India has a demographic dividend unlike any other country; our students are soon going to be part of the workforce. Painting their future is our responsibility, and so we must look at how the education system is aiding students to cope with this pandemic. Universities around the globe are reassessing the means of imparting education. While evaluating student progress through examinations is pertinent, the UGC should rethink if holding exams at this time can be a viable option as Covid-19 cases increase everyday. Without considering the situation at hand, the decisions we make right now will hamper the academic performance of our students when their future hangs by a thread.
Students won't be able to travel long distances to reach universities or exam centres, or find living arrangements; they also have to cope with the fear of the invisible virus, all just to write their exams. The resources with our central universities are inadequate to provide hostel facilities to all outstation students. They will be forced to rely on private accommodation, which will reinforce the reluctance to appear for exams. There are also questions about how states will manage large gatherings of students and the impossibility of maintaining social distancing. All this has been raised by Aaditya Thackeray in his petition in the Supreme Court. There will be thousands of students who won't be able to appear for examinations for reasons beyond their control, and it will be a grave injustice to them if deprived of the opportunity to study in the next academic session. We cannot put the health and the lives of lakhs of students in danger because of our ill-conceived decisions.
Countries around the world have rapidly advanced to adjust to the requirements of Covid-19. Atleast 58 counties had postponed or rescheduled exams, 23 introduced alternative methods such as online or home-based testing, 22 maintained exams with extreme precautions while in 11 countries, exams have been cancelled altogether. Universities are making concerted efforts so that learning is not disrupted and have used various technologies to continue classes. The University Grants Commission rightfully changed its guidelines, postponed exams multiple times, directed the faculty to adapt itself to new means and gave relaxations to the students. But looking at the inevitability of the situation, we should not be resistant to cancelling exams altogether in this academic session.
India's higher education system is a glaring example of an overemphasis on exam scores while rational thought and critical thinking are often compromised. Professors and faculty should now be given the flexibility to rethink and implement course evaluation in their grading systems. This will truly mean standing by our students and the teachers even as they demonstrate extraordinary resilience. It is the government's responsibility to take into account the grievances of their primary stakeholders, which are the students. Making plans for the conclusion of the academic session and the beginning of the next one has to be done through a dialogue with students as well as considering the infrastructure and resources we presently have.
The Energy, time and money spent on the ritual of examinations should be used to assess and then overcome the institutional inadequacies that students are being subjected to. Even online examinations will be disproportionately biased towards a vast majority of students. Only 12.5% of Indian households with students have access to the internet and about 50 % of them have laptops, and only a quarter of them have adequate internet connectivity which has affected their attendance rates. It is unfortunate that the central government, since the lockdown, has made no efforts to reach out to our students and bridge this digital divide.
Countries around the globe have developed innovative ideas to improve access to the internet and ensure that students are not left behind. Jamaica, Argentina, and South Africa have introduced zero-rated educational websites and also distributed learning kits to students who don't have access to internet connections and partnered up with service providers to subsidise internet plans and make learning on digital platforms affordable. Rwanda and Kenya waived internet charges for students, while Bhutan and the Kyrgyz Republic are providing them with additional data so that they can access online education easily and are telecasting television educational programmes. Even Chicago provided students with personal gadgets to keep them updated with their course. In California students were not only given personal devices but were also provided with seamless internet hotspots in their neighborhoods.
Our central government's efforts look negligible as compared to this. This is where the Prime Minister's much touted 'Digital India' campaign was most required - to bridge the digital divide. The Maharashtra government is proposing a fair and equitable method- to make an assessment based on students' past performance, not to fail students, and give them an opportunity to improve their score in the next academic year. It has to be duly considered that the inequality of internet access and the problems faced especially by students with disabilities renders them incapable of participating in these ill-planned exams. We should take cues from other countries and find innovative ways so that learning and education can continue seamlessly. Exams are the most critical part of a student's life and decide their future, but evaluating their academic performance should not be at the cost of their health. Examinations are there to fulfill a much larger goal, not just the mere act of mastering it for its own sake. At the heart of the education system are our students, who need to be our priority.
(Jayant Patil is NCP Maharashtra chief and Cabinet Minister for Water Resources in the state.)
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