Higher Education

Who gained from CET abolition in Tamil Nadu?

Print edition : November 08, 2019

Candidates appearing for the Common Entrance Test in Anna University Campus on May 18, 2006. Photo: N. Sridharan

November 13, 2006: Dr M. Anandakrishnan, Chairman of the committee for abolishing Common Entrance Test, handing over the committee’s report to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in Chennai. Photo: M. Vedhan

Study shows that the abolition of the Common Entrance Test for admission to professional courses in Tamil Nadu has benefited students from the Backward Classes more than those from other socially deprived classes.

Tamil Nadu has a history of communal reservation in higher education dating back to the 1920s. In addition to Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribes (S.T.), reservation is provided to Most Backward Classes (MBC) and Backward Classes (B.C.). At present, 69 per cent of seats in higher education in the State is reserved for these communities. The remaining 31 per cent is “Open Category” for which students from the reserved communities too can compete.

In 2007, the Tamil Nadu government did away with the Common Entrance Test (CET) for admission to professional courses citing the reason that students from backward communities could not spend money on coaching classes that were essential in the preparation for the CET. It was largely seen as a step towards achieving social justice without compromising on the quality of students admitted to professional courses.

The change in the admission procedure was seen as a discrimination against students of Higher Secondary (H.Sc) Boards other than the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board. Schools affiliated to other H.Sc boards such as the Central Board of Secondary Examination (CBSE) and the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE) have students mainly from non-backward classes and linguistic minorities in Tamil Nadu.

This article looks at data to study the impact of the removal of the CET for admission to professional courses on enrolment and learning outcomes measured in terms of students’ marks in science streams in Higher Secondary schools affiliated to the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board. It examines how social backwardness, represented by the four categories of communities (B.C., MBC, S.C. and S.T.), interacted with the types of schools and resulted in differing probabilities of success for each of these groups in getting admission to professional courses. It also takes a look at the intra-caste differences in accessing professional education in Tamil Nadu.

Insights on affirmative action

It would be instructive to revisit some of the major observations made by the first Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission (1970) headed by A.N. Sattanathan on the design and composition of the reservation system prevalent in the State. The commission pinpointed the castes that had made tremendous progress using the provisions of the reservation system while many others languished. It also noted that even among the B.Cs, there was a “progressive” section in many castes, going by socio-economic and educational parameters, that could “compete openly for careers and opportunities without taking cover under reservation” (Radhakrishnan, 2012). Forty years hence, an assessment of the relatively upward mobility of different social groups is imperative to make careful judgements about the changes in the system in order to refine it with well-thought-through policy measures.

A survey of the literature on affirmative action in higher education in India provides some useful pointers. Analysing National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, some scholars pointed out that the low rate of completion of higher secondary education by students of socially disadvantaged sections was the primary reason for their under-representation in higher education and articulated the need to enhance the quality of school education substantially (Hasan & Mehta, September 2, 2006). Although this study does not look at higher secondary school completion rates for different social categories, it uses other indicators to reiterate the centrality of quality school education to improve learning outcomes and increase educational mobility.

In the cut and thrust of the debates on this subject, there seems to be a fair degree of consensus on the heterogeneity within broad social groupings. This has brought into question the efficacy of affirmative action policies that target broad social groups in fostering social justice. A corollary of this uncertainty is the apprehension about the capturing of reserved seats by the privileged among the backward classes, marginalising the truly disadvantaged (Somanathan, June 17, 2006). While this fear is not unfounded, reasonable inferences can be made only through an analysis of disaggregated data.

Although educational mobility is a function of both social and economic progress, measuring and establishing the extent of mobility across different castes can be a challenging task, for which indirect methods can be used. Ascertaining whether there is a concentration of reservation benefits in certain advanced castes is necessary to constantly revise our understanding of the notion of social justice. Where heterogeneity exists, the degree of such heterogeneity needs to be captured in order to minimise targeting errors.

Changes in admission procedures

Until 1983-84, admission to professional courses was on the basis of the H.Sc marks and an interview. The discretion of the interview board was eliminated with the introduction of a CET in 1984-85. Those who applied for engineering courses had to take the CET in mathematics and physical sciences (physics and chemistry) and those who applied for medical and other professional courses had to take the CET in biology and physical sciences.

The qualifying mark was arrived at from two-thirds of the H.Sc marks and one-third of the CET mark. Generally, students take the H.Sc examination in March and the CET in April. This doubled the academic pressure on students. Moreover, the CET had multiple-choice questions, and the H.Sc examination had descriptive type questions. This led to the proliferation of coaching centres in urban areas in Tamil Nadu. Many college teachers and H.Sc school teachers in mathematics, physical sciences and biology ran coaching centres. Schools concentrated on preparing students for the H.Sc examination, and coaching centres prepared them for the CET.

The difference in the patterns of these school examinations and the entrance test was debated from the 1980s up to the early 2000s, and the government of Tamil Nadu tried to introduce multiple-choice questions in the H.Sc examination in 2004 but withdrew it because of stiff opposition from political parties, which described the move as pro-rich and pro-urban. Many political parties criticised the CET, too, which they said was pro-rich and pro-urban and thus against the principle of social justice and rural students.

Abolition of the CET

In 2005, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government issued a government order abolishing the CET for admission to professional courses in government and private colleges and State universities in Tamil Nadu. The Madras High Court struck it down on the grounds that it was against the regulations of the Medical Council of India and the All India Council for Technical Education.

In 2006, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government constituted a committee under the chairmanship of M. Anandakrishnan, former Vice Chancellor of Anna University, to recommend measures for the abolition of the CET from the academic year 2007-081.The committee held public hearings, in which 390 persons participated, and it received representations from 3,000 persons. Of these, 1,250 persons advocated the abolition of the CET and 600 wanted it to be retained. The committee also analysed data on the performance of students in the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board examination and the CET.

While accepting the arguments of those who supported the abolition of the CET, the Anandakrishnan Committee tried to address one of the issues raised by those who wanted it to be retained. It accepted the argument that the marks of students from different H.Sc boards were not comparable and hence could not be ranked as such. To overcome this problem, the committee recommended a proposal for “normalisation” in order to bring the marks of students from various boards on a comparable metric system.

Prima facie, the Anandakrishnan Committee did not offer any evidence on the claim that the CET had an urban-rich bias. However, in a document that Anandakrishnan submitted to the “oversight committee on the implementation of reservation policy in higher educational institutions” in 20062, he argued that the CET was biased against the poor, rural and educationally depressed communities such as B.C., MBC and S.C. and S.T. According to Anandakrishnan, access to coaching classes for the rich and urban students was the reason why they scored higher marks in the CET. This opinion would have probably formed the basis of his recommendation to remove the CET as a criterion for admission to professional courses in Tamil Nadu.

The fact was that only one-third of the qualifying marks was derived from the CET; the H.Sc marks decided the remaining two-thirds of the qualifying marks. Further, access to coaching classes was similar to access to quality school education. Time and again, marks in the H.Sc examinations in different States, including Tamil Nadu, showed significant differences even within the H.Sc Board in terms of the social groups the students belonged to and the type of school they attended. Therefore, removing the CET would not in any way correct the social, educational and economic bias in favour of the rich and urban students as they would continue to get access to quality education for success in H.Sc examinations.

Implications for social justice

The promulgation of the Tamil Nadu Admission in Professional Educational Institutions Act, 2006, removing the CET as one of the qualifying examinations for admission to professional courses in the State left the H.Sc examination marks as the only criterion for admission.

This has led to undesirable consequences in the course of the past decade. The most important among them perhaps was the introduction of examination reforms that were biased against proper teaching and learning and their substitution with rote memorisation and coaching to answer questions in well-defined patterns. This meant that students and teachers spent little time on teaching and learning processes and concentrated exclusively on memorising textbooks.

The introduction of a blueprint and a key for evaluation of answer scripts by the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board were measures towards evaluating the memory of students rather than testing their understanding and interpretative abilities. A collection of question papers and keys over a period of time aided in a well-informed guess of the question paper. This gradually reduced the H.Sc Board examination in Tamil Nadu to a system of measuring the ability of students to memorise textbooks. Consequently, students, schools and teachers concentrated on improving scores in H.Sc examinations.

Let us now look at the implications of this for admission to professional courses and for affirmative action in such admission. The number of engineering and medical seats in the three government sector colleges (government colleges, government-aided colleges and constituent colleges of State universities) in Tamil Nadu increased from roughly 7,000 in 2006-07 to 15,500 in 2014-15. In addition to these, there are less sought-after professional courses such as paramedical sceinces, agricultural sciences and veterinary sciences. Therefore, it is assumed that students who scored more than 95 per cent in the H.Sc examination should be eligible to get admission to at least one of the professional courses in the government sector, because the number of students who scored more than 95 per cent increased roughly from 4,000 to 14,000 during this period. Of these students, the top 31 per cent would get admission under “Open Category” and others would get it under quotas for different communities.

The B.Cs have it

Table 1 gives the distribution of total number of students who appeared in the science and mathematics streams, passed, scored more than 95 per cent, and the top 31 per cent among them. The increase in the number of students in each of the categories in 2014 compared with 2007, and the proportion in each class of students by communities and type of schools to the respective total increase is also presented in Table 1.

The number of students of the Other Community (OtC) category who appeared and passed in 2014 vis-a-vis 2007 declined by 1,746 and 465 respectively. Despite this, the proportion of increase in the “>95 per cent” and “top 31 per cent” was 8.2 and 11.1 respectively. Since OtC students could compete only in the “open category”, they could get 11.0 per cent of the seats in the “open category”. Given the fact that the number of OtC students has declined in the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board schools, their share in the “open category” is not too low.

In the B.C. category, the number of students who appeared in the science and mathematics streams in 2014 increased by 56,372 compared with 2007, that is 36.7 per cent of the total increase of 1,53,574. A similar 38.3 per cent increase was found for B.C. students in the “pass” category. In the “>95 per cent” category, the share of B.C. students in the total increase was 68.2 per cent and their share in the “top 31 per cent” was 70.3 per cent. This meant that nearly 70.3 per cent of the seats in the “open category” went to B.C. students. This was in addition to the 30 per cent quota for B.C. students.

Thus, the removal of the CET has clearly benefited B.C. students. The combined share of OtC and B.C. students in the “top 31 per cent” was 81.4 per cent, leaving only 18.6 per cent for MBC, S.C. and S.T. students in the open category. Between MBC, and S.C. & S.T., the increase in the “top 31 per cent” was divided into 15.3 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively. This reiterates the relative educational backwardness of S.Cs and S.Ts compared with all others. This clearly exhibits the educational backwardness of students from the MBC, S.C. and S.T. communities and their inability to be involved in open competition. However, one cannot make such a categorical statement about B.C. students.

If a comparison of schools by type of management is done, then private schools have a larger proportion of students in both “>95 per cent” and “top 31 per cent” categories. Though private schools accounted for 25.8 per cent of the increase in the total number of students who appeared in 2014 compared with 2007, their shares in the two categories were 72.4 per cent and 82.6 per cent, respectively. Thus, the community and type of school determined the relatively larger presence of students from the OtC and B.C. communities in both “>95 per cent” and “top 31 per cent” categories. The removal of the CET has not enhanced the chances of students from the MBC, S.C. and S.T. communities to get a larger share in the “open category”. They would nevertheless get their share in their respective communities’ quotas with or without the CET. Thus the removal of the CET has not served the perceived social justice objective of enlarging choice for the students from the most socially and educationally depressed communities.

Who has benefited?

The level of educational attainment of students from all communities has improved over time, but such an improvement seems to have been faster for students from the B.C. communities than all others.

We have collected data on students admitted to the MBBS course in three medical colleges in Chennai between 2013-14 and 2015-163. This sample represents the top three colleges in terms of preference by students. This data set consists of a) broad community categories such as B.C., Backward Class Muslims, MBC, S.C., S.C. Arunthathiyars (SCA) and S.T., b) the aggregate number of seats and the number of seats for each community category, c) share of each community in the open category seats and d) three-digit sub-caste code (see Appendix). From this we get the proportional representation from each sub-caste in the admission to medical courses. We begin with a premise that each broad community is heterogeneous in terms of sub-caste. We also know that “open category” is a place for competition from students of all communities. Hence, the disproportionately larger representation of a sub-caste in the open category as a ratio of its representation under relevant community quota is an indicator of its relative socio-economic and educational development vis-à-vis other sub-castes. We call this the educational development indicator (EDI) of a sub-caste/community. Using this EDI, we have ranked the sub-caste/community.

Table 2A shows the distribution of students according to the category under which they sought admission to medical courses in Madras Medical College, Stanley Medical College, and Kilpauk Medical College for the academic years 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The proportion of B.C. students in the open category increased from 70.06 per cent in 2013-14 to 80.70 per cent in 2014-15 before falling to 73.86 per cent in 2015-16. This shows that B.C. students accounted for the lion’s share of the total seats in the open category, the decline in the proportion in 2015-16 notwithstanding. The proportion of MBC students in the open category fell steadily from 11.86 per cent in 2013-14 to 6.82 per cent in 2015-16, and the share of S.C. students remained below 2 per cent. In aggregate terms, in the period under analysis, the proportion of B.Cs in the open category was close to 75 per cent and the remaining 25 per cent of the seats was distributed among students from other communities. The proportion of S.C. students in the open category was 1.53 per cent and that of S.T. students was 0.38 per cent. Among the S.Cs in this category, the SCA share was zero, serving as a marker of their educational backwardness in both absolute and relative terms.

Table 2B gives a vivid picture of the relative educational status of the broad community groups that sought admission to the top three medical colleges in Chennai. The EDI for the B.C. community is as high as 87, which indicates that students of the community were able to get almost as many seats in the open category as they did under their community quota. One can notice that the EDI for the socially backward communities such as the MBC, the BCM, the S.C. and S.T. declines steadily in accordance with their social status.

It would be instructive to look at the caste-wise distribution of seats of B.Cs in the open category and their respective community quota, assuming that they are a heterogeneous group. Appendix A gives the caste-wise break-up of seats for different categories of students who sought admission to the aforementioned government medical colleges between 2013 and 2016. If one considers the ratio of open category seats to the number of seats bagged by each caste group/sub-caste under relevant community quota as a reasonable indicator of the relative educational status of different groups, then it becomes clear that some groups enjoy a definite edge over others, being equally well-placed under both categories of seats.

From Table A given in the Appendix, it can be seen that most of the castes that belong to the B.C. community have an EDI above 50 and a subset of castes within the same community has an EDI of 100. For instance, the EDI for Gavara, Gavarai and Vadugar (B.C. 25) is 130 and for Nadar, Shanar, Gramani (B.C. 74) is 59, pointing to the fact that for the numerically significant caste groups among the B.C. community, the EDI is well above 50. From this, one can infer that these castes have improved their educational status in such a way as to get a substantial number of seats by competing in the open category vis-a-vis the share in the respective community quota.

Within the B.C. community, of the 45 groups represented in that category, nine sub-castes (one-fifth) accounted for more than one-third (38.25 per cent) of all the seats, more than half (57.74 per cent) of the open category seats and three-fourths (75 per cent) of the seats in their respective community quota. As noted earlier, the proportion of B.C. students in the open category was close to 75 per cent, of which a small subset of castes enjoys a disproportionate share.

On the flipside, the EDI band for the MBC community was between 10 and 40, signifying its relative backward status in educational terms compared with the B.Cs. For instance, of the 233 seats that went to Vanniyakula Kshatriyas (MBC/DNC 165), only 24 were obtained in the open category, showing an EDI of 11. In the case of the BCM, the EDI is as low as 7 (BCM 136). As regards the S.Cs, the EDI is a measly three and it is zero in the case of Arunthathiyars (SCA 471) and many such groups under the S.C. category, showing that these groups are still far from competing in the open category, which reflects their educational backwardness despite the abolition of the CET.

What emerges from this analysis is that while doing away with the CET to uphold the purported objective of social justice has benefited the B.Cs immensely, making them highly competitive in the open category for admission to professional courses in the State, it has made very little impact on the status of the socially and educationally depressed communities such as the MBCs and the S.Cs. If students belonging to the B.C. category have shown a marked improvement over the years in their capacity to obtain a sizeable chunk of seats by competing in the open category, as our data sets seem to suggest, then a case can be made for shrinking their share in the seats under the reservation quota.

Also, given that some caste groups within the B.C. category have emerged as obvious winners (as indicated by the open category seats to reservation seats ratio), it could be plausibly argued that such groups may not require reservation after all. This argument is strengthened by the narrowing difference in the cut-off marks between the B.C. and open category for various courses in engineering and medicine, while such difference between B.C. and other categories (MBC and S.C./S.T.) remains relatively large.

If the educationally better-off groups belonging to the B.C. community can be made to compete squarely in the open category, then more seats can be freed up in the reservation category for communities that show educational backwardness. As a result of this, if there is any scope for a slight relaxation of the cut-off marks for the MBCs and the S.Cs, there is a possibility of bringing more students from such communities into higher education. As regards improving the educational attainment of students from such backgrounds in order to make them eligible for competition in the open category, the onus is on the State to increase their access to quality education by undertaking a wide range of constructive measures that focus on improving learning outcomes.

The multiple deprivations associated with a particular caste identity need to be factored in to make any progressive change in the existing design of reservation. Also, caste can be only one among the many parameters governing affirmative action since there can be other barriers in accessing higher education.

Finally, as the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued, when it comes to measuring merit, the output side is given very less attention which inhibits the formation of any effective signalling mechanism to alert us to the problems in the system (Mehta, June 17, 2006). While institutions across the chain of command should be held accountable for the outputs, it could well be the case that a one-size-fits-all design may not be the solution to the problems underlying affirmative action.


The following are the major points that emerge from this analysis:

A. The rationale to remove the CET is flawed. The CET does not have a social justice objective. It is a system to create a level-playing field for students from different boards to compete for admission to professional courses. The onus of creating social justice should rest on the school system by reorienting it to remove the relative educational backwardness of certain communities.

B. The reservation system in any form will discriminate against the students of “Other Communities” and hence their numbers in the State government’s educational system will decline over time. In addition to the reservation system that is in practice, the removal of the CET, combined with the “blueprint-aided and key-based” evaluation system of the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board examination, has hastened this process further.

C. When nearly 14,000 students are within the top 5 per cent of marks in the Tamil Nadu H.Sc Board examination, it can be concluded that either the educational standards have increased uniformly across such schools and that thousands of students can earn the same marks or that the educational system has failed to differentiate high achievers from the rest.

D. In the absence of the CET and using only the H.Sc examination marks, the increasing cut-off marks for all the courses show that it is easier for most students to skilfully increase over the years the score with the help of blueprint and keys as already explained in this analysis.

E. The narrowing difference in cut-off marks shows that the educational distance between the various groups is declining, which can perhaps be interpreted as the need to revisit the reservation system and possibly to remove some sub-castes from each group.

F. Alternatively, the narrowing difference in cut-off marks exposes the inadequacy of the existing examination pattern to bring out the real differences in the educational attainment of students from different communities.

G. Backward Classes is not a heterogeneous group, and a handful of the sub-castes in B.C. benefit from reservation. Even if one were to assume that B.Cs constitute a homogenous group, given the narrowing gap with OtC, it may not need reservation in the future. Either way, we need to revisit the reservation for B.C., so also for other social groups with greater attention to intra-group differences in terms of social and educational backwardness.

R. Srinivasan is the Registrar, University of Madras. N. Raghunath is an independent researcher and freelance writer.


This article is a highly modified version of what appeared as “Policy Watch” in The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy’s official website in 2016. It contains new data and fresh analytical content.

1. Dr M. Anandakrishnan’s report was not made public. The remarks in the article are based on the gist of the report provided in the judgment of Madras High Court in S. Aswin Kumar vs State of Tamil Nadu (2007) challenging the law that removed the CET for admission to professional courses.

2. Dr M. Anandakrishnan submitted a report to this committee, and that was reproduced as Appendix X in its interim report in 2006. In May 2006, the Government of India instituted an oversight committee to monitor implementation of reservation of seats for students from Other Backward Classes in higher educational institutions. It submitted an interim report in July 2006.

3. This dataset was obtained through Right to Information (RTI).


Hasan, R., & Mehta, A. (September 2, 2006). Under-representation of Disadvantaged Classes in Colleges: What Do the Data Tell Us? Economic & Political Weekly, 3791-3795.

Mehta, P. B. (June 17, 2006). Democracy, Disagreement and Merit. Economic & Political Weekly, 2425-2427.

Radhakrishnan, P. (February 10, 2012). India’s Affirmative Action Politics As Seen Through Tamil Nadu’s Specious Quota Law. https://www.countercurrents.org/ radhakrishnan100212.pdf

Somanathan, R. (June 17, 2006). Assumptions and Arithmetic of Caste-Based Reservations. Economic & Political Weekly, 2436-2438.

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