Common entrance test: Is it at odds with national policy?

The announcement of a mandatory Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for those seeking admission to the undergraduate programmes of India’s 45 central universities, with an open invitation having been extended to the state and private universities to join in the near future, is getting attention.

It appears that, out of the 48 central universities listed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2021, 45 seem to be fully functional in terms of instituting the test. According to the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) Report of 2019-20, there were 2.6 crore (26 million) students enrolled at senior secondary level.

A total of 30.6 lakh (3.06 million) students were enrolled in undergraduate programmes in higher education institutions and out of that, 5.4 lakh (540,000) students were enrolled in undergraduate programmes at central universities.

In a nutshell, the CUET is going to decide the fate of approximately 1.3 crore (13 million) students for the roughly 5.4 lakh (540,000) undergraduate places available at the 45 central universities.

The rationale offered by the UGC behind the decision is to address the disparity in allocation of marks by different examination boards and provide a “level playing field”. It has been argued that due to the leniency in marking in some evaluation systems, students from some state boards have an advantage over others in getting admission to reputed universities and colleges. Hence the CUET equaliser.

The CUET is compulsory for 45 central universities for the upcoming academic year and deserves attention in terms of its ramifications for students, learning, curriculum, teachers and the larger education eco-system.

A marks-driven culture

Indian society is marred by the Sharma Ji’s daughter/son syndrome by which parents put pressure on their children to keep up with what they perceive the brightest students are doing. It is highly likely that the pressure on students to score high marks in the board exams will remain even after the introduction of the CUET.

In addition, the marks obtained in the 12th board examination will remain vital for admission to state and private universities and for job applications. The students will now have to be able to handle board exams along with the CUET.

It is indeed too early to ascertain whether CUET will be successful in changing the marks-driven mindset of Indians and solving the problems emanating from a marks-driven culture.

Many educationists and academic administrators have argued that the CUET could affect the juggernaut of coaching.

They say learning could be replaced by strategies for cramming and cracking the entrance exam and that these strategies will be made available in the form of coaching and private tuition without much concern for quality or ethics involved in the preparation and circulation of the content.

They say coaching institutes will sell different packages for CUET involving domain specific subjects, general test or language strategies or an all-in-one option.

Prescribed textbooks

The syllabus for CUET will be based on National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks of different subjects, even though not all state boards and private schools prescribe these books.

There are a large number of textbooks published by the state boards and private publishing houses that are prescribed by schools. Therefore, the users of non-NCERT textbooks will be required to study NCERT textbooks along with the prescribed material.

It is possible to argue that the schools that prescribe only NCERT textbooks will be better off and the regulating authority will have a better grasp of the test at a time when plans are afoot for a change in textbooks. The coaching industry will bank on the gap and offer preparatory material based on NCERT textbooks with an imprint.

Throughout their senior secondary years, students will be mentally and emotionally navigating a dual path with two sets of textbooks. The impact of the CUET on disadvantaged sections of society, for whom access to higher education is seen as the only path to upward mobility, is a riddle which only time will resolve.

Equity issues

Teachers at state-governed and private schools will not be unaffected by the CUET. There will be pressure on them to address a range of issues emerging from a newly introduced competitive examination in the post-pandemic world. Stakeholders will likely raise the issue of whether their school is fully equipped to prepare students for the CUET.

This could in turn impact the credibility and popularity of schools which rely solely on board results because their status and performance will now also be determined by the number of students ‘cracking’ the CUET examination and getting into the top central universities and affiliated colleges.

The CUET might appear to address the issue of ‘parity’ at the entry level in central universities, but there is a larger issue that needs attention in order to obtain a better understanding of the new policy.

The gross enrolment ratio (GER) refers to the total number of students of a specific age enrolled at a particular educational level. The GER is constantly increasing for higher secondary education (UDISE has it at 51.4% in 2019-20) and higher education (27.1%, according to 2019-20 figures of the All India Survey on Higher Education).

The increase in GER indicates massification of higher education in India and has greater implications for a knowledge-based economy and society.

Maintaining the momentum of GER requires more teachers, schools and higher education institutions of repute to attract prospective students and slow down the rush to get into the few highly sought-after universities and colleges.

The Achilles’ heel of the CUET appears to be its divergence from the ultimate objective of the National Education Policy 2020, that is, equitable access to good quality higher education for all.

Dr Anamika is associate professor of education at IILM University, Gurugram, India. Her views are personal.