If all we care about, in our higher education at this unique time in history, is the schedule for exams and how to assess student performance, something is seriously wrong with our system.
The purpose of higher education institutions, or system, is not to examine and assess. It’s to impart knowledge, create a sense of inquiry and scholarship. Strong higher education systems create citizens who provide ethical leadership, create new solutions for stubborn problems and reflect a deep sense of empathy. Its goal is to lead society, not divide into haves and have-nots. These goals are neither arbitrary nor purely theoretical but stem from a vision and clarity of leadership.
The recent HEC emphasis that focuses on exams and assessment is both misguided and unethical. Imagine two students in the same semester in the same classroom in March 2020. One from a reasonably well-off family with all the resources — servants at home, a stable internet, plenty to eat. Another one from a small town in a rural area — with little to eat, unstable housing, non-existent internet connectivity and high anxiety about economic uncertainty. In late March, they go to their hometowns. Asking the two students to appear in the same exam, where one had the resources to study, and the other was fending for his/her life and of the family shows a bizarre sense of privilege that is at the root of our unequal society.
The HEC should also not make a fool out of people by suggesting they are working on increasing connectivity in rural areas. That statement may be true, but it’s not going to happen in the next week, or year. The infrastructure, resources and capacity to create a more well-connected society is simply not there. It’s a great goal to have, but it’s far into the future.
There seems to be a strange and inexplicable fixation with “process” in our higher education system. We do things not because they are right, but because they have always been done that way. We have made few changes since the colonial time in our system and are unwilling to adapt to the needs of the time, or those of the students we want to serve.
Let us quickly do a cost-benefit analysis of having exams at this time. The benefit is that we maintain a semblance of normalcy (in a highly abnormal time), and find out who has the chops to pass a course. Supposedly, we are told that if we do not have exams, a lot of unqualified people will enter the real world. This is laughable. Do we really think our system is so well-oiled that only one set of final exams separates those who are qualified from those who aren’t?
The cost of creating exams and focusing on assessment as if nothing has happened is very high. First, it’s creating a huge sense of anxiety among students. It’s also telling students who come from low-income backgrounds that the system does not care about them. Third, examiners themselves are unsure on what would be ethical and fair exams.
The right approach would be to show empathy and work with students. For some students, this may mean replacing exams with assignments they can submit later. For others, this may mean only a pass and fail system as opposed to grades. This will not be easy, but easy is not what we should be doing right now.
The Prime Minister and his cabinet keep talking about caring for the vulnerable and the problems with the elite. The higher education system should be the last thing that caters only to the elite. A system that creates a bigger social divide than what already exists is a system not worth supporting.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2020.