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The Bench held today that the decision taken by the State of Maharashtra to cancel exams amid the pandemic under the Disaster Management Act shall prevail.
The Supreme Court today held that state governments will not be allowed to promote students without holding final year university examinations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the Court gave states the discretion to approach the University Grants Commission (UGC) for an extension of the deadline by which final year exams should be completed.
The order was pronounced by a Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subshash Reddy, and MR Shah. On August 18, the Bench had reserved its judgment in the matter after a detailed hearing spanning over two days.
The Bench held today that the decision taken by the State governments to cancel exams amid the pandemic under the Disaster Management Act shall prevail and falls within the powers conferred on the States under this Act and as such this would prevail over the UGC's guidelines that mandated holding of exams by September end. The Court said:
However, the States cannot decide to promote students without holding of exams and in this respect, the decision of the UGC to hold exams for conferring of degrees shall prevail, the Court further said.
A decision to adopt an alternative marking system to promote students is beyond the purview of the State's powers under the National Disaster Management Act and the final year exams are mandatory to be held in accordance with the UGC guidelines, the judgment holds.
Giving a breather to students, however, the Court also drew balance in its judgment by giving liberty to the States and Union territories that are unable to hold exams by September end to approach the UGC seeking fresh dates for holding of final year exams keeping in view the circumstances in each of these States.
Read the Judgment:
In its revised guidelines, the UGC mandated that all final year exams be conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while following the Standard Operating Procedure.
The UGC's guidelines prompted not just students, but also teachers' associations and youth wings of political parties to approach the Supreme Court.
Before the Court, the power of the UGC to issue a direction of this nature while overriding the provisions of the Disaster Management Act was called into question.
Another question that was put before the Court was whether state governments can choose not to hold exams when the UGC which is empowered to confer degrees on students.
A host of Senior Counsel including Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Shyam Divan, and Arvind Datar argued in favour of the interests of the students. They pointed out that the decision taken by some state governments to cancel the exams was only on account of the rising COVID-19 figures. Under normal circumstances, a deferment or cancellation of exams would not be stipulated.
Singhvi, appearing for final year law student Yash Dubey, said that the UGC's initial guidelines displayed an element of sensitivity and flexibility. However, this element was completely absent in its revised guidelines, under which a deadline of September 30 was fixed without taking into consideration the ground situation in different places.
He also questioned the UGC's rationale behind refusing to hold exams in April when the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its nascent stages.
Divan, appearing for Shiv Sena's youth wing party Yuva Sena, argued that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines direct for educational institutions to be closed and that these guidelines may be made stricter by the states if required, but cannot be diluted. The holding of exams would essentially lead to the dilution of these guidelines, Divan said.
Datar explained to the Court the availability of the option to adopt an alternative marking system as per the UGC's provisions.
Senior Advocates KV Vishwanathan and Jaideep Gupta raised pertinent points as regards the disparity in access to resources for students to give the exams in online mode. Datar also added that the students with special needs have been left out of consideration.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that the UGC is not equipped to confer degrees on degrees without exams and that the decision to conduct exams has been taken keeping in view the interests of the students, many of whom have applied for jobs and further studies.
UGC had also registered its opposition to the stance taken by the governments of Maharashtra and Delhi not to conduct final year exams this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its reply, UGC averred that the state governments are taking contradictory stands with regard to starting the academic session and conduct of the final year exams.
Initially, a total of 31 students from different universities across India had approached the Supreme Court to quash the UGC circular directing universities to wrap up final year examinations by September 30.
The plea was filed by Advocate Anubha Srivastava Sahai and argued by Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava.
Later, the Aditya Thackeray-led Yuva Sena, and a final year law student from Bhopal also challenged the UGC guidelines.
The plea by the final year law student was filed by Advocate Tanvi Dubey.
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