(This piece was first published on 2 May 2022. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives in light of CUET results that are expected on 15 August.)
In a conversation with The Quint, Dr Abha Dev Habib -- Associate Professor of Physics at Delhi University's Miranda House -- explains what ails the Common University Entrance Test (CUET), why the government should have listened to educators, and how it's delayed the admission process by months. Excerpts from an interview:
The University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman announced the decision to make CUET mandatory only in March this year. Do you think it was a sudden decision?
I believe this whole fiasco started the day the government made the CUET mandatory for all central universities in March this year. This is a decision that affects lakhs of students as they all aspire to join undergraduate courses across the country each year. To announce it so suddenly was a bad decision by the government.
Around 15 lakh students are appearing for the CUET. Do the students even know what the test is about? Has the government taken any steps to ensure that information about the test reaches students across the country?
Ideally, the government should have taken into consideration the opinion of educators. Numerous educators, who have been teaching for years, have written about the shortcomings of CUET.
The first step that any sensitive government should take if they want to reshape education is to look at what the sector has been saying. Since March this year, educators have written a lot about how the CUET is not a good option. The government should have stopped this plan and waited till the next year before implementing a decision like this.
What are some of the issues that educators have highlighted?
The CUET completely devalues school education. It puts all the weight on multiple choice questions (MCQ).
It comprises multiple papers. Since students appear for more than one exam in a day, this means that the same test is being conducted multiple times – with a new set of questions each time. So, this means the questions are being diluted. There will be some bad questions in each set. The MCQ cannot successfully evaluate a scholar.
The reality is that after March 2020, higher education institutions have been dealing with a whole new situation. Hardly any government has worked at the ground level to bring any kind of relief.
According to the UGC, one of the reasons for implementing the CUET was that it levels the ground for students across the country. Do you think that will happen?
I don't think so. Let me elaborate on this with a point on coaching centres. A big concern has been the mushrooming of coaching centres that want to cater to students who want to sit for the CUET. Some Delhi University (DU) colleges also announced coaching.
When universities have smaller exams, coaching centres don’t come up. For instance, DU had tests for one or two courses only, such as Journalism or Economics, till before CUET.
Centres tend to mushroom when there are a large number of students applying for a single test. This is exactly what we are seeing with CUET.
Not everyone will be able to afford coaching centres. Students from Delhi might go to coaching institutes but what about others? The government should ask: Who stands to gain? Who stands to lose?
If the marginalised sections are being pushed further into the margins, then it means this is an anti-people policy.
Coaching centres will come up in areas such as Delhi and Kota. What about those in suburban and rural areas?
Earlier, when a student from a small village did well in their CBSE class 12 Board exams, all their relatives would come to Delhi to help them get admission to DU. The chances of seeing this sight will reduce now.
Similarly, many families do not prioritise girls' education. Now, when they won’t have money to pay for it, they will give up completely. All the ads that we are seeing – of coaching classes for Rs 80,000 and Rs one lakh – are targeted at the urban population.
Many from marginalised communities might even feel they cannot compete with someone who is going to coaching classes.
As a college professor, how do you see the test? Does it impact the admission calendar?
The admission process has certainly been delayed. The CUET process has blocked admission to all central universities. In the midst of all this confusion, students have started taking admission into private colleges to be on the safe side. Some of our own teachers, whose children have a quota, have told me that they have taken admission in private institutes because they do not know where they will stand in the examination.
Many students are waiting but there has been so much confusion – the first phase of CUET was chaotic and the second phase was worse. This pushes admissions to late September. So by the time, private universities will be finishing their first semester, we will be starting our first semester.
When the pandemic began, our calendars were severely affected. This year, we wanted to bring it back to normal. The first attempt by the government should have been to bring the central universities back to normalcy.
Another reason stated by the UGC for implementing CUET was to do away with the sky-high cutoffs. How is this going to play out in the coming months?
The real problem with the older system is not that there were 100 percent cut-offs. The real issue was that there are many more aspirants than the number of seats available.
We will end up with the same kind of cut-off system here as well. One of the reasons stated for implementing CUET was that some boards mark leniently than others. Now, when they can take percentiles and merge them to get normalised results here, the same could have been done with board results.
The board exams were not one exam, it was held on five different days and with descriptive questions. There are no other layers to the test – it depends entirely on the student's performance on that one day. Almost every other test has some layers to it.
There has been some confusion among students who are writing the tests. Since every paper is being held multiple times, the percentiles of these exams will be merged.
This means that while awarding percentile scores, the relative performance of the candidate will be considered. The final score is meant to indicate a candidate’s performance in comparison to others who gave the same exam.
For instance, if the sociology exam is happening five times, the percentiles of those five exams will be merged and the result will be calculated up to the seventh decimal point. It is neither rational nor academic.
The confusion will start when the results will be calculated and the results will differ in the seventh decimal point.
The thing that is most important to central universities is that it has students from all over the country. The entrance tests are based on NCERT books, so this puts students from state boards at a disadvantage.
The tests are also fully computer-based. Does this put some students at a disadvantage?
The test definitely puts students who are not tech savvy, rather they do not have the resources, at a disadvantage.
First, the registration form is in English and it needed students to upload details in a particular size. So many of them would have rushed to cyber cafes and paid to upload their forms.
Even the tests were completely computer-based. So those who are comfortable with computers can focus only on the questions, while those who are not as comfortable with a computer-based test will be struggling with speed.
By taking this step, the government has curtailed the journeys of many students who would have moved out and contributed to society positively. In a country as diverse as India, we would see people from different backgrounds and walks of life coming together to create something together. We doubt that this will happen anymore.
In addition to this, the monsoon is the worst season to hold any exam. This has been proven time and again and there has been a crisis in many parts of the country.