The announce-ment on January 23 that a uniform admission test will be held for all public universities starting next year had stirred a big debate. Even university teachers seemed divided over the issue—some supported it, while others opposed.
The education ministry had previously decided, in 2010, to introduce a new admission procedure for the country's public universities—the cluster system. Students were to take one test for a place in any of the general universities, another test for science and technology universities, and one more test for a place in any of the agriculture universities. Ten years after the decision was made, only the medical colleges at present have a uniform entrance test, and the previous cluster system remains unimplemented beyond that.
Will the new proposal similarly fall through? Members of the University Grants Commission (UGC) initially gave the impression that it would not, remaining adamant in their comments that this new system would surely be implemented and soon. Some top public universities such as Buet, Chittagong University, Dhaka University, Rajshahi University and Jahangirnagar University, however, had opted out of it.
Whether the UGC can convince the academic councils of these universities to reconsider, with a new cluster system that it came up with during a meeting yesterday, is difficult to predict. But one thing is for certain: people from both sides of the aisle have presented some excellent arguments that should not be ignored in any decision that is ultimately made.
Those who are in favour of some type of a uniform admission test system argue that it will best serve the interest of the students. Right now, students are buying university admission forms for Tk 400 to Tk 700 each. They are spending a considerable amount of money to travel from one university to another across great distances to sit for each of the tests. Students are also having to sit for separate tests for seats in different faculties and departments of the same university—with admission test dates of different universities coinciding at times, to complicate matters even more.
In a May 2013 study, the UGC found that an admission seeker has to spend an average of Tk 43,100 on coaching and other admission related expenditures. This is clearly absurd. Yet somehow this absurdity has become the norm; according to the same UGC study, 93 percent of admission seekers in the country take coaching classes to get admitted to higher education institutions.
Having one admission exam system will relieve students from the hassles of travelling across the country to sit for separate admission exams of different universities—it will save them time, energy and money. But some academics believe the costs that would arise from having a uniform admission exam still outweigh these benefits.
According to DU Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury, "public universities should be autonomous" and an important aspect of that autonomy is for universities to have the sole authority to appoint teachers and select which students to admit. A uniform admission test system could take away that authority from universities to an extent—leading to some loss of autonomy, which could instigate further losses down the line.
In fact, one BNP lawmaker had recently demanded in parliament that the government amend the University Ordinance 1973 to force four leading public universities to accept the uniform admission test. Such demands prove that the concerns surrounding the issue of autonomy are not completely baseless.
Professor Serajul Islam also mentioned that "there is no organisation that can manage" the huge process of a uniform admission test such as the one proposed. However, the UGC Chairman Professor Kazi Shahidullah had said before that the UGC will form a committee to conduct the exams. That could very well be a difficult and time-consuming process—as yesterday's proposed switch to a new cluster system indicates. However, the main apprehension that rises in regard to that, as Professor Tanzimuddin Khan of the Department of International Relations at DU has pointed out, is that if we look at the overall situation of governance in Bangladesh, there are some obvious reasons for concern.
For example, when we look at the PEC, JSC, SSC and HSC exams, we see that these exams are "marred by corruption and question leaks." What guarantee is there that the same will not happen to the proposed uniform admission exam, if it is implemented? Can we really take such a risk when the lives of so many young people are hanging in the balance?
This is where the differing sides do agree, that organising such an admission test would be a daunting task and there should be proper mechanisms in place to stop any irregularities. But because the tendency to politicise any and all institutions is widespread in our country, that brings with it its own sets of challenges. Can those challenges be overcome?
To reduce the load on aspiring students and their guardians, and to keep up with international norms—as we see foreign countries having uniform exams such as SAT, GRE, etc., even if they are different from what is being proposed—perhaps it is inevitable that some sort of a uniform admission test system has to be introduced for public universities in Bangladesh. And if not that, it could be necessary for the system that is now in use, which puts so much pressure on students, to be altered in some way. What way should that be? Well, this needs to be worked out by the experts and various public universities themselves. But given the present circumstances, being hasty in making any final decision may not be the right way to move forward. Therefore, it is most likely that the debate over public university admission tests will continue to heat up before the new cluster system proposed after yesterday's meeting comes into effect—if it indeed does.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal