Exam Republic—Analysing the Potential Fallouts of the Common University Entrance Test

In July 2022, India got a brand new “high-stakes” exam for our youth to fight out their rivals in the merciless arena of Indian higher-education—the Common University Entrance Test (CUET). Somewhat along the lines of its Chinese counterpart, or the Gaokao, the CUET (UG) was conducted across the nation, in a computer-based format, for admission to various undergraduate courses across a total of 90 universities. These included 44 central universities, 12 state universities, 13 deemed universities, and 21 private universities (MHRD 2022). Similarly, the CUET (PG), or the same exam for entrance into post-graduate programmes, saw participation of around 55 central, state, deemed, and private universities as per the latest data available on the National Testing Agency’s (NTA) website (NTA 2022b).  With 14.9 lakh students registering for it, CUET(UG) became the second largest entrance exam in the country, with NEET (UG) retaining the top spot with 18 lakh registrations (Gohain 2022). Between 15th July and 30th August 2022, the CUET (UG) exam was conducted in six phases, 13 languages, across 259 Indian cities, and 10 cities outside of India (NTA 2022a).

A Well-intentioned Step

On the face of it, the introduction of the CUET is a well-intentioned step aimed at reducing and streamlining the multiplicity of entrance procedures across various institutions of higher education in the country. As the Department of Higher Education website boldly proclaims in its introductory page,

The Common University Entrance Test (CUET) will provide a common platform and equal opportunities to candidates across the country, especially those from rural and other remote areas and help establish better connect with the Universities. A single examination will enable the Candidates to cover a wide outreach and be part of the admissions process to various Central Universities. (MHRD 2022) (Italics mine)

The presence of a single-window system will definitely make the process simpler, as the sheer number of applications that an average student has to make in order to be considered for a seat in a desired institution is itself a roadblock in their educational journey. Moreover, different state boards use different standards of marking in their board examinations, which hitherto made the process of selection based on cut-off marks, a relatively less transparent and problematic.

The first and foremost reason [for introducing CUET] was disparity amongst the boards. As per data, we found that some boards are very lenient and some are very strict… But they are not wrong. They have their own policies and their own systems for assessing their students, their evaluation parameters are very different. But when we are admitting students across our country, without doing any normalisation or something to them then some students who come from a very strict board are not getting a fair chance in the whole system. (Express News Service 2022) (Italics mine)

The CUET is expected to give a “fair shot” to candidates across regions, boards, and mediums at getting admitted to coveted colleges and programmes. The CUET, therefore, gets full marks in terms of the intent of levelling the playing field for candidates and cutting down admission-related procedural red tape. Yet, there are aspects related to its introduction that require a deeper discussion.

Impact on School Education

Take, for instance, the implication for school education. The craze for Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination , National Eligibility cum Entrance Test , and other similar entrance exams for professional courses is already infamous for making students completely shift their focus, especially from 9th standard onwards, from school-level education to test preparation. The space for “education” and schools has, slowly but surely, been encroached upon by exams and test preparation or coaching institutes. There is every reason to suspect that the introduction of CUET will further accelerate this process. Known as the “wash-back” effect (Hamp-Lyons 1998; Allen 2016), this has serious negative implications for the quality of learning and critical immersion as well. For instance, Punjabi (2020), in her study on the pedagogical approaches undertaken by coaching institutions and their implications for school education, observes that

The coaching pedagogy seems to be appealing to families disenchanted with didactic and teacher-centred approaches in school classrooms… shadow education (or coaching/test-preparation) may erode students’ creativity and encourage them to rely on teaching that focusses on exercises and drills on how to provide correct response within a fixed time. A great deal of time is invested by students in doing their coaching assignments which only focus on problems for practice and question papers of previous years. This kind of learning tends to increase students’ dependence on passive learning as the coaching pedagogy is biased towards testable content and instrumental solely. (pp 35) (explanation in parenthesis, mine)

Excessive focus on “high-stakes” exam preparation has also led to the spawning of the illegal, yet popular, “dummy school” culture in several cities of India, whereby students enrol in a “dummy” school just for the sake of completing the formalities laid down by their respective education boards (Shandilya 2019). This allows them to spend most of their “precious” time at coaching institutes that focus on training the students for a “more important task” (Yagnik 2019). In a country with a huge population, where resources are already hard to come by, and competition reigns supreme at almost every step of life, it is not surprising for guardians or students to prefer spending their resources on preparation that can ensure success (whether real or apparent) in “high-stakes” exams rather than a redundant school system that can offer nothing more than rote learning and a certificate with a limited use value. The introduction, therefore, of any new “high-stakes,” pan-India examination, which has a strong bearing on students’ future employment and higher-education related prospects, has the potential to undermine whatever little seriousness the school system currently enjoys (Ghosh 2022).

Policy Commitment on Limiting “Coaching Culture”

Big coaching brands like the Forum For Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination and Career Launcher have already launched CUET-focused programmes and test series (FIIT JEE Limited, Are you aspiring for CUET? Career Launcher, Crack CUET with Career Launcher). It would not be out of place to assume that the test prep industry is all set to enjoy the externalities so created by CUET’s introduction (Agrawal 2022). This is something that goes completely against one of the stated objectives of the newly released National Education Policy (NEP) and previous policy documents like the Report of the Committee to Examine the JEE System (Misra et al 2015), which implore the government to ensure that the need and culture of taking coaching for entrance exams are dismantled. Some of the policy goals that the NEP, 2020 lays out with reference to the test prep culture and industry include “first, the principles on which this policy is based are… regular formative assessment for learning rather than the summative assessment that encourages today’s ‘coaching culture’” (MHRD 2020, p 5). Second, the current nature of secondary school exams, including Board exams and entrance exams - and the resulting coaching culture of today - are doing much harm, especially at the secondary school level, replacing valuable time for true learning with excessive exam coaching and preparation” (MHRD 2020, p 16). “Third, the existing system of entrance examinations shall be reformed to eliminate the need for undertaking coaching for ‘cracking’ the examination” (MHRD 2020, p 16) (emphasis added).

In all fairness, though, the test prep industry as well as the aspirants only respond to the system as it is designed. If the system becomes standardised and exam-centric so will the aspirants, leading to a boost for test prep service demand (UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific 2018). The school, especially secondary-level schooling, on the contrary, is set to become a less-influential stakeholder in such a scheme of things.

Ethical Considerations

This situation also raises an important ethical consideration—that of equity. Entrance exams are looked upon as a “fair” way of redistributing education/job-related scarce resources. Yet, the resources required to compete in the exams are themselves not equitably available to aspirants. Can a student from a non-descript village—who has, for all their life, studied in an ill-managed public school with absent teachers—ever be able to compete in a “fair” entrance exam with city-dwelling students with access to the best schools? Even if the effects of schooling were, hypothetically, assumed to be negligible, how is a resource-scarce family going to equip their child for a “fair” entrance exam in which others will be appearing with months or even years of preparation at coaching institutes? We have to ask the question that whether the introduction of more and more “high-stakes” standardised exams is shifting the goalpost of success in life in favour of those with the highest ability to pay (Kishore and Sarin 2022). It is not as if the situation is rosy right now. Even in the present scenario without the CUET, the inequalities fostered by the system clearly put poorer students at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their economically better-off counterparts. While the poorer students have to make do with a creaking public schooling system, the economically better-off ones get access to better private schools, syllabus, support system, etc. (Hill et al 2011). Yet, it would be imprudent to assume that in such a case, the solution to the problem lies in introducing massive, all- India entrance exams that shift the locus of inequality from schools to the coaching industry and might end-up exacerbating the problem.

Policymakers can be, and must be, held accountable for improving the schooling system. But they cannot be blamed for the failure of coaching institutes to train the students well enough to crack an exam. One must ask, therefore, to what extent will such an approach ultimately lead to the shifting of the state’s responsibility, from ensuring a well-functioning public schooling system to that of ensuring a well-functioning test prep market.

Students’ Life and Health

This brings us to our next crucial concern—that of CUET’s potential influence on students’ life and health. Even for students from economically better-off families, who have access to the resources to prepare for the plethora of exams crucial for entrance to higher education institutions, the introduction of yet another “high-stakes” exam is further going to take away from them whatever little life-space they have left to enjoy their childhood and school life. Rising stress and mental health issues among aspirants are already well-documented issues (Subbarao 2008; Chauhan 2021). For instance, it has been reported that between the years 2015 and 2019, India witnessed close to 48,537 student suicides, up from 38,220 in the 2010–14 period, with leading psychiatrists pointing out that the “fear of failure” plays a decisive role in this matter (Tuli 2021).

One could argue that it would still be better than preparing for more than one exam, which was the case till now; this would be a fair argument. It must be pointed out that the CUET is desirable to the extent that it reduces the number of exams and redundant application procedures, something to which we have already alluded. Given its importance in deciding future higher education prospects, however, the CUET will be far more “high stakes” in nature as compared to any other exam focused on a single university or college. This implies that a single exam is all set to become the deciding factor for a lot of opportunities, all bunched together. This is a recipe for increased stress on students, reduced focus on school education, and, possibly, increased inequity through access to specially tailored coaching programmes available in the market.

Unique Talent and the Threat of the Entrance “Sieve”

Another unique issue that the introduction of the CUET raises is that of accounting for the diversity of the talent basket. Not all students excel at cracking standardised exams. Some are brilliant debaters, avid writers, poets, singers, dancers, etc. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence (TMI) posits that homogenous, unitary conceptions of intelligence and learning with excessive focus on verbal and quantitative capacities are highly problematic. It outlines eight kinds of “intelligences” divided into three broad groups: object-related intelligence (mathematics- and logic-focused); object-free intelligence (music- and language-focused); and personal intelligence (psychological perception- focused). Individuals, according to TMI, have all eight kinds of intelligences, with a different mix dominant in each person (Barrington 2004). Standardised examinations, therefore, tend to overlook the diversity of ways in which children may express their talents. Moreover, participation in extra-curricular activities (ECA) is also well-documented to boost academic performance as well as overall well-being of students (Sauerwein et al. 2016). ECA is known, inter alia, to encourage peer interaction, cooperative behaviour among students, and provide opportunities for building highly complex skill sets (Holloway 2002).

Apart from the standard route of the sports quota/and extra-curricular quota or ECA, which itself might not be universally applicable in all institutions, how is it that an institution can ensure that they value such talents in their admission pool if they are forced to admit students through the CUET?

Once CUET is established as the primary route for admissions to graduate programmes across the country, it is possible that it will have massive social ramifications for school life of students as we know it. An already exam-obsessed society is being given further incentive to forget everything else about learning and education and focus on cracking more and more high-stakes entrances for progress. In the absence of a well-functioning public schooling system across the country, such a scenario is bound to incentivise parents to seek out more exam-centric resources and shift focus away from anything else that might serve enrichment-related purposes.


In the light of the concerns raised above, it is imperative to consider possible innovative ways of reducing the negative externalities that might get generated due to CUET’s introduction. This might include, inter alia,  “one,” giving some, even though reduced, weightage to board exam marks and a space for considering unique talents in the admission process for undergraduate programmes; for example, 80% (CUET weight) + 10% (boards marks weight) + 10% (college-specific weight) formula. “Two,” Developing high-quality study modules for CUET preparation to be introduced freely and mandatorily at the school (post-standard 10th) level across the country.

This will help guard against a couple of issues: students will be forced to pay at least some attention to what is being taught, as board results will not become completely redundant. This might help guard against a further push to test prep culture at the school level. Also, if an applicant can display a special skill set, the college/university should have some decision-making space to give it consideration. Floating high-quality prep modules to be introduced at the school level will ensure a minimum of resource-related equity. Relatively worse-off students will, through such a provisioning, get access to the minimum required resources to prepare for the exam.

However, if fairness and access-related equity are the end goals, none of this can account for the disparity that is generated through a weak public schooling system present in the country. Only a strong public schooling system can ensure that students from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds get a level playing field for competition at any level. That is something which has been more than evident, and wanting, since a very long time. While we must laud a new initiative aimed at simplification and universalisation of access, we must not allow the state to get away with an obfuscation of basic issues that still remain unaddressed.

The author is grateful to the anonymous reviewer whose feedback was highly valuable in allowing him to produce a richer version of the article.

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