Exam impersonation pays high dividends in modern India. With cheating in exams, admissions and interviews rather common, the art of jugaad continues to evolve. In Bihar, blatant cheating, with relatives climbing school walls, led to nearly 600 students being expelled. Bihar’s education minister found it virtually impossible to conduct fair examinations without the cooperation of parents while others call for the system to be changed to an open book exam.
Innovation is seen at play when it comes to manipulating the system, with methods like bogus enlistment of students and multiple counting being quite popular. In Maharashtra, 1.4 lakh students across 350 schools were found to be bogus students in a single district (Nanded) alone. The nursery admission scam in Delhi is particularly distressing as the rich deny the kids from EWS sections of the society through nefarious means. Fake documents and identities seem commonplace.

Madhya Pradesh’s Professional Examination Board’s recent scandal (Vyapam), exposing the collusion of undeserving candidates with middlemen, politicians and MPPEB officials, is another iterative example. Impersonation, Copying, Record Manipulation, answer key leakage – these parameters need to be addressed for Indian workforce to be skilled and employed.

Reforming Admissions

The process of admission to an educational institution should be one that ensures access, equity, quality and inclusion where admissions are objectively determined, with transparent procedures, instead of well-meaning intentions and ad hoc decisions. This is not a complex problem. As recommended by the UGC’s 2009 Action plan, higher education institutions must be encouraged to utilise notice-boards, print media, electronic media and social networks to declare their admission procedures, with a properly publicised & published academic calendar which highlight the number of seats in all courses (including 5 Year Programmes, M.Phil etc), required qualifications and important dates for admission and other relevant details. Active communication to students from low income families about the availability of tuition fee waiver, scholarships and loans would increase the efficiency of benefit facilities.

Admissions test ought to be more than just quizzing programmes. Answer sheets could be assigned confidential codes before being passed on for evaluation/assessment while biometric means are utilised to deter impersonation. Candidates for undergraduate courses who have been previously assessed by recognised national or regional agencies can be granted an exemption from the written examination. Group discussions, interviews, psychometric tests and other competency based examinations might be included to determine fit, while assessments ideally ought to be confidential and know to authorities only on a “need to know” basis, until results are announced.

As highlighted by the National Focus Group on Examination Reforms (2005), short answer type questions (that encourage cramming) should be replaced by a well-designed judicious mix of multiple choice questions (MCQs) and open ended questions, testing the student’s capacity for reflection and critical expression.
Other nudges could help. The admission system can be restructured to limit the number of colleges that a candidate can apply to (10 in Delhi University) and scores of the best of three subjects be considered for application and computation of cut off marks. Candidates could be allowed to change their college just once during admissions, instead of a musical chairs game. The frequent closing and reopening admissions to a particular course is an open invitation for fraud.

Restructuring Examinations

Higher education in India is fundamentally examination centred. Students undertake examinations at the end of each semester or academic year, with a focus on achieving relevant marks, percentages or divisions forcing them to mug up superficial facts, without an element of joy for learning or a sense of discovery. Skilled mostly in cramming up, such graduates are regularly subjected to fresh examinations and training before acceptance for jobs in the public and private sector.

While ideally, those who teach should evaluate, such an approach in India, with its institutional apathy, would be marked for failure. Instead, a combination of internal evaluation and external assessment could be prudent. All certificate, diploma, undergraduate or postgraduate courses offered by universities, colleges or institutes may be structured for specified components for internal evaluation (essays, tutorials, seminars, dissertation), with a full time frame for completion and continuous evaluation by faculty and be subject to regular audits by the Department, School or Centre committee to institute fair play and accountability. End of semester evaluations can be external in nature, as per syllabus schedule. The integration of continuous and end-of-semester evaluation should be implemented by the concerned Department or Faculty, deciding upon the relative weightage of each component. Such weightages could be flexible and could vary across institutions.

Refining Teachers

Teacher quality lags significantly. University involvement in teacher education has been confined to the secondary level school as part of the B.Ed degree programme excluding preschool and primary level education. Appointments to key positions are rarely based on merit, while promotions are based on service length, with a common salary structure linked to civil servants – all decided by an Orwellian sounding Pay Commission. While the UGC over emphasises academic qualifications, university teachers register for sub-standard Ph.D research in their quest for promotion. Our academics exist in “babudom” – highly qualified and yet highly unproductive.

Quality of teacher education within higher education needs to be enhanced (Kothari Commission) with academic staff colleges being encouraged to develop full-fledged orientation programmes for newly recruited teachers. Meritocracy should be instituted, with clear links between academic productivity, salaries and tenure. Quantum of research funding and the policy framework for research grants – both need to change significantly. We need better incentives for research and publications amongst faculty members, with the current system of faculty recruitment and appraisal clearly failing to appropriately measure research contributions and quality.

Reconstituting Institutions

India’s universities exist in a state of ambivalence. While the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) scheme (2013) sought decentralisation, implementation has lagged significantly. Even now, the University Grants Commission (UGC) oversees a few hundred universities and thousands of colleges, stifling openness and creativity. Higher education is seemingly more democratic in China.

We need a radical and fundamental reorganization of the entire University structure. An upper bound on university size (including affiliated colleges) is a good idea. Accountability has to be enforced through sanity mechanisms and auditing practices. University governance should be an academic’s domain, with complete autonomy and without loss of financial support. HRD and UGC need to disassociate themselves from the selection of IIT/IIM directors and vice-chancellorships, focusing instead on policy design.

Preventing outright fraud amidst institutional rot is not easy. Without university empowerment and better accountability, our students, particularly those from poor backgrounds, will find it difficult to excel. Such maleficence needs extirpation.