NTA: National asset, international benchmark
Is our system preparing humanoids or human beings?” is how a distinguished scientific administrator expressed his anguish over the maddening craze to crack entrance exams like JEE, CAT, GRE, GMAT, etc. He further added, “I will not be surprised if youngsters ask for four choices when asked their name.” Welcome to the world of multiple choice questions (MCQ) syndrome that prepares students to pick the right from wrong—more by assumptive elimination than by cognitive illumination, thanks to the coaching class industry.
While this is on one hand, on the other is the multiplicity of entrance exams that grossly under-utilises an unavoidable national asset to mindlessly manufacture avoidable notional asset to create colossal waste. It is like preparing free food for pilgrims and serving it to only those who travel by air, train or car, and not on foot.
Some background with numbers before we explore possible solution(s): The College Entrance Examination Board was conceptualised in Columbia University in 1900 by the legendary Harvard University president, Charles Eliot. This pre-World War common college admission test was termed elitist, but many post-World War reforms made it one of the managed international standardised test agencies. It managed to provide a solution to the ‘education anarchy’, where each post-secondary institution had its own entrance exam. The College Board is now not only responsible for administering SAT, AP, BigFuture, etc. but also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and institutions through major initiatives like EQUITY 2000 and Pacesetter & Transition 2000.
To put things in perspective, the College Board, with over 6,000 global members, administers exams to millions worldwide with its fully tax-exempted revenue crossing USD 1 billion, end of 2022. Though many of its competitors are far behind, India’s equivalent to College Board, National Testing Agency (NTA) can differentiate itself and over a period become a standardised testing Vishwaguru. More on that later as the pressing issue now is different.
The NTA has recently announced its schedule for its exam trio—JEE, NEET and CUET—for the year 2024. Besides this, NTA is responsible for UGC-NET, CMAT, GPAT, SWAYAM exams, etc., making it one of the world’s largest testing agencies with a capacity to mark three lakh tests per day. NTA has all the resources to emerge as one of the global leaders in not only standardised test administration, but also in creating a body of new knowledge using its rich goldmine of exam data.
This can revolutionise universities, colleges, students and educators approach towards preparing students for a life and livelihood. Though the positively emerging future of NTA is good news, the gloomy scenario with respect to student stress is a matter of grave concern that needs calibrated attention. Students cannot become victims of peer pressure and multiple entrance exam burden that drive them to extreme measures.
Peer pressure needs extraordinary efforts from multiple stakeholders. NTA can, however, be the policy catalyst to reduce the burden of multiple entrance exams. Here is how. With an estimated demand of 50 lakh applicants for 2024 (the number of JEE+CUET+NEET applicants in 2023 was close to 45 lakh) seeking admissions to various professional courses offered by IITs, CFTIs, Central Universities, Deemed Universities and other HEIs using NTA scores, the question that needs to be asked is the need for entrance exams by private universities.
With an average cost of Rs 1,000 per application, the NTA revenue on their three major entrance exams alone is over Rs 500 crore. Be that as it may, students spending close to Rs 10,000 to appear for at least five entrance exams conducted by private universities is not only burning parents’ pockets, but also creating a non-essential entrance exam annual market of over Rs 1,000 crore—a sheer waste creating peer haste due to competing forces.
The Ministry of Education may mandate all private universities to use the JEE (Main), CUET, CLAT, etc. for admission to their degree programmes. JEE-Mains may even be used for admission to IITs without the need for JEE-Advanced when the intelligible differentia at the top between JEE (Main) and JEE (Adv) is only marginal.
HEIs should use a mix of such tests and Class XII scores to ensure that both are pursued with seriousness and conduct their own admissions in a fair, transparent and non-exploitative manner. This is a first step in a fleet of many that can make national asset NTA an international benchmark.
Vice-Chancellor, SASTRA Deemed University