Thursday, December 23, 2010

Entrance exams: Are they asking the right questions?

The last decade has been a decade of changes and reforms. You can also include the entrance or competitive examinations to that fold. In this post I’ll discuss some changes as well as existing gaps in various competitive examinations.

There was an era when three posts were considered to be the most prestigious in the Indian set up. They were the PM (prime minister), the CM (chief minister) and the DM (district magistrate). When it comes to competitive examinations, three of them stand out for their rigor. They are IIT-JEE (for entry into the IITs), CAT (for entry into the IIMs) and civil services exams conducted by the UPSC. Let’s consider the changes in the formats of respective examinations one by one and consider the likely fallouts.

Civil Services Examinations (UPSC): UPSC has decided to go for “UPSC Aptitude Test" instead of UPSC Prelims Test for year 2010. Recently while reading the Hindi daily “Dainik Jagaran”, I came across an article by a very senior bureaucrat where he mentions that the change was necessitated as despite its claims, UPSC could not come with the “scaling” methodology. “Scaling” was used by UPSC to ensure that no particular stream of students have an unfair advantage or are at a disadvantage (hail RTI). So the new change is aimed at creating a common ground. Sounds sensible, isn’t it? But the problem is “the English language comprehension Skills” section. Civil services exam is replete with success stories with students from modest backgrounds making it to the coveted post. Even the past data shows that non-English speaking students have been equally successful in the prelims as well as finals exams. The job requirement too doesn’t necessarily call for fluency in English.

With the mandatory “English language comprehension Skills” section (even if class X level), the non-English speaking population is bound to be at a disadvantage. After all given the level of competition, even a fraction of a mark can make a difference. So whether UPSC was better off devising the “scaling” methodology or coming up with the proposed changes, the aspirants would be the best ones to answer. But given the state of English education especially in government schools, I have my doubts.

Common Admission Test (CAT): CAT recently went online. The first one did have its share of problems though mainly operational but the second edition has been quite professionally managed. Some have criticized the step and they back their arguments using the dwindling number of applications. They feel that it might be exclusionary. But as an MBA student, I can say for myself that one needs much higher computer proficiency than an online CAT demands. So someone struggling to appear for the online CAT would find it even harder to survive MBA. Thus considering the benefits i.e. faster processing of results, less paper wastage etc. it’s a visionary decision.

But, I still feel that CAT needs to be more inclusive and shouldn’t forget the term local in the often repeated term “Glocal”. Mismanagement at various levels has done our image as a country no good be it in the government sector or in the private one. So, it’s important that we go beyond the English speaking population to look for potential managers. We need managers who, after training, are willing to join rural arena or sectors that are critical but not necessarily most sought after during the placement season. That’s why CAT should be conducted in languages apart from English be it Hindi, Telugu or other common languages. A country can benefit from globalization only if it has its own house in order. Else it would be akin to “Sankritisation” or “Westernisation” of the past era.

IIT-JEE: Not too long ago IITs limited the number of attempts that student can take to clear the IIT-JEE. Their rationale behind doing that was to decrease dependence on coaching institutes, improving the quality of intake for M.Tech. programmes (they felt that a young guy or gal was more likely to go for higher degree than an old one) as well as to ensure that students who can’t make it to the IITs should move on in life. If one goes by the results, it doesn’t look like having the desired impact. The coaching institutes have become smarter. Now they have offerings as early as class VIII (catch ‘em young) for JEE aspirants. According to the report - ENGINEERING EDUCATION IN INDIA (2008) - a case study on IITs, it has been estimated that only about 1% of the graduating B.Tech class (from IIT) opt for an M.Tech from IITs. Wasn’t it expected considering the research opportunities available abroad? In fact, at the receiving end of this change are the students from rural areas. A few of them could achieve their "IIT dreams" even if they started preparing late (considering the ignorance in the rural set-up).

My aim behind considering this topic was to see whether the changes that have been made, address the concerns that they were supposed to or are they changes just for the sake of it. Would love to hear from you all.


  1. Saket,

    English Language Skill Section is steadily becoming a part of most, if not all, competitive exams. Now, it may be because the governing institutions conducting these exams feel the candidate must have a reasonable command over English as the degree or job(in case of administrative services) will have a global scope.

    However, the standard of English in these exams is a lot tougher than TOEFL/IELTS which makes me wonder whether the test is being conducted to determine the candidate's skill in english language or his ability to comprehend information expressed in english, which by their understanding is the global(not glocal) lingua franca.

  2. Titash, your point is valid that english has become a global language but what about the non-english speaking section? Even they are a talented lot and even they are required to take up responsibilities where regional languages are predominant and a local touch or sensitivity is required to solve the day-to-day problems.
    I just hope that our exams would be more inclusive in nature. You can instead train the successful candidates in English if it's that important.

  3. I agree that spreading English education is important but even more important is the fact that we need to incorporate proper vocational skills for the entire youth. India will soon have a young population of over 500 million strength and its imperative that they are employed in different sectors.

    At present the top colleges in India cater to just a handful of the population. Its hardly helping India's development. We need to provide high quality education to as many people as we can.

    Really nice article, liked it a lot. :)

  4. Hey buddy u have asked the correct questions in all the three exams.But what i personally feel is that the government wants to take people who have good logical skills communication skills and whatever from early childhood ,but here is atrap the government had fallen into..before adopting this practise it might have first made the level of education of the country be it Rural or Urban to such an extent that there are more than enough people who are upto the same mark in various aspects not only in english.Until the government does this the basic rational of making these exam to this fromat is not at all acceptable.

  5. @ Satwinder, I agree that our young population that is supposed to be our competitive advantage can easily bite us back if they are unemployed or unskilled. So it's high time that the institutions realize this and take corrective actions rather than expecting the students to adapt under the commonly held notion of "survival of the fittest". As those surviving are not necessarily the fittest rather they are a lucky lot.

  6. Saket...I want to ask you don't you think that our Indian Government is providing such an education system which is quite confined to the rich family at the higher level. Just giving the free primary education can not be the ultimate solution.In my perspective, if your parents are unable to earn a lot you will have harder times to go for a higher dreams (considering you have a limited ability and limited options). When I interacted with the students of other countries here what I found is that our education system should not be reformed at the level of the examination pattern but aim should be to make possible for the students who does not have enough resources. Even if you look at the examination forms they are pretty costlier. The system needs to be revived.Many countries provide scholarships to the students if they belong to a poor family until their Bachelors degree.

    I am not that good in expressing my views but I hope that you can easily understand the issue I want to figure out here.

  7. @Sushant, you have raised a very fundamental question that education for all is more a lip-service as the quality of teachers or resources is not quite up-to the mark. I don't deny the fact that these problems don't exist. In fact they should be higher in the priority list. But even entrance exams need to have a more inclusive approach. In fact we can work at different levels simultaneously be it primary education, higher education etc to make the system more fair rather than elitist.
    Thanks for your insights.

  8. I want to add more to my previous statement saket. The things that also we need to work on is the more emphasis on the practical aspect of any field of science rather than just concentrating on the theory. We in India judge a person's capability by looking at how high he scores in his/her schools. But, actually we need to work on more challenging practical problems as our assignment right from our schools. The mentality needs to be changed then only we Indians can be called developed. When I compare between an Indian Student and a US student, I personally believe that most of us lack the hand on experiences and we are not that good at practical level.
    Hence, I absolutely agree with your sayings but this is one more serious concern. I would be glad to know your view.
    Thanks for your reply to the previous query. Btw I am enjoying the discussion with you.



  9. @ Sushant, you have taken the discussion to a different level altogether. You have rightly pointed out a gaping flaw in our education system. I think its a result of blindly following the western system. We want to be the Harvards by merely aping what they do. We must customize the learnings to suit the needs of our youth or students. As you talked about the mentality, I feel we just don't want to take the shortcut rather we want to take the "chota" shortcut.
    Btw I would really like to have your comments on two articles: Here are the links:

    These posts have tried to raise issues that are similar to the ones that you have brought to our attention.
    Great going.

  10. I think that the root of problem is the state of educational institutions which many of us attend prior to facing these entrance exams.I agree that the recent changes end up in giving advantages to a part of students.But,the solution is not in reversing these changes,which are very much required, especially in case of IAS and CAT(not IITJEE).For example,a good manager needs a certain amount of comfort level with computer,and he can face problems in future if he is not comfortable with computers.Same goes with an IAS and English.Therefore,focus should be on preparing the battle field even by improving the state of educational instituions,rather than reversing the updates made in the pattern of these competitions.For example,the quality of English teaching in schools should be improved in all schools,so that their students don't face problems in future.

  11. @Abhi, As I see our point of disagreement is English based test in the UPSC exam as I too have supported online CAT. As you rightly said that English teaching should be improved so that students don't face problem in future. But is it prudent to change the exam pattern before we set our house in order? Add to that India has hardly 70% literates and a very minuscule proportion of that is properly educated in English. So this will give unfair advantage to a very small lot. And as far importance of English for the role of IAS is concerned, I don't think its that important considering the population that you are serving. And as I did mention in one of my replies to this post,one can instead train the successful candidates in basic English if it's that important

  12. Get into a review center if you want to get a higher possibility of passing the admission exam in college. It's always good to be well prepared