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Arecent announcement by UGC Chairman M. Jagadesh Kumar makes it mandatory for all 45 central universities to admit students to undergraduate programmes based on their scores on a Common University Entrance Test (CUET), starting from the upcoming academic year 2022-23. As of now, some state and private universities (including Ambedkar University of Delhi and Tata Institute of Social Sciences) have said they will accept CUET scores for undergraduate admissions from this year. The CUET is a computer-based test with multiple-choice questions which purportedly aims to impart objectivity to the admissions system in higher education institutes, reduce the burden on students and end their anxiety over soaring cut-offs that in recent years have touched 100% at institutes such as Delhi University. Despite its reformist claims, the CUET announcement has drawn mixed reactions from education experts, even as the National Testing Agency puts together the machinery to conduct the test this July, tentatively.

The idea behind CUET is well-intentioned and it is likely to deliver some benefits. First, since school-leaving board examinations no longer carry weight, there could be a reduction in unrealistically inflated scores being doled out by several boards. In the same vein, students from exam boards with an ‘easier’ syllabus or ‘generous’ grading criteria will no longer have an advantage over students from other boards, thus creating a level playing field to an extent. Further, a common test would provide a single-window opportunity by streamlining the application and selection process across colleges, and students would be less burdened with multiple tests and applications. Lastly, the CUET’s intended design allows for screening on the basis of domain-specific aptitude and offers students a chance to switch streams after school.

However, the CUET also poses several potential threats to higher education in India. One, dependence on tuitions and coaching to crack this entrance test is likely to surge, given its format, which includes sections on general awareness and logical reasoning, which are not typically taught as part of the school curriculum. Coaching centres that offered preparation assistance for the Central Universities Common Entrance Test, introduced in 2010, have reportedly started getting enquiries and enrolments for CUET preparation already. Simply replacing one high-stakes exam (boards) with another (a common entrance test) may do precious little to reduce the pressure on students. The universalization of coaching culture in other countries that follow a similar system of entrance-test based admissions (such as the College Scholastic Ability Test in South Korea and the University Entrance Examination Center Exam in Japan) shows that there is no easy solution to this problem.

While there are several concerns over the coaching phenomenon, one clear implication is a disadvantage faced by the underprivileged who may not be in a position to bear the financial burden of supplementary tutoring to ‘crack’ the test. This would be a blow to the objective of making higher education accessible to all. In particular, the burden of another layer of expense to secure admission is bound to worsen the odds for females, first-generation learners and historically under-represented castes.

Two, the CUET’s introduction may de-emphasize school education and undermine the schooling experience, which goes beyond academic scores. Educationists fear that a shift in focus to an all-important entrance test will weaken the emphasis on soft skills such as leadership, teamwork and empathy. The much talked about burnout and lack of holistic development among IIT-JEE aspirants is a case in point.

Three, a multiple-choice question (MCQ) based test would fail to examine critical thinking skills and writing proficiency—crucial competencies for success in an undergraduate programme, particularly in the social sciences and liberal arts. Moreover, scoring well on objective-type questions may end up being an exercise in learning tricks and short-cuts, rather than deeper conceptual understanding.

Possible solutions to these concerns do exist. Integrating and aligning the school curriculum with the entrance test syllabus could help reduce dependence on private coaching and prevent the devaluation of school education. Modules on general knowledge, logical reasoning and test-taking skills could be introduced. Further, to address the equity issue, a system of deprivation points could be employed, as used by Jawaharlal Nehru University for admissions (in conjunction with our policy of reservations). Finally, to test students on analytical skills, the CUET could ask for an essay, although its evaluation might pose a logistical challenge, given the sheer number of applicants. More importantly, the design of the MCQs needs to focus on conceptual understanding and application, rather than rote learning of facts and textbook definitions.

Measuring aptitude and selecting students for higher education require deep deliberation. Systematic reforms in schooling, higher education and assessment paradigms would be needed in the long term. We must realize that the problem of cut-throat competition cannot be resolved by changing the admission system alone, but by ensuring that the supply of quality higher education institutes matches India’s steadily increasing demand. However, in the medium-term, it is crucial to acknowledge the potential challenges of the new common entrance test, and attempt to address them at the earliest, so that remedies do not become worse than the disease.

Rajeev Parashar & Parul Gupta are, respectively, a research scholar of economics at Shiv Nadar University and an assistant professor of economics at Indian School of Business and Finance

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