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In the 21st century, the importance of competitive exams has increased tremendously relative to school and college exams. This is due to several Government resolutions and Supreme Court judgements. However, this crucial change in the rules of the game has been registered by only a fraction of the students and parent community. The rest do not seem to be aware of the changes yet. We can broadly categorise competitive exams into 2 types:

  • Career-oriented Competitive exams called as Entrance exams after Std.12 for admission to UG professional courses. Also, there are Entrance exams after graduation for admission to PG professional courses too.
  • Academically-oriented Competitive exams mostly from Std.4 to 12 like KVPY, Olympiads, NTSE, Scholarship exams, NSTSE, NSO etc.

NB: The key difference is that Entrance exams success give you admission to a higher education college or University. But academically-oriented competitive exams do not give you admission to any college as such. They have to be written to get exposure and encouragement via scholarships, medals and certificates.

A landmark Supreme Court ruling in October 2005 and another reinforcing judgement in 2015 set the stage for Entrance exams to replace Board exams as the principal criterion for admissions to professional courses like Engineering, Medicine, Pharmacy, Law, Architecture, Design etc in India. Till 2004, admission to almost all professional courses in India was on the basis of XII Board exam marks. But the 2005 Supreme Court ruling changed all that and reduced the weightage to XII Boards to zero and made Entrance exams all important for admissions. The XII Boards marks were merely being used as an eligibility criterion only. For example, a student aspiring for Engineering must clear an Entrance exam like JEE or CET to get into an Engineering college but must score a minimum aggregate of 75% in XII Boards exam to be eligible. So, scores of 76% and 95% are equivalent in XII Boards as it clears the eligibility and admission is granted only on the basis of Ranks in Entrance exam.

The clear reasoning of the Supreme Court in delivering this landmark judgement was that India has 27 different Boards and all of them have different syllabus, exam pattern and methods of paper corrections. So, it is impossible to normalise marks across the different Boards in the nation and hence the Supreme Court ruled that admission to professional courses must be on the basis of a Common Entrance exam and not on the basis of Board exams. This landmark Supreme Court judgement triggered a wave of transformations in the higher education field in India which shall be highlighted in this article.

Before we enumerate the transformations that took place due to the new dominance of Entrance exams, we must fundamentally understand the key difference between Board exams and Entrance exams. Board exams questions are generally based on the KNOWN CONCEPTS – KNOWN QUESTIONS paradigm whereas Entrance exams questions are based on KNOWN CONCEPTS – UNKNOWN QUESTIONS paradigm. So, a student preparing for Entrance exams must be able to solve unfamiliar questions in the heat of the exam by applying right concepts intelligently. The following changes therefore have been observed with respect to different stake-holders due to the advent of Entrance exams :

  • Firstly, from a student’s point of view, their focus over the years shifted sharply from Board exams preparation to Entrance exams preparation. Prior to 2005, the Board exams of Std.12 were extremely important and there was a social prestige attached to XII Boards performances. No longer so post 2005. This considerably reduced the importance of junior colleges as junior colleges only focussed on Board exams and kept out of the Entrance exams game.
  • Since Entrance exams are highly competitive with 1 out of 50 students bagging an A-grade college seat in most exams, acquiring a sharp competitive edge became a priority for bright and motivated students. So, a new coaching culture to prepare students from Std.8 onwards commenced majorly in coaching hubs like Kota, Hyderabad, Indore etc and metropolitans like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore etc. The main objective of starting coaching from Std.8 onwards was to reduce the stress that students usually encounter in Std.11-12 during Entrance exam studies like in JEE and NEET.
  • The increased focus of students on Entrance exams also meant that students started focussing more on understanding concepts deeply and learning to apply them. This is because Entrance exams ask far more difficult questions than Board exams. So rote learning approach does not work for Entrance exams. Thus, students conceptual and problems solving ability has significantly improved on an average over the years as compared to the pre-2005 generation.
  • A new breed of coaching classes and tuitions sprang up across India to coach students for these new-age Entrance exams. Prior to 2005, there used to be mostly coaching classes or tuitions for school, college and Board exams only. This changed rapidly and in the past 15 years a new coaching eco-system flourished across India with some large-sized ones expanding to 30+ centres across India with thousands of students enrolled every year. The coaching eco-system also comprised of hostels, book sellers, digital service providers, logistics support services, food & beverages providers etc.
  • The fact that Entrance exams became a point of inflection for students in their careers implied that students accorded greater priority of their time to Entrance exam studies and skipped or reduced junior college attendance. So, to create more time to study for Entrance exams, coaching institutes started having informal tie-ups with junior colleges to excuse students from compulsory attendance in junior colleges. Thus, an Attendance Tie-up culture between junior colleges and coaching classes became the new normal which benefitted all stake-holders including students. The Govt. authorities turned a blind eye to this phenomenon knowing fully well that the formal education system was not equipped to coach students for Entrance exams and refrained from taking any action against such Attendance Tie-ups.
  • Since the RTI Act of 2005 became a law, it became the need of the hour that Entrance exams had to have an exam pattern which was machine-gradable. Hence, multiple-choice questions based exam pattern with negative marking became the norm. Since 2018 onwards, these Entrance exams are shifting rapidly to online mode of administration too.
  • The Entrance exams regime also created a new class of professionals who started teaching in coaching institutes for Entrance exams. Though many of these Faculties are freelancers and work on part-time basis, a good number of them left lucrative jobs in manufacturing or services industry to work Full-time in these coaching institutes. These professionals demanded high salaries from coaching institutes thereby increasing tuition fees manifold. The fees structures of coaching institutes training students for Entrance exams rose to a few lacs for 2-years courses as compared to a few thousands for erstwhile XII Boards coaching classes.
  • Another impact of Entrance exams was that the migration of students became pronounced especially to select cities and towns like Kota, Hyderabad, Delhi, Pune, Indore etc which emerged as coaching hubs of the nation. A direct consequence of this was students generally became more ambitious and bagged admissions to National – level colleges like the IITs, IISERs, BITS, NITs, AIIMS, JIPMER, NID, NLS etc rather than the local colleges to which they would otherwise have been relegated. So, post-2005, we witness greater degree of awareness amongst students and parents about top National level colleges and Entrance exams due to which the student profiles in elite institutions of higher education has greater geographical diversity across the nation than in pre-2005 times when students from metropolitan cities only would dominate the selections.
  • The advent of Entrance exams however ushered in a polarisation effect too wherein a certain class of aware students (about 10% or so) perform very well and the rest 90% perform poorly. This is evident from the range of marks that students across the nation get in these Entrance exams. Students who are aware and study for these Entrance exams from reputed coaching institutes or do self-study for long-term score very well. However, the unaware students who rely on Crash courses or study for short-term perform miserably. This disparity is due to lack of proper initiatives by Govt or NGOs or the formal education system to promote right awareness of Entrance exams amongst students and parents.
  • The fact that Entrance exams have cut-throat competition and challenging level of difficulty implies that stress and anxiety levels in students and parents has increased manifold. This is amplified by the fact that Govt changes the rules of Entrance exams almost every year often at whim and short notice. The over-ambitious nature of some parents induces an additional order of anxiety amongst teenage students. Therefore, students and parents experience heightened stress levels when students prepare for Entrance exams. So, counselling of students has become as important as teaching them well. Also, Yoga, Pranayama and meditation has become mainstream amongst many students to alleviate stress levels.
  • From the parents’ point of view, the Entrance exams are a new tangle which they never had to face when they were students and hence parents exhibit a spectrum of behaviour ranging from the casual, unaware and lackadaisical category to the hyper-feverish, over-ambitious and super-aware category. A middle path is recommended for parents wherein on one hand they understand that Entrance exams must be given priority over college and Board exams, monitor the student’s progress from time to time, treat the student as a friend and encourage him to work hard and on another hand, they must be careful not to get hyper-competitive, obsessed and hyper-feverish. Comparing the student with his peers repeatedly is not good either. Playing a friendly and supportive yet non-interfering role is key to ensure that the student feels secure and happy while preparing for these Entrance exams.
  • For every professional course, a host of Entrance exams at National-level, State-level or for private colleges level emerged. This has created a number of hassles for students as they need to fill multiple forms and these exams have different syllabus and exam pattern. In order to streamline the Entrance exams regime, the Union Govt of India has proposed to implement the ONE NATION – ONE EXAM policy from 2022. This is recommended in the New Education Policy (NEP) too. In Medical Entrance scenario, this policy is already implemented since 2017 and NEET is the single National Entrance exam for all Medical colleges. So, we can have a scenario by 2022 wherein JEE MAINS shall emerge as the single National Entrance exam for all Engineering colleges, CLAT for Law colleges, NATA for Architecture colleges, CMAT for Management colleges and so on and so forth.

These Single National Entrance exam shall be conducted multiple times in a year in Online mode and shall be multiple-choice questions based. Students may give the exam more than once in a year and the best score shall be taken as their final score. This system shall reduce stress on students considerably. This is a tried and tested system in US for the past 3 decades.

Also, the ONE NATION – ONE EXAM policy will create a standardised syllabus and uniform exam pattern for all students in the nation to focus on and eliminate a number of discrepancies which otherwise are prevalent in exam administration like syllabus and pattern mismatches and multiple admissions counselling procedures.

As we can see, the advent of Entrance exams in the 21st century has shifted the tectonic plates of Education system in India tremendously. The sooner the entire student and parent community embraces this crucial change and adapts to the new normal, it will lead to improved overall academic performances of students across India. Then our nation can emerge as a global leader in producing highly skilled technocrats and professionals especially in the STEM domain. This is key to India’s quest to become a super-power and a Vishwa Guru.

Durgesh C. Mangeshkar

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