The recently concluded Jawaharlal Nehru University entrance examinations have come under criticism, as students allege that exam papers were leaked and were circulating on Whatsapp and that the answer key of all subjects at all levels from BA to PhD had errors.

Vishnu Prasad, a PhD student at JNU came across this year's JNUEE question paper in a handwritten format in a couple of WhatsApp groups, right after the exam got over. This even as no student was allowed to carry paper into the exam centres, where even the stationary was provided by the centre.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Student Union (JNUSU) said that it sent a letter to the Vice Chancellor of the university, urging the administration to return to the previous paper based examination format. This is the first time the university has conducted its entrance exams using the computer based mode offered by the National Testing Agency (NTA) across 122 cities in the country.

The change in format has prompted protests from students and teachers, with several professors taking a petition to court.

The student body and faculty have been protesting the change for months, pointing out the very visible flaws that it would result in. The administration has refusen to take note.

“The manner in which certain changes and decisions have been taken in the university took most of us by surprise, and there were constant push backs against the administration for taking such arbitrary decisions regarding the future of the university and its students,” Arundhati, a masters graduate from the university, told The Citizen.

“I graduated from MA this year and was due to sit for an MPhil entrance for the university. Up until the last day of classes there was this tension and confusion on whether the decision to implement MCQ for entrances would be overturned or not. The selection of students for research degrees would be meted out on the basis of an exam that doesn’t incorporate testing the candidate beyond their superficial domain knowledge, and in a format that reduces the capability of a student through a formulaic practice and ‘last year paper’ based method of preparation is especially jarring for the humanities, where our scope especially in research lies beyond factual knowledge,” Arundhati added.

Students have been protesting since December 2018, when a press release announcing the change in the pattern of the JNUEE from that of an essay based format to that of a computer based multiple-choice questions (MCQs) was issued. There were a series of dubious decisions made by the administration like appointing a panel of “external experts” to draft the question paper and demanding the answer keys months before the exam. This marked a violation of JNU’s protocol to guard against leaks and compromises.

The credentials of the “external experts” remain unknown and their involvement further excluded the faculty from the admission process. Although, done under the pretext of making the entrance test accessible to applicants from remote areas and increasing transparency in the admission process, such moves on the part of the administration have raised questions on whether there is more to this decision than meets the eye. According to a following JNU press release there were “strict actions” taken against the faculty that refused to draft a question paper in protest and some even faced suspension. Students and faculty have alleged government interference in academic spaces, through means ranging from changing the coursework to restricting the freedom and mobility of those on campus.

Rushnae Kabir, a masters student in Modern History told The Citizen, “Your ability to retain simple facts is not as important at a post graduate level as how you analyse and critique things. That is, in some ways, the entire point of JNU. There is a lot of focus on getting us to develop our own arguments, engage critically, and write. Now instead of testing for students who can think critically, you’re just testing for students who can remember things. I think that might change the entire culture of JNU because JNU’s goal has been to encourage research and research requires other qualities than just a large memory.” Students say that the change in format restricts social sciences to simple yes or no answers, without an understanding of biases within historiographies and sources. In a scenario such as this it becomes impossible to answer in the MCQ method where, depending on different perspectives, all the given options could potentially be the answer to the question.

There is also concern for students in areas that do not have proper access to facilities for conducting the computerised test. Sudhanshu Sharma, a member of Democratic Student’s Federation and former joint secretary of the JNU Student’s Union said, “The new format of MCQ conducted on computer sets has excluded the aspirants from far flung areas who are not very technologically friendly. The language barrier will create a big hurdle for those who do not know english. Earlier aspiring students were free to write in vernacular languages also. It will surely effects the nature of students who were qualifying earlier on the basis of subjective explanation of the subject. Now it is more about mugging up the subject rather than critical analysis of the society.”

The concerns of the students and faculty were not unfounded as many JNU aspirants were disappointed with the JNUEE. Sawal Choudhary, a student who took the exam for Economics observed, “This year's paper had no maths or statistics question and even the economics questions were that of 12th standard level. As an MA in Economics requires high proficiency in quant economics, maths and statistics, this gives clear disadvantage to the batch of MA economics of JNU as other universities focus on these metrics in their entrance exam. And the batch that will be entering JNU now has not been tested in any of these. This will result in either students struggling to cope up with the course or degradation in the university’s standards. Both of which are terrible options for the best liberal arts university of the country. There is a clear agenda behind this move as past year JNU papers have focused heavily on quant metrics and good theoretical depth. Plus encouraging students to guess by removing negative marking in such a random GK paper clearly shows that the administration does not want qualified or deserving candidates to come in.”

A student of English literature from Hindu College said, “The exam was beyond our comprehension not because it had a greater difficulty level than our understanding of the subject, but because it was a farce, completely arbitrary and a joke played on our knowledge and hard work. All the options were so abstract that the answer could be any one or none of them. Some questions were also incorrect, like the one on stream of consciousness, where we had to choose the odd one out but all 4 books in the options had used that technique in equal measure. Now, the answer key released by NTA has a lot of discrepancies. Even some theoretical questions are incorrect and a lot of students are unsatisfied with the answers deemed as correct for the comprehension segment which constituted a major chunk of the paper.” She added, “We, the JNU aspirants from Hindu College are trying to look for ways to address our queries and ask for a re-examination. The NTA has also been called out by a lot of JEE aspirants for similar carelessness. We do not want the NTA to conduct the retest if there is any, or the upcoming DU exam.”

The change in format, however, is defended by a different narrative. Durgesh Kumar, the president of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad said, “We believe it is always better to have a mix of objective and descriptive entrance in Mphil/PhD. A system with stage 1 consisting of objective and descriptive portion with stage 2 consisting of viva will be more appropriate. The idea of having objective exam at Stage 1 is not new and some courses at School of Languages, The School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning etc have this system. The earlier system was flawed as it allowed the scope of ideological identification of candidate on the basis of their writing which may have led to prejudice or bias against the candidate depending on the ideological orientation of examiner. We believe that even this two stage system of marks calculation with stage 1 being objective and stage 2 being viva on the basis of submitted synopsis provides an opportunity to examiner to assess the candidate's writing skills but is better than the earlier system of solely subjective paper and Viva.”

Are we seeing a move back towards the age-old rote learning technique that plagues most of our educational system? Hope remains. Avijit Pathak, a professor of sociology at JNU writes, “Even at this moment of despair, I do not wish to disappoint these young aspirants. Some of them will eventually come to JNU and we are not yet dead. Till now, there has been no interference in the way we teach, or the assignments we devise for our students. Thank god, no attempt has been made till now to introduce the MCQ pattern in the end semester examination. And ‘objective’ questions are not yet asked for mid-term assignments. Hence, once these students come to JNU, we are there to make them unlearn the mythology of the MCQ.” He adds, “JNU is still a possibility. Before they finish it, you have to come and fight your battle — politico-ethical, philosophic and pedagogic.”