Guest Post by SRITAMA CHATTERJEE
The Executive Council (EC) of Jadavpur University recently decided to scrap the admission test in the Humanities for the academic year 2018-2019. This is no surprise to many of us who have been closely following the chain of events that have unfolded at the university in the last couple of days. According to published news reports, the education minister of West Bengal, Partha Chatterjee had “advised” the university back in November 2017, to do away with the procedure of conducting admission tests.[i] This raises a serious question whether the education minister of a state can even advise a university on how to conduct its admission process, especially considering that the university is an autonomous institution. The motives of the EC about the admission tests were becoming increasingly suspicious when they postponed the dates for the admission test twice, thereby causing inconvenience to many applicants, especially those students who had applied from outside West Bengal and had their itinerary planned according to the declared dates. Not only were the dates postponed but also the method of admitting students were changed from the earlier notification of admitting students solely on the basis of admission tests to 50% weightage on board examination and 50% weightage on admission test to completely scrapping the admission test, altogether. Although I acknowledge that the parameters to rank and evaluate the performance of universities have its own set of problems which is outside the scope of this piece, it cannot be denied that Jadavpur University has done significantly well in the National Institutional Ranking Framework(NIRF) published recently by the MHRD, in spite of the fact that as a state university, the funding received by JU is scanty in comparison to the central universities. It is noteworthy that one of the parameters on the basis of which the NIRF rankings are based is perception, in which JU has not scored well. I wonder that after facing the harassment that applicants had to go through because of the fickle-minded decisions of the EC, whether the “public perception” about JU would become better. The VC and the EC must answer.
The primary reason that was cited in delaying the admission process was “legal issues” about the admission test and who can be involved in the admission procedure. The exact nature of the “legal issues” and why such “legal issues” suddenly arose only days before the scheduled admission tests remain unclear. If indeed, there was a legal issue, why was such an issue not raised in the last few decades? Subsequently, the matter was referred to the Advocate General. It is to be emphasized that the opinion of the Advocate General is what it is, just an opinion and in no way it is binding on the Admissions Committee or the EC. The opinion of the Advocate General and the document, in which his views are stated, has not been made public yet. What is available is only an oral “interpretation” or reading of the opinion by the EC, according to which the Board of Studies of respective departments cannot be a part of the admission process, because that raises question about the transparency about the admission procedure. Many questions arise at this juncture: Who is raising question about the transparency of an admission test where the identity of the candidates are concealed from the teachers through a procedure of double coding? Till date, not a single complain or a legal case has been lodged against the university or a department, challenging discrepancies in the admission tests. In order to implement a new system, the EC has to cite specific and concrete reasons, in pointing out the flaws with the existing method of admitting candidates, which they have completely failed in doing. If the transparency of the teachers in evaluating the prospective candidates in an admission test is questioned, can they be trusted with the future of candidates who clear these tests?
Necessity of conducting admission tests and why it must not be outsourced to an external agency
The education minister of West Bengal has said that he would want uniformity in the process, that is students from the science, engineering as well as humanities be admitted to colleges and universities in the same way, that is on the basis of marks that they obtain in the higher secondary level. What is required to excel in humanities is an ability to read, write and think critically, something which can be hardly gauged from the marks that one scores in the board examination because in the current method of evaluating candidates in the +2 level, there is an excessive reliance on Multiple-choice Questions(MCQs) and objective type questions. It is essentially a system that promotes rote-learning, where students can score high, if they have specific keywords in their answers, leaving little scope of creativity and imagination. Besides different boards have different grading criteria and mode of assessment, thereby making it a complete uneven field. An admission test offers a candidate a fair space to demonstrate her ability in thinking independently, providing her with an opportunity to construct a narrative that is reflective of her aptitude in pursuing the subject for higher education. It is a method of evaluation that does not encourage unilinearity in thought or promotes a ‘single correct answer’ that the board examinations are looking for. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that admission tests are conducted.
It has also been reported by several news agencies that the university authority was considering at one point of time to have “external experts” to set question papers for the admission tests. [ii] The EC was not clear on who these “external experts” would be and the procedure of selection of these external experts. Would it be an external body such as the West Bengal Joint Entrance Examinations Board(WBJEEB)? Nobody knows. If one sees the track record of an external body such as the WBJEEB in conducting admission test in another university of Kolkata, Presidency University, their performance is miserable. In this year, candidates have reported several unpardonable errors in the English question paper, which the departmental faculty has claimed did not exist when the question papers were handed over to the Joint Entrance Board. In a news report published in the Times of India, on 15th May, 2018, Sumit Chakraborty, the Head of the Department of English, Presidency University said, “Yes these errors are shameful but we don’t recognise this question paper. It is definitely not what we had given to the board…In fact the entire test has upset us. We wanted a subjective test for English to check candidates’ proficiency but no one agreed.”[iii] Similar cases have also been reported for students who applied for Political Science. Although it was notified that questions will be based on the respective subject, on the day of the test, the candidates found out that not a single question was asked from Political Science, rather ninety percent of the questions tested logical reasoning of candidates. [iv] The point that I am trying to make is that no external body or “external expert” has any stake in the admission procedure of a particular university because they would not be teaching these students in the future and are not aware of what a department is looking for in a prospective candidate. Therefore, it is but natural that they their mode of handling an admission test would be indifferent, or in the case of WBJEEB, inefficient.
This attack on the autonomy of Jadavpur University must also be seen in the light of a series of attacks on higher education in India and an attack on the humanities, in general. From removing seven chairpersons and deans overnight at JNU because they had refused to implement an arbitrary attendance rule to the proposed Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Act by the MHRD that would create a vicious circle where institutions would not receive funds, if they do not perform well according to a standardized framework of assessment, the higher education in India is facing a serious threat. Currently, at Jadavpur University, students are protesting through a sit-in (not gherao), the English Department has officially withdrawn its collective labour from the admission procedure and the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association has also extended their solidarity towards the movement.
Right now, what we require is solidarity from all of you. If you care about higher education in India, if you think that the space of the university must be vehemently defended against any kind of state intervention, we urge you to join us in this movement. Write articles and letters of support, email members of the Executive council and create awareness in social media. Every bit counts.
We will not go down without a fight. We need your support.
[i] “Partha Prod to alter JU Entry,” The Telegraph, 22nd November, 2017. https://www.telegraphindia.com/calcutta/partha-prod-to-alter-ju-entry-187976. Accessed on 5th July, 2018.
[ii] “For the first time in forty years, Jadavpur University scraps Entrance Tests in Arts Courses Amid Row,” News18, https://www.news18.com/news/india/for-the-first-time-in-40-years-jadavpur-university-scraps-entrance-tests-in-arts-courses-amid-row-1801043.html. Accessed on 5th July, 2018.
[iii] “Presidency University livid over English Admission Test howlers,” The Times of India, 15th May, 2018. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/presidency-university-livid-over-english-admission-test-howlers/articleshow/64169482.cms. Accessed on 5th July, 2018.
Sritama Chatterjee completed her M.A and M.Phil. in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and will be starting her PhD in the Department of English, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the Fall of 2018.
[iv] “Confusion in PUBDET paper leads to student outrage,” https://www.campusvarta.com/campus-updates/pubdet-presidency-student-outrage/. Accessed on 5th July, 2018.