India must end its university entrance exam racket

State intervention is required to tackle India's costly and complex admissions system, says Sanjay Mishra

September 9, 2019
Empty exam hall

Spare a thought for students and their parents who have recently endured sleepless nights while preparing university admission forms in India.

It is not an easy task for those aged 17 or 18 to choose from hundreds of entrance examinations set by universities or professional bodies, often wildly different in style and content, let alone complete a plethora of application forms and submit them before a number of different deadlines.

Each year about 10 million students pass the common Year 12 examinations in India, and the majority of them will seek admission into higher education. Since the number of students seeking admission in higher education sector is much higher than seats available in quality institutions, various selection methods have emerged.

As such, students must navigate the logistics of appearing at any number of entrance examinations, with the majority of them costing anything from 500 rupees (£5.60) to 3,500 rupees (£40) in application fees alone. This outlay often represents as much as the monthly earnings of an average Indian worker as most students will complete between three to five application forms . The actual cost to the nation is much higher as students from rural areas and towns have to travel to examination centres located in India’s main cities, often accompanied by a parent or relative. 

Only engineering and medical education institutions at national and state level have developed some sort of umbrella entrance examination, followed by a common admissions process, to allow students to seek entry into a number of institutions. For example, National Testing Agency conducts the Joint Entrance Examination, which enables admission into any one of some 110 prestigious institutes of technology or information technology. Similarly, a Supreme Court intervention has helped to streamline medical entrance examinations into a single National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) examination.  The Common Law Admission Test is a centralised test used by 21 national law universities and 43 other education institutes.

However, there are several hundred redundant entrance examinations conducted by several universities and institutions for admission in undergraduate programs in arts, science, commerce and engineering courses. Most private institutions conduct separate tests for admissions. Essentially, all these entrance examinations aim to test class 12-level subjective knowledge therefore there is no rationale for having separate entrance examinations to burden students.

Before the rigmarole of applications and examinations begin again for the next year , there is an urgent need to review this multitude of entrance examinations and allow multiple institutions to conduct admissions through a common application form and examination.

Most of India’s academic institutions or universities are autonomous and, therefore, free to administer whatever examinations they wish. They have total control over its format - descriptive, multiple choice, online or offline - its syllabus, fees, assessment centres and dates.

Because examination-related expenses are also drawn from the application fees collected from students, there is little incentive to reduce the number sitting them. For some reason, educational institutions do not consider the administration of entrance examinations as part of their duties to its would-be students and means every teacher, examiner, paper setter, evaluator and support staff is handsomely paid an honorarium for their work. It is also not uncommon to have some revenue to the institution at the end of entrance examination.

In this scenario, it is futile to think that any educational institution, whether government or private, would like to end the practice of entrance examination and opt for a more cost-effective solution to select students. There are simply no reason for them to participate in common entrance examinations found in nearly every other country in the world. This situation coupled with lack of any policy or regulation has resulted in growth of entrance examination in the country, causing severe financial hardship to students and parents and a major distraction from the actual business of teaching students. 

The time has come for national reforms to curbing the ‘entrance examination industry’ in the interest of students, which will allow them to apply to a maximum number of institutions with a minimum amount of fuss.

First, similar institutions should have a single common entrance examination. For example, all central universities should have a common entrance examination. Already 14 newer central universities admit through a common entrance examination, so others can easily join them. Second, state universities should either conduct a single entrance examination at state level or simply admit through one of the above umbrella examinations conducted by central universities.

It is noteworthy, for instance, that there are many state governments in India which have abolished entrance tests for admission into engineering colleges. Instead, students apply for admission at a common portal with scores obtained in any pan-India entrance test. Similar systems can be developed for admission into arts, science and commerce streams as well.  This will save lot of time and money as scores from any of one of national level entrance examinations would allow admission into central as well as state government institutions.

Finally, about 80 per cent students in higher education sector study in about 40,000 colleges affiliated to 285 universities, according to the University Grant Commission. There is no homogenous policy on admissions and often students have to apply to each college individually.

If each of the affiliating universities took responsibility for their constituent colleges through a common admissions process, parents and students could save time and money that could be invested more fruitfully into education itself.

Sanjay Mishra is an advisor at the Department of Science and Technology within India’s government. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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