Amid a litany of grouses and expected glitches, India this week took the long-due first step towards reforming the admissions process to mainstream non-professional undergraduate courses. Ninety universities have joined the Common University Entrance Test Undergraduate, or CUET UG, launching the exercise of rewriting the rulebook for entry to higher education in the country.
The test, which began on July 15 and ends on August 20, faced its share of teething problems on the first day, unsurprisingly so. It’s important, however, that these problems don’t make one lose sight of the essential reasoning of the reform.
The National Testing Agency, an autonomous central body tasked with conducting the exam, has drawn flak for its clumsy handling of the inaugural test, with a section of the candidates listing out grievances and anxieties, mainly around procedural glitches and poor communication. Indeed, the agency, and by extension the University Grants Commission, the higher education regulator, have come up short when it comes to communicating with the candidates.
Still, the complaints are mostly about procedure and can be explained away as the rough edges of the new system – late announcement of exact test dates, faraway exam centres, a gap of over a fortnight between different cohorts of candidates taking the exam for the same subjects, and last-day changes in test centres. These are valid grievances, no doubt, and more clarity and better communication could have stood the candidates and the testing agency both in good stead.
Some of these problems need to be seen from the administrative side of the process, however. The clarifications offered by the testing agency and the UGC need to be duly considered, even though their timing could have been better.
The agency has explained that the allocation of test centres was done by algorithm. There are nearly 550 exam centres across the country, so it’s likely that a number of candidates will be assigned centres far from their homes. The same complaint of faraway test centres is often made by candidates in competitive exams against state and central recruitment bodies.
In the case of CUET UG, allocating centres to 1.5 million candidates appearing in 27 different subjects, with 54 thousand of them opting for unique subject combinations, was hardly going to leave everyone satisfied as to the location. More so when the centres are allocated by algorithm, after the candidates have chosen the cities where they want to take the exam. Still, the testing agency could have done a better job of informing candidates about the centres earlier than four days.
Similarly, the advance release of subject-wise test schedule, as the testing agency does for most entrance tests, before issuing admit cards would have allayed some of the anxieties.
A related grievance was caused by the cancellation of 11 test centres, out of 245, just one day before the first phase of the exam started on July 15. Even if the agency did inform the candidates of the cancellation, the intimation went unnoticed by many of them and caused last-minute anxieties. The agency attributed the decision to cancel the 11 centres to their failure to meet the mock-test security protocol, a form of dry run the day before the test.
While refusal to ignore even the slightest doubt about the security of the test centre goes well with the testing agency’s credibility, a more prompt and persistent system to reach out to the affected candidates would have saved them from last-minute panic. Even though the candidates at the two centres which faced technical glitches – not among the changed centres – have the chance to retake the exam, the UGC has ruled out such a possibility for candidates who could not reach their allotted centres on the scheduled time. The agency has pointed out that it arranged transport for the affected candidates and if any of them still missed the test it means they didn’t reach the cancelled centre on time. This, however, doesn’t plug the chaotic hole that its late communication left in its wake.
The third set of anxieties has been caused by a misunderstanding about where taking the test early leaves candidates vis-à-vis those taking the test in the same subject later. This anxiety isn’t rooted in fact, but a lack of clarity for candidates taking the test early who think that they will be at a disadvantage in terms of preparatory time and prior ideas. Contrary to such fears, the testing agency is using a normalisation method, measuring a candidate’s relative marks vis-à-vis candidates appearing in the same paper on the same day. This negates any difference in the difficulty levels or other disparities that could have possibly crept in. However, the agency and the UGC could have been more alert to communicating this clearly and constantly during the three months between the announcement of the test and its rollout. That might have helped nip such apprehensions in the bud.
The UGC needs to consider addressing these immediate issues before detractors start using them to fuel their opposition to the shift from the school board marks cut-off system of the common entrance test for college admissions.
The need for the shift can be explained in a number of ways, not least as a possible way out of the cut-off system used by many universities so far. At Delhi University, for instance, a nine-member committee headed by Dean, Examinations, DS Rawat argued in favour of the common entrance test.
This is not to say the shift doesn’t have its share of critics and lines of opposing arguments. In an earlier , however, I looked at some lines of argument against the move towards CUET UG, and found them generally lacking in persuasive substance and realities of the academic landscape of both school and university campuses. But the essential need for the change has to be supplemented with a more responsive system for its smooth execution and correcting the possible lapses.
The creation of the new gateway to undergraduate education in Indian universities could have anticipated some of the glitches and grouses in its first run of mass evaluation. The point, however, is how it responds to the need for a more seamless, well-timed and clear communication, the lack of which was at the heart of much of the confusion related to the ongoing CUET UG.
While the need for improvement couldn’t be overstated, the teething troubles with the new system in its inaugural run shouldn’t be misused as a case for the ill-argued and perilous return to the old cut-off system. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a solution; an improved and possibly seamless common entrance test is the way forward given the scale of mass evaluation. In the days, months and years to come, more Indian universities are likely to embrace the fact that the road to undergraduate education has to pass through CUET UG.