Undemocratic travesty of Delhi University’s open book exams

Delhi University’s decision to take Open Book exams (OBE) for final year students keeps taking one precipitous turn after another. Even though 85% of the student body, concerned parents, 170 professors, and the DU Teachers’ Association have all vocally declared their opposition to online exams being conducted, the administrative authorities of DU still refuse to budge from their impractical stand. After the university failed to upload mock tests on time, the exams were postponed by ten days. The OBE is now slated to start on 10th July, and mock tests are taking place from 4th to 8th July.

Students have been holding Twitter storms and flooding official inboxes with grievance emails in frantic efforts to prevent the exams from taking place. However, this is still the section of students which has access to high-speed internet, an absent reality in remote parts of the country, and flood-affected regions of Assam and West Bengal. 4G internet has still not been restored in Indian-occupied Kashmir, and phone and internet lines are snapped regularly without prior notice. Students from these regions who left for the safety of their homes in the midst of a global pandemic have now been rendered incapable by DU, of taking their final-year exams.

Anushka Dasgupta, a final-year Sociology Honours student at Hindu College, says, “Half of my classmates have been unable to attend online lectures or even respond on the (WhatsApp) group because they live in areas that do not have internet. Additionally, the unfamiliarity and discomfort with word meanings and making sense of English requires help that some might not be able to get at home, especially those who are first-generation English speakers.”

The result of conducting OBE is clear as day – most students will be facing technical and cultural disadvantages whereas the few who are socio-economically privileged will perhaps manage to secure their graduation certificate. The mock tests are a big infrastructural failure and do not bode well for the decision to take the final OBE. The website crashes frequently, students can’t log in for hours, question papers of some courses are absent or from a previous semester, and answer sheets won’t upload. On top of all this, students’ personal data were leaked due to a privacy breach on the exam portal.

Oishika Basak, a final-year student of Geography Honours at Miranda House, says “The most disheartening issue is that our concerns, queries, and problems have not been answered and dealt with… with coronavirus cases skyrocketing, it is just not conducive for us to study for exams, while continuously thinking of how we might face unforeseen technical glitches on the day of the exam.”

The students’ problems were addressed by the Dean of Examinations Mr. Vinay Gupta, in a very ill-thought and perfunctory notice. He denied that there could be problems logging in, or that question papers were missing (despite screenshots taken by students) and advised students to attempt papers of any random course since mock tests were meant to be for mere technical practice.

Gupta boldly suggested that the site wasn’t loading due to weak internet connection on students’ phones and laptops, instead of the portal having glitches. Most of his replies are profoundly moot – when students say that they can’t read the CAPTCHA code, he advises them to read the CAPTCHA code; “will we have to search from so many question papers on the exam day” is answered by “log in and they can get their question paper”. Perhaps this is why Oishika calls OBE “a specimen of mindless experimentation”.

Common Service Centres (CSC), which have an internet connection, are reportedly unaware of the DU notice that allows students lacking adequate facilities at home, to access them for exam purposes. CSCs have been denying students entry for the mock tests, fearing the spread of Coronavirus. India has reported dozens of cases of police brutality during lockdowns (the most recent case of P Jayaraj and J Bennicks) for being in public places generally, or post-closing time. By scrapping online exams, DU could also have eliminated the various risks posed by students traveling to and from the CSCs. 

Misinformation and vagueness indelibly stamp the approach of these OBEs. Having gotten no clear solution from the university’s side, with helplines and official email IDs being unresponsive, students have been frantically asking their peers and professors for help. However, most professors have been kept in the dark about the arcane specifics of these exams. Clearly, the small committee of people at the top, including the VC, the Dean of Examinations, and few others are taking undemocratic decisions that have excluded the real stakeholders of the university – its students and teachers. This obstinacy and utter lack of transparency, reveals the OBE, not as an academically concerned but an entirely bureaucratically motivated decision.

The fact that online education has increased stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues in students has conveniently slipped through the cracks in the University’s perception. Over the past month, two teenage girls from Kerala and Kolkata committed suicide for being unable to attend online classes. A daily wage labourer in Tripura killed himself after failing to buy a smartphone for his daughter to attend the same. The OBE treads this same dreaded path of leaving students feeling isolated, vulnerable, and helpless in the face of an undemocratic, imposed measure.

Anusha Misra, a third-year student of B.A. Psychology at Lady Shri Ram College, says “I’m away from my parents, I have little to no emotional support, and feel really homesick.  Have been suffering from panic attacks due to DU’s indecisiveness… ignoring mental health and triggering these negative feelings is ableism.” Damini Singh Brar, a final-year student of English honours at Lady Shri Ram College. She says, “I recently had a panic attack after being unable to access the exam site. The thought of writing the final exam makes me start palpitating, and I start to feel sick. I feel angry and frustrated and cannot maintain my composure. All this has ruined my mental health completely.”

Anushka further adds, “What I find really strange is we’re being asked to write our names on the answer sheet. Given the kind of environment in DU, it could allow for a vast variety of discrimination along caste, religious, or gender lines to take place.” Her worry is not only legitimate but extremely troubling, considering that official decisions like these come with no accountability to redress the grievances of students who might suffer grievously under this partisan approach.

A botched degree due to no fault of their own is a burden that the vast majority of students cannot, and should not have to carry, especially because the Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered markets and industries of all sorts. It would be terribly unfair to ignore the fact that paying (even subsidised) fees, rent in PG or hostel, cost of study material, travel and sustenance in the expensive city of Delhi, is an astronomical task for students coming from marginalized sections of society, or the fringes of India.

The OBE has left final year students cripplingly anxious not only about their degrees but their plans of further studies and careers. This educational Darwinism gives no consideration to students who have fought tooth and nail with the stifling patriarchy and casteism of small towns, or students from minority religious communities who live in mortal fear in a city that routinely witnesses communal violence and state-sponsored pogroms, just to obtain their degree.

DU’s decision to go ahead with OBE is a concrete step that irreversibly demotes public education from being a hopeful instrument of achieving social equality to a banal profit-making gamble that exploits pre-existing social disenfranchisement to serve and preserve the interests of the ruling social class. This attempt to sustain the meritocracy principle along which the education market is so intricately ordered is ceaseless and ceaselessly insensitive and is rightfully being criticised as such.

Sukanya Roy, an English graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She has volunteered for many collectives including the National Alliance of People’s Movements.