The decision to conduct a Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for admission in undergraduate programmes in all University Grants Commission-funded Central Universities (CUs) from 2022-23 has triggered concerns. No doubt, the proposal is influenced by the National Education Policy, which advocates common entrance examinations by the National Testing Agency for undergraduate and graduate admissions and fellowships. The concept as such is not alien to the CUs. Over a dozen CUs admit students to undergraduate programmes using Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET) scores. The proposed CUET, in 13 languages, seeks to make it mandatory for 45 CUs — there are 54 such institutions — to conduct admissions using a single national level test score. This would spare aspirants from taking multiple entrance tests and also eliminate unfair advantage gained from disproportionate scores in class XII. Critics are evidently viewing this development through the prism of the Narendra Modi government’s obsession with pushing the ‘one nation, one standard’ maxim in different sectors. But as early as 1984, the Madhuri R. Shah Committee, looking into the working of CUs, recommended a national merit examination. In the instant case, the UGC has clarified the existing scheme of reservations in individual universities would not be disturbed.
Yet, the CUET may not qualify as a wholesome determinant of merit given the educational and regional disparities in India. While a vast majority study in State Boards, the test would be based on the NCERT syllabus, followed largely in CBSE schools. The policy limits the Class XII marks as a qualification benchmark and not a co-determinant of merit. With the test being introduced just ahead of an admission season, students, whose learning process was disrupted by COVID-19, may find it challenging. Education Ministers from Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have flagged some legitimate concerns. In the North-east, the argument about the test possibly affecting the interest of State domiciles to secure admission in a university in the region cannot be ignored. There are genuine apprehensions about CUET serving as a precursor to introducing a nationwide entrance test for all undergraduate courses — the UGC has said all institutions are free to use the test scores for admissions. It has been sufficiently demonstrated that common entrance tests spawn the coaching industry and induce cost-heavy hybrid courses from class VI onwards, creating a divide between the haves and have-nots. The country has miles to go in enabling access to entry-level higher education and bridging the gender and economic gap in its university portals. In such circumstances, it needs to be dispassionately examined if prescribing a single entrance test as a sole determinant of merit, either for CUs or for the higher education system as a whole, is pragmatic.