Final Year Exams may be postponed but not cancelled| Here’s what the Supreme Court said [DETAILED REPORT]

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of Ashok Bhushan, RS Reddy and MR Shah, JJ has upheld the validity of the Revised UGC Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 and had held that though the State Disaster Management Authorities have the power to take measures for prevention and mitigation of a disaster, They cannot take the decision to not hold final year exams is not valid. The States may, however, approach UGC for postponement of exams.

“It is true that Guidelines mentioned that Guidelines are advisory in nature and each University may chart out its plan of action taking into consideration the issues pertaining to pandemic COVID¬19. A reading of the Guidelines indicate that ample latitude was given to the Universities to conduct terminal/intermediate/ semester year examinations in offline and online mode. The Guidelines, however, cannot be read to mean that Guidelines dated 29.04.2020 left it to the wisdom of the Universities to either conduct terminal semester/final year examinations or not to conduct.”

The Court held:

  • The Revised Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 issued by the UGC are not beyond the domain of the UGC and they relate to coordination and determination of standards in institutions of higher education.

“… there is no claim on behalf of the UGC that it is the UGC which shall conduct the examination of the graduate and postgraduate students. The examinations are to be conducted by the respective Universities only.”

  • The decision taken by the State Disaster Management Authority/State not to hold final year/terminal semester examination by 30.09.2020 in exercise of power under Disaster Management Act, 2005 shall prevail over deadline fixed by the University Grants Commission i.e. 30.09.2020 in respect to the concerned State.
  • If any State/Union Territory in exercise of jurisdiction under Disaster Management Act, 2005 has taken a decision that it is not possible to conduct the final year/terminal semester examination by 30.09.2020, it may make an application to the University Grants Commission for extending deadline of 30.09.2020 for that State/Union Territory which shall be considered by UGC and rescheduled date be communicated to such State/Union Territory at the earliest.
  • The State Governments or State Disaster Management Authority has no jurisdiction to take a decision that the students of final year/terminal students should be promoted on the basis of earlier year assessment and internal assessment.

KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE 160-PAGES-LONG JUDGMENT

  • The Disaster Management Act, 2005 empowers the State Disaster Management Authority as well  as the State Government to take measures for prevention and mitigation of a disaster and the action taken by the authorities under the Disaster Management Act have been given overriding effect to achieve the purpose and object of the Act, 2005.

“The direction of the University Grants Commission in Revised Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 insofar as it directs the Universities and Colleges to complete the final year/terminal year examination by 30.09.2020 shall be overridden by any contrary decision taken by the State Disaster Management Authority or the State Government exercising power under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.”

  • The differentiation made by revised guidelines to hold Final year/Terminal semester examination has a rational basis and there is an intelligible differentia between the student of Final year/Terminal semester and other students.
  • The Final year/terminal semesters examinations are important because the learning process is a dynamic interaction where the only way to figure out what students know is to seek evidence of their knowledge and to evaluate it. Performance in examination especially Final year/terminal semester examination are reflection of competence of the students. Terminal semester/Final year examination also provides an opportunity to the students to improve upon their overall score/marks which are very crucial for academic excellence and opportunities of employment.
  • The earlier guidelines as well as revised guidelines have taken due notice of the prevailing situation of Covid¬19 and it cannot be said that the expert body is unaware of Pandemic spread throughout the Country. The criticism of guidelines that they are unreasonable and violate Article 14 of the Constitution does not inspire any confidence.

“… the revised guidelines have extended the period for completion of examination from 31.07.2020 to 30.09.2020 which was only due to the reason that due to Pandemic, Universities/ Colleges   may not have been able to hold the examination.”

  • The submission that ‘other bodies’ as used in Section 12 of the UGC Act, 1956 should include State Disaster Management Authority or health experts is misconceived. Section 12 never contemplated any such “bodies”. Furthermore, the State Disaster Management Authority came into existence only after enactment of Disaster Management Act, 2005, no such concept was there when the UGC Act, 1956 was enacted.
  • The expression “Universities or other bodies concerned” has not be read in a rigid manner rather it is flexible as per requirement of the Commission. Section 12 of the UGC Act, 1956 cannot be interpreted in a manner that for taking any measure with regard to coordination of university education and for determination and maintenance of standards of teaching examination in the Universities, the UGC should consult each and every University of each and every State and only then, such measures can be taken.

“There are more than nine hundred Universities in the country and to require UGC to consult more than nine hundred universities for taking any measure will make the functioning impossible and impractical.”

  • The guidelines dated 29.04.2020 and 06.07.2020 have been issued after consultation of an expert Committee consisting of academicians and experts. It cannot be said that the Commission had no jurisdiction to issue guidelines without consulting all the Universities in the Country and all the States or Union Territories.

WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE HEARING

UGC had, during the hearing, emphasised on the need to conduct the examinations as it is the crucial step in the academic career of a student.

… it would be irrational to exempt students from final year/terminal semester examinations and to graduate them based on their past performance.”

Final Year Student Yash Dubey, who had also challenged the Revised Guidelines, along with 31 other students,  in his rejoinder, submitted that

“it is baffling to note that just one semester of examination will be determinative of the integrity and value of a degree for which students worked hard for six (for three years course) and to ten semesters (for five year course),…”

When the Court heard the matter on July 31, 2020, Senior Advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Yash Dubey, told the Court that Heavens will not fall if exams are not conducted. Dr Singhvi also submitted that “a Farman has been issued with complete non application of mind to complete exams by September 2020.”

Ministry of Home Affairs filed an affidavit and has said while the MHA Unlock-3 Guidelines dated 29.07.2020 continue to require schools, colleges, educational and coaching institutions to remain closed till 31.08.2020, the universities/institutions will be and are clearly intended to be exempted from the said restriction for the limited purpose of holding Final Term Examinations / evaluation work in terms of the UGC guidelines on examinations.

Earlier, UGC had stated that the decision of the State Government to cancel final year/terminal semester examinations and graduate students without such examinations, encroaches on the legislative field of coordinating and determining the standards of higher education that is exclusively reserved for Parliament under Entry 66 of List I of Schedule VH of the Constitution.

UGC submitted that

“it aims to protect the academic future of students across the country which will be irreparably damaged if their final year/terminal semester examinations are not held, while also keeping in mind their health and safety.”

Maharashtra Students’ Union, a non-profit organization working for welfare of students, more particularly students pursuing higher education, filed an Intervention Application in the plea challenging UGC’s revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020 regarding conduct of final year exams amidst COVID-19 crisis.

It submitted that a Bachelor’s degree is conferred on the basis of a collective assessment of all 3 years of a Bachelor’s course and not of the final semester alone. The affidavit states that

“the last examination or the final examination of students of Higher and Technical Education does not carry any special weightage or decisive value which a final year examination used to carry in the erstwhile education system, as the evaluation is done on a cumulative assessment of all semesters in a degree course.”

[Praneeth K. v. University Grants Commission, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 688, decided on 28.08.2020]


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