Recently, there was a conference of the state education ministers of the country in which some important policy decisions were taken. The proposal for a common entrance examination for admission to engineering institutions received widespread support among states. However, there are a few areas in which the consensus is yet to emerge among the states. A number of states have expressed their reservation to join the new IIT-JEE entrance format for state-run institutions. However, there was no such opposition for implementing this proposal in the central institutions. The states have also observed that the IITs should be treated at par with the NITs and IIITs, so that there is no perception of any institution inferior to the other. The IITs have not accepted this suggestion, as they fear that their ability to maintain high academic standards and to be attractive for the best students of the country will be undermined, if this suggestion is accepted.
The debate relating to the admissions process and common entrance examination raises some fundamental questions in relation to our policy on higher education. This issue by no means is confined to the engineering institutions of the country. Law, like engineering, is a professional degree, and there are nearly 1,000 law schools in the country. However, there is no single common entrance examination for admission to these law schools. In fact, there is not even a uniform requirement for having an entrance exam. Many law schools do not require an entrance exam; some have their own entrance exam; and some are part of a common entrance exam like the CLAT or the LSAT. There is a case for evolving a common entrance examination for admission to law schools as well.
One of the concerns that have been expressed by states in relation to common entrance examination for engineering or law or for that matter any discipline is the fear of proliferation of entrance examination coaching centres across the country, which will undermine the larger aspirations of higher education. There is a serious problem with regard to pedagogy and methodology of the techniques adopted at these coaching centres for preparation for the entrance exam. While it is important to address this issue, a mere non-adoption of a framework of common entrance examination is not going to solve the problem.
It is important for us to rationalise the entrance examination system for all disciplines so that there is a stronger correlation between what is being tested in the entrance examination to what has been studied in the past by the students in their qualifying examination. This will also ensure that the students take their studies in high schools far more seriously than what they do now, as the overwhelming emphasis is to ignore the school curriculum, but to focus on the preparation for the common entrance examination. It is indeed disheartening to see students studying in classes IX onwards across schools in India preparing for the common entrance examinations for various subjects, including engineering and law, while not paying adequate attention to the core curriculum and classroom teaching at their high school.
There is an urgent need for a coherent and transparent policy with regard to a common entrance examination and this effort by the government of India is indeed in the right direction. However, any effort to reform the entrance examination system cannot be done in isolation without making equally important efforts to raise the quality of higher education institutions in the country. One of the major challenges of higher education in India is that there are extraordinary disparities that prevail between premier higher education institutions on the one hand, and the rest of the institutions on the other. This disparity is at multiple levels: the quality of faculty, the ability and competence of the students, the teaching and pedagogy in these institutions, the research and knowledge creation that takes place, and the importance given to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurshipall of which are critically relevant for higher education.
Among the options that are available in determining who is most suitable to study in our higher education institutions, the method of using a common entrance examination is indeed proven to be effective. However, the strength of the system will be based on the fact that the pool of students who are competing for these exams are sufficiently prepared in relation to their opportunity to compete effectively in the entrance exam, which is a question of equality and fairness; and the quality and standards of the institutions to which they are seeking admission is indeed comparable, which is a question of merit and excellence of higher education institutions. Unfortunately, in the Indian context, this is not the case, and this is where the next set of reforms relating to higher education need to take place.
The author, a Rhodes Scholar, is the vice-chancellor of OP Jindal Global University. He can be reached at CRK@jgu.edu.in