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Public university admission: The problem of combination

IT HAS almost been a decade since we started hearing of a combined admission test, centrally managed, which relevant authorities have at times called either ‘cluster’, ‘uniform’ or ‘unified’ admission test, for public universities. The education ministry in principle decided on the introduction of such a university admission system in 2010 mainly to reduce the number of admission tests that students take, to cut down on the cost of holding examinations and to reduce the financial burden on students. Another argument in favour of the yet-to-be-implemented system has later come up — to save admission-seekers the hassle of travelling from one university to another. And this argument has become louder as days have rolled by.

The 2010 decision could not get off the ground because of opposition by some universities. The University Grants Commission, after much of ministrations, on February 12 decided to hold a combined admission test for all public universities from the 2020–2021 academic session. But the decision has faltered as mainly four universities — the University of Dhaka, the University of Chittagong, Jahangirnagar University and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology — that have almost all along been opposed to any combined admission test have yet to decide.

The University Grants Commission, which in several of its annual reports, has sought to describe the current admission system, in which public universities hold admission tests separately on their own, as ‘questionable and expensive’ and recommended reforms that would be manifest in a combined admission test. The commission in a study in May 2013 established that admission-seekers on an average then needed to spend Tk 43,100 on coaching and other related issues, which included travel costs, for admission to public universities. One rationale for the introduction of a combined admission test is, therefore, to stop the spending on coaching as the study is reported to have found that 93 per cent of the admission-seekers attend coaching for admission to public universities.

While whether the introduction of any combined admission test would stop the spending on coaching could well be put to a long debate, the rationale for the commission to look into spending on coaching as a premise of the argument for any coveted change, well or ill, in the university admission system, combined or separate, falls flat. There is no reason for the commission to consider spending on coaching for university admission, which is generally meant to better prepare the admission-seekers, as this is either an individual problem of the admission-seekers or a problem of the national education, at least up to higher secondary education, that mostly fails to teach students what the university needs.

The commission coming to consider spending on coaching that the admission-seekers need for university admission also negates the efforts of national education managers to dispense with the need for coaching at higher secondary, secondary, primary and even pre-primary levels. If the national education could focus more on learning what the students need to learn rather than what they need to know for good scores in public examinations, there would be no need at all for coaching even after learning that spans more than 12 years or more. Any proposition for university admission based on the results of higher secondary should also entail debates because if higher secondary marks, or coupled with secondary marks, are all that is considered, many deserving candidates may be denied a fair shot at studying in universities.

The commission’s argument for saving the admission-seekers the hassle of shuttling between universities for admission tests and cutting down on associated costs well entails some thoughts. But there could be cases, and they might not be a very few, that some students might do poorly in the test for admission to one university or entirely may not be able to take the test, for a horde of reasons such as illness, personal problem or other situational crises, but they might do well in or be able to attend the test for admission to other universities. This way, they may have options to enter one university or another in the academic year of their regular session. But with a combined admission test having been put in place, students doing poorly in or not being able to attend the test might need to stay off higher education in public universities and be forced to resort to private universities, where the costs are high and the environment, in most cases, is largely regimented that hardly affords the students the right to make mistakes.

The issues of setting the questions or conducting the combined admission test have yet to be known. The University Grants Commission is hardly able to do these tasks because of not only not having any experience of conducting such large admission tests but also its shortage of resources, especially human resources. The education ministry having to set the questions and conduct the test would certainly run into an affront to the autonomy of the universities. The ministry or the commission, the government for that matter, having to impose a combined test on the universities could well stand in breach of the academic freedom of the universities.

The Dhaka University Order, 1973, for an example, in Article 46(1) lays out: ‘Admission of students to the University for degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Science and higher degrees shall be made by an Admission Committee, appointed for the purpose by the Academic Council.’ Any efforts of admission of students to universities through a combined test, centrally managed, seem to be contravening the university order and, therefore, the academic freedom. Many seek to say that none of the public universities have any uniqueness that a combined admission test could harm. But a combined test, if it sets in, would hardly create any space for any of the universities to have any uniqueness in future. While the government could respect a few of the universities opting out of the system, the very thought of having all the public universities agree to a combined test is also reflective of such breaches.

Besides, repeated incidents of question paper leak in public examinations at higher secondary, secondary and junior levels have so far menaced the ministry. Given what has so far happened centring on the issue, it seems quite impossible for the ministry to conduct the combined admission test. The ministry or the commission might well entrust university teachers to set the questions, do the invigilation and evaluate the answer scripts. But such a proposition is also more likely to make a mess of the process. Questions coming from more than 40 universities would need to be moderated by a select group of teachers. If the moderation is done by a top-order university, most of the admission-seekers could be discriminated against. If the moderation is done by a university down the ranking ladder, most of the students in question could be given an undue advantage. A similar dichotomy could also apply to the evaluation of answer scripts.

The placement of students could be a problem if it is not judiciously attended to. Many students could wish to study a certain subject in a certain university just because the department there may have reputed teachers. With the placement falling in the hands of the combined admission test authority, the wish of the students might not be respected. Again certain students who are good at science subjects may be extremely bad at humanities subjects. There have been cases where students very good at mathematics and other science subjects have earned admission to engineering and technical universities and the very students have not been able even to earn a place on the waiting list in other mixed-discipline universities. A combined admission test would certainly mar the prospect of such students of studying in universities. If there are different requirements for admission to different universities from the same admission test, this could again be discriminatory against some or other students.

If a combined admission test is put in place, the universities will not then be able to choose which of the students they will allow admission. Not only the universities but also the departments should have a say about the students they will teach. Such a system of combined test, centrally managed, works fairly well for admission to public and private medical colleges as almost all the medical colleges have similar syllabuses and curriculums. But in general, or mixed-discipline, universities, the syllabus of a department varies depending on the university. While the department of English of a university has a full course on Shakespeare, in both bachelor and master’s classes, the department of English in some other universities can have fewer works of Shakespeare in the syllabus. While one university may have a full course on the middle-age Bangla literature in the Bangla department, some other universities may not have it. In the event of such dissimilarity, the departments should be allowed to decide the types of students, in terms of their interest in and passion for literature, that they will let in.

In 2014, the department of English in the University of Dhaka tried to have its say in the admission of students. The department that year introduced an elective English examination, having earlier been rejected twice by the dean’s committee, and it was made mandatory for all seeking to study the English literature. Only two students of a total of 1,364 candidates who took the elective English examination could score the minimum marks required in it. The efforts to find students with better qualification failed to work. It did not happen because of the department holding the test, but because the efforts proved way too much and may have gone overboard. But such a failure of the efforts in one instance, which was the first, does not give out any reasons for the departments, and the universities, not to have a say in the admission of students to the departments, or the universities.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2020 Feb. 21) Public university admission: The problem of combination. New Age 8


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