In two earlier posts, we discussed some key aspects of academic autonomy and administrative autonomy in an Higher Education Institution (HEI). Admission is another aspect of academic autonomy, which is very important in India due to the paucity of high quality education opportunities. It deserves a separate discussion, and is the subject of this note.

We will assume that admission to an HEI has to be based on some criteria and is not arbitrary, and that the criteria are transparent and well published. Latter is highly desirable in India, as lack of a transparent criteria can lead to all sorts of abuses. (Please note that this is not an inherent property of admission to an HEI – many US universities do not have a transparent and published criteria for admission.)

Autonomy in admission for an HEI then means that the HEI can have its own (transparent) criteria for admitting students. Clearly, complete autonomy, particularly in publicly funded HEIs is not feasible, as social and other goals of the Government / country (e.g. equity, reservations) will have to be satisfied by such Institutions. However, even after complying with policies for social goals (e.g. reservations), publicly funded HEIs do not have sufficient autonomy to establish their admission criteria. For example, if an IIT wants to have a criteria which will encourage gender diversity it cannot do it on its own. Or if it wants to have a criteria to have diversity in terms of students coming from diverse economic backgrounds, or education backgrounds including commerce and social sciences, it cannot do it. Even if an IIT decides that for its Computer Science programs, it will only consider proficiency in Maths and Physics, but not chemistry, currently there is no way this can be done.

The main cause of lack of autonomy in admitting students by HEIs is that as a nation we have equated national / state tests, which assess the test takers ability in some ways, with admission criteria for HEIs. So much so, that many such tests are called entrance or admission tests. We confuse the goal of test conducting organisations like CBSE, or the newly formed National Testing Service, which is to conduct tests and report normalised scores in tests, with the act of admitting students in a HEI, which is the role and responsibility of the HEI.

To clarify this further, the role of a test conducting body is to conduct tests in a fair manner in different subjects, using questions that reasonably assess the knowledge and understanding of the subject, and then giving proper scores (hopefully normalised) to the test takers in different papers/subjects. This in itself is a huge responsibility in a large country like ours.  Admission to a University, on the other hand, is squarely the responsibility of the university, and not of the test conducting body. It is up to the HEI to decide its criteria and how marks of the tests are used in that criteria. This is indeed how our system works when Board marks are used for admission – the Boards conduct the exams and publish the results, and universities use it in some manner for admission – some will take marks in all subjects, some will take marks only in some subjects, etc.

In exam like JEE, these two very distinct purposes got intermixed. This may have been due to historical reasons –  the original five IITs decided to use the performance in an exam (JEE) which they designed and conducted as the main criteria for admission. They then conducted the exam and used the score – the exam patterns changed as IITs saw fit (e.g. in early days English was also included in JEE, which was later removed).  But now exams like JEE (Mains) are conducted by a separate agency, and hundreds of HEIs use the test – but the old thinking of having tests only in three subjects, and combining them with equal weight to give a rank, still continues. This essentially forces all who use JEE mains to necessarily use the criteria implied in JEE rank, that is, that admission is based on total marks in Physics, Chemistry, and Maths, with each subject getting equal weight. Effectively, an HEI using the JEE exam, does not really have true autonomy – even to have a criteria which, for example, gives more weight to Maths than Physics,  or if it wants to give weight to some other parameters like class XII marks, performance in some other test, etc. is a challenge.

So, national tests like JEE which take the role of admission criteria also, take away the autonomy in admission from the HEI. With such exams and most HEIs using it directly for admission, for an HEI to evolve its own (transparent) criteria is far more challenging. (Though some possibilities exist – IIIT-Delhi, for example, allows for bonus marks for various other achievements  for admission.)

With the coming of National Testing Service, one hopes that the body will conduct exams in various subjects and give normalised scores – as is done by exams like SAT, ACT, GRE, etc, some of which have, besides aptitude,  tests in different subjects.

Each HEI can then evolve and publish its criteria for admission – which can use scores on different subjects in some manner, as well as other parameters (e.g. performance in school Board, awards received, etc), if the HEI wishes. This will allow an HEI to assert its autonomy in admissions, and also encourage development of a range of criteria more suited for the HEI and its programs. E.g. some IIITs may use only Maths score which is more relevant for its programs,  some chemical technology institute may use only Physics and Chemistry, some program (say in Computational Biology) may use Maths, Chemistry, and Biology, etc.

A diversity of criteria, which may use scores from different subjects in the national or board tests, also provides students with more opportunities and flexibility. For example, if a student does not like Chemistry, she can focus on other subjects, and get admission in a good HEI that does not use chemistry performance in its criteria. Also, if a student appears in many subjects but does not do well in some subject, does not loose out completely for admission in all HEIs – currently the impact of doing one test badly is on the rank, and that impacts admission to all HEIs that use the rank.

With each HEI required to evolve and publish its criteria, while in the short term we may see many using the criteria that is currently used for rank, overtime criteria will evolve, and HEIs will be able to tune the criteria to admit students that are most suited for the HEI and the programs it offers.

 

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