India

UGC final year exam case: 'Lives of third-yr students as important as first year's,' SC told; next hearing on 18 Aug

The petitioners' arguments cam in the backdrop of UGC arguing in court on Thursday that the final examination is a 'crucial step' in the academic career of a student

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The ongoing tussle over the Centre's decision to hold exams for final year students of higher education institutes further escalated in the Supreme Court today with the petitioners opposing the move arguing that exams will pose a health risk amid the pandemic. The court, after hearing the petitioners' sides, has adjourned the matter for 18 August. The UGC had made its submissions on Thursday, and will also get a chance to reply to the petitioners in the next hearing.

Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, lead Counsel in the case representing Government of Maharashtra, began his arguments by linking the final year students' plea to the right of life. Singhvi said that the life of final year students cannot be less valuable than life of first or second-year students; if the current situation makes it implausible to hold exam for freshmen and junior college students, the same should apply for final year students as well.

“We are not against examinations. We are against examinations during a pandemic,” Singhvi was quoted as saying by Times Now. 

Singhvi also pointed out that even courts were required to physically shut down due to the pandemic: "Even teaching had come to a halt. All education institutes were shut off. When teaching has stopped, how can exams be conducted," Singhvi argued.

"The UGC guidelines now is a 'one size fits all' method and does not consider the issues of transport and accessibility," Singhvi said arguing that there is a huge disparity in the backgrounds of students being impacted from the UGC guidelines that make it mandatory to appear for exams.

He said some students don't have access to private vehicles and public transport remains suspended in many parts, others may not have easy access to technology to appear for online exams, still many others may live in containment zones. Singhvi claimed that the UGC guidelines make it incumbent upon all to appear in exams, notwithstanding the diverse variety of challenges they face.

Advocate Shyam Divan, representing Yuva Sena, took Singhvi's arguments further by stating that in many states certain hostels and other institutional facilities have been used temporarily as quarantine centres. He also seconded Singhvi's argument that the older UGC guidelines were more 'flexible' and 'compassionate, whereas the 6 July guidelines made it mandatory for all colleges and varsities to hold exams.

"...The same sensitivity which was shown in the previous guidelines of the UGC was carried forward by the State. There is an element of autonomy that was given to the States. By UGC imposing this date of 30th September, it is extremely unusual because there is no mention about health concerns or improvement of the situation (relating to COVID 19)," Divan was quoted as saying by Bar and Bench

Divan said that like how lives of final students cannot be less precious than their juniors, likewise the teachers and invigilators too were a homogeneous class.

"Teachers and invigilators are also a homogenous class. Their health and their lives are also important. It doesn’t matter which class or which semester you teach," Divan was quoted as saying by Live Law.

He said that the timing of the UGC's guidelines was also confusing, given that the situation is much worse from before when the government had clamped a lockdown and ordered all educational institutions shut.

"When exams could not be permitted to be held when the confirmed cases in India were in thousands, then how can they be allowed to be held now with cases being in lakhs and intensity increasing," Divan asked.

Divan also added that the constant uncertainty about exams have added to the stress and anxiety of students, many of who have already taken admission for further studies or have taken up jobs.

"Look at the anxiety that the students must be going through. Have exams, don’t have exams. So many students have gotten admissions in other universities," Divan said.

The petitioners' arguments cam in the backdrop of UGC arguing in court on Thursday that the final examination is a "crucial step" in the academic career of a student. The UGC was responding to the State of Maharashtra and NCT of Delhi -- both of which have challenged the 6 July notification in court and expressed aversion to hold exams.

UGC said the 6 July guidelines are based on the recommendations of experts and have been made after due deliberation and it is wrong to claim that it will not be possible to conduct the final examinations in terms of the guidelines.

"That apart, the state govt (Maharashtra) avers that the next academic session must begin in the interest of students, while, at the same time, contending that the final examinations should be cancelled and degrees can be awarded without such examinations even though such a step would irreparably damage the future of students. Such contentions by the state govt are clearly therefore meritless," the UGC said in its reply to the affidavit filed by Maharashtra earlier.

The UGC has also filed its reply to the affidavit filed by Delhi government in the top court.

On 10 August, the UGC had questioned the decisions of Delhi and Maharashtra governments to cancel final year exams of state universities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they were against the rules.

In its reply to Maharashtra's affidavit, the UGC has said that it is "entirely wrong" to say that its revised guidelines of 6 July are "not binding on the state government and its universities".

The commission said that it had already filed a common counter affidavit earlier on the batch of petitions which have challenged the 6 July directive to all the universities and colleges to conduct final year examinations by 30 September amid the pandemic.

"In its common counter-affidavit, the UGC has already emphasised and justified the need for conducting final examinations, be it in the form of program-ending terminal semester examination or final annual examination, because it is a crucial step in the academic career of a student," it said while responding to Maharashtra's affidavit.

It said the guidelines provide sufficient flexibility to the universities or institutions for conducting the final year or terminal semester examinations and it had duly consulted the stakeholders before issuing it.

The UGC had earlier filed an affidavit in the apex court and justified its decision directing all universities and institutions to hold final year/semester examinations in September saying it was done to protect the academic future of students across the country.

With inputs from PTI

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