As an academician who has devoted more than half his life to mentoring students, I have come to the realisation that the approach that works best with them is that of empathy. The cut-throat exam competition in our country already makes the situation emotionally taxing. With as few as 1% of the students finally getting through in certain entrance exams, I can only imagine the mental burden students and their parents are under while preparing for the big day. Imagine adding two other dimensions to the puzzle: uncertainty and risks to well-being. Suddenly, the proportion of anxiety and panic witnesses a compounding rise.
At first glance, conducting the exams seems reasonable, since you need to have them in order to admit students to the new session. Unfortunately, after having given it considerable thought and weighing the perils vs benefits of holding the JEE and NEET exams now, I have come to the clear conclusion that the negatives outweigh the positives in this case. In order to arrive at a logical conclusion, I asked myself a few simple questions: Are we better off today than we were when the exams were postponed? Five states, home to the maximum number of candidates, account for around 60% of the total reported cases in the country today.
We are not in a position to guarantee a secure examination environment. Also, states like Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh are experiencing heavy floods, which makes it even more inopportune to conduct exams now. Is the infrastructure robust enough to tackle student movement? With public transport currently not operational in most states or in limited capacity, passenger trains cancelled and only a few special trains currently running, reaching the destination will be a challenge. With only seven centres in Bihar and 17 in UP for JEE, students will need to travel long distances.
Since both exams involve young students, being accompanied by their parents is common and there will be inter-city movement of at least 10 to 15 lakh people. Who stands to gain if exams are held in September? Can we not wait any longer? The students and their parents are indeed in a state of panic and anxiety as they do not want to miss an academic year. They are thus forced to look beyond the health and well-being aspects.
The problems are being compounded by an apathetic approach by the Ministry of Education. Allaying the fears of all stakeholders is the responsibility of the ministry and for that to happen, their team needs to provide end-to-end visibility of how they plan to ensure justice for everyone. And with the college session start date nowhere in sight, this seems more of a mad rush.
I suggest an empathetic approach, a deeper dive into understanding the logistical challenges and propose the following roadmap to tackle the current situation to ensure justice is served to all stakeholders, both in the short-term and long-term:
a) Build a robust roadmap: When an army marches into a state of war, it enters the battlefield with a plan to win the war, not just the first hour or day or week. Even in pre-Covid-19 times, the period between the exams and start of session was close to 60 days. With most universities/colleges resorting to virtual teaching at least till December, January is the earliest when the physical sessions may start. The window for these exams being conducted is still open till the end of October.
b) Be resilient: Even in case of virtual classes, set the start date as January for now and take stock regularly. In any case, we need to buy time to prepare better. The number of centres for an exam of the magnitude of JEE seems too low. The centre network needs to be more extensive with a deeper penetration to avoid too much intercity/interstate movement and congestion.
a) Chalk out a two-year curriculum: We have already lost time in this session and are likely to lose more. To make sure the students don’t suffer and to allay their fears, work with universities to redesign curriculum—not just for the first year but for at least two, if not more. Lost ground can be gained with smart coordination between all key stakeholders. The detailed curriculum structure will instil confidence in students that they are not losing out on the quality or depth of education that they desire.
b) Work as a team: A chain is as strong as the weakest link. Chalk out minute logistical details with state administrations so that all aspects are meticulously planned and whenever the exams are conducted, the environment is conducive.
a) Communicate effectively: I am hugely disappointed at the lack of clear and confident communication about the plan to all stakeholders. I would expect the ministry to lay out the plan in front of these 25 lakh students and put their fears to rest. This would help end all speculations and instil confidence. It’s time we rise above all divisions and ensure these teenagers are shown an example of leadership that they can idolise in the years to come.
National Spokesperson, Congress, and Professor of Finance
(Views are personal) (firstname.lastname@example.org)