Will a Common Undergrad Entrance Test Fix the Problems of India's Education System?

The common entrance exam will determine the experience of learning, especially in schools with limited resources, rather than addressing issues of access, equity and social justice.

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The announcement of the Common Undergraduate Entrance Test (CUET) by the University Grants Commission (UGC), although disappointing, should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the trajectory of the Indian education system, its enhanced status in a globalised economy since the 1990s, and the zeal with which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, since it assumed power in 2014, and especially after 2019, has set about reforming the sector.

The role that education was meant to play in the constitutional commitment to social justice and equity, placed it in a somewhat privileged position in the years following independence, although financial commitment and on-the-ground implementation – especially for the school sector – never matched the rhetoric of successive governments. The structural adjustment programmes of the early 1990s that led to a liberalisation of the economy dealt a major blow to the social sector with serious consequences for education and health as privatisation under various guises began to be encouraged.

Despite the ambiguities surrounding their promises of social justice, the UPA governments did not entirely and openly discard responsibility for the provision of public education, and measures to compensate for the diminishing role of the State were sporadically initiated and instituted. Among these were schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All), a major revision of the school curriculum in the form of the New Curricular framework (NCF) 2005, and most importantly the passing of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (the RTE Act) 2009, that was able to provide some guarantees of a minimum quality of education for the most economically and socially vulnerable of our children.

Also read: The NEP Goes Against the Existing Constitutional Mandate of the RTE

Since 2014, however, even as greater controls at every level of education began to be exercised, the responsibility for public provision has been systematically and severely compromised. Although budgetary allocations have never met the suggested 6% of GDP figure under any government since independence, the Narendra Modi government has beaten all records and it now hovers at a mere 3%.

The New Education Policy (NEP) of 2019 has opened up unprecedented ways of allowing private players to take over the system by introducing a slew of flexible measures that sound impressive but will seriously affect education of children for whom public provision is critical. Other disquieting measures include the side-stepping of the RTE Act of 2009; reduced allocations to child-related programmes such as the ICDS and the mid-day meal scheme (40% reduction in real terms for both schemes); and drastic reduction or outright elimination in funding schemes for tribal communities and scheduled castes.

All this comes with plans to invest in digital education, virtual laboratories, television programmes and simulated learning environments, even as the pandemic and closure of schools provides us with robust and mounting evidence of the catastrophic consequences of online learning for the poor and the marginalised. Education is now openly and unabashedly meant to serve a neo-liberal economic and social agenda and the announcement of the CUET is one more step in that direction.

The CUET is projected as a “bias-free” test that gives every child an equal chance of entering college, irrespective of the school system or state board affiliations as well as of social and cultural privilege. On the face of it, the argument is appealing and fits in with the popular meritocracy hypothesis. The assumption here is that given a more or less equivalent syllabus and the benefit of 12 years of schooling, chances of success or failure in a final and summative assessment be it the CBSE, a state board examination or now the common entrance exam, are determined by each child’s capacity, hard work and effort. The onus of success is on the child and the family.

The reality, however, is more complex and the subtle ways in which seemingly equal opportunities are in fact not at all equal, are not always obvious. In India, a hierarchical system of schooling that corresponds with children’s social and material status reproduces, rather than erases, discrimination and exclusion, rendering the competition for college admissions unfair and already biased. Considering the available evidence on high-stakes testing, it is highly likely that children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and poorly funded schools will lose out on more than just a college admission.

That this one-time achievement-based multiple choice question (MCQ) test will override all other assessments, including teacher evaluation, is particularly distressing for a large community of academics, educationists, administrators, parents and other groups, who have been involved in a campaign and a long but slowly evolving programme to transform the experience of schooling in India. This effort has been aimed at liberating the educational experience from the traditionally mind-numbing process of imbibing vast amounts of information – geared primarily towards passing examinations – to an experience of development and learning that rewards and nurtures children’s curiosity, spontaneity, and creativity with the ultimate goal of imbibing meaningful knowledge in a genuine attempt to understand, analyse and negotiate the physical and social world around them.

Underlying these attempts is an acute awareness of the structural constraints of class, caste, religion, gender, etc. that disenfranchise and marginalise children within an extremely stratified hierarchical system of schooling that eventually determines transition and representation in higher education.

Also read: Explainer: What We Know About UGC’s Common Entrance Test for Undergrad Admissions

Given the rising levels of unemployment, poverty, economic distress and lack of opportunity, schooling and education continue to be invested with the power to fulfil aspirations of social and economic mobility.

Dedicated teachers in a variety of settings around the country, especially those in government schools, with extremely limited infrastructure and resources, are struggling to do so within the confined spaces of the classroom and sometimes of the school. Any serious effort at reform at this juncture should have aimed at acknowledging these struggles and the shortcomings of the system that necessitate them. The message that the CUET sends is that none of this matters any more, and that structural disadvantage will not be recognised.

While not changing much on the ground, the common entrance exam will certainly make a laborious process of admission to undergraduate courses more streamlined and transparent, rather than addressing issues of access, equity and social justice that are eroding the education system. Uncomfortable questions such as why access to quality undergraduate education should not be available to all children who complete schooling and desire to enrol for higher education, or why there is a dearth of equally desirable alternative options are needed to be addressed.

The CUET is likely to provide little space for serious and engaged thinking, critical reflection or analysis, and will force schools to create learning spaces where students are assisted in cramming information and content that will be determined through processes over which they have little control.

In short, the content of the test will determine the experience of learning, especially in schools with limited resources, and parents in desperation will turn to coaching centres and their expertise as the competition increases. This extremely high-stake test is likely to undermine the school experience of children of all social groups, but its impact will surely be most devastating for the poor and the most marginalised.

Farida Abdulla Khan is a former professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.