As lakhs of children, just out of their Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), and state board exams wait nervously for the entrance to Under Graduation courses through the Common University Entrance Tests (CUET) beginning May 21, questions arise about their utility.

What began as an exercise to regularise the entrance of children to just 47 universities has become a convenient tool for every other university. Over 240 Central and other universities are conducting their entrance through the CUET in 2023.

The CUET, introduced by the University Grants Commission (UGC) last year is widely perceived as a big blow to the CBSE and other state education boards. It is feared that the new system will totally negate the role of school education though now neither teachers nor school principals will openly admit this. Which is understandable.

Lest we forget, the trigger for introduction of CUET was the desperate slogan of ‘Marks Jihad’ raised by a political science teacher in the Kirorimal College of Delhi University two years ago as more than 300 students from Kerala had applied for admission to Delhi University (DU) with scores of 100 percent in various subjects in 2021.

This led to a situation where colleges were forced to take every student who had applied because they had all scored 100 per cent marks even though they did not have as many seats and teachers to tackle the rush.

After the statement of the learned professor from K. M. College, many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders alleged that the Kerala State Board had manipulated the marks of their State Boards which had created this problem, especially in DU.

But this hype for DU is no myth. The Education Ministry’s own ranking puts many colleges of DU including Hindu, St. Stephen’s, Miranda House, Shri Ram College of Commerce and Lady Shri Ram College in particular as the best colleges for Arts, Commerce and Humanities in the country.

The pressure to get into DU has always been an issue that different administrators have dealt with in different ways. If it is about the Kerala Board giving higher marks today, it was about Bihar not so long back. We have also been witness to the embarrassing spectacle of a Bihar Board topper Ruby Rai exposed by TV channels for which she was even jailed which was a bit too much, say child rights activists.

There was a time when the former principal of Delhi Public School R. K. Puram Dr. Shayama Chona complained to me that the entrance exams to IITs and Pre medical exams held much before the Boards led to a downgrading of the School exams.

But now the National Testing Agency (NTA) which has been set up to conduct the CUET exams says that now admissions to all subjects across the board will be through CUET which will be conducted in 13 languages even though these exams are conducted after the Board exams.They have also declared that these exams will be held twice in an year to give children more opportunities, whatever that means.

When the system was introduced many were convinced that admissions to DU was just an excuse to hit at the real targets-the minority institutions and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which had their own system of admissions for so many years which had been working perfectly well.

Sriram Oberoi, a retired teacher of DU and a former DUTA president was the first to bring out these fears through his posts on social media when CUET was introduced.

He had written, “UGC decision to make CUET mandatory for admission to UG courses will be a big blow to the CBSE (which has worked very well for many decades) and other State Education Boards. Their decision shows the high handedness of the New Education Policy (NEP) propagated by the present rulers. Such a centralised test conducted by NTA is against the basic spirit of Indian federalism. CBSE came into existence by a Parliament Act and State Educational Boards were also constituted by relevant Acts passed by state assemblies… The NTA has not been created by parliament. It was constituted by the present government simply through a notification.”

Like an Oracle he had predicted the scenario we are witnessing today with the market being flooded with help books to prepare for the CUET and coaching centres flourishing In every part of the country to guide the children, just out of school.

Allaying these fears the UGC Chairperson, Prof Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar had been telling the media ever since the system was introduced that competition to clear the CUET will not be tough like that for IITs where the competition ratio is 1:50 but for the undergraduate courses through CUET the chance of admissions it is 1:15.

He had also clarified that the entrance test will be based strictly on the level of subjects taught in NCERT books for Class XII and fears of the need for extra coaching classes are exaggerated.

Contrary to his grandiose clarifications, coaching institutes for training to clear the CUET have already sprung up all over like mushrooms and help books including model papers based only on one year are out in the market.

Talking about this phenomenon Chaitanya, an MBA from Kolkata, who is coaching students for MBA says, “I agree that coaching centres have opened up for preparing for CUET. This is a new system and we don’t know how this will pan out. But yes there was always a problem in admissions to Delhi University where about 70 to 80 per cent students from outside (Bihar etc) were getting in while students of Delhi were getting a raw deal.

“This will now introduce a level playing field for everyone. I remember the DU had also introduced an entrance test for admission to English (Hons) a few years ago but this had to be scrapped under political pressure.”

But at the same time, he clarified that it would be wrong to say that Board exam results will not be relevant at all.When a student is selected for an MBA course his/her Xth and XIIth mark sheets will have a lot of weightage, he pointed out.

Yet another fall-out of this was revealed by Dr. Mala Gupta, Principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road. Talking to this writer she said, “Although on a personal note I welcome CUET as it provides children another option to show their talent but it is also a fact that 50 percent of our children are opting to study in foreign universities.”

This is because, as of today, the CBSE marks are valid for direct entry either to some private colleges (who have already initiated their admission process) or to foreign universities. The others are pulling their hair as they struggle through help books, guides and coaching institutes.

Dr. Mala Gupta admits the increasing menace of coaching institutes in the country. She said,"I was surprised to know that some institutes were preparing children to get entrance to schools. When I checked with parents they said that these institutes were helping in filling their online forms, creating emails for the illiterate and not so tech savvy parents who wanted their children in the best public schools."

She also revealed that despite what the UGC might say students were nervous to sit for the CUET entrance. "I know of an instance where I was an invigilator for NEET held under CUET. One of the children there refused to handover his paper because he had calculated that he would not get selected through CUET."

This is the situation in some other prestigious schools that I know of where children who have been brilliant in their school have given up after taking the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) exam. They are preparing to drop one year to be better prepared next year.More than likely many of them would jump at the first opportunity to study in foreign university at the first opportunity.

Surprisingly, opinion among school teachers on totally ignoring the board results is also sharply divided. Even though most took this as a personal insult to their hard work and talent, a former teacher from a prestigious school in Aligarh who spent 40 years in the profession SAID, “I don’t trust the school results at all. Let me inform you that Sandeep Singh, grandson of former C M Kalyan Singh had failed in all subjects except Hindi in my school and we were under pressure to promote him but we refused. Later we were shocked to know that he finally got into one of the prestigious schools in some other state and today he is a Minister in UP.

“But I am sure he cannot look me in the eye if we ever come face to face. So we welcome this step because it would at least introduce some uniformity and standards in schools across the country.”

Incidentally, Singh was sworn in as Minister for Basic Education in Uttar Pradesh. This is a promotion as in the earlier ministry he was minister for Primary Education, Finance and medical education.

Obviously, there are many others who are more willing to give the new system a chance. Talking about CUET, Vijay Jolly, senior BJP leader and former DUSU President says, “Without getting into details, my first instinctive reaction is that if a new system is being introduced where admissions will be given on merit list prepared nationally, why not? Let’s welcome it.

“As former president of Delhi University Students Union and having travelled across 71 countries, I feel we must give the new system a chance because there were many fallacies in the earlier system and if this does not work, we can change it.”

Ironically, the new system of coaching and help books has started eroding the faith of the teachers in their own teaching abilities. One English teacher who has a rock solid reputation as a school teacher in her town was recently coaching children preparing for CUET entrance.

Asked about this she said,"In places like UP they do need coaching because their general standard of English is WONDERFUL indeed… A lot of blame goes to language teachers also-they only tell right and wrong, do not explain why."

All the planning for preparing the youth for a bright future is OK. My only problem is that they have already turned every city into Kota.