Prep cos seek return to old CAT format


New Delhi: Anchal Gupta, a manager at Grey Cell Public Relations, who handles the account of test prep company Triumphant Institute of Management Education, was looking forward to a quiet Saturday on 28 November.

It was the opening day of the first computer-based Common Admission Test (CAT).

The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) had barred candidates from discussing the test, and Gupta, whose client prepares candidates for the high-stakes exam, had no inkling of what was to come. The day began with panicky students calling Triumphant Institute centres all over the country with news that they had failed to write the exam because of technical snags.

By noon, they reported entire test labs not working. Gupta cranked the phone, informing the media and giving out details on the test.

“It was very hectic", she said. “(It was) chaos for the students, for the faculty, for us."

Test prep companies played a big role over the 11-day duration of the snag-hit CAT— they disseminated information to the media, consoled their students and contradicted CAT administrator Prometric Testing Pvt. Ltd’s claim of a virus infecting computers.

Now, they are lobbying with IIMs to scrap the online test and return to a pen-and-paper format.

Estimated last year as an annual $104 million (Rs486 crore today) market, several of these companies are run by IIM alumni and say their role is to give a voice to the many students who got affected by the exam, a qualifying test for the seven IIMs, among other business schools.

“We are probably the greatest well-wishers of IIMs," said Manek Daruvala, the promoter of Triumphant Institute and a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad’s class of 1987. “(We are only asking) whether the test provided a fair opportunity to all the candidates."

Daruwala’s company coached 80,000 students for the CAT, and spun out more than half of its Rs200 crore business by preparing students for this exam.

CAT has been a money-spinner for coaching companies for many years with aspirants, attracted by high salaries offered by on-campus recruiters at the premier IIMs, increasing steadily in numbers.

The number of applicants for the test fell 1.8% this year—the first decline in 12 years—in the aftermath of the slowdown, but at least 240,000 candidates still registered to take CAT 2009. One in every four was not able to write the exam till 29 November, two days before its closure on 1 December.

Test prep companies say they are trying to convince Prometric Testing and IIMs that even those candidates who wrote the test did so in conditions that were far from satisfactory.

IIMs say they understand why test prep firms are raising these concerns. “They are trying to get value of money for candidates. (The) ultimate aim is to come to IIMs," said Satish Deodhar, convenor of CAT 2009 and faculty member at IIM-A, who addressed press conferences and visited television studios through last week as the pressure built up on him and the directors of IIMs to scrap the online test and hold a pen-and-paper one instead.

Even the government jumped in, asking IIMs for a status report on the exam. Deodhar said he meets his own students who run coaching centres after graduation and sit for the exam as candidates to update themselves on CAT. “I meet them at the test centres. I wish them well," said Deodhar.

He said he wanted critics of CAT to stop comparing it with other standardized exams such as Graduate Management Admission Test or Graduate Record Examinations which have been held online since long and throughout the year in dedicated labs.

“Someone had to make a beginning and we made a beginning," said Deodhar. “Unfortunately, it did not go the way we wanted it."

It’s not just candidates who could not write the exam who are concerned. Online surveys set up by test prep companies and Master of Business Administration community portals have students writing about their experiences of tests which auto-submitted after 10 minutes, or did not allow them to read data.

In a statement on Wednesday, IIMs said they are in the process of identifying the impact of all the disruptions.

“Candidates have reported through various channels the nature of disruptions faced that include pressing of End button prematurely, malfunctioning of computer on which the test was taken by the candidate, missing graphs and charts, etc," said the IIM release.

The premier business schools said earlier that they will soon announce a date when all aspirants whose test got cancelled, and who could not be retested, will be given a chance to write the test.