Getting tested

January 31, 2021

Students are at loggerheads with universities on the issue of online versus in-person examinations after an extremely challenging year for learning during the pandemic

Despite the “conclusion” of the two-day meeting at Higher Education Commission (HEC) on Wednesday on the issue of online exams, there seems to be a split within students. Some were satisfied with the meeting, but some students are still protesting in front of the National Press Club demanding that Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood sit with them to “resolve the matter”.

Amir Baloch, a student leader and member of the seven-member committee that held talks with the HEC, tells TNS that the HEC chairperson never met them.

“He sent senior members of his staff to meet us. Our dialogue was very fruitful. But, some universities in Islamabad, including the NUML, the NDU, the Bahria University, the Air University, and the FAST, have locked horns with students. They should follow the guidelines that the HEC has issued to them,” he says.

The HEC’s statement says: “The apprehensions of students were reviewed very carefully in consultation with the vice chancellors of all provinces and regions, keeping in view the difficulties brought about by the pandemic and opening of universities from February 1.”

It advised the universities to use their discretion in resolving the matter but also said that the universities that still want to have in-person examinations should first make up for at least two weeks of classes before doing so.

Students from the NUML had blocked the I-J Principal Road, the main artery connecting the Punjab with the KP.

Hamza Shafqaat, the deputy commissioner of Islamabad, tells TNS that the police have their “own protocols” to “open roads” in case of protests.

“But I thought that I could give it a try. So, I called up the protesting students to my office. I arranged their meeting with the education minister and high-ups at the HEC. Naturally the matter should have been resolved now that the HEC has issued a statement,” he says.

He says Islamabad witnessed less violence than other cities. In Lahore, and Faisalabad, for instance, according to media reports, the police baton-charged the protesting students. Zia Bajwa, a spokesperson for Islamabad police, says they did not use force against students because the deputy commissioner had stopped them from doing so.

There is a clear divide now within the students. One group of students is of the opinion that the HEC is weak and has done all it can. The other thinks that the HEC statement is lip service and leaves the matter to universities. However, both groups agree that the HEC chairperson “was not interested in resolving this matter” and both groups condemn the violence at the University of Central Punjab.

Dr Muhammad Ali Shah, president of the vice chancellors’ committee, tells TNS that there is “no problem in either method of examination”.

“I think that if we have taught students online, there is no problem with online examinations. To do away with the possibility of unfair means being used in the examinations, the teachers can conduct an oral exam based on the online paper,” he says.

Dr Muhammad Ali Shah, president of the vice chancellors’ committee, tells TNS that there is “no problem in either method of examination”.

“In case of professional studies, physical examinations are fine. The VCs have agreed to use actors instead of patients in these examinations. The actors will undergo Covid-19 tests before being presented to students who examine them.”

He says, “The universities should be given liberty to either take online or in-person exams. Universities are autonomous and the HEC can issue them guidelines only, as it did.”

In case of in-person exams, corona SOPs have to be adopted which means that timeframe for conduct of exams will be doubled, he said.

Teachers are an important part of this process. Representatives of the Federation of All Pakistanis Universities Academic Staff Associations (FAPUASA) have time and again issued statements that they reject the policies of the HEC, due to which, they claim, the higher education sector is facing grave challenges.

Rauf A Arif, a former vice chancellor of the University of Education, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that in his view the higher education authorities “should never have issued a single date for opening the higher education institutions”.

He considers this to be the “real cause” of unrest.

“You know that every university has a different calendar and their semesters start and close on different dates,” he says.

“Now, the universities that will have examinations after February 1 are saying that they will give in-person exams. But, the ones that already have held exams have done so online. This is the real divide,” he adds.

Second, he says, the HEC needs to have consistency in its affairs. The students resisted online classes when those were introduced due to the pandemic.

When online system was put in place without following proper guidelines, the students found loopholes in it and in the absence of any monitoring of exams, they used all means to attempt papers in the best possible way and got good marks.”

In an ideal situation, he says, it should not have been the case as the universities that adopted distance learning know how to remove these loopholes.

However, the students’ concerns that have been making the waves in the media cover a broad range of issues from the country’s gaping digital divide, unreliable internet and electricity services, inadequate online teaching, the difficulty of being present for in-person examinations amid closure of hostels and a lethal second wave of coronavirus. Amid reports of police violence in several cities across Pakistan, the urgency with which these issues need solutions has become more pronounced.

The writer studies and teaches media.

Getting tested: Students are at loggerheads with universities on the issue of online exams