If Neerja Pawar does not get her Mumbai University marksheet by the second week of August, she fears she will have to drop a year of her education.

Accepted into a master’s programme in creative writing at Durham University, United Kingdom, Pawar has made the first payments to the university, and has even been assigned accommodation. However, without the results of her undergraduate studies in English at Jai Hind College, Mumbai University, she cannot apply for a visa.

In January, Mumbai University decided to shift from the manual, pen-and-paper process of checking answer scripts of the examinations it conducts every year to an online system. What followed is a lesson in how not to implement reforms. Due to a series of problems brought on by poor planning, under-resourced colleges and technical glitches, the exam results have been delayed by about two months. In past years, the results have been declared in late May or by early June. But now, at the end of July, the university is still scrambling to complete the evaluation process.

Students like Pawar, who had planned to study outside Maharashtra, are caught in a fix. Even those who cleared entrance tests elsewhere and took admission on the basis of that are facing difficulties. Rasika Karkare, for instance, fears she will be barred from writing her first semester exams in her master’s course in counselling psychology at Christ University, Bengaluru, that are scheduled in October. She has been told that if she does not submit the marksheet of her undergraduate course at Mumbai University, and the transfer and migration certificates based on it, by August-end, her admit card will be blocked.

On July 4, Maharashtra governor C Vidyasagar Rao, who is also the chancellor of Mumbai University, ordered it to complete the assessment of all answer scripts by July 31. The university has already seen four “non-instructional days” – July 23 to July 27 – to free up time for teachers to correct papers. This has been extended till July 31 for the departments of law, management and commerce. Examiners from other universities in Nagpur, Pune and Aurangabad, are helping too.

By the evening of July 27, four lakh scripts remained. Of these, 3.15 lakh are from the commerce stream alone. “About 1.1 lakh papers are being corrected daily,” said MA Khan, registrar of Mumbai University. “If we can have a full working day on Sunday, we may be able to finish.”

Huge number of papers

Attempting quick reform in an institution the size of Mumbai University was always going to be a challenge. It has over 750 affiliated colleges, many in semi-urban areas, and instructs over 5 lakh students.

Although at the undergraduate level, only final-year exams are conducted and evaluated centrally, the exams held in March-April generated about 18 lakh undergraduate and postgraduate answer scripts. The commerce stream alone had 8.3 lakh papers, while law had 85,000, which have now been whittled down to about 34,000. Management had about 1 lakh scripts, down to 8,500 now.

Till last year, exam papers were checked as soon as the examinations ended. With evaluation and examination progressing simultaneously, results were typically declared within 45 days of the examinations, in late May or early June.

(Photo credit: HT).

Hurdles to going online

The university needed the help of an external agency to manage the technical aspects of online correction. However, even by March 4 – when exams began, and two months after the university announced that it was shifting to the online system – it did not have one.

A tender floated to engage the services of the external agency in early April got no response. A second tender, with lower requirements, was issued around April 22. By April 27, the university managed to get an agency on board.

The first step, scanning of answer scripts, began around May 15. Assessment commenced in the first week of June, well over two months late.

Teachers allege they were kept out of the decision-making process. “We just had a half-hour workshop in May,” said a teacher, who requested anonymity, from a college in Ratnagiri district that is affiliated with Mumbai University. There were numerous snags when they finally started correcting, the teacher said.

Faltering internet connectivity slowed downloads of answer scripts by assessors. It even caused some of them to lose the progress made on a paper because the connection snapped in the middle, forcing them to start from scratch.

Teachers had to write emails requesting one-time-passwords (or OTPs) to access the software, said the person in charge of the Centralised Assessment Place – a correction centre – in a Mumbai college. Papers were also assigned incorrectly. “Teachers who correct only English papers were assigned ones written in Marathi,” he added.

The scanning errors were graver still. “In some scans of economics scripts, there were two pages of the same number,” said the teacher from Ratnagiri. “For example, one script had two page-nines, one of them from another student’s answer script. You could tell clearly from the difference in handwriting.” This was referred to the university and resolved although the teacher could not recall how.

“Earlier, teachers corrected 30 answer-scripts in a day,” said the person in charge of the correction centre. “In the early days of online correction, they could manage only eight or nine.” Now, a teacher checks about 20 scripts.

Outside help

The online system exposed other gaps too.

In programmes like commerce and management in aided colleges, the government funds up to two sections of 120 seats each. But since 2000, the university has allowed college managements to run additional sections that they would finance themselves by raising funds through fees. To keep costs low, most of the teaching positions for these extra seats were staffed with ad hoc and temporary staff.

However, as per the university’s regulations, explained Khan, only government-approved permanent teachers are permitted to check papers. Although the number of answer scripts outstripped the capacity of authorised teachers long ago, in the manual system ad hoc teachers were enlisted unofficially to assess papers.

“But online checking does not allow any deviation,” said Khan. With the software permitting access to a much smaller pool of staff, the university is calling in reinforcements from outside.

Twenty-five teachers from Nagpur University are already on the job. Another 50 from Aurangabad University will check law papers because many of Mumbai University’s law teachers are “practicing advocates” and not free before evening.

Khan said help has also been sought from Pune University.

Dealing with it

Over the past two months, the university’s students protested against the delay in assessment, met the state governor and made several trips to the university offices. The Bombay University and College Teachers’ Union submitted representations on July 4 and July 17. The former vice-chancellor called for the resignation of the present one, Sanjay Deshmukh, and even political parties like the Shiv Sena waded in.

To control the damage due to the delay in completing evaluation, Mumbai University pushed back its own admission deadlines. Some private universities followed. “We are also giving provisional results – projecting scores based on the results of the first five semesters – to students approaching us,” added Khan.

Sainath Durge of Yuva Sena, a students’ group, said a batch of pharmacy graduates who were not being able to claim their seats at the National Institutes of Pharmaceutical Education and Research have been given provisional marksheets.

But Pawar is still awaiting hers. “A friend and I had applied to the Arts Department for provisional marksheets earlier this month, but have not heard from them,” she said.

Her friends are in similar situations. A friend, thinking she was safe because she had an unconditional offer (in which the offer of a seat stands irrespective of the final result) from a university in France applied for a visa but is now facing problems. “A third friend in a private university in India received an email yesterday saying she has to submit the documents immediately and no extension will be provided,” said Pawar.