The mess that National Testing Agency has made of the CUET exams

The conduct of the CUET exams held between July 15th and August 20th in 259 cities across India was mismanaged from the very start.

“When we look at undergraduate admission exams across the world, from Gaokao (the National College Entrance Exam in China) to SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), we see fierce competitive tests with high-end arrangements to avoid malpractice and cheating,” said Priyanshu Kumar Jha, a student at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Jamnagar who has taken the JEE mains and the CUET exam for under graduate college admission. “But only in India do we see such important exams being taken so casually”.

The Common University Entrance Tests -Under Graduate (CUET-UG) exam centres allocated to students kept changing till the very last minute, and there were computer server issues at many centres. Jha and other candidates taking the exam received their admit cards just two or three days before the exam and had to pay Rs 650 as exam fee. “My centre was eight hours away from my place,” wrote an angry Jha in a letter to an online portal. “Luckily, I could make reservations, but many couldn’t”.

CUET (UG) was introduced this year for admission into all UG Programmes in Central Universities for academic session 2022-23. But the conduct of the exams, held between July 15th and August 20th in 259 cities across India, was mismanaged and messy from the very start.

Read more: CUET standardises admissions criteria for students from all states, but is it fair to all?

Which means admissions to colleges will be delayed, with no indication of when that might even start.

There is a feeling that the National Testing Agency (NTA), whose responsibility is to conduct the exam, is taking the CUET-UG casually. That the conduct of the examination has not been well thought out, planned and executed. One has only to peruse the public notices of the NTA to see how they have flip flopped, especially with last minute change of exam centres which many students were not aware of.

On August 3rd, for instance, the NTA informed candidates from Kerala that “due to heavy rains in many districts of Kerala in the past few days, students may not be able to reach the exam centre at the stipulated time as movement will be very difficult and there may be disruption of power. So the NTA has decided to postpone the exams and would announce fresh dates”.

Info about change of centres, postponement, technical glitches, fresh dates etc. is conveyed to the candidates through public notices on the NTA’s website There is a public notice almost daily and right when they registered to take the exam, the students were advised to stay in touch with this and the NTA’s other CUET dedicated website, for all updates.

Computer glitches, exam center confusion

According to a notice on the NTA website on August 5th, the exams in 53 centres, scheduled for August 6th, were postponed to be held between August 12th and 14th, “due to administrative/logistics/technical reasons”,

By a public notice of August 7th, the NTA said in its website that Phase II of CUET (UG) would be over by August 10th, but added that “due to administrative and technical reasons”, exams in a few centres, scheduled to be held between August 4th and 6th, were postponed to August 12-14. UGC chairman Dr Jagadesh Kumar attributed this cancellation to “indications and reports of sabotage”, but did not spell out details.

Stranger still, the testing authority gave an option to the affected students to choose dates other than Aug 12-14, if these were not suitable to them. The reason: 15,811 candidates had requested a different date on account of festivals during this period. Raksha Bandhan on August 12th, then Independence Day, and so on. The NTA note added that many candidates had requested for change of date and city, as cities allotted to them were “not suitable to them”.

And so, the note added, they had decided that “in place of August 12 to 14, the CUET examinations for these candidates would now be conducted between August 24 to 28, and fresh Admit Cards would be issued well before the date of examination.”

The public notice, however, ended on an optimistic note that Phase III of the examination, slated for Aug 17th, 18th and 19th, would be conducted as per the schedule that had been earlier conveyed to candidates. What happened on Aug 17th and 18th, is given later in this story.

On August 8th, nature played disruptor. Many students in Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, could not attend the fifth day of the test, because of floods and landslides. Only three students could reach two examination centres in Itanagar, one was a centre for 36 students and another for 154.

Read more: Opinion: The new CBSE Class 12 evaluation system is at best a make-shift arrangement

The NTA was quick to state in a subsequent press release that a fresh date and admit cards for the affected candidates “will be announced later on the NTA website”. Going by what UGC chairman Jagadesh Kumar said, these students may have to wait till August end to take the admission test, Across the country, 64,472 students had registered to take the test in 275 centres.

In all, about 14, 90,000 candidates were slated to take the tests in two phases, phase 1 in July and phase 2 in August. Candidates from the science stream, who had opted for Physics, Chemistry or Biology were assigned phase 2 dates. The idea was to avoid a clash with the NEET (UG) 2022 held on July 17th. Students had applied for admission to 54,555 unique combination of subjects in 90 universities.

But confusion in the way the examination was held started from day one July 15th, when Phase I began. Many students from Delhi missed the exam due to last minute change in centres. Those who had been originally assigned the Netaji Subhas University of Technology in Dwarka’s Sector 3 were informed on July 12th that they would have to go to Delhi University’s North Campus.

Given that this admission test is a do or die thing for aspiring higher education, students, only 85% students turned up for the exam on the first day and 74% on the second.

Combing all entrance exams

Even as confusion reigns on the conduct of the CUET exams, UGC chairman Jagadish Kumar tweeted stories based on his interaction with the media, wherein he has said there were plans to merge the CUET-UG, NEET and JEE, and that a committee would be looking into this. This, the chairman said, would reduce the burden on students who would then not have to appear in multiple entrance exams, and that the idea was in tune with the National Education Policy, 2020. 

While this remains just a thought as of now, the UGC chairman wants to ensure that the National Testing Agency (NTA) and all stakeholders are prepared for it, and the process of the committee formation, perusal of its recommendations and wider consultations will precede the rolling out of what is being hashtagged #OneNationOneEntranceExamination.

Also on the anvil are setting up of permanent exam centres across the country exclusively for such an entrance test, which may be held twice a year.

On July 18th, the NTA through a public notice informed candidates that they should go to the centre mentioned in their admit cards. Many students had been assigned centres far away from their homes, and had apparently sought a change.

To everyone’s surprise, the exams on August 10th went off without any glitches. But anxiety over the smooth conduct of the tests remained, and justifiably so. For, three days later, the NTA said that 11,000 candidates out of the 3.72 lakhs who were to appear in Phase 4 on August 17th, 18th and 20th, had been moved to a Phase 6 on August 30th

Come Aug 17th, a press release on the NTA website said that the examinations scheduled for the day (August 17th) were cancelled in 13 centres, affecting 8693 out of 1,45,885 students, “due to some unavoidable technical reasons”. Nine of the 13 centres were in the National Capital Region (NCR).The candidates would be informed regarding their new date “tomorrow”, but “it is proposed to hold these examinations on August 25th”, the press release added. Students battled with change in dates and centres that caught them unawares.

Neha Singhal, a candidate, told a widely circulated daily: “My intimation slip mentioned my chosen city as the exam centre city. However, when I got the admit card, I got a centre which is 150 kms away, and the entry closes at 8.30 am”. She also said her efforts to contact the NTA had been in vain. Students who were to take their rescheduled exam on August 30th, were shocked to learn that the exam had been advanced to August 18th

NTA official website
Given that the NTA had not sorted out the problems even a month after the first exams were held, there is a feeling that the agency is taking the CUET exams casually. Screen shot of the NTA official website.

By then, the NTA had over a month’s experience in the conduct of CUET UG exams but had yet not fine-tuned its system. The testing authority’s press release of August 18th amply reveals the confusion and mismanagement.

It said those candidates who could not take the examination in earlier phases either due to technical reasons or due to cancellation of the Centre “will be allowed to appear in Phase 6 which will be held from August 24-30”.

Communication mess adds to confusion

The NTA added they had received e-mails regarding digital glitches faced by individual candidates during previous phases and that some of the candidates have also represented regarding Sociology, General Ability, Sanskrit question papers. “Such requests are also being examined on case-to-case basis using Audit trail of individual candidates and report of the centres. The requests, if found feasible, the candidates will be appearing in Phase 6.”

The NTA woke up to the humongous confusion leading to mental and physical stress among students and finally created an exclusive grievance redressal e-mail. “The grievances of candidates regarding subject combination, medium, question paper, etc. (if any) can be sent to Candidates must mention their Application Number while sending their grievance. The grievances will be addressed and examination for such candidates, if required, will also be conducted during Phase 6,” the NTA said.

The agency also reiterated that candidates should regularly visit the NTA website and the CUET website for the latest updates on the exams.

These students are the ones hoping to be doctors, engineers, techies, scientists and researchers, having chosen the science stream.With most of them also preparing for other entrance exams simultaneously, the CUET experience has left them mentally fatigued and physically exhausted.

“This has been really very stressful,” said Parul Sinha of Greenfields Public School in east Delhi. “We cannot be sure that since the CUET will count for admissions, we can take the other entrance exams lightly”.

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