Today in Supreme Court, a Bench comprising Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice R. Shubhash Reddy and Justice M.R. Shah, delivered a very significant Judgment concerning lakhs of students across India. The Judgment came in bunch of Petitions with leading W.P. (Civil) No. 724 of 2020 (Praneeth K and Others vs University Grants Commission)
Categories of Writ Petitions
The first group of writ petitions filed by students, youth organisations and the teachers associations challenged the guidelines issued by University Grants Commission (hereinafter referred to as “UGC”) dated 06.07.2020, O.M. dated 06.07.2020 issued by Ministry of Human Resource Development and letter dated 06.07.2020 issued by Ministry of Home Affairs whereby all the Universities and Colleges across the country had been directed to conduct terminal semester/ final year examinations by 30.09.2020.
A further relief was sought directing the respondents to declare the results of the students of the final year/terminal semester examinations of all universities/ institutions of the country on the basis of their past performance/internal assessment and to award marksheets and degrees.
The second group of writ petitions were filed by the students challenging the decision of the State Disaster Management Authority as well as of the States (State of Maharashtra and State of West Bengal) for not holding final term examination. Further prayers were made that State of Maharashtra as well as State of West Bengal be directed to comply with the UGC revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020 and O.M. dated 06.07.2020 of Ministry of Human Resource Development.
Issues Framed by Court
- Whether the revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020 requiring the Universities to complete terminal semester/final year examination by 30.09.2020 is beyond the domain of the UGC and does not relate to “coordination and determination of standards in institution of higher education”?
- Whether the revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020 issued by the UGC are nonstatutory, advisory only and contrary to earlier guidelines dated 29.04.2020?
- Whether the UGC guidelines dated 06.07.2020 are violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India?
- Whether the UGC guidelines dated 06.07.2020 are violative of Article 21 of the Constitution of India and the guidelines have been issued disregarding the pandemic COVID19?
- Whether the guidelines of the UGC dated 06.07.2020 are liable to be set aside on the ground of noncompliance of Section 12 of UGC Act, 1956?
- Whether the State and State’s Disaster Management Authority in exercise of jurisdiction under Disaster Management Act, 2005 can take a decision not to hold examination by 30.09.2020 disregarding the direction in the UGC guidelines dated 06.07.2020?
- Whether the State or State Disaster Management Authority, in exercise of jurisdiction under Act, 2005, can take a decision to award degrees to final year/final semester students by promoting them on the basis of criteria of assessment formulated by the State/Universities on the result of previous semesters/exams and internal assessment of final year/terminal semester in disregard to the guidelines dated 06.07.2020 which require holding of examination of final year/terminal semester by 30.09.2020?
Contention of Students seeking cancellation of Exams
- The petitioners’ case is that the decision of the UGC, Ministry of Human Resource Development and Ministry of Home Affairs to conduct the final term/final examinations of Universities and institutions throughout the country amid COVID19 pandemic is extremely arbitrary, whimsical and detrimental to the health and safety of the students as well as violative of fundamental rights of lakhs of students enshrined under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India including those of the writ petitioners.
- Various States are suffering gravely from pandemic of COVID19 and respective State Governments have imposed/implemented various levels of lockdown under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Petitioner pleads that as a result of the lockdown, Universities, schools, educational institutions were forced to shut down and to postpone the terminal semester/final year examinations.
- Cases of COVID19 are increasing day by day in the State of Maharashtra and many college buildings in the State of Maharashtra have been requisitioned by the State Government / its bodies like Municipal Corporation to be converted into quarantine centres and for other public purpose in view of present pandemic COVID19, hence it is impractical to hold examinations.
- Students also claimed parity with Judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of CBSE exams rendered in Writ Petition (C) No. 566 of 2020 – Amit Bathla & Ors. Vs. Central Board of Secondary Education & Anr.
- The most of the Colleges/Universities/ Institutions have been converted into COVID Health Care Centres. Therefore, conducting of exams through offline mode will entail a huge risk of transmission of virus, it will be absolutely unjust to neglect the problems of adopting uniform online mode of exams and also the infrastructural disparities.
- Section 72 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides that decisions taken and orders issued thereunder will have an overriding effect. If a decision is taken by the appropriate authority under Act, 2005 regarding non holding of examination, the same will operate and hold the field despite the provisions of the UGC Act.
- Section 12 of the UGC Act mandates that guidelines need to be framed in consultation with the Universities. All Universities were not consulted before issuing the impugned guidelines.
- The University Grants Commission Act and the guidelines framed thereunder shall not have an overriding effect on the action under the Act, 2005. The Disaster Management Act being a latter and special Act shall operate.
- The order issued under the Disaster Management Act shall override the revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020.
- Revised guidelines have been issued under University Grants Commission Act, 1956 which is referable to Entry 66 of List I of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, which is confined to “coordination and determination of standards”.
- not holding final examination and awarding Degree on the basis of earlier semester’s performance is not diluting the standards of education in any manner.
- The directions of UGC to hold examination by 30.09.2020 is completely beyond the power of UGC. Revised guidelines do not take into consideration the different situations of different States.’
Contention of UGC:
- judicial review of the guidelines of the UGC dated 06.07.2020 is permissible only on limited grounds.
- If authority has power to do something, the form is not material.
- Ministry of Home Affairs have already granted exemption for conducting the examination despite the closure of Schools, Colleges and Coaching Institutions.
- University Grants Act is referable to Entry 66 List I of 7th Schedule and no contrary decision of the State can stand in its way. Referring to Regulations, 2003
- Closure of the Schools, Colleges and Institutions has nothing to do with the conduct of the examinations and normally final examinations are conducted only after teaching is over i.e. after Colleges are closed.
The Court Held:
- The Revised Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 issued by the UGC are not beyond the domain of the UGC and they relate to coordination and determination of standards in institutions of higher education.
- The Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 are in continuation to the earlier Guidelines dated 29.04.2020 and are not contrary to the earlier Guidelines. We have to look into the substance of the Guidelines to find out the intention and object of the Guidelines. The Guidelines were issued with the object that a uniform academic calendar be followed by all the Universities and final /terminal examinations be held.
- The Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 has to be treated to have been issued in exercise of the statutory powers vested in the Commission under Section 12. As per the Statutory Regulations, 2003, it is the statutory duty of the Universities to adopt the Guidelines issued by the UGC. The Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 cannot be ignored by terming it as nonstatutory or advisory.
- The differentiation made in the Revised Guidelines to hold final or terminal semester examination and to give option for earlier years/ intermediate semester for not holding the examination has a rational basis. The differentiation has nexus with the object to be achieved. We, thus, reject the challenge to the revised Guidelines on the ground that there is any discrimination between the students of final year/terminal semester and those of intermediate and first year.
- The revised Guidelines also cannot be termed to violate Article 14 of the Constitution on the ground that one date, i.e., 30.09.2020 has been fixed irrespective of the conditions prevailing in individual States. The date for completion of examination was fixed throughout the country to maintain uniformity in the academic calendar.
- The Revised Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 as well as Standard Operating Procedures for conduct of examinations circulated vide letter dated 08.07.2020 of UGC as well as O.M. dated 06.07.2020 issued by MHRD clearly shows deep concern with the health of all stakeholders, i.e., students as well as the exam functionaries. Challenge to the Guidelines on the ground of it being violative of Article 21 is repelled.
- The expression “other bodies” used in the opening part of the Section 12 of the UGC Act, 1956 is in reference to other bodies apart from Universities as enumerated under Section 12. The submission that other bodies as occurring in Section 12 should include State Disaster Management Authority or health experts is misconceived. Section 12 never contemplated any such expression. The revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020 are not in breach of Section 12 of 1956 Act.
- The Disaster Management Act, 2005 empowers the State Disaster Management Authority as well as the State Government to take measures for prevention and mitigation of a disaster and the action taken by the authorities under the Disaster Management Act have been given overriding effect to achieve the purpose and object of the Act, 2005. Saving of human life has been given paramount importance under the Act, 2005. Primacy have been given to the actions and measures taken under the Act, 2005 over anything inconsistent in any other law for the time being in force.
- The direction of the University Grants Commission in Revised Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 insofar as it directs the Universities and Colleges to complete the final year/terminal year examination by 30.09.2020 shall be overridden by any contrary decision taken by the State Disaster Management Authority or the State Government exercising power under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
- The State Governments or State Disaster Management Authority in exercise of power under Disaster Management Act, 2005 has no jurisdiction to take a decision that the students of final year/terminal students should be promoted on the basis of earlier year assessment and internal assessment, which decision being contrary to UGC Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 has to give way to the UGC Guidelines. The UGC Guidelines dated 06.07.2020 specifically directed to conduct the final year/ terminal semester examination which shall override such contrary decision of the State Government or SDMA.
- The prayer to quash the revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020 issued by the University Grants Commission and OM dated 06.07.2020 issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and letter dated 06.07.2020 issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs is refused.
- The decision taken by the State Disaster Management Authority/State not to hold final year/terminal semester examination by 30.09.2020 in exercise of power under Disaster Management Act, 2005 shall prevail over deadline fixed by the University Grants Commission i.e. 30.09.2020 in respect to the concerned State.
- The decision of the State/State Disaster Management Authority to promote the students in the final year/terminal semester on the basis of previous performance and internal assessment being beyond the jurisdiction of Disaster Management Act, 2005 has to give way to the guidelines of UGC dated 06.07.2020 directing to hold examination of final year/terminal semester. The State and University cannot promote the students in the final year/terminal semester without holding final year/terminal examination.
- If any State/Union Territory in exercise of jurisdiction under Disaster Management Act, 2005 has taken a decision that it is not possible to conduct the final year/terminal semester examination by 30.09.2020, we grant liberty to such State/Union Territory to make an application to the University Grants Commission for extending deadline of 30.09.2020 for that State/Union 160 Territory which shall be considered by UGC and rescheduled date be communicated to such State/Union Territory at the earliest.