester exams can be cancelled and those students can get a degree based on 5 semesters, so can the final semester or final year students.
The education minister and UGC repeatedly state that the future of students will be affected negatively if they do not give their final year exams. If this was the case, a majority of students would not be protesting against these exams. The students are the stakeholders and they can decide whether their future prospects really need them to give these exams and for a vast majority the answer is no. The education minister states that this batch would be marked as the ‘corona batch’ is true indeed because we are the corona batch and no one is expecting us to give exams in such an unprecedented time except the central government.
An option of offline exams has also been given. As stated, earlier India’s condition is currently at its worst and ICMR reports show that India coronavirus cases will peak in Sept-Oct then how can they expect students to give exams in such a situation when, with barely even a thousand cases, the government had closed all colleges.
The whole experience of courts has shown me that court work is not as difficult as I used to feel it was. The arguments are quite basic and if one has a good lawyer, the work of the client or in this case us students was reduced immensely. I found that courts are actually quite understanding and empathetic as well as rationale unlike our university. The courts actually gave us students a ray of hope in this dark time and thus I would urge all students in this time to exercise their rights and fight against these arbitrary guidelines in courts. Our case is still ongoing and so is our fight. Students have to come together at this time and fight this discrimination. These decisions taken by the centre without thinking of the students have led to various mental health problems like stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and even suicide. We have had 3 cases of student suicide reported due to the digitalisation of classes and exams, a few parents committed suicide due to their inability to provide gadgets to their children. In a time where people are losing their jobs, are getting paid less, the government is only adding to their troubles. The worst part is the centre and even our own university do not even think about the mental stress of the students, how much they have mentally harassed the students for months now, how much they have ignored our needs and wants. A government that puts exams before health is not a functional one, and our leaders have to answer to us.
By - Tanya Chandra Graphics By - Brijesh Kumar