Savitribai Phule Pune University’s (SPPU) Law Faculty semester-end exams, considered among the toughest of all faculties in the universities, recorded a pass percentage of 20.86% in the pre-pandemic year of 2018. That went up to 93.08% in 2021, when exams were held online.

From a pass percentage of 40.01% in 2018, Nagpur University’s BA Final Year results went up to 94.17% and 87.96% in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 respectively, when exams were held online.

During the final exams of 2021, Mumbai University’s undergraduate programmes recorded pass percentages of 93.21 for the Arts stream, 94.5 for Commerce and 74.44 for Science. According to university’s Director of Board of Examinations and Evaluation, Vinod Patil, a surge of roughly 20% in the pass percentages has been witnessed across all three streams since the pandemic.

In at least three of the biggest universities in Maharashtra, which together account for over 15 lakh students, pass percentages have seen big jumps over the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to teachers, principals and university officials raising doubts over the integrity of online examinations.

Data of examination results obtained by The Indian Express from Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), Nagpur University and Mumbai University offer a measure of the inflated results as some departments such as SPPU’s Law faculty recorded a 72% jump in pass percentages between 2018 and 2021 – a trend that’s likely to be mirrored across the country as exams moved online during the pandemic.

Since the summer of 2020, when the lockdown was imposed and classes and exams were hastily moved online, universities have struggled to put in place testing infrastructure, including means of surveillance to ensure fair practices. Also, universities shifted to a fully online MCQ-based (multiple choice questions) test to assess students.

Saying offline exams are the only realistic way to measure the performance of students, Mahesh Kakade, Director, Board of Examinations and Evaluation, SPPU, said, “When the online method of examination was deployed for first time, there were videos being circulated on social media teaching students how to cheat, to take the exam in groups and so on.”

He added that the university managed to soon catch up, investing in technological interventions to ensure clean exams. “We employed artificial intelligence and sensor technology and started catching malpractices. Our technology started capturing pictures of students using other devices, going absent from the screen and switching windows on their computers. The technology also recorded movements of others in the room. We caught over 1,100 students cheating in the October 2021 examinations,” he said.

Prafulla Sable, Director, Board of Examinations and Evaluations, Nagpur University, too, said the shift to online testing came with its set of surveillance problems for the university. “In the initial days of the pandemic, when we conducted online exams for the first time, it took us by surprise as we weren’t prepared. We even heard stories of students taking the exams in groups.”

By December 2021, most state universities had started preparing for on-campus examinations but as Covid-19 cases of the Omicron variant started rising, on January 7 this year, a government resolution directed all non-agricultural, private, deemed, technical and professional universities and their affiliated colleges to conduct exams only in the online mode. While most universities are yet to revert to the on-campus exam mode, a few autonomous institutes have gone ahead and announced offline exams, citing among other things, accurate and realistic assessment.

Data of exam results from the three state universities show why their concerns aren’t entirely off the mark.

At Pune’s SPPU, where the engineering faculty had the highest number of students appearing for examinations in October 2020 and May 2021 in online mode, the results are telling (see box). Of 1.69 lakh students who appeared for the October 2020 exams, the first examination post the Covid-19 lockdown, only 421 failed, resulting in pass figures of 99.75%. For the May 2021 exams, also held online, 1.66 lakh appeared, of whom 2,297 students failed – a pass percentage of 98.61%. Before the exams went online due to the pandemic, the average pass percentage of the same faculty never exceeded 70 per cent for at least a decade.

At Nagpur University, 18,452 students appeared for their BA final-year exams in the summer of 2018 and 8,201 in the summer 2019, both written exams in pre-Covid times, when the overall passing percentage stood at 40.01 per cent and 61.57 per cent respectively. The pass percentages went up to 94.17% in 2020 and 87.76% in 2021. This is a trend that’s true of all faculties in the university — indicative of the falling stature of examinations over the last two years as exams went online.

University officials and teachers say the shift to MCQ-based question papers may have also contributed to a rise in pass percentages.

“The nature of the examination is such that in an MCQ-based question paper, even if students pick any random option, there’s a probability of getting passing marks at least,” said Kakade.

The principal of a college affiliated to Mumbai University said on condition of anonymity, “With the online exams, the pattern shifted from subjective questions to objective ones. While it was easier for the students, there was no room for the professor’s evaluation-based scoring, which factored in the student’s understanding of the topic on which she is being tested.”

Patil of Mumbai University is convinced the surge in results is purely because of the MCQ nature of the exam. “There was online proctoring which did not leave room for cheating,” he said.

Dhanraj Mane, Director, Higher Education, Maharashtra, said he was aware of the inflated results across state universities over the last two years. “Maintaining the sanctity of exams and holding a review of the results are the job of the universities. Their board of examinations and vice chancellors are there to review it. In January, the government had issued an order (for online exams) keeping Covid cases in mind, but now there is no such situation. It is up to universities to take a call on the pattern of examinations. If an emergency situation like Covid arises, they can take online exams. But now, most universities will be moving to taking offline exams,” he said.

While saying there can be no going back on the exams that have already been conducted online, SPPU Vice Chancellor Nitin Karmalkar said offline exams are the only way forward. “Even lectures have resumed in colleges and universities so now we need to revert to the traditional pen-paper method of examinations as an immediate solution. The MCQ-based nature of the online mode of examinations lends itself to unrealistic pass percentages, which can be corrected by reverting to offline exams. However, as a long term solution, we need to implement a choice-based credit system, where continuous evaluation of the students takes place.”

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