According to latest data from the All India Survey on Higher Education 2016-17, there are over 860 universities, 40,000 colleges and 11,000 stand-alone institutions in India. Each year, 36 million students apply for admission across various disciplines among varied fields of study. Having spent a few years in journalism, I decided to go back into doctoral research. Given my experience in competing to get admission into a masters programme, I am no stranger to the travails of the admission process.
To my sorrow, half a decade thence, not much has changed. Though online applications have become the norm, the process still remains as cumbersome as it was five years ago. One has to go through a lengthy and tiring process of having to appear for multiple entrance examinations followed by interviews, which lend the system more opacity than credibility.
Take the case of doctoral research. If one hopes to have a better chance of obtaining a doctoral degree, one needs to clear the junior research fellowship (JRF) exam. However, a JRF does not guarantee a future in research — all it ensures is that if you are able to enrol for a PhD, you shall be entitled to a grant. Even though some colleges accept a JRF and allow you to bypass their internal examinations — there is still an interview that one has to clear — others still require you to appear for an entrance exam for admission. More important, not all examinations happen at once. Usually, the academic calendar is dispersed, so one ends up appearing for one entrance in December and the other in June, which means six months of repeating the same course over and over. Further, this does not take into account the National Eligibility Test (NET)/JRF exam which UGC/CSIR conduct twice a year in June and October. However, this is for the ones who have cleared JRF. In case you have not, the process becomes more tiresome. One has to appear for entrances for each of the universities. A friend once complained that even though he had cleared the internal examination of a college, he was booted out of the interview for not having a JRF. On the other hand, there are instances of those clearing JRFs being ousted from the admission process at the interview stage.
For those applying for masters’ degrees, the process is no different and is even slightly more unwieldy. There being no unified examination, one ends up appearing for at least 6-8 entrance exams, that too with university examinations occurring around the same time. What India lacks, thus, is standardisation of the admission process. While this has been achieved to some extent for law, MBA, medical and engineering, the same needs to be applied to masters and doctoral courses, even bachelor’s if possible.
Let’s consider postgraduate programmes first. If NET or JRF is often a yardstick used by colleges, then universities will do well to make it the basis for admission. They can then release their cut-offs based on these results, followed by an interview process. Not only would this lend more transparency, but it will also ensure that the system remains credible with universities not being accused of bias. For masters degrees, a similar strategy can be worked out with a central subject-based exam. In this case, either the government can help define standards for universities via its ranking frameworks and accreditation surveys, or students can decide based on cut-offs, as is done in the case of Common Admission Test (CAT) for management courses.
There is a general perception that standardisation may end up compromising quality. If that were the case, the likes of Harvard, Stanford or Oxford, which follow a standard entrance process, would not be some of the best universities in the world. Equally important, if there are reservations over the quality of NET/JRF, even those can be addressed by colleges coming together and submitting their recommendations to the examination body. The arguments regarding the validity of an objective and subjective exam are also baseless, as NET/JRF, to begin with, was partly subjective and the system can be tweaked to test students on subjective aspects as well. If India can conduct one of the most significant civil services entrances, which comprise both subjective and objective examinations, it can do so for masters and doctoral entrances as well.
A more robust and transparent admission system would not only lend credibility to the selection process, but it would also ensure quality. This would address the issue of bias in the university admission process and would quell perception of universities leaning more towards favouritism than merit.
Talent has never been a problem in India but honing it has been a vital issue. A right way to start would be to streamline the admission process.