In addition to three natural seasons − summer, monsoon and winter – India also has two other seasons that are human inventions. The latter seasons are arguably more important because they host two institutions central to our almost-vishvaguru civilisation – elections and examinations. Each of these five seasons can cause death and devastation, but while the others do so only when they are extreme or abnormal, the examination season is unique in causing deaths “normally” every single year.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, “Failure in Examination” caused 2,625 suicide deaths in 2018 (up from 2,540 in 2017). This starkly minimal figure obviously excludes unsuccessful suicide attempts, nervous breakdowns etc. and thus seriously understates the suffering that individuals and families go through because of exam-related stress.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic has overlapped with the 2020 examination season, institutions conducting examinations should do their best to minimise the hugely increased stress levels. The simplest measure is to postpone examinations indefinitely, awaiting the return of exam-worthy conditions. This is the easiest solution for stand-alone examinations like entrance exams, and for intermediate or non-terminal exams (like those for any semester except the final semester of a degree programme).

However, indefinite postponement is not an obvious stress-reducer for terminal examinations (which form the final stage of a programme prior to the award of a degree or certificate). This is because the stress caused by the exam must be balanced against the stress caused by uncertainty about the award of degrees needed to apply for jobs.

Online options

In response to this dilemma, many institutions are opting for some form of an online examination that relies on the internet and lets students take the exam at their own location. A prominent example is Delhi University, which is devising an “open book examination” for the final semester of its undergraduate and post-graduate programmes. This will require students to first download the question paper from the university portal, write the answers on plain paper, and finally scan and upload them on the portal, all within a stipulated time limit.

The only clear advantage of this proposal is that it allows the university to tell its masters that it managed to conduct examinations in a pandemic. The many clear disadvantages have been detailed repeatedly (for example, here, here and here).

Teachers in Kerala's Kozhikode collect exam papers to correct. Credit: PTI

To summarise the most important ones: first, internet connectivity conditions will inevitably widen the gap between students with different backgrounds − rich versus poor, and rural or semi-urban versus metropolitan. Second, a sudden change in the style of question papers (as is required by the “open book” format) without enough time to familiarise students with this change will surely create legitimate anxiety. Third, technical glitches and malfunctions are certain to impose long delays in declaring results that will retrospectively mock the haste to hold the exam.

An alternative

There is a logistically viable and ethically fair alternative that also meets the basic objective of avoiding uncertainty and delay in the award of degrees. This is to cancel the final semester exams while using the average of the marks obtained in previous semesters as a proxy for the final semester examination marks.

The logistical advantages of this option are obvious – pandemic restrictions are automatically respected, and there is no need to worry about connectivity because prior examination results are already available. This is also a fairer option in every sense – it does not add to existing inequalities, and it is based on each student’s own performance in earlier examinations held under normal conditions.

Moreover, this prior performance will account for the bulk of the degree programme – for three out of four semesters (in most masters degrees) and five out of six semesters (in most undergraduate degrees). This is likely to be true even when the final semester has a higher weight (because of more papers, or papers with higher marks) than the previous semesters.

Finally, this method does not preclude the normal options that students have for re-taking examinations to improve their performance if they so wish.

Creating hierarchies

Though it is far from rational, there is one overwhelming reason why the clearly superior option of cancelling final semester exams will not be exercised. This is the fact that in our culture, examinations are among the holiest of our many holy institutions. This is because they perform two vital social functions: overtly, they provide a cheap and easy method of creating hierarchies that carries popular legitimacy; covertly, they provide a reliable method of converting social and economic privilege into merit.

That is why even if climate change eliminates our natural seasons, and political trends make elections optional, examinations will go on forever.

Satish Deshpande is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Delhi.

The views express in this article are personal.