The University Grants Commission’s decision to implement a Common University Entrance Test for undergraduate admission in all central universities in India reveals several problems that continue to plague the country’s higher education system. The revelation of the CUET plan has been communicated in a way that we do not yet know all the details, which means the final jury on the usefulness of the test will only be out once we witness its execution. Although the prevailing uncertainty can itself be a cause of heightened anxiety for students appearing for the test this year. Hence it may still be useful to scrutinise the test from what we know of it now.
If we look at the possible benefits of the CUET; students will no longer have to depend on their 12th-grade marks for admission into colleges. This means that it does not matter how well students do throughout their 12th grade, the CUET provides everyone with a level playing field to get admissions into a good college without worrying about soaring cut-offs. The only caveat here is that the UGC has given Universities the liberty to set a lower threshold of 12th-grade marks as a criteria for admission. Another benefit of the CUET, given that it is expected to provide an interdisciplinary test, will allow students to prove their mettle across disciplines. This in turn will also allow students to study beyond their specialised streams in 12th grade. Lastly, the UGC Chairperson has categorically stated that the CUET will not change the status of caste and EWC based reservation of seats in Universities. Hence, reserved seats for students from socially and economically disadvantaged communities will not be affected due to the CUET.
Having stated the possible benefits students may reap from the CUET, there are however several questions that loom large. First, how does replacing CUET scores with 12th-grade marks solve the problem of immense competition for undergraduate seats? If the problem was high cut-offs in top universities, what is the guarantee that students will not score high scores in the CUET resulting in the same competition for seats in top Universities? The CUET may be able to resolve the problem of over-admission in certain colleges due to high-cut offs, but it does not negate the possibility of over-admission in colleges due to the overflow of students who get high CUET scores.
Secondly, what is the guarantee that CUET will not become a humanities and commerce stream version of JEE or NEET? Competitive exams and entrance tests have reshaped higher education in India. While it has paved the way for talents to enter prestigious institutes, it has also resulted in a cutthroat culture of preparation that has often rendered students bleeding dry. The CUET may in fact pave the way for coaching institutes to jump on this opportunity and offer courses to “crack” the test. The financial pressures that emerge from coaching, the mentally and emotionally toxic environment it usually is, and the heavy financial expenses coaching often requires, make it an extremely damaging form of academic pursuit for the overall health of young students. Additionally, coaching institutes especially disadvantage underprivileged students. The UGC has not yet communicated the willingness or a way to prevent CUET from becoming the next big competitive entrance test in India. UGC did mention that the CUET will be based on the 12th-grade syllabus, which begs the question; how will it be any different than the 12th-grade examination?
Thirdly, the timing of the declaration of the CUET was extremely poor. The current 12th-grade batch entered the academic year presuming the status quo for admissions into colleges. Yet they will finish their 12th grade by preparing for an entrance test they did not anticipate. The UGC could have announced the CUET earlier or postponed its execution for the admission cycle of 2023. Yet the decision to implement the CUET means the current 12th-grade batch will have to prepare for another exam right after finishing their final examination.
Given the depth of problems that prevail in Indian higher education, and problems that are at the crossroads of being conflated due to the CUET, what can the UGC and the Ministry of Education do so that it does not become a damaging exercise for students? Firstly, the UGC has to ascertain that the tests are modelled in a way that does not emulate other entrance examinations. The objective should be for every student to be able to establish their aptitude. Following the ranking system or percentile system escalates the competitive nature of entrance examinations. Hence, CUET scores should be accorded the value of a purely individual aptitude marker. The UGC should also ascertain that private and public schools of all boards should take the responsibility to prepare students for the CUET, not through the means of extra classes or tuitions, but through in-class learning itself.
Secondly, the government should also hold mock tests for the first batch of students appearing for the CUET. This is especially important for students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The UGC has stated that the CUET will be a purely computer-based examination. Many students, especially in government schools, do not have access to computers. Hence the UGC needs to consider a mechanism, possibly incorporating written tests, to make the examination inclusive.
The CUET may have been intended to revamp the process of undergraduate education and possibly make the transition from school to college less competitive. The fact however is that relentless competition for college seats will persist till the number of good colleges remains limited. The government has to prioritise improving the standard of higher education and ascertain students get a level playing field at every stage of their education. The pedagogical infrastructure in the country also privileges people from advantaged backgrounds. Greater investment, financially and intellectually, into school education is the first step towards creating a level playing field. Such efforts should be prioritised over any entrance test in the larger scheme of things.
Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes a keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media, art and culture.
Picture Credits: Hindustan Times
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