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Common University Entrance Test

CUET challenge: Attempt to centralise education and undermine federalism

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-

Admission seekers at Miranda House College in New Delhi, a 2019 picture. The All India Survey of Higher Education reported an enrollment of 30.6 million students in undergraduate programmes in 2019-20.


Checking the fourth cut-off list of Delhi University in New Delhi, a 2014 picture. The increasing number of aspirants for a seat results in cut-offs rising every year.

The proposed Common University Entrance Test is a move towards centralising education and undermining the federal structure, something similar to replicating the GST model of taxation in the field of education. It is only one part of a larger push to implement the National Education Policy 2020.

The recent announcement by the University Grants Commission (UGC) that admission to undergraduate programmes of all the Central universities in 2022-23 would be through the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) conducted in 13 different languages has generated much controversy. It is one of the several ‘initiatives’ that the UGC has taken in recent times as part of its effort to restructure higher education in line with the plans laid out in the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020). The CUET, which also has a postgraduate variant, is an indication of what is in store for higher education with the NEP’s implementation.

On the face of it, the objective of the CUET is, in the UGC’s words, “to save students from appearing in multiple entrance examinations, conducted on different dates, sometimes coinciding with each other, and to also provide equal opportunity to all students from different Boards”. For this reason, the UGC is encouraging State universities, private universities, deemed-to-be universities and other higher educational institutions to adopt the CUET score for admissions. In other words, the ultimate objective is to replace the performance in school leaving board examinations or independently conducted entrance examinations with one nationwide entrance examination for all undergraduate programmes in the country. A closer look, however, suggests that the solution may be worse than the problem it seeks to solve.

In India, despite the low enrollment ratios at the higher secondary or higher education stages, the scale of the twin processes of assessing the learning achievements of students at the end of 12 years of schooling and their subsequent admissions to undergraduate programmes is immense. According to data provided by the Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+) of the Ministry of Education, in 2019-20, 26 million students were enrolled at the higher secondary stage (Class 11-12) across the country, accounting for 51.4 per cent of the population in the relevant age group. The Ministry’s All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) reported an enrollment of 30.6 million students in undergraduate programmes in the same year; 79.1 per cent of these were in colleges and 17 per cent in universities and their constituent units. Even if all professional courses were excluded—and only the bachelor’s degree programmes were taken into account—the total enrollment for undergraduate programmes was some 7 million every year from among 13 million students who completed schooling. These numbers are expected to increase over time.

The end-of-school assessment for the 13 million students in Class 12 every year is, at present, mainly distributed among two all-India Boards, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (ICSE Board), and the different State Boards or their equivalent. CBSE schools have some 1.5 million students in Class 12 while ICSE schools have less than a lakh. The majority of students are under the different State boards.

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State universities or colleges affiliated to State universities account for the major chunk of institutions imparting undergraduate education. This is hardly surprising given that education was originally a State subject considering India’s diversity, and was moved to the Concurrent List only in 1976. The importance of States in the education system would have been greater if not for the increasing trend of privatisation in the past few decades.

In 2019-20, 40.7 per cent of higher secondary students were enrolled in private unaided schools while only 36.3 per cent were in government schools. A similar trend was found in higher education, with private unaided colleges and private universities accounting for a large number of students, with this being even more pronounced in professional courses.

In the past few years, enrollment growth has been slowing down. Thus, between 2014-15 and 2019-20, the total undergraduate enrolment in the country increased by just 12.8 per cent, with an annual average of under 2.5 per cent. This increase was less than the 13.7 per cent increase achieved from 2012-13 to 2014-15.

Attack on federalism

Traditionally, the performance of students in school leaving examinations has formed the basis for admission to undergraduate programmes, except for professional courses where entrance examinations are the norm. The distribution of the responsibility for assessment of this performance among different boards enabled the system to manage both the large scale of the exercise and the diversity of situations and needs across the country.

The introduction of a CUET for all undergraduate admissions will effectively centralise the assessment of learning achievements through 12 years of schooling by one Central government agency which perforce has to be based on a common curriculum. While different State boards may continue to exist and have their own curricula suited to their specific conditions, their curricula and examinations would effectively be rendered redundant if the performance of the board examinations were to be given no weightage in undergraduate admissions.

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The problems encountered over the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), which is conducted by the National Testing Agency for admissions to undergraduate medical courses, are likely to be replicated in the case of all undergraduate admissions. On the other hand, if board examinations are given a positive weightage, the addition of a CUET would increase the burden on students who would now have to deal with two different sets of examinations and increase the quantum of social resources that have to be expended for this purpose. This would mean that a system where performance in the board examination and in the CUET are both considered for undergraduate admissions would at best be an intermediate arrangement. It would set the stage, and create an impetus, for doing away with the board examination altogether.

In other words, the CUET is a move towards centralising education and undermining the federal structure, something similar to replicating the GST model of taxation in the field of education. It also means that the structure would become more rigid and incapable of organic development where it responds to changing contexts and experiences across the country.

Assessment challenges

The substitution of board examinations with CUET would imply significant changes in the mode of assessment. The sheer scale of all-India entrance examinations for all undergraduates admissions makes computerised evaluation the only feasible way of assessing student performance in such an examination. Sure enough, the CUET is designed to be a Computer Based Test (CBT) with ‘objective type’ multiple-choice questions (MCQ). In other words, language skills will be tested without the students actually writing anything. Mathematical or logical reasoning, or analytical abilities in general, will be judged without the student requiring to spell out the steps or arguments to arrive at the conclusion or result. And, of course, any subject that involves reasoning and assessment of evidence but yet does not yield a definitive and unambiguous answer—as in social sciences and the humanities—gets thrown out of the window.

The most dangerous consequence of this would not be the replacement of one method of selection based on an inherently imperfect standardisation by another imperfect and narrow one. Instead it would be the narrowing down of students’ learning experience—by creating a structure biased towards incentivising narrowly focussed learning—and giving an impetus to the private tuition or coaching industry. An already existing problem would only be thus aggravated. For example, there is a situation where entrance examinations for postgraduate and even research programmes are being converted to the MCQ format.

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The existing system of board examinations and undergraduate admissions are far from perfect. However, there are other simpler solutions for the specific issues that the CUET seeks to address. One such issue is of comparing the marks of students from different boards competing for seats in the same institution, such as a Central university like Delhi University. Simple methods of achieving a ‘parity’ have been in use in different institutions from time to time and these could be refined further. As it is, inflation of marks in school leaving examinations has become almost universal, but that again is a problem that the CUET does not address.

The phenomenon of abnormally high cut-offs for admissions to different undergraduate programmes is not merely on account of inflation of marks in board examinations. Even if there was no such inflation, the increasing number of aspirants for a seat would result in cut-offs rising. Institutions such as Delhi University have seen no increase in their seats for a long time, with the exception of a one-time increase associated with the implementation of reservation for Other Backward Classes and the Economically Weaker Sections. But this increase in seats was not accompanied by a complementary increase in teaching strength and infrastructure. This even as the number of students passing out of Class 12 in both the city and the country have multiplied manifold.

The use of CUET for admissions does not solve this problem, which is the result of inadequate public investment in education. It merely changes the examination that will separate those who will pass and those who will be left out. It would also mean that family background and the ability to finance private tuition could play an even bigger role than it now does in creating this divide between those who can access the seats and those who cannot.

Notionally, there is no reason why State governments should become party to the process of centralisation and allow the CUET to become universalised for undergraduate admissions. However, the NEP 2020 pushes for a more centralised and privatised structure of higher education, which includes changes in the regulatory system and regulations that State governments may be bound by. More generally, the fiscal disadvantages of State governments and their inability to find adequate resources to respond to the increasing demands for education have over time increased the Central government’s leverage to dictate terms to State governments. This is even though the total public investment in education by Central and State governments together as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) has been stagnant for decades, despite a large expansion of enrollment, particularly in higher education.

Also read: Assault on reason

The CUET is only one part of this bigger push in the name of NEP 2020. A series of guidelines and regulations formulated by the UGC for higher education—on Blended Education, on Multiple Entry and Exit and the Academic Bank for Credits, on the National Higher Education Qualifications Framework (NHEQF), on Research and Development Centres in Universities, on Internationalisation of Higher Education, Transforming Higher Educational Institutions into Multidisciplinary institutions, Institutional Development Plans, and so on—is itself an expression of centralisation; they effectively amount to micromanagement of institutions. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find in these provisions that say that higher education institutions should do ‘X’ by getting them approved by their respective statutory bodies, implying that these statutory bodies, the rationale for whose existence is derived from the legal recognition of the autonomy of the institutions, are being reduced to rubber-stamping what is decided by the UGC. The changes being forced on the “self-governance” structures in higher education institutions through these measures are also promoting a top-down governance model by undermining any democratic element in it—effectively reducing their ‘autonomy’ to doing only that which the government or, where applicable, private managements, want them to do .

Dumbing down

The higher education system thus created is also one where the learning process is restructured in ways that would dumb down education quality in the same way that the CUET would impact school education. The push for ‘flexibility’ and ‘choice’ for students, for ‘holistic’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ higher education, for ‘accumulating’ credits for future use, and for increasing ‘access’ and ‘choice’ by greater use of open and online education modes, all may sound nice. However, many academics see these as ways that will alter what constitutes learning in higher education and push it in the direction of becoming a fragmented and incoherent process.

The experience with the existing Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), academics say, is evidence of worse that would follow. The losses associated with these changes are also not likely to be uniformly distributed, as was the case with the pandemic-related shift to online education for almost two years. The CUET thus symbolises the centralisation of education, the iniquities and the decline in academic standards that will go with the implementation of NEP 2020.

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