The recent Judgment of the Karnataka High Court regarding conduct of examinations by Karnataka State Law University (KSLU) has garnered nationwide attention. The resultant uncertainty with respect to the conduct of examinations has piqued student interest, along with lingering confusion. The judgment delivered by Hon’ble Justice R Devdas quashed the conduct of even semester examination which was scheduled to begin on 15th February 2021. Inspite of the Judgment, the grapevine suggests that KSLU is wanting to appeal, leaving students and faculty members in a dilemma. 

The way in which KSLU has handled the response to the pandemic and it’s reluctance to take firm and quick decisions is appalling, not to mention condemnable. Unfortunately, the judgment of Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka is also disputable and fallacious. The judgment brings to the forefront two very important issues plaguing legal fraternity. The first is with respect to grounds for quashing of guidelines, and the second is in regards to reconciling the regulatory powers of Bar Council of India (BCI) and University Grants Commission (UGC). The exigency to deliver justice appears to have tripped the court on both these issues. 

The writ petition was filed by students who are affiliated to various colleges of KSLU. The remedy sought by the petitioners was to get the benefits of UGC guidelines, under which intermediate students are required to be promoted on the basis of internal evaluation marks (50) plus previous year marks (50). The petitioners claimed that classes for the even semester (2019-20) could not be effectively conducted due to closure of colleges, though KSLU vide circular dated 10.04.2020 directed the affiliated colleges to conduct classes online, petitioners alleged inability of the students to participate in the learning process due to lack of internet infrastructure as large number of students are based in rural areas.  On completion of the even semester, KSLU has promoted all the students without any examination making references to BCI circulars. The Odd semester classes (2020-21) commenced from September, on its conclusions offline exams were announced for both the semesters. 

The court faced with this situation had to consider validity of KSLU’s decision to conduct offline end semester exams on the background of guidelines issued by two regulatory bodies:

  1. The UGC Online examination guidelines dated 29-04-2020 and the revised guidelines dated 06.07.2020
  2. The BCI Online examination Guidelines dated 27-05-2020 and 09-06-2020

The UGC guidelines unambiguously provided “..For intermediate semester/year students, the universities may conduct examinations after making a comprehensive assessment…” and grading could be on the basis of 50% of internal evaluation plus 50% of previous semester. Whereas, the BCI guidelines that were issued on 27.05.2020 directed universities to promote the students and conduct the end semester examination within a month of reopening college, further vide it’s guidelines dated 09.06.2020 it was clarified that after reopening of colleges universities are bound to conduct examination with respect to the and students were required to pass all the subjects.

KSLU had consistently adopted BCI guidelines and had clarified to the students that their promotion is subject to them clearing the exams which will be conducted on reopening of colleges. On 13 January a revised Academic calendar was notified by KSLU, subsequently the exams for Even Semester were notified, scheduled to begin from February 15. Faced with this, Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka held that UGC guidelines were issued after taking into consideration the report of the expert committee, whereas there is no evidence of application of mind by either BCI or KSLU. Further relying upon Hon’ble Supreme Court’s judgment in Praneeth K and Ors v. UGC and Ors (Praneeth K) the court concluded that UGC guidelines are binding on KSLU.

Firstly, the Hon’ble High Court has wrongly concluded that the Supreme Court judgment squarely covers the writ petition. The High court noted that the evaluation method for intermediate students has been upheld by the supreme court. This assertion appears to be flawed for two reasons, in Praneeth K the Supreme court adjudicated the validity of conduct of examination for final year students. The court concluded that UGC need not consult all the universities to pass the guidelines, and universities are statutorily bound to follow the same. However, the Supreme court also noted that “… 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 hon’ble High Court failed to take into consideration the option that was granted as recognised by the Supreme Court via the UGC guideline. Second, in Praneeth K the SC was deciphering the scope for state/disaster management authorities to postpone the examination in contravention to UGC guidelines, when highest number of Covid-19 cases were being recorded.

This leads to the second issue, validity of UGC guidelines over BCI’s notifications. The Hon’ble High Court reasoned that unlike the UGC the latter bodies did not constitute an expert committee to decide upon matters connected to examinations, thereby suggesting non-application of mind by BCI and KSLU. 

A regulatory decision for conduct of examination being quashed on the ground of non- constitution of an expert committee, thereby non-application of mind is legally questionable, especially when there are cogent reasons evident in the changed circumstances. First, Covid-19 has been a fluid situation, as on the date the judgment was delivered, data on number of positive cases and deaths were abysmally low. All restrictions related to travelling have been removed, making it absolutely possible for students to reach the examination centres. Second, the experience of conducting examination for final years has ensured that all the gaps that existed in taking necessary safety precautions are plugged. 

Most importantly, KSLU has a cluster of 106 affiliated law colleges where more than 75% of them are present in rural areas. Though internet connectivity in rural India has improved, broadband connectivity remains abysmal. Online internal exams is far from reality and also iniquitous. Indeed, there are many National Law Universities and Private universities that have conducted semester exams online. However, the student population at these universities are far from a fair comparison due to their residence in tier 1 cities rather than tier 2 and tier 3 areas let alone extreme rural areas. This diversity was envisaged by the UGC guideline, because of which an option was provided for Universities to conduct the examination as per the diversity of students, their economic status and available infrastructure at university level. 

Further a significant element that the Hon’ble High Court has not given due attention is with respect to the turf wars between BCI and UGC the Hon’ble Supreme court in Bar council of India v. Board of Management, Dayanad sagar college of law had necessitated reading the rules framed by UGC in consonance with rules framed by BCI, the case was decided in the context of appointment of a principal to the law college who was not a graduate of law. The appointment was in compliance with the university act whereas was in contravention to the Bar council rules. However, as noted in V Sudeer v. Bar council of India BCI could lay down the standards of education in India and also monitor, review and accredit universities. With regards to the power of prescribing a mode of examination questions persist. Thus, the Hon’ble high court’s decision to brush off BCI guidelines without bringing out these legal issues makes the judgment questionable.

Finally, Observations made by the court regarding hardship of the students to write 12 examinations at a stretch also appears to be short of empirical data. Anecdotally, more than half of my students want to give exams. Undoubtedly, students would be facing difficulties, but has Covid-19 spared anyone from difficulties? Nor difficulties and hardships faced by individuals can be an adequate reason to quash the notifications, especially when the judge has not reasoned out how that hardship is arbitrary. Further, the Hon’ble High Court could have directed KSLU to provide adequate time in between the exams, if hardship was the main concern. By quashing the notifications, the judgment seems to serve the interest of none. This is in no way trying to defend the decision of KSLU, or absolve them of the behaviour that they have depicted by not addressing the grievance of student adequately. To be honest, my duties of being an assistant professor has given me a ring sided view of the students problem where neither the university nor the court has put genuine efforts to assist the students. Instead of providing them with wings of fire, the examination fiasco has put their wings on fire.

This article is written by Vivek Narayan, who is an assistant professor at KLE law college Bengaluru.

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of theLawmatics.