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‘One test’ college admission causes rift in India

Engineering colleges are split over whether this new exam - combined with a heavier emphasis on high-school performance - will compromise their autonomy in selecting students.

NEW DELHI // A government proposal to hold a common entrance exam for undergraduates at the country's 4,000 engineering colleges has put at odds India's centres of technical education.

Administrators and faculty at the 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are split over whether this new exam - combined with a heavier emphasis on high-school performance - will compromise their autonomy in selecting students.

The proposal was announced on May 28 by Kapil Sibal, the minister for human resource development, who denies that the new format - to go into effect in 2013 - affects the IITs' autonomy.

At a news conference in Washington DC, where he was attending the India-US Education Dialogue on Monday, Mr Sibal said: "If someone says…autonomy of the IITs is being jeopardised, I would respectfully beg to differ."

The senate bodies of the IITs in Guwahati and Chennai have publicly expressed support for the common exam. But IIT-Kanpur has stated that it will boycott the common exam next year and hold its own entrance examination. In IIT-Kharagpur, its director has supported the common exam while its senate has opposed it.

Since 1960, the IITs have set and run a famously difficult test called the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), using candidates' performance in that exam as the primary criterion for admission.

Nearly 1.5 million students enter India's engineering colleges every year; a third of these take the JEE, hoping for one of the IITs' 10,000 seats. As a result, the IITs' engineering graduates are highly regarded.

The objectives behind Mr Sibal's "One Nation, One Test" proposal are to streamline engineering admission procedures and to reduce students' burden of writing multiple exams.

At present, in addition to school-leaving exams, a high-school graduate might write three other gruelling exams: the JEE; an exam to enter other engineering colleges run by the central government; and an exam to enter other colleges run by the student's state government.

If the student wishes to apply to non-IIT engineering colleges in neighbouring states, she will need to write even more exams, administered by the governments of those states.

According to the new plan, admission to all Indian engineering colleges will be based on high school final examinations, a main exam, and an advanced exam. The main exam will consist of questions involving reasoning and critical thinking, while the advanced exam will focus on physics, chemistry and mathematics, as the JEE does today.

The top 50,000 performers, based on school marks and the main exam, will be considered for admission to the IITs. Of these, the 10,000 students who have top scores on the advanced exam will get IIT seats.

Other students will, depending on a weighted consideration of school exams, the main exam and the advanced exam, be admitted into other engineering colleges run by the central government.

Mr Sibal has said that the advanced exam will still be set by the IITs but administered by a government body.

But even this compromise in autonomy will "prove to be fatal to the values and achievements" of the IITs, said Somnath Bharti, a Supreme Court advocate and the president of the IIT Delhi Alumni Association.

While he agreed in principle with the need to reduce the pressure of exams on students, Mr Bharti told The National that it would be "administratively impossible" to give increased emphasis to high-school marks as India has 42 school boards that vary widely in their standards.

"In addition, events of mass copying, paper leaking, or use of muscle and money power to score a choice score are not unheard of across many of the 42 boards," said Mr Bharti.

He said the IIT Delhi Alumni Association is considering legal action against Mr Sibal's proposal for a common exam as IIT senates hold the authority to decide how students are admitted.

But T R Abinandanan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the author of Nanopolitan, a popular blog on higher education, said that the IITs and their faculties were "simply too invested in the idea of the JEE."

The JEE, Prof Abinandanan told The National, "is a one-shot exam, and it tends to produce very noisy results." It wasn't always clear, he explained, that the students selected via the JEE were clearly the best candidates for the IITs.

"One could quibble at the relative weightage in the new system, but it is more broad-based," Prof Abinandanan said. "And because it includes high-school marks, it doesn't rely as much on one performance on one day."

Several state governments too remained invested in their own entrance exams, Prof Abinandanan said, but "over a period of time, most states will fall in line. India really needs a common exam like this one".