The higher education education needs all 598 public-funded universities, with the state coming on board, to have a common entrance test, quite like the SAT for college admissions in the US.
The National Testing Agency (NTA) conducting a common entrance test, the Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET), for 50 undergraduate, 170 postgraduate, and over 100 MPhil and PhD courses at 15 central universities is undoubtedly a significant step forward for improving the higher education ecosystem in the country, but is it big enough? As per the All India Survey of Higher Education 2018-19, there are 46 central universities in the country; thus, just a third are using CUCET for their admissions. None of the top-billed central universities—Delhi University (DU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Banaras Hindu University (BHU), etc—are part of the CUCET cohort. DU still admits students on the basis of senior secondary scores, while JNU and BHU have their own entrance tests with a minimum qualifying mark for applicants. DU did start a common entrance test for admissions into undergraduate English (Hons) courses offered by its colleges in 2009, but scrapped it three years later as colleges opted out.
The higher education education needs all 598 public-funded universities, with the state coming on board, to have a common entrance test, quite like the SAT for college admissions in the US. The reliance on senior secondary marks by top universities offers a perverse incentive for senior secondary education boards—those of the states, and central ones like CBSE—to inflate students’ scores. Indeed, this “moderation policy” has become quasi-official. Though CBSE and 32 other boards had worked towards a consensus to scrap moderation of class XII scores, CBSE later said that it would do this only if other boards did it too. But, the fact is the number of students scoring very high in the XII CBSE exams has been rising over the years—17,690 students scored 95% or more this year, a 40% increase over 2018.
Thanks to the inflated scores, the college cut-offs have soared to vertiginous levels, with those in leading colleges going up by 0.25-1 percentage points every year. Apart from the rat race, both among boards and students, that this has led to, it has also meant that the true level of a candidate’s merit doesn’t get established—boards that follow a generous moderation policy manage to push their students into top universities. A common entrance test would, thus, ensure that boards that have very lenient marking systems, or are plagued by widespread cheating are unable to corner a large number of the seats in a DU. It will also be an improvement over individual university tests—not just for students who can avoid multiple applications’ costs and sitting for multiple entrance tests but also for universities by allowing them to choose from a wider pool of students. How students choose will also help temper college/university rankings, and fine-tune the National Ranking Framework. This will spur competition amongst universities to attract top talent.
To be sure, a standardised test, in the initial years, would have to negotiate the disparities between curricula across senior secondary education boards. But, in the long run, it will help the curricula evolve towards a median in terms of course content for core subjects; of course, the regional language and regional history bits will have to be dealt with by the state universities. To start with, all central universities should be roped in for CUCET, and then state universities—and even private universities, perhaps—can join the bandwagon.
The University Grants Commission, or its successor, must take a cue from the fact that the technological education regulator, Medical Council of India and the CLAT consortium have managed to get colleges to agree to their respective common admission tests.