Entrance exams part of the testing business

It was the Vajpayee govt which had set up a committee of industrialists for the education market, comprising Mukesh Ambani and Kumar Mangalam Birla. They submitted the ‘Report on a policy framework for reforms in education’ in 2000. The National Education Policy of 2020 is only a reiteration of what these captains of corporate India were demanding.

Entrance exams part of the testing business

Commercialisation: An estimated 22 lakh appeared for the JEE this year. The test fee collected on an average for the examination is Rs84.5 crore.

KS Chalam

Former Member, UPSC

The other day, my grand-daughter woke up at five in the morning and was in a tearing hurry to leave home to appear for the JEE test. The testing centre was 20 km away. The exam was at nine but lakhs of young aspirants like her were asked to report at the so-called testing centres two hours before the exam.

That many needed to wake up four hours before the scheduled time and rush for the centre is only one part of the whole business of testing, as part of the admission entrance examination rigmarole. I have used the term ‘business’, since this entire process is not a part of the academic learning model, nor related to the basic aspect of higher education process of acquiring and utilising knowledge. This testing is a pure business model developed by international business schools and pushed through the WTO.

I am reminded of the old debate in the 1990s on commercialisation of higher education forcing the marginalised and poor to cope with such change. Now, several lakh boys and girls appear for several entrance tests every year for admissions. The ‘business menu card’ shows the fee for each test: JEE Rs 1,300; CAT Rs 2,000; CMAT Rs 1,400; SNAP Rs 1,750; IIFT Rs 2,000; NMAT Rs 2,000, and so on. An aspirant for the engineering stream appears in at least six tests and spends about Rs 10,000 on the exams itself. The same is true for medical, UGC-NET, ICAR, CSIR-NET etc.

I am here not talking about the whopping coaching fee at all. In fact, the Madras High Court was told in 2019 that only 2.1 per cent of the students who have no coaching get admission in medical colleges.

An estimated 22 lakh appeared for the JEE during September this year. The test fee collected on an average for JEE is Rs 84.5 crore. The NDA government created the National Testing Agency (NTA) in 2017 to take care of this non-academic testing activity. The NTA now conducts JEE and NEET for medical entrance and university entrance tests such as JNUEE for JNU. DUET for Delhi University, UGC-NET, CSIR-NET, ICAR-AIEEA and others have joined.

This testing conundrum is reiterated in the recent National Education Policy 2020: “Online assessment and examinations: Appropriate bodies, such as the proposed National Assessment Centre or PARAKH, school boards, NTA and other identified bodies will design and implement assessment frameworks encompassing design of competencies, portfolio, rubrics, standardised assessments and assessment analytics. Studies will be undertaken to pilot new ways of assessment using education technologies focusing on 21st century skills.” The language used here appears to be that of a commercial recruiting agency and not that of an experienced academic agency. It is inevitable that once the country agrees to implement the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and sustainable development goals — the system should be in place to satisfy the international operators.

We may recall that during the 1995 discussions, the WTO insisted on GATS and contended that education be considered as a “service”. India signed the agreement to implement GATS. As per this agreement, India has to agree for cross-border supply (correspondence, online courses, testing etc); consumption abroad (students to go abroad and pay fee there); commercial presence (foreign universities are allowed in, no questions asked on selection); and the presence of natural person (teachers from any part can come and teach here). International business groups and FICCI have jumped in to understand the extent of education service market in India.

It was the Vajpayee government which constituted a committee of industrialists for the education market, comprising Mukesh Ambani and Kumar Mangalam Birla. They had submitted the ‘Report on a policy framework for reforms in education’ in 2000. The New Education Policy of 2020 is only a reiteration of what these captains of corporate India were demanding.

The testing of candidates for various examinations is considered as one of the most lucrative business initiatives. The modus operandi is to first establish a testing agency with government funds and then privatise or allow to be taken over by private operators later, citing illogical reasons of efficiency.

The projected market size in India for schooling is $52 billion; graduate education $15 billion; vocational education $5 billion and the testing business is worth $28 billion. It means testing is a Rs 2.05 lakh crore business. How it is that such a huge market has come to be created by now? What has happened before these testing agencies crept into our system?

In fact, annual examinations were originally conducted by the school education boards and universities as it is their mandate to teach, examine and give certificates based on results. Most universities, both in the State and Central governments, have brilliant, reliable and robust systems in place with more than 150 years of experience to conduct any type of tests or examinations.

But they are now slowly being replaced through corporate lobbying with such private agencies that have neither the experience in teaching nor in the learning process. In fact, the so-called testing agencies like NTA depend upon the very same university system for all its inputs, but outsource the conducting of the tests as a mediating agency, to private players — while huge infrastructure of the universities created by public money is wasted.

We have now entered a vicious circle that does not teach, but tests. The vast system of boards and universities that have hundreds of years of legacy of teaching, learning, research and examination (including testing) are sidelined to pave the way for this mega Rs 2.05 lakh crore market to be handed over — lock, stock and barrel — to the private operators, and the eventual victims are the millions of students who will have to shell out money, not for learning, but for testing, by agencies that never taught them.

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