Entrance Examination - Time for Introspection
In the earlier days admission to higher and professional studies was essentially based on the performance in the board examinations conducted annually by various States. The gradual degeneration of the conventional examination system manifested in frequent leakage of question papers, manipulation of marks, copying and use of unfair means by all involved (administration not ruled out). Further, lakhs of students enrolled in about 9000 colleges affiliated to more than 250 universities in the country with vastly different syllabi, are competing for admission to professional colleges as well as post graduate studies. Entrance examinations have been devised by some reputed institutions to screen this large set of students coming from vastly different backgrounds for admission. One successful example is the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted by IITs. Subsequently most of the States and Central Universities have started entrance examinations in many fields. They have proliferated enormously and indirectly contributed to the coaching culture. With the passage of time both the entrance examination as well as coaching institutions have become an important source of resource generation to the detriment of the candidates.. It is estimated that the coaching activities in our country generate about Rs. 1500 crores for examinations in disciplines like engineering, medicine, dentistry, agriculture, etc. besides postgraduate studies. From the candidate's point of view, it is an avoidable expenditure. Each candidate spends about Rs. 20,000 towards coaching and another Rs. 5,000 to appear in about 4-5 entrance examinations on an average.
A cursory look at the scenario points to the fact that the entrance examinations presently being administered may not be serving any essential purpose in the context of admissions. For example, consider the case of engineering entrance examinations. About two lakh students are appearing in various entrance examinations conducted centrally as well as by the States. It is a well known fact that the top 5% of the ranks remain mostly unaltered in any of the examinations whether entrance examinations or university examinations as the candidates are basically brilliant. The next 50 to 60% of the candidates who have been in the merit list are not much different from each other in terms of their background and intelligence. The remaining 20% find it difficult to cope with the programmes with strong syllabi. It is also generally noted that a difference of one mark in the total in an entrance examination can make a difference of about 20 to 30 ranks in the merit list. Further, perfect evaluation of the answerscripts is not practicable without computerization of the entire evaluation process. Hence entrance examinations may utmost serve as screening tests which are not being taken as such by various organisations conducting them.
Looking at the engineering discipline, it appears that there are about 500 colleges in the country and two lakhs seats in various disciplines for undergraduate studies. Except that about 50% seats are merit seats while remaining 50% being payment/reserved seats, all the two lakhs candidates appearing in entrance examinations can be easily accommodated in various colleges in view of the available capacity. However, allocation of seats to the students can pose some problems in view of the existing disparities in the levels of these colleges in terms of their standing and available infrastructure. It has been clearly shown that even an average student does well in a good teaching and research enivronment as in the case of IITs, IIMs, AIIMS.
But for a few cases like JEE, AIIMS and few other institutions, conducting entrance examinations becomes very difficult as it is perceived in terms of leakage of question papers, copying, lack of seriousness in setting question papers, evaluation and also making the merit list. Lot of legal cases have also become a routine affair delaying the academic session.
Thus the actual situation is apparently quite at variance with the objectives of these entrance examinations. The question papers should ideally try to examine the aptitude, intelligence and comprehension of the candidates for proper ranking for admission. Unfortunately the more difficult examinations like JEE show a propensity for making questions which are replete with tricks and trying to demonstrate the smartness of the examiner (each examiner is trying to outdo the others). At least 40 to 50% candidates should be able to answer a majority of the questions in a good examination paper. In reality, may be only 10 -20% manage to answer around 50% of the questions in papers like JEE. Even in objective type of question papers, lot more problems are noticed in terms of improper questions, inaccurate answers, besides leakage of the question papers. To add to these, evaluation may be defective/questionable leading to protracted legal tangles delaying the admissions for more than 6 to 8 months. All these and many more weaknesses are being exploited by the coaching institutions. Further these influential coaching institutes may have remote connections to all the machinery involved in admissions and have a strong lobby to perpetrate their vested interests.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the more prestigious tests like SAT (Scholastic Apptitude Test), GRE (Graduate Record Examination), GMAT etc. still retain the independence and avoid hegemony of any coaching institution. It may be very interesting to see how they achieve this. One possibility could be that these examinations assess the student's aptitude by simple objective type questions involving logic, reasoning, topic of specialisation etc. rather than assessing the skills of the student to unearth the hidden tricks embedded in the examination paper.
With the fever of entrance examinations starting somewhere from the 10th standard, the young boys and girls experience enormous tension to cope with their classes and coaching while admissions are becoming a matter of chance for a majority of them. In some of the major cities it is a common sight to see that young candidates getting up at 2-3 a.m. daily to attend coaching classes at 4 a.m. onwards and be busy with the fast moving routine until late in the night. Many of them experience mental depression, and completely blunt their creative instincts. Even if they opt for a payment seat in a sub-standard college, they run the risk of being either unemployed or underemployed. The parents also put pressure on their wards and take it as a prestige issue. In the process they invest lot of money not only for coaching but also for their education which has become very expensive .
It is also time to think of substantially reducing the fees which are already beyond the reach of even a higher middle class family. Administrators generally quote that our fee structure is much lower than the ones in the western countries. However they conveniently avoid mentioning that the earning capacities in the west are commensurately high and the Universities have lots of scholarships besides liberal loan facilities unlike in our country. If the academic environment is as good as IITs and AIIMS, the inputs in terms of students even if ordinary do not matter.
In view of the vastly varying teaching environments of various colleges, organisations like ACTE, EdCIL, UGC should start rating these colleges based on the faculty, facilities and infrastructure and the annual fees to be collected (particularly for payment seats) should be correspondingly decided on a pro-rata basis. Assessment and rating can take place periodically once in two years or so. There is undoubtedly a strong case for reduction of fees in many of these colleges as well as the number of seats for admission. It is to be noted that most of these colleges are suffering a serious shortage of qualified teachers.
Possible Alternatives for Admissions
After having discussed the various aspects associated with entrance examinations and admissions, some alternatives are suggested below to initiate serious discussions in the matter amongst all concerned.
1. We can develop an examination on similar lines as SAT for various disciplines administered by any of the government agencies like EdCIL, UPSC or any other statutory body created by the government. The test should be simple and of objective type with no necessity of any special coaching.
2. We can tie up with organisations conducting presently the SAT/GRE/GMAT type examinations to get the test administered but at a very low cost commensurate with Indian conditions.
3. These should be essentially screening and apptitude tests whose rank can be used for admissions either exclusively or in combination with other parameters like performance in qualifying examination etc.
4. Another possibility is strengthening of the traditional examination system and use the results for admissions as was done in pre-entrance examination days.
5. Computerized on-line examination system as is presently used for GRE/SAT could be established, so that the students can take it without any hassles the moment they are fully prepared. The cost involved will also be the least and the conduct of the examination can be expected to be fool- proof.
6. The examination should ensure equal opportunities for admission for all classes of students such as rural and urban, rich and poor etc.
It is time for introspection for judging the efficacy of entrance examinations and developing a better system based on modern technologies after a thorough review at the national level. The present system is helping only the coaching institutions and creating serious difficulties for the candidates and the parents concerned.
N.S.V. Kameswara Rao
Department of Civil Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur