Our policy-makers have an uncanny knack for finding solutions to existing problems that create even more problems. The recent announcement that admissions to 45 UGC-funded Central Universities will now be exclusively through the Central University Entrance Test (CUET) is a case in point. The apparent reason, of course, is to "create a level field".
The story seems familiar: the university admissions system has been riddled with very high admission cutoffs for many subjects/institutions, students from those examination boards which award high marks have an advantage over those that award low marks. Last year, there was even a case of apparent "marks jihad" when students from the Kerala state board took a lion's share of the seats on offer. What is the solution to this problem? Dump board examinations for university admissions and replace them with an entrance test.
But the problem is with the board examinations, and not with the admissions process which was merely using their scores. The solution lies in addressing the problems associated with board examinations and not in changing the admissions system.
Here are some very obvious things that should have been done long ago:
Ending the "moderation" of the actual marks that students get in their board examinations because this is what leads to marks inflation, ultra-high scores (and strange peaks at "95%" in CBSE 12th boards); the entire process is non-transparent and devoid of any scientifically-validated basis.
The distribution of marks from various board examinations should have been compiled for the last 5 or 10 years; a statistical analysis would have allowed an equivalence to be established between different boards. In short, this would have allowed us to conclude that 90% of the X Board is "equal" to 75% of the Y Board. Worldover, renowned institutions maintain some data of this type to get a sense of how to compare students from X and Y boards. Institutions abroad that admit international students, based on the school graduation marks, sometimes track relevant data across boards located in different countries!
A coordination council, with of representatives of different boards and the relevant central agencies - like the NCERT - involved with school education, should have calibrated what parts of a national curriculum would be common across boards, and what "best" pedagogical practices (i.e teaching-learning, testing-grading) should be accepted universally. Without these, the "big" boards - CBSE, ICSE - will continue to dominate in every way over all other boards, as they do today. The Council of Boards of School Education (COBSE) should have resolved these issues many years ago.
These measures would have made board marks more meaningful - without all the inflation and mysterious peaks - and comparable across boards. These may have even allowed us to lower the stakes - if not get rid of - some of the more excruciating entrance examinations like the JEE and the NEET.
Instead, the proposed solution - the CUET - has, in one stroke, hammered the last nail into the coffin of board examinations by making them of no relevance at all. Teaching will quickly orient towards scoring well in the entrance examination. Students will still have the stress of clearing board examinations. A rote-learning system, which was anyway of limited significance, will sink to even lower levels of importance, and merely become a rite of passage, an empty exercise in formal credentialing.
But here are the other - very likely - "unanticipated" consequences of this decision:
Whatever little "long-form" learning students do in school will be neglected, displaced by the urgent need to "focus" on objective-type questions in the CUET. We can say goodbye to even the limited amount of reading-writing skills that are imparted in school, however imperfectly. A Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) format will be emphasized. This is perhaps the worst way to evaluate people for most subjects, especially the arts, literature, social sciences and even some parts of natural sciences.
We will witness a dramatic expansion of the already-giant coaching industry, dabbling in a much greater variety of subjects than they do today. The biggest marketing opportunity has just been delivered to this industry on a platter. The number of aspiring candidates here run into crores, compared to JEE and NEET, where the numbers are of the order of lakhs. Given that the most significant issue with coaching is affordability-related inequity, the CUET will add very generously to more inequity. The "collaborations" between schools and coaching classes will grow in numbers and importance.
We will also see the transformation of natural intelligence into artificial intelligence, literally, with the creation of question banks and practice answers based on pattern recognition. Knowledge will be replaced by bits of information.
The New Education Policy (NEP) aims at promoting more thinking and analysis in the school experience. It is ironic that the same policy is being cited to justify the creation of an entrance examination that will make the school experience even more mechanical. We should not be surprised if more and more students graduating from school, equipped mostly with superficial knowledge, come under the influence of the "WhatsApp University".
Policy-making in this sphere seesaws to extremes. In 2013, the board examination scores were given weight in the JEE system for admission to engineering institutes. Dubious methods - without any scientific basis and data analysis - were devised to "normalize" board examination scores across boards (see here and here for the full story). Paens were sung to the importance of school education to justify this measure, but there was no recognition of the ailments that afflict the school system. Then, in 2017, this measure was withdrawn because it was found that marks could not be normalized properly because - lo and behold - the boards were so different! We now see an expansion of this policy - of the primacy of entrance examinations - to all university admissions as well.
Entrance examinations for engineering and medical institutions have survived for decades only because of the "level playing field" and the "board marks are not reliable" arguments. A lot that should have been done earlier can still be done right away, as mentioned above, to reform the board examinations so that they can be used for university admissions. There is no point in inflicting yet another grand entrance examination upon students.
Of course we need sincere follow-up with deeper and longer reforms related to the curriculum and teaching-learning methods. At least in this Amrit Kaal, we should be able to reform our school education systems so that they become credible enough to obviate the need for large-scale entrance examinations.
(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.