Monday, March 1, 2021

    If a University Could Speak

    The UGC insists on conducting final year examinations amid the pandemic, what is the teaching-learning community thinking on this issue?

    Inadvertently, the current pandemic has become the cause of an ongoing tussle over holding the final year examinations for university and college students. The University Grants Commission(UGC) has issued guidelines, in consultation with the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Home Affairs, for conducting the final year examinations online or/and offline, in accordance with Standard Operating Procedures. 

    The students and faculty have opposed the same on grounds of technical and logistical difficulties and health concerns. Serial deferments of the commencement of examinations from July 1, 2020 to July 10, 2020 to mid-August 2020 are outcomes and index of this tussle. Rapped by the Delhi High Court, in an affidavit filed on July 13 2020, the University of Delhi had informed the Court that exams will be conducted in the OBE (Open Book Examination) mode remotely from August 17, 2020 to September 8, 2020. As of a notification dated July 15, 2020, the examinations shall begin on August 10, 2020 and shall conclude on August 31, 2020.

    As someone who had embarked, in the mid 1990s, on a teaching career in sociology in the University of Delhi, I have lived through the vicissitudes of higher education in undergraduate teaching programmes. But before today, my mind hadn’t chased the idea of an insurance policy that covers students for examination anxiety since most students are on the brink. Like the migrant workers’, the looming humanitarian crisis of university students is equally an institutional crisis that diminishes the value of a university by depleting its very idea and ethos. 

    In terms of structure and function, educational institutions are about the articulation between imperatives of attaining pre-defined goals⎯by stipulated means within defined norms and procedures⎯and the assigned actions and interactions among students, teachers, administrators and non-teaching staff. Their primary goal is to transact formal curriculums in the disciplines offered. This is achieved through a triptych of lecture-discussion, reading-writing, and evaluation-examination held in a balanced exchange.  The three, appreciated together, create a culture⎯bringing into play numerous elements viz. performance, interaction, authority, creativity, curiosity, diligence, anxiety, innovation, insights, and a critical outlook. 

    Striving towards institutional imperatives involves much more than a rule- bound pursuit of these goals. Educational institutions, inherently, are looms that weave fabrics of cultures that are dynamic, flavourful, diverse and effervescent. Every new generation of students is a conduit to transmit these to the larger society. 

    The university has been in the throes of ‘reforms’ since the past two decades. The two prominent dimensions of reforms in undergraduate programmes pertain to, one, restructuring of courses and a revision/modification in course content; two, revamping of ‘modes’ of the programme in the following sequence: annual system (till 2010-11), Semester system (2011-2012), FYUP (Four Year Undergraduate Programme, 2014-15), Semester system (restored for 2014-15 incoming batch after the scrapping of FYUP), CBCS (Choice Based Credit System, 2015-2016), and CBCS-LOCF (Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework, 2019-20). An elemental change occurred when the frequency of examinations was doubled through a shift from annual to semester mode. 

    This altered frequency of final examinations had invited criticism, protest and skepticism from some quarters of teachers and students. A staunch premise of the opposition foretold the damage brought upon the qualitative aspects of an unhurried pace of teaching-learning. The other side of the fence saw no merit in opposing biannual examinations and the accompanying bifurcation of courses. Teaching-learning X amount of syllabus in one academic year was considered equivalent to teaching-learning X/2 in half a year.  Thus, the restructuring of courses, halving of papers, mathematical reduction of reading lists, and biannual examinations led to: a). the compression of  teaching and learning; b). the expansion of evaluation and examinations. 

    The ‘reforms’ have disturbed the balance of function and value exchanges between the three axes of the triptych. Consequent to the compression of teaching-learning, the lecture-discussion axis is tending to lose elbow room. Added to this is an increment in the number of courses offered and a swelled density of the student population in view of the affirmative action policies. Indeed an unfortunate state of affairs that such inclusive and progressive measures have to contend with constraints of inadequate number of lecture and tutorial rooms, crammed classrooms, conference halls, and sports facilities. The contractualization of teaching positions too has rendered the nature of student-teacher interaction contingent, fleeting and temporary. The system no longer guarantees continuity, familiarity and comfort level with a particular set of teachers; it is designed to fragment the teaching-learning of a particular course by apportioning it to two (or more) faculty members. The precarious nature of employment is disruptive to ritualistic interactions and practices that bring forth a culture of teaching-learning through routines, designated settings; stipulated time slots and traditions of teaching. 

    The experience of the third axis of the triptych changed long since the computer, tablet, and smart phone screens came in-between the eye and the printed word and the keyboard between hands (manipulating writing tools) and the script.  With the Internet becoming a galactic portal to resources held by libraries, reading-writing relocated on a virtual outpost. But the Internet cannot be held responsible for systematically destroying the key essence of reading-writing that is reflection. In holding moments of thought emerging from and leading to thoughts, reading shaped the university into a space where contrary ideas jostled both as critique and a context to reimagine social structures. The time and the motivation have all but vanished in the frequency of semester system exams; students’ assignments and answer scripts are proof of empty consumption of texts and indifferent writing.   

    By definition, examinations are instruments for evaluating a student’s grasp of a particular discipline measured in terms of percentages and scores. Conventionally, they are conducted in physical spaces of halls or rooms where examinees are seated in rows at a maximum possible distance from each other. The head of the room is reserved for invigilators who distribute question papers and answer scripts, gather the latter at the end of an exam and deposit them with examination committee members. They keep a track of time and watch over examinees lest they cheat. The system is deemed efficient if the examination process is carried through to completion without glitches. 

    But, there is much more to examinations than these procedural and technical aspects. Designed to create a meritocracy, they are socially constructed sites through which society validates an individual’s worth, life-chances and access to resources by aggravating a spirit of competition, achievement and aspirations. Examinations test students’ comprehension, memory, writing, reading, time management and analytical skills, stamina, mental strength, emotional well-being, and nerves; they are about fear of failure, consequences of a poor performance, future prospects, social ostracism and self-esteem. 

    Even under ‘normal’ and predictable conditions, familiar settings, practiced formats, students in general, dread exams. The pandemic conditions, from students’ point of view, have ripped a big hole in everything they held as ‘normal’, predictable and familiar. In a growing chorus of voices, they are saying ‘no’ to final year exams at this bewildering juncture. The decision to go ahead with exams comes across as a move that prioritizes goals of technical efficiency of the university machinery rather than the concerns of students.

    As suggested by many students and teachers, it is possible to evaluate students on the basis of internal assessment of the sixth semester or the average of two and a half years of semester exams. This is also an opportunity to correct imbalances that have crept into the triptych of teaching-learning. Dropping the sixth exam entails only a small contraction of examinations; but it will, in a big way, reaffirm the value and function of lecture-discussion and reading-writing. 

    Examinations for the final year students under the prevailing conditions portend to refigure the university into a prize catchment area of mental breakdown cases and a wellspring of suicidal currents.  It is vital to pay heed to students’ voices. It is they who confer value upon universities.

    Anjali Bhatia teaches Sociology at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, New Delhi.


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