Touted as a game-changing initiative flowing from the National Education Policy 2020, the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for admissions to undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) programmes in Central Universities and other participating institutions has been actively pushed through by the University Grants Commission. It is encouraging all universities to become part of this mechanism, not just those funded by it. UGC Chairman M. Jagadesh Kumar has also said that the UGC is working towards merging the JEE and NEET examinations for admissions to engineering and medical courses with CUET to move towards realising the objective of ‘one nation, one entrance test’.
The effects of CUET on academic quality and equity have already generated a great deal of debate (“CUET Challenge”, Frontline, April 22, 2022). The criticism is not just on a centrally pushed ‘uniformity’ in higher education but also on the computer-based multiple choice method of evaluating and ranking students. Recently, Jawaharlal Nehru University Vice Chancellor Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit expressed her views against relying exclusively on multiple choice questions (MCQ) for postgraduate admissions and said this was a widely held opinion among teachers in the country. Incidentally, the 2022 National Institutional Ranking Framework for universities of the Ministry of Education ranks JNU second only to the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. This prompted Jagadesh Kumar, her predecessor, who had forced JNU to adopt CUET, to come out in defence of the method. Clearly, there is no consensus on the idea of ‘one nation, one entrance test’ even among academic administrators.
Even the claim that CUET will streamline the admission process has been disproved by the actual experience in the current academic year. In fact, institutions participating in CUET may well be the last ones in the country to admit students for the 2022-23 academic year. Even by the end of August results of the CUET undergraduate examinations were yet to be declared and the CUET postgraduate examinations were still to be held. This has pushed back the academic calendar in these universities by months, delaying further the corrections needed on account of the COVID-related disruptions in 2020 and 2021. This will put pressure on these universities to cut short the duration of semesters and vacation so that students can graduate at the same time as their peers in other institutions.
On March 26, the National Testing Agency (NTA), which is assigned with the task of conducting CUET, announced that applications for CUET (UG) for 2022-23 would be open from April 2 to 30. On April 2, however, it announced that the application period would be from April 6 to May 6. The last date was then extended more than once until the process concluded on June 24. In between, the list of courses offered by different universities and the mapping between examination and course were also amended, requiring some applicants who had submitted their applications to make changes in them. Amendment and correction windows were available for the online applications.
Eventually, there were 14,90,000 applications for admissions to 86 universities—43 Central universities, 13 State universities, 12 deemed universities and 18 private universities. However, this is only a small fraction of the total number of annual admissions for undergraduate programmes in India. In other words, a large number of higher education aspirants remained outside the ambit of CUET. The problems faced this year even when the examination was on a small scale are mind-boggling and one can only imagine what they will be like for a single entrance exam for the entire country.
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According to the initial announcement on April 2, the CUET (UG) examinations were scheduled to take place in the first and second week of July. However, on June 22, a set of 10 dates, from July 15 to August 10, was announced. It was only on July 12 that the unique date sheets for each candidate and information on the city allotted to them became available to candidates. The first set of admit cards were also issued on that date for the Phase 1 examinations scheduled to be held from July 15 to July 20. The announcements about these were made on July 11, when it was also indicated that the examinations would stretch up to August 20. Eventually, the examinations concluded only on August 30 and were conducted over six phases.
The results of the examinations are expected by September 7. The gap between the declaration of Class XII board examination results and admissions to undergraduate courses will consequently be longer than it has ever been. The Central Board of Secondary Education declared the Class XII results of 2021-22 on July 22.
During the course of CUET (UG), several centres reported technical problems. In addition to cancellations and rescheduling on account of heavy rain in Kerala or flash floods and landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, the NTA also announced cancellations and postponements due to “administrative/logistics/technical reasons”. Complaints were there about last-minute changes in examination centres or candidates being given centres in cities that were not of their choice and inconvenient or impossible to travel to for the examination.
While the NTA tried to give applicants alternative dates to take the examination, the idea of relieving students of stress and letting them focus on giving their best was effectively lost. Moreover, not everyone faced the same problem and thus the objective of fairness and giving everyone an equal opportunity were also seriously undermined.
Exam process for PG courses
The application process for the CUET (PG) 2022-23 began only on May 19, but the examination dates were not announced then. The deadline for applications was initially set for June 18. It was then extended three times, to July 4, July 10, and July 18. During the course of the application process, the NTA issued several corrigendums to correct errors both in the list of universities or courses, additions as well as withdrawals, that were part of the process and in the mapping of courses and examinations.
It was only on August 8 that the NTA notified the examination dates, to be held on 10 days between September 1 and 11. Some 3.57 lakh candidates were to appear for these examinations. By the end of August, admit cards had been issued only for candidates scheduled to appear for examinations on the first three days. When the results of these examinations will be declared is yet to be announced.
If CUETs have strained the NTA’s administrative capacities, their effects have gone beyond these examinations. In the case of JNU, the previous Vice Chancellor had outsourced its own entrance examinations to the NTA despite protests from the faculty. Although CUET (PG) has replaced the entrance for the postgraduate courses in JNU, the NTA is yet to declare the dates of the entrance examinations to its PhD programmes. JNU has issued its prospectus without any date sheet for the examinations or any timetable for admissions.
PhD admissions involve interviews or viva-voce examination of candidates who have qualified the written examination stage. As such, the prospects for these admissions being concluded within the 2022 calendar year look bleak, posing difficulties in aligning the academic calendars for the different undergraduate, Master’s and PhD programmes run by the university. Ironically, the recently released JNU prospectus for PhD admissions requires students to submit their migration certificates “not later than 30th October, 2022 failing which the university reserves the right to cancel their admission”.
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A faculty member of JNU’s Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies pointed out that the experience with the CUET and PhD admissions indicated that universities were losing control of their academic calendars with the transfer of responsibilities for entrance examinations to the NTA. This, in fact, violated legal provisions on the governance framework of universities, which typically vested such powers in the statutory bodies of universities as part of the autonomy guaranteed to universities.
The faculty member also mentioned the experience of his own centre (department). Without consulting the faculty, the NTA unilaterally linked admissions to the inter-disciplinary programme offered by the Centre to the CUET of a particular subject. Correcting this became a component of one of the corrigendums that the NTA issued. The faculty member pointed out how this case illustrated the dangers of transferring academic decisions to a non-transparent process within the NTA. The rigidity built into the system would end up stifling academic innovation, he said.
A hurried agenda
The CUET 2022-23 story has thus raised several new questions about the concerted effort to push through the agenda of ‘one country, one entrance test’ in a hurry. Does the NTA have the resources and capacities to fulfill the mammoth tasks that are being thrust on it or will all academic and equity considerations, and that of relieving students from undesirable mental pressures, be ultimately sacrificed because of a misplaced belief that technology can fix all problems? Will a desperate desire to convert shaping of the process of admissions, rather than improving the quality of learning, be the most important agenda for Indian higher education? Technical glitches apart, it is the undermining of the autonomy of universities and their faculty that is of paramount concern.