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UGC AND SHRINKING SPACE FOR FEDERALISM IN EDUCATION
After the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued revised guidelines on final year exams on July 6, 2020, the state governments of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Odisha, Delhi and Punjab became more vocal about the interest of students.UGC recommended online, offline, blended line exams and these states dismissed feasibility of all lines at all.
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh wrote a letter to the prime minister Narendra Modi and students started #SayNoToUGCGuidelines and #StudentLivesMatter.
Captain Amarinder Singh’s letter to the prime minister was candid enough to admit that online examinations are not an easy option for students of Punjab, majority of whom are at the end of digital divide. He also demanded that “UGC may be asked to reiterate its earlier issued guidelines of April 29, 2020, wherein it had been clearly mentioned that the guidelines were advisory in nature and each state/university would chart out its own plan of action taking in to consideration the issues pertaining to Covid-19 pandemic.”
CM Punjab was not alone to voice such concerns. Governor West Bengal also decided to talk to UGC and MHRD. Shrillest voices came from Maharashtra.
But, MHRD and UGC declared that they are not going to change stated stance on final year/semester examinations. The ministry and the regulatory body believed that no degree is valid without final exams. Exams bring credibility, uniformity and scholarships. Their officials stated that the UGC guidelines are mandatory for states. They said that no degree is valid without the approval of UGC. The only response UGC has shown towards states’ concern is that it has allowed them a more flexible schedule and choice of examination mode but again made it clear that no degree can be awarded without final year exams.
States, on the other hand are concerned about the health of their students. They don’t afford to expose their youth to health risk while conducting exams.
MHRD and UGC are more concerned about the sanctity of final year exams, to be conducted before or after September 30.
States say that things don’t seem to improve by September 30. Online exams are not an option for the states, offline exams shall pose health risk. The universities must be allowed to devise their own ways of assessing their students without exams, before awarding them degrees. Paying heed to the concerns of states and stakeholders, MHRD has decided to meet state education secretaries and health authorities to discuss the matter.
DEGREES WITHOUT EXAMS ARE NOT DOLES
UGC and MHRD believe that awarding degrees to final year/semester students is like give them doles. They will get what they have not earned. It is not true. Final year students have earned marks/credits in all previous semesters. This is how they became part of final semester. Final semester was taught only for two and half months at campuses. There are number of ways for assessing their performance for this unfortunately truncated semester. The unending confusion that final year exams will happen or will not happen has exposed them to enough mental stress and now they are sitting with crossed fingers and staring at the challenges post COVID life is going to pose. Only a few state governments are voicing their concerns.
UGC AND EDUCATION FEDERALISM
Do the states have any say, when the question of following or not following UGC guidelines arises? Is there any mechanism at UGC which gives voice to the states? Do we have a mechanism to negotiate the changing character of education federalism, like we have for fiscal federalism? In a way, UGC stance that its guidelines are binding upon the states, has fore-grounded the need for greater stakes of states in the process of decision making by UGC. UGC must be responsive to different needs of different states. Are states left with some kind of decision making powers in higher education or not, is another pertinent question. The answer lies in the manner, how MHRD and UGC shall address concerns raised by states regarding final exams.