Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Why CUET doesn't ease the pressure on students

As many as 20,000 students have scored 100 percentile in the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) this year, making the undergraduate admissions process incredibly complicated for India’s best colleges, as always. So, what’s new?

CUET was expected to make admissions to top colleges fairer, transparent and egalitarian, easing the academic stress on students. But is it working out as planned in its first year, or has it just added another layer to the admissions process? Or, is it just another hyper-competitive exam that students have to ace, after slogging for their boards? In fact, it may have even made life tougher for students and colleges.

What is the CUET all about?

In March, the University Grants Commission ruled that the CUET will be mandatory for all central universities for undergraduate admissions. The computer-based test was conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) over six weeks and tests in a subject were held on different days. The CUET was initially planned in two phases, but technical glitches forced the NTA to extend it over six phases between mid-July and August end.

The test was conducted in 13 languages including English and Hindi, across 259 cities in India. It was also held in 10 cities outside the country as well, from New York and Singapore to Doha and Kathmandu.

In March, the UGC ruled that the CUET will be mandatory for all central universities for undergraduate admissions.
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In March, the UGC ruled that the CUET will be mandatory for all central universities for undergraduate admissions.

The objectives of the CUET were manifold. First, it is intended to give an equal and fair opportunity to all students in the admissions process to India’s best universities and colleges, “especially those from rural and other remote areas".

It was also expected to make the admission process more transparent and uniform, across students from different boards, which often have different curriculums and evaluation methods. Also, the CUET will eliminate the need for students to appear for different entrance exams for different universities.

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And finally, it was expected to ease the examination stress on students, making the admission process hassle-free, encouraging them to understand concepts instead of rote learning that many boards seem to promote.

Has the CUET delivered in its first year?

In some ways, the CUET has mirrored the problems faced by universities and colleges earlier. Simply put, the number of students acing the exam has been staggering. About 20,000 of the 1.49 million students who appeared for the exam have scored 100 percentile across 30 subjects. Meanwhile, the NTA has also worked out separate normalized scores of candidates, to make a fair comparison of the performance of candidates who may have appeared for an examination in the same subject on different dates, possibly with different difficulty levels.

While merit lists by colleges will be based on the normalized score of candidates, and not the percentile score, the sheer number of students scoring a 100 percentile gives you an idea of the enormous challenge before colleges in selecting students. For sought-after universities and their affiliated colleges, it may just be as tough as it was earlier, may be tougher. Delhi University, Banaras Hindu University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamiya University have traditionally had a high number of applicants.

In fact, applicants at Delhi University have almost doubled this year, from 440,000 in 2021 to about 800,000 in 2022, perhaps because students from across from across the country only had to give one centralized examination for all institutions.

Does anything change with the CUET?

As we said, the sheer numbers of admission-seekers are intimidating for colleges. Anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 seats are on offer across 90 universities through CUET, but the number of applicants is almost 1.5 million. The most sought-after universities are being buried under a deluge of applications. Delhi University has 70,000 seats but getting a seat in the top-flight colleges – such as St. Stephens, SRCC and LSR – remains a daunting proposition, like always. Stephens, for instance, only offers about 400 seats, but has been getting about 30,000 applications every year – it admits just about 1 in 100 admission-seekers.

Also, consider this. Has the CUET only made the admissions process more complex, adding another layer to it? Students still have to score well in the boards, after all. Performance in the 10 and 12 boards is still given weightage by many top colleges, in India and globally. Remember, even top Indian B-schools, including the IIMs, still consider the performance of candidates in 10 and 12 boards at the time of admissions.

Now, in addition to cracking the boards, students have another examination to ace. It may spawn a private coaching or tutorial ecosystem in India – in fact, it already has – to help youngsters make it to India’s best colleges. It’s a phenomenon we have seen with other entrance exams such as the JEE and NEET, for instance, the Kota coaching factory for the JEE entrance to the hallowed Indian Institutes of Technology.

So, the problems with India’s education system run much deeper and just another exam will not be a silver bullet.

What is the long-term solution?

India needs more quality universities and colleges. The country has about 800 universities and 39, 700 colleges. That’s a big number, more than the US’s 5,300 universities and colleges. But, as we know, many of the existing academic institutions in India struggle to offer quality pedagogy and infrastructure to students.

India clearly needs to invest more in and expand higher education, and the Centre and the state governments can’t do it alone. It needs the involvement of the private sector.

Already, some of the top industrialists in India, from Mukesh Ambani to Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar are investing in higher education, setting up universities and colleges, and that may well be the way to go. In the US too, public and private partnership drives higher education. While the Ivy League universities in the US are privately funded, there are many prestigious public institutions as well – think UC Berkely, University of Michigan, UCLA, et al.

India needs a radical reset of its education ecosystem.

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