The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its judgement on a bunch of petitions that challenged the University Grants Commission’s directive to conclude final year exams by September 30 amid the coronavirus pandemic, Bar and Bench reported. The court gave three days to all parties to submit their written arguments.

Before reserving orders, the bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and MR Shah heard the arguments made by the governments of Delhi, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Odisha.

The bench heard senior advocates Arvind P Datar (for Maharashtra), Jaideep Gupta (for teachers from West Bengal), KV Vishwanathan (for Delhi), advocate generals for Odisha and West Bengal, among others. The representatives argued that the states were not consulted before the finalisation of the guidelines. They contended that state governments have the authority to take decisions related to the health of its citizens and in this regard, the guidelines issued by the UGC impedes on the states’ rights to make decisions.

West Bengal Advocate General Kishore Dutta said that the UGC had taken the decision to conduct exams unilaterally. “In this pandemic, states like Maharashtra and West Bengal cannot be treated to be the same,” he said. “We are in exceptional circumstances, we have to see whether UGC has taken the decision keeping in view the extraordinary situation.”

Datar, appearing on behalf of Maharashtra, contested the UGC’s claim that all vice chancellors were consulted before coming up with July 6 guidelines. He claimed that no ministers or VCs from Maharashtra were consulted before issuing the guidelines.

The advocate also pointed out that most universities follow semester based system and therefore, argued that the final year was not important as the assessment is done on a cumulative basis.

However, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the UGC, rebutted the claim and said the system is not uniform throughout the country and many universities still follow the yearly system.

Mehta said that the commission does not have the “luxury to confer degrees without an exam”. “Final year is the degree year, exams cannot be done away with,” he said. He further pointed out that all public health precautions were taken before ordering for exams.

Mehta added that the UGC guidelines, which are based on the recommendations from the Kuhad Committee, are mandatory in nature. “Guidelines are not merely for preaching,” he told the court. “They are mandatory. The guidelines that are challenged before the court have statutory mandate.”

He argued that several universities have already opted for online exams, while others have conducted exams in offline and hybrid mode. The solicitor general further suggested that universities can seek for the deadline to be pushed for “whatever specified reasons”. “However, they cannot take the decision to confer degrees without exams,” he said.

Mehta said the UGC deadline was not a diktat but was given in the interest of students. “Students have to go for post-graduation or jobs,” he added. “The country is opening up gradually, these students are 20-21 year old students. Can we really believe they are not going out?”

Justice Bhushan observed that the UGC has to come up with a “minimum standard” to assess the students. “The universities cannot say they cannot hold the final year exam if the standard has been fixed by the UGC,” he said. “However, UGC also cannot say that the exam has to be conducted before a deadline without taking into account the health of the students.”

The top court had started a detailed hearing in the matter on August 14, when it heard senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Shyam Divan for the petitioners.