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Monday, July 17, 2017

Common Exam for all Engineering Admissions

For last five years, we have been hearing about the government's interest in holding a common exam for admission to all engineering colleges. Recently, a news item said that the success of NEET is encouraging the Government to take a similar decision on a common engineering test for engineering.

First of all, one wonders what this success of NEET means. I am noticing so many legal challenges, so much stupidity in organizing NEET (different papers in different languages), and so many state governments unhappy since they see this as interference in their domain. They also have fears that NEET discourages against students following a state board, and hence indirectly forces a common syllabus across the country. But I guess success at the government level is to be measured more in political terms than in academic terms, and certainly, there is a perception among the people that giving less exams somehow helps them, and therefore, all politicians would want to reduce the number of exams.

There is a legal aspect to it too. The entire medical education in India is supposed to be supervised by Medical Council of India. The status of All India Council for Technical Education is not equivalent. Supreme Court has said that AICTE can not control universities, but only affiliated colleges, and hence AICTE has no say on IITs, NITs, IIITs, State universities, private universities, and so on. So what will be the legal process through which a common engineering exam will be introduced is not clear. (Of course, a dummy case in SC which demands common exam and which is not opposed by Govt/AICTE, etc. could be a simple way. Alternatively, a law can be passed by parliament. Or simply there is this method of arm twisting which is extremely effective in India - remember how everyone was told to get rid of 4-year undergraduate programs.)

But I am not a legal expert. I will only talk about academics.

Does a common exam help students? The perception, of course, is that it does. The naive argument is that every exam causes stress, and more the number of exams, higher the stress. People supporting this argument includes IIT directors and professors (but only if there are two exams, one for IITs and one for everyone else). The same people who inside IITs would sing praises for continuous evaluation and vote against just one big end-semester exam. There, the argument will be, that one exam puts all eggs in one basket and hence causes stress. We must have multiple evaluations with small stakes.

What is also very strange is that no body ever is happy with his/her performance in an exam. I get hundreds of emails from JEE (Adv) passed students every year, and all those mails will start from "I made a silly mistake or two, otherwise, I was expecting better performance." If students are unhappy with their performance in the big exam, shouldn't they be supporting multiple exams. Also, look at the number of students who drop a year because in that one big exam, they think they could have done better. What a huge waste of resource for the country. If they had multiple options and had received some alternate good education, many of them would not have dropped a year.

Stress happens not because of the exam, but the stakes associated with the exam. If I were to tell students that I am going to give an exam in an hour, but it has only 1% weight on the final grade, do they get stressed. Of course, not. Reduce the stakes, and you will reduce the stress. So multiple exams, each with lesser stake, is so much better for stress management than a single exam with huge stakes.

People who accept the logic so far will then argue, but having 100 different exams is still stressful even if each exam has less stress. And my answer is: How many students take 100 or even 10 different entrance exams. A few who may be taking 10 different exams, do they need to. Why are they taking 10 exams. Shouldn't they instead do some research about the kind of places that one wants to join and has the academic preparedness to get admitted to. 10 exams would open thousands of doors already. Frankly, we cannot reduce the number of exams because there is this person somewhere who refuses to do introspection, who refuses to do some research into various colleges and programs, and then insists on trying his/her luck with everything under the sun.

There is another problem with one exam. It is sorting you based on your preparedness in one dimension. People are not identical. If someone is really good at Physics and Maths, s/he will do better in an exam where Chemistry has less weight or is easier. Is it fair to banish this guy to a low rank for all educational institutions in the country. IITs may consider Chemistry to be important, but should every university be forced to consider Chemistry as important. What if you are good at languages. There is huge amount of research which shows that being good at a language increases your chances of success. Now, government institutions may be afraid to get into language politics of the country and not have language component in the entrance test, but should private universities also be forced to admit students without considering their language abilities. (India is the only nation in the world where admission to higher education is done without considering language abilities.)

If there is a single test, it really amounts to asking fish to climb a tree, and then saying that we were fair since we asked everyone to climb a tree.

From the university point of view, if I am offering only courses in Maths and Computing, I may argue that I want to admit students who knows maths and programming, and I am willing to teach them whatever little Physics they need to know, and I don't care about Chemistry. Should that not be the prerogative of the university to admit students based on different capabilities. I may even say that as a university, I want to admit students who are aware of their surroundings, and will have a general knowledge test for that. Should that be illegal. As a university, I may want to acknowledge different achievements of the student, including sports and give them some bonus marks. Should that not be allowed.

So a single test is taking away the most important component of the autonomy that a university must enjoy, and is being unfair to most students since most students' capabilities and interest would not align with any one particular test.

There is more to it. What should be the syllabus of this exam. If the syllabus is the intersection of syllabi of all boards, then it is going to be pretty less and may not be acceptable to most universities in the country. But if we add some topics other than the common part, then we are being partial. This is exactly the point of several states in case of NEET. By choosing one syllabus for NEET, you are discriminating against state boards whose syllabus is significantly different from that chosen syllabus. Same thing will now happen for engineering education, if a common exam is forced on this country. Having state level exams were allowing students to get admission to top colleges of their respective states without being forced to go through coaching of topics that they have not learned in schools. Now that option will be taken away.

I know many readers of my blog would argue that uniformity is a good thing, and let this common test force all state boards to change their syllabus to the CBSE syllabus. Many people just love uniformity, but they either want mediocrity or they do not know that uniformity can only lead to mediocrity or worse.

The suicides in Kota happen due to high stakes and thus high pressure from parents to succeed in JEE. If there is only one exam, brace yourself for a much higher pressure and many more suicides.

So a common test (like NEET) increases stress by increasing stakes, forces a linear ranking among students who have widely different skills and training and thus is unfair to most students, is unfair to students who have studied in state boards, takes away the most important component of autonomy of universities, bars any innovation in admission process by universities, and really gives us nothing in return of all these costs.


Prashant Gupta said...

Very true Sir.The current example of IIT Jee with mess of bonus marks clearly goes against the concept of single exam.A day can come when JEE board will say that this year 50% questions were printing inconsistent and hence 50% bonus marks to all.Then , it will be better to have a lottery system of entrance , rather than a single exam , like this year happened **(Lottery of 7 Bonus)

siddharth jain said...

This will lead to more stress for sure. Every year we have some bright students who falters somehow in Advanced but because of the option of Main and BITSAT don't have to suffer much. Even in case of student repeating a year, I always make them understand that you have 3 days and you need to prove yourself atleast on a single day and they usually realise this fact.But if we switch to single test the stress level in such students would be far more than even in students sitting for first time. Also one more point I want to add that we might have seen a lot of criticism of inclusion if boards mark in JEE Main rank list, but that actually helped state board students (those who can't afford Advanced coaching fees)secure a tiny fraction of seats in NIT's but with the removal of that component they are almost wiped out of the system(unreserved category).
So such diversities are much better than the uniformity.

Saurabh Joshi said...

There is US/European model where the university selects students based on their profile (research/academic/extra-curricular) along with some entrance exam (TOEFL/GRE/IELTS), Statement of Purpose and/or interviews.

Let's assume that there is a publicly funded institute (henceforth called PFI). Let's say it decides that it wants to select students that wants to measure students capability along multitude of dimensions and thus wants to follow the procedure that is similar to what is mentioned above. Say PFI decides to select student A and did not select student B. I am sure immediately an aggrieved parent/candidate might complaint that B had more percentage throughout the schooling as compared to A (ignoring that A might have got some prestigious scholarships, KVPY, GSoC, and/or might have excelled in some extra-curricular activities that PFI values).

The problem is that people just don't want to accept that there is subjectivity involved in most of the things in life. PFI will have to face barrage of RTIs and court cases with respect to its selection procedure.

Another problem is that say Mr. X is an influential faculty member at PFI with a questionable moral compass. Because of the subjective nature of selection process, Mr. X may try (and probably succeed if the selection committee doesn't have enough courage or integrity) to get his/her relative admitted into PFI.

Another problem is that say Mr. Y, a man of integrity is a faculty member at PFI. His son Z having excelled in almost all the parameters set by PFI, gets admitted purely because of merit. PFI again has to face a flood of RTI and/or court cases accusing PFI of nepotism.

Yes, there should be multiple exams, measuring various aspect of candidates' aptitude and personality but it seems that can't happen without opening a can of worms.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh, I am afraid you have not understood the article. Have I said anywhere that we must have subjective process for admission. I would appreciate if you could read the article again and comment after understanding the article.

The argument here is that we should allow multiple entrance exams and multiple admission methods which has been going on for 50 years already. We already have JEE, JEE Advanced, BITSAT, various state entrance exams, many private university exams like Manipal, VIT. And all this has been considered legal, fair, and all that. Some exams test only PCM at a certain level, some exams test PCM at a lower level, some consider only Physics and Maths, some consider language while others don't. So there is some diversity in the admission process, and students with different interests and capabilities are able to align their capabilities with some entrance exam. (That the diversity is not enough is another matter.) NEET has changed all that in medical entrance, and there is a talk of a common exam for all engineering admissions too. Everything that we have built in the last 50 years is being threatened. That is what this blog is about.

Second, IIMs look at multiple things in your CV, and have been doing it for decades for admission. So it is not true that as soon as you look at multiple things, you will start losing court cases. Even at the UG level, IIIT Delhi (which is a government institution) has been looking at multiple achievements. Many good institutes in the country including IIIT Hyderabad have admissions based on things other than JEE (while most admissions are through JEE, they do offer admission to those who have excelled in olympiads). Even central government institutions have multiple admission processes, including IISERs.

Considering multiple achievements need not be subjective. It can be objective to begin with. And the admission process needs to be backed up by research and good arguments.

IITs may be great but there is a world outside IIT system. Please find time to learn about that world.

Saurabh Joshi said...

I don't think I mentioned the word IIT at all in my previous comment. Probably somewhere else (either on different post or on Quora) I read your views about universities having freedom in the selection process and their ability to choose the candidate aligned with the priorities of the university. Since I felt the views expressed on this post also conveyed somewhat similar thought, I talked about those things. Sorry for the cross-posting.

IIMs have interview component. Many other institutions such as IIITs, TIFR, CMI, IMSc and many other good institutions have interview component in their postgraduate admission process and so far this process has been working without too much trouble at these places. Subjectivity inevitably is a part of an interview (even if the panel gives a score on 10 point scale).

It would be good if one can come up with a good objective criteria, but an argument can always be made against those criteria. If you have parameter P1, P2, P3 on which you test the candidate, how much weights for each parameter would be "ideal" so that no one would object to them? Should the final objective score be linear function or non-linear function of the parameters? I know that people usually don't object to an evaluation function if it has been declared a priori.

I support the idea of having multiple evaluations and also in giving the universities the freedom to choose appropriate evaluation function (apologies again as this is well aligned with the topic of the post). However, I believe (and I can be wrong) that such changes in selection process will have to face a lot of resistance, even though the selection process is "fair" (putting it in quotes because I think fairness is also subjective).

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh, As you say, having announced the criteria a priori usually is accepted by the candidates. In case of IITs, there is an additional problem, which is its faculty and alumni. Any change in admission process is seen as a statement that the previous process wasn't good enough and that perhaps means that some alumni didn't deserve to be at IITs. So it becomes a very sensitive and emotional thing.

I really don't care what IITs do for their admission, as long as others have autonomy to do what they think will give them the best students. The problem is only linked to IITs because in all committees in this country, government wants to put IIT professors who have no idea about the world outside IITs, and these professors write prescriptions for entities that they don't know even exist. And that is a significant contributor to the destruction of education in India. So IIT Council recommends "One Nation, One Test." Why, because of their arrogance. If IITs let others live peacefully, we will be a much better educated country.

Saurabh Joshi said...

Yes, when I said that there would be resistance, it could be resistance from outside or inside as you pointed out.

I am surprised why you said you don't care how IITs do their admission as long as others are given the autonomy. Why should IITs be spared? I agree with you that IITs are given too much attention and/or importance (sometimes undeserved). That would probably relieve IITs from having to maintain the so called brand image and those effort can be channeled to something more productive.

Institutions like IUCAA, TIFR, CMI, IMSc are great institutions doing good research but public at large do not know they even exist (and probably it's good for these institutions that they don't get undue attention). If people/media/ministry gave as much attention to various procedures (including admissions etc.,) of these institutions as they do for IITs, probably things will go downhill.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh, I am not saying that I don't care about autonomy of IITs. They already have autonomy and are capable of using that autonomy, if they so desired. And I don't care whether they use that autonomy to do good things for themselves or not. But others' autonomy is already less, and that too is being threatened, and I worry about that a lot more. As far as autonomy of others is concerned, IITs are part of the problem, while they could have been a part of the solution.

Prashant Gupta said...

It is wonder that our Import bill on electronics items,solar panels , laptop , hardware , routes etc is not only increasing day by day , but we are also heavily dependent on imported technology.This is is the situation when ec is in IITs is pulling cream of bhains.When ee say thay Students paaee out of IITs are working in MNCs abroad on product development, we forget that most of them have ms from usa etc.So IIT is famous for a tough entrance .And if the credibility of entrance exam is questioned , the sheen will be out