The ministry of human resource development and minister Smriti Irani are currently under fire for their alleged role in IIT-Delhi director Raghunath Shevgaonkar’s exit. There have, however, been other important developments in higher education recently.
There are indications that the HRD ministry has near-immediate plans to introduce a Common Entrance Test (CET) for students seeking admission to central universities, possibly this year, along the lines of the Common Admission Test (CAT) that is mandatory for entry into post-graduate management programmes. At present, some of the best central universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University hold separate entrance exams and only seven central universities —in Haryana, Jammu, Jharkhand, Kashmir, Kerala, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu — admit students in part based on their performance in the Central Universities Common Entrance Test.
The CET was first proposed by former HRD minister Kapil Sibal for the new central universities that were set up under the 11th Plan. In August 2012, nearly all central universities agreed to hold the CET from the following year but that did not happen.
The CET is part of a broader set of the HRD ministry’s initiatives to bring about greater standardisation across the 45 central universities in the country, perhaps through the implementation of the proposed common legislation for central universities. Some of the initiatives under consideration, notably faculty mobility and a common curriculum across central universities, are quite regressive, with the potential to do more harm than any good. However, the HRD ministry is absolutely right in pushing for the CET.
If adopted, the CET will reduce entry costs for students by eliminating the unnecessary burden of multiple tests and travel across the country at personal expense and time to seek admission into various central universities. If Irani can get the CET rolling this year or the next, it would arguably be her first real achievement as a minister.
There is opposition to the CET in some quarters on the grounds that it will discriminate against students belonging to rural and remote areas in far-flung states with poor access to higher education. The argument is that out-of-state students, especially those with an English-advantage, will push locals to ‘lesser’ state-run universities or even deny them education in their home state. Such criticisms are not only unwarranted but also ignore the larger purpose of central universities.
First, students from across the country are unlikely to rush to central universities in remote locations unless those institutions offer at least half-decent education. Many central universities, whether new or old, are perceived as lesser alternatives to better-located and/or reasonably well-run state universities and many private institutions.
Also, a large number of students who seek admission to post-graduate programmes (most central universities offer only a relatively small number of undergraduate programmes) do so in order to be stationed on a university campus while they prepare for one competitive exam or another. These students prefer city-located universities, which offer good facilities to prepare for such exams, over central universities in ‘lesser’ locations.
Second, the fear that the CET will shut out locals can be easily addressed by reserving a certain percentage of seats for in-state students. Currently, while some central universities do not have reserved seats for local students, many do. The government can, in consultation with state governments, reach an agreement on the issue.
Critics of the CET also forget that central universities, as flagship institutions of our higher education system, are expected not only to bring good quality education closer to people in different parts of the country but to also serve as models for state universities in terms of both teaching and research. Therefore, they must be ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ to absorbing significant numbers of outsiders, both students and faculty, to grow to their full potential.
Pushkar is assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa
The views expressed by the author are personal