CUET: Level playing field or a rigged race?

The Common University Entrance Test (CUET) will benefit pvt coaching industry and further pauperise the poor. The ed-tech space is already swarming with offers of coaching to help students crack CUET

CUET: Level playing field or a rigged race?

Furqan Qamar & Sameer Ahmad Khan

Markets tend to defy expectations and like to throw up surprises for people who pride in predicting them. This happens all the time in the stock market. Recent developments show that the higher education market is no different.

A case in point is the decree compelling central universities to compulsorily admit students to their undergraduate programmes solely on the merit of scores obtained in the Common University Entrance Test (CUET).

It was vociferously claimed in media briefings and exclusive interviews that CUET would not encourage the coaching industry. The claim was justified in market terms.

The Joint Engineering Entrance (JEE) for admission to Engineering create conducive conditions for thriving coaching industry because a large number of students compete for only limited number of seats in these programmes. Central Universities, on the other hand, present much less competition as they have over two lakh students.

The market has acted rather quickly to counter the claim. The ed-tech space is already swarming with offers of coaching, preparatory classes, mock papers and even year-long packages to help students crack CUET with higher scores. For this year, most major players are offering crash courses to help crack the Language and General Aptitude sections of the CUET at a ‘nominal cost’ ranging between Rs. 10,000 to to 30,000.

Byju’s Exam Preparation ‘product’ is priced at Rs 14,400, while the CareerLauncher’s ‘aptitude package’ is being marketed at Rs 25,000 to include interactive classes, doubt solving sessions, test analytics, and current affairs.

If AaptPrep, which has been running coaching for the Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET), is an indicator, the enrolment for CUET has already jumped five to six times. AaptPrep has already expanded its network of institutes to meet the ever-growing demand for their ‘products’ and ‘services and is also contemplating to offer a two-year-long preparatory program priced at Rs 99,950 for the in-classroom class and Rs 79,950 for the online version, respectively.

Late notification, lack of clarity, and apprehension amongst the students about their ability to get a seat in a program and university of their preference and other associated anxieties are all working to the advantage of the coaching industry. Determined to maximise their market share, they obviously seek to capitalising on the opportunity.

It is a proven fact that the centralised entrance test for admission works to the advantage of the coaching industry, as it provides the critical mass for their market. CUET could not have been an exception. In Engineering and Medicine, the situation might appear dire but can’t be any less dreadful for general higher education.

Close to 2.2. million students took JEE for 10,000 seats in IITs -the best but not the only institutions. AICTE dashboard shows that 2,895 institutions offered 1.26 million seats in UG programmes in Engineering and Technology. For IIT alone the seat to application ratio is as high as 1:220 but taken as a whole, it is even less than 1:2.

The central universities present a similar case. The competition for admission to Delhi University was so tough that even those who scored 100 out of 100 needed a few marks more to be sure that they would get a seat in the course and college of their first preference.

CUET: Level playing field or a rigged race?

In aggregate, it is estimated that 45 central universities offer 4.5 lakh seats for 1.3 crores aspirants. This makes 28.88 aspirants per seat.

Coaching institutes offering offline, online, and hybrid options, as well as the EdTech companies with their packages, are the happiest lot for the big new market that this new initiative has thrown into their basket. They are all the more delighted as CUET is being sought to be extended to all higher educational institutions across the country. This would obviously further stack the numbers in their favour and more always make businesses merrier.

Daily briefings by the officials on the importance of CUET and to sell the idea to the hesitant and reluctant masses, serves as the best advertising and marketing campaign for the coaching industry. It is any day better than any marketing campaign that they could launch themselves individually.

Higher education market in India is heterogenous and highly differentiated. So much so that none of the institutions is a perfect substitute of the other. Potential consumers perceive and place them differently on as far as their order choice and preference are concerned. The competition is never for a seat in any of them but for a specific programme in a particular institution that offers quality higher education at the most affordable price and that is where comes the compulsion for coaching. Clearly, the market knew this and is now getting better of students and their parents, not because we did not know it but because we pretended to know otherwise.

Discernibly, those able to afford coaching are likely to score higher and thus bag seats in better programmes and institutions, much to chagrin of the economically poor and socially deprived. Education of the social and economically better elite has never been a problem. Their purchasing power and social capital and endowments enable them to access the best possible either within the country or abroad. Great nations are known for their abilities and initiatives to ensure upward social and economic mobility to the downtrodden and the marginalised.

Going by media briefings, the UGC believes that the CUET would take away the stress of students as they would realise that 89 percent in the board examination could be as good as 99 percent. The argument sounds familiar but has already been proven wrong in case of IIT-JEE or UG-NEET.

A single common entrance test-based admission only shifts and replaces the cause of anxiety and stress from one examination to another. Presently, the students may be stressed out on account of pressure of securing more marks in the Board examinations. Now, they would be equally, if not more, stressed on account of anxiety to score higher in the CUET. From the students’ perspective, this amounts to being taken out from the fire to be put into the frying pan.

The announcement that CUET questions would all be based on the 12th Class NCERT/ CBSE syllabus with only a little scope for the paper setters to take into account the variations in the syllabus across different school boards, has already become a nightmare for students of non-CBSE boards. Coaching industry, in contrast, is jubilant about the decision as it makes their tasks of designing the coaching modules easier. After all, it is a huge hassle to sift through the syllabus of 38 boards in the country to find common ground to coach students to crack the CUET.

It could have well been argued, ‘what is wrong in promoting coaching culture? They serve a national purpose. They represent an economic activity generating wealth and creating employment. They add value by making student fit for higher education. After all, higher education need not be for all and be limited to those who have the ‘merit’ as well the ‘means’ to afford’.

We can neither ignore not undermine the harsh reality that national level tests invariably create inequality in the higher education system rather than providing a level playing field. CUET shows no sign of being any better or an equalizer.

If we are really keen in promoting learning, mitigating multiple causes of anxieties and stress amongst students, saving people from the hassles of applying for and taking many different entrance examinations for admission and minimising the menace of the coaching industry, we may have to revert to admissions based on merits of the marks in the Board examination.

This method had fallen out of favour on the ground of extreme variations in the examination system and marking patterns followed by different senior secondary boards. But can’t this problem be solved by normalising the marks of all the Boards to a common denominator?

Presently, the view on this count varies. A good number of experts and academics are of the view that statistical normalisation is a very routine technique by taking the marks of the toppers of each board to a base of 100 and then recalculating the marks of rest of the candidates. In support, they cite examples of institutions that have been successfully using the normalised scores for admission until they were forced to give it up and adopt the national level tests.

On the other hand, some feel that normalisation does not provide error-free results to decide merit, primarily due to skewness in the data. They also advance the argument that the normalised data may just be a mere indicator of place value and not an absolute value to decide relative merit, which is a must for admission purposes.

The point may be well taken but India has been a Vishwa Guru in statistics and mathematics since time immemorial. There still are a few world class mathematicians and statisticians in the country including a few Field Medal awardees of Indian origin working abroad. They can surely come up with a better and reliable method for normalising the marks of all the boards in the country?

Can’t educationists come forward to convince the policy planners that normalised scores could be as good, if not better, a measure of merit for admission? But are we even interested?

(Furqan Qamar, Professor at the Centre for Management Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia is a former Advisor (Education) in the Planning Commission. Sameer Ahmad Khan is a research scholar at the Centre for Management Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia working in the area of Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB) in higher education. Views expressed are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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