The Vice-Chancellors of universities in West Bengal and the University Grants Commission have reached a parting of the ways at a critical juncture, when the academic schedule has been thrown out of joint ~ from the pre-school to the university stage ~ because of the coronavirus pandemic and the prolonged closure of educational institutions.

On the face of it, the state VCs’ Council has taken umbrage at the UGC’s directive to hold final-year exams by the end of September. More basically, the controversy has assumed the character of federal rights with the Vice-Chancellors deciding to support the West Bengal government and abide by the state’s 80-20 evaluation formula.

The difference of perceptions in matters academic is underlined by the fact that the VCs of four state universities ~ Calcutta, Jadavpur, Presidency and the West Bengal State University in Barasat ~ didn’t participate in the “virtual meeting” of the VCs’ Council. There appears to be a standoff at the government level over the revised UGC guidelines.

Nor for that matter did the state’s education secretary turn up for the meeting with the West Bengal Governor and the Chancellor of state universities. Mr Jagdeep Dhankar has assured the VCs that he will take up the matter with the UGC after the virtual conference on 15 July. The VCs are likely to write separately to the Governor, requesting him not to ask VCs and Pro VCs to attend the conference on the 15th.

Not the least because rules in the amended statute do not envisage direct interaction with the Governor. Even on routine administrative matters, the VCs were instructed by the education minister, Partha Chattopadhyay, to go through the education secretary. Thus was a new bureaucratic tier created between the Vice-Chancellors and the Chancellor.

There is at the moment a war of nerves within the education segment, and at a juncture when learning is in suspended animation. On closer reflection, West Bengal is not the only state that has fallen out with the UGC over its revised guidelines. Punjab’s Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, has let it be known that he will write to the Prime Minister and the Union home minister seeking cancellation of the final-year examinations in universities and colleges, given the rising coronavirus graph.

The Chief Minister has also demanded the scrapping of the Home ministry’s order that was advanced on 6 July. At another remove, UGC has recommended final-year examinations by the end of September, hoping that it will ensure what it calls “fair and equal opportunity” for students. The UGC does have a point when it contends that “academic evaluation of students is a very important milestone in any education system”.

For all that, there can be no one-size-fits-all formula. In the interest of the students, the UGC and the VCs need to reach a compromise. Learning must continue; so too must exams within an agreeable timeframe. Both are now missing across the country. Education has been one of the worst casualties of Covid-19. More’s the pity.