The Supreme Court on Friday disposed of the petitions challenging the guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for conducting final semester exams by September 30 with following orders :
1. The bench has refused the prayer to quash the UGC guidelines to hold the exams.
2.The directions of State Disaster Management Authority for canceling exams in that particular State will prevail over the UGC directions.
3. However, the direction of the State Disaster Management Authority to pass the students on the basis of previous performance is beyond the scope of the Disaster Management Act.
4.States/UTs cannot promote final year students without examination as ordered by UGC. States/Union Territories given liberty to approach the UGC to seek postponement of the exams in the light of COVID19 pandemic situation.
3. However, SDMA cannot direct to pass students based on previous performance.— Live Law (@LiveLawIndia) August 28, 2020
4. States/UTs cannot pass students without exams as directed by UGC.
5. States/UTs given liberty to approach UGC to seek postponement of exams.#StudentsInSCForJustice #UGCGuidelines
A bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and M R Shah had reserved the judgment on August 18, after elaborately hearing various parties in the case.
The main arguments from the students' side are :
- Compelling students to appear for physical exams when the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying exposes them to serious health risks, affecting their right to life.
- The uniform direction issued by the UGC without taking into account local situations will put several students to grave prejudice, as several areas are containment zones and local lockdown is in prevalence in many regions.
- The pandemic and the lockdown have disrupted the classes, and conducting exams without requisite number of classess is arbitrary and unreasonable.
- There are many students of final semester who have either cleared job interviews or secured admission for higher courses. So granting them degree certificates at the earliest based on past performance is the best course available to protect the future of the students.
- The option of online exams is also not viable given the stark digital divide, and the lack of uniform access to the internet across the spectrum.
- Examination is not the only mode of evaluation. UGC follows the concept of 'continuous evaluation' of the student from day 1. Hence, internal assessments and performance of past semesters can be reckoned to award final degrees.
The UGC stated that the direction was issued in the best interests of the students. The Ministry of Home Affairs told the Court that it has given an exemption for opening educational institutions for the purpose of conducting exams.
Disaster Management Act vs UGC Act
The case also threw up the issue of conflict between Disaster Managment Act and the UGC Act. This was in the context of the State of Maharashtra acting on the decision of the State Disaster Management Authority to direct the cancellation of final term exams. Hence, an issue arose in the case as to whose directions will prevail - whether that of the SDMA or the UGC.
The UGC maintained that in matters related to higher education, it remains the final word and the SDMA cannot interfere in that domain. On the other hand, the State of Maharashtra submitted that in the backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic, which has been notified as a 'disaster' within the meaning of the DMA, the State Disaster Management Authority posseses vast powers to take appropriate decisions to deal with the situation to protect the lives of people.
Another crucial issue in the case was whether State Governments possess autonomy in the matter. The Governments of the National Capital Territoriy of Delhi, West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra etc, have issued directions to cancel final term exams. Therefore, the question was whether UGC can override the State Governments in that regard.
It was argued by the State Governments that the UGC has only the power to lay down standards or education and cannot issue peremptory directions to universities. It was further argued that the UGC can only lay down guidelines, that too after consluting the Universities as per Section 12 of the UGC Act. The States contended that the UGC took the decision without consulting them and without taking account of the local situations.
Senior Advocates Dr AM Singhvi (for petitioner Yash Dubey), Syam Divan(for petitioner Yuva Sena), Arvind P Datar (for Maharashtra), K V Vishwanathan (for Delhi), Jaideep Gupta (for West Bengal), Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava, Advocate Rajkamal (for petitioners), Solicitor General Tushar Mehta (for UGC) etc made arguments in the case.
Reports about various submissions in the hearing may be read below :