Shocks and surprises for students in India continue unabated even as we hope to make our way out of the pandemic.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has now declared that a common entrance test will determine admission to 45 central universities across the nation. Board exams will play no role, though universities can use board results as an eligibility criterion for the test. Beyond that, admission will depend solely on performance in the common entrance test.
As an educator, I feel, that the time of this announcement is inappropriate. Having taught for over a decade and a half in universities abroad and in India, I’m used to a system where significant curricular changes are announced one academic year ahead of the time so that students get enough time to prepare for the change. This announcement, coming in March with the test window opening in April, leaves scarcely any time for preparation, either academic or (more importantly) psychological. At the end of what has been a deeply challenging two-year period, just as we’re looking at some kind of normalcy, this is another shocker dropped on our students.
As for the actual test itself – the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) – it has some significant merits. The scope of the test – language, the subjects of specialization, and general knowledge and reasoning – reflects the National Education Policy’s commitment to a broad, interdisciplinary liberal art-science education, which is deeply laudable. In a country, where higher education has simply become a mechanical route for the most easily available job, a focus on a broader base combined with chosen specialization will enrich the educational experience of our students. The subject of specialization will still support a focus on a particular kind of career, but the larger interdisciplinary base, now more important under the NEP, will not only make their employment more sustainable in the long run but also help to develop their human potential to a much fuller extent.
It is clear that the CUET is tuned to this broad potential. Its focus on language, general knowledge and reasoning, one expects, will be able to assess linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, which make up the foundation of most disciplines studied at the university. A strong performance in the CUET is likely to be a dependable predictor of a student’s success in obtaining a broad, multidisciplinary grounding in college on which to build particular disciplinary expertise.
A lot, however, does depend on how the test is framed and put into practice. On this matter, the UGC’s declaration that it will “mirror” the Class XII board exams gives me some concern. What, then, will set the CUET apart from the board exams? If the test is based on NCERT textbooks, will it break any new ground and support students who may not be the best in the rote-learning methods encouraged by our existing K-12 education system but may show promise in original thinking, and even possibly research skills? One can take the same set of subjects, perhaps even the exact same disciplinary archive, and implement a radically different pedagogy that pushes one from the passive consumption of knowledge to active production of it, as I’ve tried to explain elsewhere.
The worst problem of designing examinations to test knowledge presented in the syllabus is that even our best students are tempted to study “to” the test. That is, prepare solely to ace the examination, a goal which scarcely aligns with attaining command in the disciplines. That command, in turn, is indispensable as students move through college, employment, and research, where original thinking and learning capacity eventually far outweighs one’s mastery of a prescribed syllabus, which ceases to be important the moment one leaves the test behind.
Is that even the goal of the CUET? The true marker of an interdisciplinary liberal arts science education, as emphasized by the NEP, is original thought and a certain amount of meta-learning capacity – to learn how to learn new things as one moves through life and career. If the CUET ends up simply “mirroring” the Class XII board exam, this purpose will be lost. We’ll just have twin versions of the same thing – one to exit school, and the other to enter university. The important difference between the two will have gone to waste.
(Saikat Majumdar’s book College: Pathways of Possibility, explains the expectations of an interdisciplinary arts science education in college. @_saikatmajumdar)