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Siege prompts CU to scrap oral test
Experts question rationale for spoken exam

Around 100 students on Monday arm-twisted the Calcutta University authorities into scrapping the postgraduate viva voce in Bengali, which experts said should not have been there in the first place.

The MA first-year students gheraoed the departmental head and other teachers around 11am and lifted the siege at 4pm after vice-chancellor Suranjan Das agreed to scrap the oral exam.

Das and the registrar went to the department, on the same College Street campus where the VC has his office, around 2.30pm to talk to protesters, who alleged lack of transparency in the viva voce assessment.

The department introduced the 40-marks spoken exam in each semester at the master’s level following a UGC advisory. The UGC stressed the need for such tests to prepare students for job interviews.

“Based on the UGC advisory, the department decided to convert the 40-mark short-answer type questions to viva voce this year. No other department has viva voce,” said a university official.

The protesters alleged that a large number of students who had scored high marks in written exams fared poorly in the viva voce.

“Around 200 of the 368 students in the class got poor marks in the oral exam, though most of them have scored well in the written tests. The examiners favoured students close to them. So we want viva voce to be scrapped,” said a protester.

MA classes for both first and second-year students were suspended because of the daylong agitation.

Monday’s protest gave rise to a debate on whether it is proper to have viva voce at the master’s level.

Sources in CU’s Bengali department expressed doubt on whether a spoken exam is the right way to assess students and wondered whether the move was intended to lessen the load of assessing scripts.

“The idea that a student’s command of a subject at the master’s level can be judged in a 15-minute spoken exam is bizarre. Also, it is not the department’s responsibility to prepare students for interviews. A master’s course is designed to encourage students to delve deep into the subject and test his/her knowledge through a fair assessment,” said a former teacher of the department.

The arts faculty at Jadavpur University scrapped viva voce at the master’s level after it launched the semester system in 2004.

Before that, the university used to hold 20-mark viva voice as part of the ninth paper in the PG course.

A JU official explained the reason for abolishing the spoken exam: “It did not seem practicable to assess a student’s command of the subject through viva voce. Our internal assessment consists of class tests, assignments and oral presentations. We don’t hold viva voce even as part of the entrance test as it carries the risk of favouritism.”

The science faculty of the university, however, conducts viva voce. “At the master’s level we hold viva voce four times. At least twice we call experts from other institutes,” said an official.

An academician Metro spoke to said viva voce should ideally be held on camera.

“At internationally-acclaimed universities, there is a system of holding viva voce at the PhD level. But there is an inherent sanctity about the system and no one complains of unfair assessment. In those universities there is also a practice of open-book assessment,” said the academician.

When CU vice-chancellor Das was asked why the university scrapped the viva voce instead of deciding to hold it on camera, he said: “It was the decision of the department concerned.”

A CU official said the way the authorities had changed its stand following the students’ agitation was shocking.

“Had the authorities on their own reverted to the earlier system because of flaws in the current system, it would have made sense. Now that a student agitation has forced the authorities to change stand, a message has gone out that it took the authorities to face a wrong to correct a wrong,” said the official.