The (Un)Commonness of Centralised Entrance Tests for Delhi University

The recent decision to replace the board examination with the common entrance test as a criterion for securing a seat at Delhi University (DU) has consequences on the lives of many young adults, as well as the fabric of the university itself.

The three stated reasons for this shift are: the unreasonable stress students go through owing to the authority of board examinations in determining careers and lives, the arbitrariness of board results and their unequal nature when a comparison is made between different boards.

These are reasonable arguments, coming with a promise to change the education experiences of students. However, it comes without the understanding that these problems are inherent to the examination system per se, and that the problem calls for a complete overhaul of our education system as well as our associated sensibilities and imaginations.

Recognising these problems when it comes to board examinations is indeed a welcome move – after all, board examinations are stressful, arbitrary and unequal in nature. But the haste with which this step is being taken is alarming. It signals a direction that might not be promising for the young adults of our country.

Thinking an entrance examination in itself would be student-friendly is delusional to begin with. We are aware of the stress that entrance examinations like JEE, CLAT and NEET put on young minds, pushing many of them to mental health problems.

In the same vein, thinking that the common entrance examinations would relieve the students from the pressure of soaring merit lists is also not convincing enough. In the entrance exam regime, the merit lists of percentages can be replaced by equally unreachable percentiles – leaving students at the peril of another examination.

Coming to the third reason of finding board examinations to be divisive in nature calls for further analysis. The university has made this argument based on the findings of an admission committee that examined patterns emerging from different state boards. It brought to light the disproportionate number of students from a specific state board (Kerala state board) securing positions in popular colleges, leaving students from other state boards in a disadvantageous position.

Finding this to be discriminatory to students of other boards, the university administration claims to eschew from the unfair practices set by board examinations by introducing entrance tests as an equaliser. But before acting on these preliminary findings, the assertion of finding a few state boards biased should have gone through an evidence-based, peer-review process.

It is dangerous to see a university turning a blind eye towards the processes that define its very core. The important question on how this state-wise distribution appears on the social matrix of caste, class, religion, gender, language and other factors within and across different states remains unexplored in the committee’s report. Examining the board pattern vis-à-vis different schools to which students belong too could have been revealing.  The university did not take the pain to further examine these findings, and there seems to be no interest in drawing from the larger research base of social sciences that has long been demonstrating the complex fault lines present in our education system.

Also read: Delhi University and Its Indifference

There is no denial of the fact that board examinations are indeed exclusionary and unequal. However, the reasons for this run far deeper than students of some state boards faring better than others. Examinations by their very nature – especially in a developing country like India with a chequered colonial past – work as a filtering device, favouring students from well-to-do sections. This benefitting population, spread out in different states of our country, is not only economically better-off than the rest, but also enjoys social and cultural capital that is key to securing positions in any examination.

It would have helped if, instead of only showing the data from different state boards fusing the differences that exist within a state, the university had further demonstrated the spread of students on the lines of social parameters of caste, class, religion, gender, language and so on. An inquiry in this direction would have allowed for a more informed engagement with inequality by examining the composition of the disempowered population.

Assuming that entrance examinations will be equal and non-divisive in themselves is an illusion. Educators have been pointing out these concerns when it comes to the nature of examinations themselves – be it board examinations or entrance examinations. Moreover, research already demonstrates the unequal representation of different sections in the present entrance examinations. How the well-to-do population with access to resources like coaching centres is able to secure position in institutes that have a long history of entrance examinations is an established argument in social sciences.

Our silence in exploring these questions reveals our own reluctance to engage with the complex layers that constitute social inequality. Only changing the form of the examination will not bring the respite that is essential for our country.

A systemic transformation of our education system is required to bring in a system that is student-friendly and non-divisive in nature. This calls for a move away from the culture of rote memorisation and towards a focus on conceptual development, acknowledging the importance of knowledges in our lives and giving space to inquiry and critique.

Such a shift also has to counter the ongoing pressure of running courses in the university that can prove their utility, while battling through the gradings and rankings. Unless these questions at the level of ethos are brought in, the chances of entrance examination slipping into a similar trap as board examination is imminent.

To evoke the transformative potential in education requires constant work and engagement. Unless this is recognised, this move looks like another bourgeoisie battle that fights amongst itself for scarce resources for their sake only, but again in the name of the commons.

Jyoti Dalal teaches in Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi.

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