Jawaharlal Nehru University’s teachers fear they are being elbowed out of the admission process. The institution’s entrance examination system is undergoing massive reform and many teachers are uneasy about it.

Over the past week, at least three centres from the Schools of Social Sciences and Languages have written to the director, admissions, Deepak Gaur, outlining their concerns about the computer-based entrance exams the university plans to hold from this year. Of particular concern is the university’s demand that the centres send across the answer keys even before the exams are held, and the possibility that academics from outside the university will be involved in setting the question papers.

In May, a 12-member committee had recommended that Jawaharlal Nehru University switch to computer-based admission tests from pen-and-paper ones. It also recommended that all disciplines replace “subjective-type” questions that require complete sentences or paragraphs as answers, with multiple-choice questions. The reform was to be introduced in a phased manner and completed in time for the December 2019 entrance test.

While some faculty members have previously expressed their apprehensions about the proposed changes, subsequent faculty meetings and the minutes of the July 13 meeting of the Academic Council, the university’s highest statutory body on academic affairs, has brought out more disquieting details. First, the university intends to implement changes for all centres in one go, from the forthcoming entrance exams in December. Further, teachers have learnt from the Academic Council’s minutes that the body has resolved to involve “experts from across the country” – or teachers from outside Jawaharlal Nehru University – to set questions for the entrance examination. The 12-member committee had not suggested this.

Finally, guidelines issued by the administration on September 19 on framing of entrance exam question papers instructed the centres to submit both their question papers and the answer keys by October 8. This was described as a “short and intimidatory deadline” by one centre housed in the School of Social Sciences. Teachers argued that these changes are being introduced hastily, allegedly without adequate consultation or safeguards and will compromise security. They said that the changes will also keep teachers in the dark about the admission of students they will eventually teach. But since the university administration has issued dozens of show cause notices threatening disciplinary action against teachers, and there are several ongoing court cases related to other policy decisions, practically no body agreed to be identified – not even by their centres – for this report.

‘Outside experts’

Much about the new entrance examination system is unclear. The dissent notes the three Centres sent to Gaur raise questions about the proposed multiple-choice format, negative marking and question module. But the main one concerns the “outside experts”.

Other than a brief mention in the minutes of the July 13 Academic Council meeting, the possibility of outsiders being involved in paper-setting does not appear in any official document. A member of the council also said he did not recall this aspect being discussed at the July 13 meeting at all. “We discussed two critical issues – the test being computer-based and the MCQ [multiple-choice questions] format – and we moved on from there.”

Nivedita Menon, from the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, said the discrepancy between what members said was discussed at the council meeting and its recorded minutes is “characteristic of this administration that consistently does not even record dissent to the concocted minutes”. Menon added that since this has now been recorded as a decision passed in the Academic Council, the JNU administration was free to have every question set by outside experts.

Despite its absence from subsequent notices and guidelines, teachers said the matter of outside experts setting question papers was discussed at a faculty meeting on September 20, and one dissent note even suggested that the administration threatened to have all questions set by outsiders if the Centres did not meet the October 8 deadline to submit question papers and answer keys.

While Pondicherry University’s entrance tests are set by outsiders, the names for paper-setters are suggested by its own faculty who also vet the question papers for quality. Sometimes the process is too delayed to be effective, but the mechanism exists.

This does not appear to be the case in Jawaharlal Nehru University. As a result, one mystified research centre-chairperson wrote to Gaur asking: “How are these experts to be identified?” Another pointed out that while experts are invited to evaluate research work, entrance test and exam papers have always been set internally. “Our programmes are interdisciplinary, and unique in specific ways, thus no one from outside the university can be said to be in a position to judge the students that are going to enrol,” said the note. Plus, even in the case of research, experts are empanelled “after deliberation in a faculty meeting”.

Involving outsiders questions the competence of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s own faculty and “by doing this the vice chancellor wants to control the nature of the entrance exam itself,” alleged a teacher from the School of Social Sciences. “The selection committees for recruitment included people asking questions on gaushalas [cow shelters]. We do not know what type of questions will be set and no one has been told anything about checking the questions.”

But the university administration has denied that any outsiders are involved in the admissions process. A statement issued on September 24 by the acting registrar to counter the students’ union’s allegations of an “admissions scam” said: “Officially, the question paper setting responsibilities have been assigned to the respective schools and centres, which have constituted committees to undertake this exercise. Thus, the allegation that the JNU administration is trampling over the JNU faculty has no basis.”

Answer keys and security

The instructions on answer keys, however, are clear: They must be submitted with the question papers, before the exams are held.

The entrance exams to Jawaharlal Nehru University are held across the country. Till last year, individual centres remained custodians of the answer keys till the exams were completed. The administration now proposes to make the answer keys available in every examination hall. The candidate “should get to know his or her score so that he or she is well informed of their performance” right after the exam, said the administration’s statement. The “sealed cover” of the answer key will be opened in front of the question paper coordinator – who will be from the centre – before the exam.

Teachers argued this could seriously compromise security. “The requirement that answer keys have to be given in advance of the exam...is going to lead to great security risks and allegations of partiality,” said one note of dissent to the new format.

This is also a “brand new” argument, not present in any earlier circular, said Menon. She added that it was therefore not a valid reason to demand the answer key in advance as the score would not let the candidate know if they would gain admission on the basis of it. “In any case, if this is the reason, why has this administration asked for answer keys in advance for the last two years?” she asked. “Many centres have had multiple-choice segments in their entrance examinations earlier too, and the examinations were not online then. What was the rationale then for asking for answer keys in advance? Even then many centres refused to provide the answer keys in advance for fear of security breaches.”

A teacher added: “We are not claiming that any violation has taken place but that this makes it easy.”

Changes in longstanding practices over the past few years have not inspired confidence among teachers. Last year, a limit imposed on the number of researchers a faculty-member can supervise saw the number of seats drop dramatically in research programmes. The university’s deprivation points system giving applicants from marginalised communities a slight edge over others in admissions was abolished for research programmes.

Merit lists – lists of names and scores on the basis of which admission is granted – are no longer public documents. The individual applicant can check whether they have made it, but even teachers do not get the full picture. Earlier, just before results were declared, a centre’s chairperson would get a chance to see the list of selected candidates – picked after all reservation and admission policies were applied – and check it against the merit list, the full list of scores to ensure the best candidates for each category were being admitted. “But for the last three years, the full list has not been shown to any chairperson, only the selected names,” said Menon. So, faculty members have scant information about newly-inducted batches, especially those in the master’s programmes.

Neither is it clear which private company will conduct the exams. “The report acknowledged that the process for selecting a suitable service should be ‘intensive’ yet no committee that will give academic insight has been established to oversee this,” said one letter to Gaur. The committee had argued in its report that the new process would “save time and money”. But if the costs of the new system has been ascertained at all, its findings have not been shared with the faculty.