What problem will the Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUET) solve exactly?

Last month, the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced that a new Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUET) will be rolled out from this year for admissions to undergraduate degree programmes in central universities across the country. Central universities are much sought after because they are affordable and are supposed to offer high quality education. CUET will be a computer-based exam and will be conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA).

CUET is being touted as the antidote to the annual phenomenon of popular Delhi university colleges announcing absurd cut-off marks for admission. “Cut-off marks” are the minimum marks that one needs to have scored in their board exams (school leaving exams) to make the merit lists. Further board exams have always been criticised for being inconsistent – across different parts of the country and different syllabi. Some colleges apply a formula to moderate marks, but it hasn’t proven to be a satisfactory solution.

The current system of board exams have several problems. Doug Johnson and I have written previously here about some of the main challenges and offered a few suggestions. The gist of what we said was as follows:

India is suffering from an extreme learning crisis. One of the primary causes of this is the requirement that teachers complete a bloated, over-ambitious curriculum which leaves most children behind. And when children fall behind, there is rarely adequate support provided to them in the classroom or outside to help catch up. Results from the 2018 ASER survey conducted by Pratham show that only about a quarter of rural class five students are able to perform simple division. Yet, according to the official curriculum, these students should already be able to perform division in a variety of ways and should be mastering the concepts of factors and fractions. This gap between the official curriculum and what students know has severe consequences for learning. Evidence shows that students learn little once they fall behind. Conversely, children can make rapid progress if they are taught at the right level.

This forms the basis for Pratham’s “teaching at the right level” approach. However, unless exams change in form and substance from testing textbook memorisation to conceptual understanding, teachers have no incentive to change their pedagogy in the classroom. Rushing through a mandatory syllabus and reliance on rote memorisation – a reasonably accurate description of how children are being taught in the classroom – is the real problem. And our current system of board exams perpetuates this problem.

The National Education Policy promised sweeping changes to Board exams. What we’ve got (at least until now) is a common entrance test that seeks to de-emphasise board exams. But CUET comes with its own set of risks.

Another high-stakes entrance test, similar to prevailing entrance exams for engineering, medical and management, will further expand the coaching industry. UGC chairman Jagadesh Kumar says the “difficulty level of CUET questions will be moderated”, unlike in the IIT entrance tests.

Pains me to say that the UGC Chairman doesn’t know what he is talking about! There is a scarcity of good college seats in India. If the government doesn’t rapidly increase the number of college seats (and we know it is not possible in the short-term), there are two possibilities – (a) that scarcity will drive up the ‘difficulty level’ of questions and will result in a proliferation of ‘coaching classes’, or (b) at a moderate ‘difficulty level’, the CUET scores will be meaningless in sorting/ranking students for college admissions.

And coaching centres obviously have different plans!

CUET will use the NCERT syllabus, which for students in state syllabus schools could mean looking for additional help and once again, coaching centres are what will benefit from it. These centres teach to the test and may deliver on their promise of high CUET scores, but it will do nothing to improve how students learn. A further reliance on coaching centres will mean those who cannot afford coaching fall further back, thus deepening inequality among college aspirants.

There will of course be other niggles such as making a computer-based test mandatory, given the varying levels of access in the country. One can surmise that such a system will favour students in urban centres over those in smaller rural centres (where schools too are more likely to be following the state syllabus and not NCERT). Access and familiarity with computers will of course improve over time, so this may be a case for a hybrid roll-out rather than following a single mandatory track.

The structural problem that drives absurd cut-off marks is a scarcity of good undergraduate college seats. Just for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) board exams, over 14 lakh students register. The 54 central universities have around 1.7 lakh seats. Add to this, aspirants from non-CBSE schools (state syllabus and ICSE schools), and the ratio of aspirants to seats looks quite bleak. The supply-side reform we need to see is an expansion of high-quality affordable undergraduate education opportunities, and not just in the private sector.

Overall then, boards obviously are problematic as they incentivise a system that doesn’t prioritise learning for all in the classroom, and the 100% college cut-offs are ridiculous. But a common entrance exam does not solve the most pressing problems in the education system that have been perpetuated by board exams. CUET seeks to address a relatively minor issue and even there, the unintended effects may be a further expansion of the coaching industry and deepening inequality.

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