The dispute over engineering entrance examinations gets to the heart of several issues on which India needs to take a call. Worldwide, school-leaving examinations grade a broad range of basic skills, while higher education requires specialised aptitudes. Most premier institutions of higher learning wind up using school-leaving results as a pre-qualifier and devise additional criteria. In the UK and the US, for example, universities often require student applications to be accompanied by essays and recommendations in addition to results from standardised school-leaving exams. India has a plethora of school boards with varying syllabi and uneven examination standards, and so a single-stage admission process would be difficult to implement fairly. It is also true that having to sit for a multitude of entrance examinations places a huge burden on higher secondary students. Hence the desire to introduce a common entrance test (CET) for engineering. Yet there are problems with the CET as it has been proposed by the human resources development (HRD) ministry — and it carries the seeds of several potential new controversies. The unwillingness on the part of several Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to go along with the CET proposal is only the tip of the iceberg.
It is certainly the case that an admission-test process causes the more balanced secondary school curriculum to be ignored, which means that India’s school leavers do not, typically, invest in a balanced education. The problematic implications for society and citizenship of a one-dimensional educational system lead naturally to proposals such as that a weight of 50 per cent be applied to higher secondary results. Yet, unless the ministry can persuade 20-odd school boards to review and standardise syllabi and examination processes and introduce better quality control, the weighting will involve some process of comparative normalisation — which will be open to legal challenges once the future prospects of millions of students are impacted.
The IITs’ unwillingness to accept an externally imposed examination format could have more than one underlying reason. One is the fear of losing autonomy. Another is a lack of confidence in the quality of school-board examinations, to which they currently assign no weight whatsoever. Their intransigence could be dealt with in several ways. One possible solution, for instance, would be to “invert” the process and ask the IITs to devise and administer the CET. Or, perhaps, the IITs could be allowed to use the CET as a pre-qualifier and hold an internal examination or interview to further screen the students for technological aptitude from a much smaller set of candidates. Another point is worth making: school-leaving examinations and the assorted engineering and medical entrance tests are offered once every year, and clustered in a very short time span. The burden may be reduced by spreading things out. The American SAT, for example, is held six times a year and students are allowed to take it when they please, and as often as they please. While the IITs fear for the dilution of their brand, parents worry about the burden on their children, and India as a whole should worry about one-dimensional education. The HRD ministry, which so far has chosen to try and railroad its CET proposal through, should recognise that these are interests that need balancing. Only genuine consultation will move the debate forward.