Exams can wait
Though there is a need to resume activities of daily life while coping with COVID-19, the commencement of examinations at this juncture holds far too many risks to justify the benefits
Today, students of 10th and 12th standard across the country are going through a traumatic experience due to the uncertainty regarding their future as schools are shut down. Their anxiety is further accentuated as they are to face their annual exams scheduled in June and July. The trepidation and a feeling of depression amongst the students is not unfounded. Even as the national lockdown was in force and students haven't completed their basic qualifying courses, a number of private institutions of higher learning have already begun admission formalities online in May itself and also announced the last dates for applications. Some have already closed admissions to undergraduate courses in some disciplines without waiting for the qualification certificates of the 'selected candidates' for the academic year 2020-21. Others are continuously pestering the parents by sending SMS alerts of the last date for online admissions. They have also obtained the cell phone numbers of the parents and keep calling in order to market their degree courses. It seems the education market doesn't care two hoots for the tragedy wrought by COVID-19 on the entire country any more than it does for the terrifying state of mind that the students and their parents are presently in. The students have no alternative except trying their best to pass their examinations and wade through the flood of admissions for higher learning. This is evidently a 'Catch-22' predicament, as on-hand, they have to burn midnight oil memorising answers and attend tuitions ( while using sanitisers, face masks, and maintaining social distance) in order to secure the best marks possible and on the other hand, they have to simultaneously fill up applications online, attach certificates, take entrance tests and interview from the private higher education institutions. Do students have to go through this ordeal and embrace despair and frustration? Do they need to take examinations at all in the first place, in these difficult times of unprecedented global crisis? These are important questions to address at this hour.
There is no denying that examinations are a necessary component of the formal education system and in normal times, it's an opportunity for students to prove themselves. But in peculiar times like this when a deadly contagion is out and about, thousands of students travelling by public transport, swarming at the examination centres and sitting together in exam halls for hours, no matter whatever precautions are taken, will only enhance the chances of large scale community infection. The decision to hold examinations now must be examined. The logical corollary is a definite possibility of fast spread of the disease among the students, in the families of students and the school staff. This prognostication is more scientific than that of the soothsayer who warned Caesar to be 'beware the ides of March'. The apprehension is reasonable for it is grounded in the experience of the post-lockdown scenario, wherein the number of infected cases is shooting up rather drastically. The fear has reached such a fever pitch that social media abounds with rumours of a second complete lockdown in the near-future reminiscent of the one that happened in Europe during the Spanish-flu pandemic in 1918-19 which lasted for a year and a half and infected around 500 million people. Ironically, even if students do their best in examinations braving the grasp of COVID-19, their prospects of pursuing higher learning may fizzle out should they test positive — a chance no one can guarantee against.
Today we have many priorities before us. A concerted and constant war against COVID-19 tops the agenda, followed by the revival of a sinking economy, security and rehabilitation of migrants, ensuring regular healthcare for citizens and, handling the Corona created neo-unemployment syndrome. Examinations are of course essential but not an unavoidable priority. History tells us, let alone examinations, even schools and colleges were shut for years and students were evacuated from cities that were targeted for bombing during World War II. As young teachers were conscripted into the army and schools were used as military camps, students had neither classes nor education for years. Today, just as it was before, we can't choose to be 'penny wise and pound foolish'. Hence the need for cancelling the ensuing examinations in June and July.
However, as the 'show must go on', we have got to find out ways and means to substitute the formal examinations with an objective, practical and impartial system of assessment. The details and nitty-gritty of devising a quick policy to that effect can be relegated to a committee that can be constituted of educationists, bureaucrats and lawmakers with experience and qualifications. Some states like Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu are way ahead in addressing the issue as they have already cancelled the examinations for tenth and twelfth standard. A policy of transparent and objective assessment and declaration of results was adopted in these states respectively. Though these decisions are sound in their own right, and in the interest of students at large, it, however, necessitates a uniform policy for the entire nation in order to ensure equal access and opportunity for admissions to higher learning institutes in the country. Secondly and concomitantly, it will not be out of place to discuss here that in these unprecedented and difficult times, the selection policies and procedures for admission to institutions of higher learning also need to undergo a change with a view to providing equal opportunity for all aspirants as COVID has impaired their chances of doing their best in basic qualifying exams. The practice of merit oriented selection in undergraduate courses, especially in DU, exclusively based on the Board Examination score needs a review as aspiring students deserve an opportunity now to prove their worth. The policy can be seasoned with equity and fairness making provisions for the general entrance exam and for weightages on various objective factors.
The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal