SC upholds UGC order, backs final-year exams

The ruling by a three-judge bench headed by justice Ashok Bhushan is significant because it appears to have established finality as far as holding exams for final-year and final-term students are concerned.
A view of the Supreme Court building, in New Delhi.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
A view of the Supreme Court building, in New Delhi.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Aug 29, 2020 05:12 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByMurali Krishnan

Colleges and universities cannot award degrees to students without conducting final-year or final-term examinations, the Supreme Court said on Friday, upholding a decision by the University Grants Commission (UGC) that called for completing the evaluation process across the country by September 30.

At the same time, the court made it clear that states were empowered to take decisions under the Disaster Management (DM) Act, 2005, to postpone final-year or final-semester exams beyond the September-end deadline. It allowed states to approach UGC for new dates that have to be communicated to them “at the earliest”.

The ruling by a three-judge bench headed by justice Ashok Bhushan is significant because it appears to have established finality as far as holding exams for final-year and final-term students are concerned.

A large section of students protested UGC’s July 6 order mandating the exams — online, offline or by using a combination of both — and states such as Delhi and Maharashtra announced scrapping them in view of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and the health risks it poses. The court was hearing seven petitions against the UGC’s decision to hold exams and three pleas seeking compliance by states with the UGC move.

“The guidelines dated July 6, 2020, as well as Standard Operating Procedures for conduct of examinations circulated by UGC vide letter dated July 8, 2020, clearly shows deep concern with the health of all stakeholders, i.e., students as well as the exam functionaries. Challenge to the guidelines on the ground of it being violative of (right to life under) Article 21 is repelled,” the court said, referring to safety guidelines advocating social distancing during the conduct of physical exams.

The bench, also comprising justices R Subash Reddy and MR Shah, said decisions by some states under the Disaster Management Act will prevail over the deadline set by UGC since the legislation “empowers states to take measures for prevention and mitigation of disaster”.

The Disaster Management Act has been enforced across the country in the wake of the pandemic. It empowers the Union government and states governments to frames policies, formulate plans, and take measures for prevention and mitigation of disasters, including relaxations and restrictions on businesses and activities.

“No state shall permit health of its subject to be compromised that is why overriding power has been given to the State Disaster Management Authority and the State Government (under the Disaster Management Act) with regard to any inconsistency with any other law for the time being in force,” the court said.

But that did not mean states could go to the extent of promoting final-year students on the basis of previous performances and internal assessment while not holding final year exams, the three-judge bench said. “The prayer to quash the guidelines dated July 6, 2020, issued by UGC is refused,” the judgment read.

Union education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ welcomed the order. “Let’s us keep politics away from education but make politics more educated,” he tweeted.

Alakh Alok Srivastava, the counsel for one of the petitioners who argued against holding examinations, said the court left it to the states to decide the course of action. “The Supreme Court has recorded most of my legal submissions... States have also been authorised to postpone the exams. I will sincerely request state governments to go for online and home-based final year exams,” he told HT.

Supreme Court lawyer Haris Beeran said the ruling acknowledged that the power of states under the Disaster Management Act will prevail over UGC guidelines as far as the date of holding examinations was concerned. “The court has balanced it with the UGC’s powers by saying that states cannot go beyond their jurisdiction and do away with exams altogether and replace it with internal assessment,” Beeran told HT.

The Delhi government did not comment on the matter.

Maharashtra higher and technical education minister Uday Samant said his government respected the verdict and will decide about holding examinations after consultations with vice-chancellors of universities.

“We will study the verdict in detail and then take appropriate actions,” he said. “We need to give priority to students’ health as well. In the current situation, students should not catch any infection if exams are conducted,” he added.

UGC’s order on holding final-term exams across about 900 universities in the country triggered a storm with a section of students demanding the scrapping of examinations in view of the pandemic. In the top court, multiple petitioners also argued that online exams will not be feasible for many who do not have access to high-speed internet. Petitioners urged the court to declare results based on students’ past performance or internal assessment.

But UGC argued that degrees cannot be conferred without examinations; that it alone was empowered to take a call on whether or not the exams can take place or should be cancelled; that the decision to conduct exams was in the interest of a large number of students; and that not holding the exams will badly impact the academic future of students.

The higher education regulator first published guidelines on April 29 for holding exams in the time of Covid-19. The guidelines — based on a report by an expert committee headed by RC Kuhad, the chairperson of the Central University of Haryana —mandated the exams be held by July.

In June, UGC requested the expert committee to revisit the guidelines in view of the evolving pandemic situation. Finally, the fresh guidelines were issued on July 6. While schools and colleges have been closed since March-end, the Union government has allowed colleges and universities to open for the conduct of final-year examinations.

“A degree which is obtained after passing the required exam is acceptable globally. The Supreme Court order has also made this aspect clear,” Kuhad said on the Supreme Court order.

In the court, students were represented by senior lawyers such as Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Shyam Divan and Jaideep Gupta as well as advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta represented UGC while additional solicitor general SV Raju put forth the case of the Centre. Senior advocate PS Narasimha supported the Centre by representing a bunch of students in favour of holding the examinations.

“It is a fair decision of the Supreme Court because it is concerned about the credibility of assessment done by the universities for the award of degrees. In the absence of this credibility, the degree loses its value,” said educationist and former UGC member Inder Mohan Kapahy.

(with inputs from Amandeep Shukla in Delhi)
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