July 1, 2024The Intersectionpublic policyeducation

Fixing entrance exams won’t suffice - higher education needs radical reform

Upgrade universities across the states, massively expand the number of seats and reduce the salience of entrance exams

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

The challenge of creating economic opportunities for hundreds of millions of young people has come to the fore this year. As I wrote in my previous column, on the employment front India must create 20 million jobs per year. The ongoing public outcry over the National Testing Agency’s mismanagement of NEET-UG, NEET-PG and UGC-NET highlights a related concern: of meeting the career aspirations of tens of millions of young people seeking quality higher education. With half the population of the country, or around 700 million Indians, below the age of 28, our demographic is demanding its dividend.

Just as in creating jobs, we need dramatically different thinking in higher education. The current model — where millions of candidates compete for a few thousand seats — has run its course. Yet political compulsions and policy realism continues to try to make incremental adjustments to the system. To be fair, increasing the number of seats by 10% every year — as India has done for medical education since 2019 — would be an admirable feat in any country. But India is not any country — we need to scale up at an altogether different scale to satisfy the aspirations of millions of our young people.

While an expert committee investigates NTAs lapses in conducting examinations, the locus of policy change should be on the supply of higher education. Not only have we created an academic elitism — IITs, NITs, IIMs, AIIMSes and established medical colleges in states — but are now risking replicating this across the university system.

In the first place, the thrust of education policy ought to be to strengthen the university systems in the states where most of India’s young people study. Indeed, the real scandal is not how national entrance examinations were compromised, but in how our universities have atrophied. And in how governments and citizens seem to have given up on them. If public investment and policy attention is focused on the hundreds of universities across the country, on helping them to upgrade their capabilities, on breaking the bad habits they have fallen into, the explosive pressure on getting into a few elite institutions will abate. Similarly, vocational education is a big part of the answer. To get it going requires a lot more than setting up good training institutes — there is a need to change social norms and status signaling to indicate that a vocational diploma is a prestigious and remunerative qualification.

Second, the supply of professional education cannot keep up with the demand unless there is a much greater role for private and for-profit institutions. In states that have liberalised engineering education, for instance, there is no shortage of seats and it is possible to get into a fairly good college without going through a traumatic entrance exam preparation process. Business and management education too has grown through private participation. Medical education can be expanded in the same manner. However, as my colleague Pranay Kotasthane has pointed out, many of the regulations for setting up medical colleges are unreasonable and they disincentivise scale. Moreover, despite having the largest number of medical colleges in the world, India is not producing enough doctors.

Test-preparation has decimated education: the most talented kids and aspirational families do not invest in learning the subjects, but learning how to crack multiple-choice questions. This makes people like LLMs. You know the answer but can’t explain why.

Third, as Ajay Shah and I argued in an op-ed in Business Standard last year, We think that replacing the JEE with a lottery-based allocation to IITs will have transformative effects for Indian education. It is already a lottery today, but one where the ticket so expensive that only well-off families can afford it. A typical fee for a year’s JEE coaching is close to what an average Indian earns in a year. The JEE is a poor estimator of true capability, and it is hard to say the 80,000 who do not make it are systematically inferior to the 20,000 who do. Many chance factors are tipping the scales today, such as a student being unwell on the exam day, or a heat wave at the test centre.

There is a better way to allocate public resources. The price of an IIT lottery ticket can be reduced to zero. Seats can be randomly allocated to applicants who meet basic requirements. Specifically, we could envision a first-level exam, which is not about the things that Google knows. Out of that the top 200,000 ranks are shortlisted. At the second stage, a random list of 20,000 would be chosen to attend the IITs.” A basic screening exam followed by a random allocation, respecting reservation quotas, would be a fairer and more humane way to allocate places in elite engineering and medical colleges. A lottery will make the luck dimension explicit. Such a system is more in the public interest than the current one. Instead of spending lakhs of rupees on tutorials, parents and schools will focus on learning and understanding the high school syllabus. Universities and colleges across the country will get better, more demanding students and parents. IITs and AIIMS will get a more diverse cohort. We think this is a far more equitable method.

Sure, these proposals might sound heretical, if not unorthodox. The onus, however, is on those who defend more-of-the-same incrementalism to prove that current solutions scale as fast as the challenge. Getting NTA to conduct entrance examinations without a hitch merely solves the entrance examination problem. It does not create more opportunities.

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