No Choice but Multiple Choice? The Questionable Decision of the JNU Administration

Surajit Mazumdar                                                                                                                   
Consider, to begin with, a fictional story. Imagine
that there is a multi-specialty hospital with several different departments,
each manned by qualified doctors with their appropriate specializations. The
hospital board then appoints a new Director, who is himself a qualified
surgeon. This Director then issues a circular stating that in order to raise
the standards of medical care and to speed up treatment, in every department of
the hospital, surgery will now be the compulsory mode of treatment for all patients
and ailments. Further, the circular states that any medication, counselling or
physiotherapy will only be prescribed to prepare the patient for surgery and as
part of post-operative care. In response to initial murmurs of protest,
additional instructions are issued stating that since every doctor has at the
least a basic M.B.B.S degree, no one can contest their ability to perform
surgery and any refusal to use this procedure will invite strict disciplinary
action. All objections based on sound medical procedure that surgery should not
be prescribed for every case, are overruled. In fact, even before there could
be any discussion about it, a tender notice is issued inviting bids from
contractors to build operation theaters in every department.  As justification for his decision, the
Director cites his own experience of having conducted a number of successful
surgeries and the wonderful technologies that have now become available for
them. He asserts that his experience and knowledge, along with his position as
Director, makes him a “Competent Authority” to issue the said circular. He also
says that there is no legislation or authority dealing with medical care that
explicitly debars him from issuing such a circular. Instead, he is vested with
greater responsibility than anyone else in the hospital to ensure that medical
care of the highest standards are offered and accordingly enjoys special
discretionary powers.

This fictional story would horrify most people if it
was indeed real and, it wouldn’t require a trained doctor to understand why
doctors in the hospital would be agitated by the circular. Well, not in the
context of a hospital but certainly in that of a University, what is otherwise
the exact same story is currently playing itself out. In the hospital story as
well as the reality of that University, the central issue at stake is the same
– it is about who should exercise the rights to take decisions that require
specialized knowledge and experience. The University being referred to is
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and the counterpart of the Director’s
directive in the story is the decision of the JNU Administration led by the
Vice-Chancellor to shift what is the written part of the University’s
entrance examinations to an entirely computer-based (online) process. Like in
the case of the multi-specialty hospital, JNU has several Departments (called Centers) which offer programmes across a wide range of disciplines that cover
the spectrum –the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics.
Not only do we see a great diversity of disciplines, the programmes to which
admissions are made through the entrance examinations are primarily specialized
post-graduate and research programmes.
The JNU Administration’s decision to switch over to
online entrance examinations is not merely about how and where the candidates
take these examinations. For a large number of students there will be
complications involved in moving from pen and paper (an exam taken typically a
classroom in some Kendriya Vidyalaya in the country) to a computer located at
some computer centre. It is, however, the corollary of the switch to online
examinations that I wish to focus on here. This is the decision that in all
disciplines and for all programmes the examination mode will have to exclusively
follow a multiple-choice question (MCQ) format. It is this unilateral
imposition of a system where the candidate simply opts for the unique ‘correct’
answer to every question from among the given alternatives that many have opposed
in JNU. The MCQ method of testing doesn’t necessarily need a computer-based
examination and in fact is also amenable to be combined with machine checking
without being computer-based (JNU has been using OMR sheets in cases where the
examination or a part of it is MCQ based). However, restricting it to the MCQ
mode for all programmes is the only practical option if it is decided that
these examinations have to be computer-based. That being the case, the
fundamental question that then arises is – should a decision to shift to an
online examination be taken without considering the academic implications of
restricting all testing to the MCQ mode? This is exactly like asking whether
prescribing surgery as the exclusive mode of treatment should have been taken
in our story without considering all its implications for the treatment of
In our fictional story, who would be the person
considered most capable of answering how useful and effective surgery is for
treatment? The answer is obvious – the doctors in different departments and
each would have varying answers about the effectiveness of surgery as a
treatment for the ailments they deal with. The psychiatry department may say
that surgery is of no use in the treatment of psychiatric problems. The cardiology
department may say that in some cases surgery is absolutely necessary while at
other times medication is the best course; and in yet others prescribing diet
control and exercise may be sufficient. The surgery department might say that
this is all they do but only for cases referred to them and after having
ascertained that it is a feasible option. The neurosurgeons might say that they
often actually advise against surgery because the risks of further brain damage
outweigh any potential benefits. None of them would be wrong and all the
different departments would agree that prescribing one single mode of treatment
for all is inappropriate and the decision for any specific case has to be left
to the specialists in that field. That being the case, even a majority
principle is inapplicable to such decision-making and cannot be used to justify
an imposition on any department – the greater competence each has in any
specialized field necessarily goes along with being less competent than
specialists in other areas.
How is this different from saying that the
appropriate assessment method for selecting candidates to different disciplines
and programmes in a University, should be left to the specialists in these
respective fields of study? These specialists, who are also the ones who have
to actually implement that assessment method – can be found in the different
Centres of the University. The fundamental problem with the decision-making
process in JNU which led to the policy of exclusive reliance on the MCQ mode is
that it never even sought the consent of the Centres. Several of these Centres
have raised serious concerns about the grave consequences of this unilateral
decision on the standards of selection and by implication the standards of the
academic programmes they administer. Despite that option having been always
available, the majority of Centres did not choose to use the MCQ format at all,
and most of those that did never relied exclusively on such testing. This is
therefore an open and shut case – from the opinions explicitly expressed and
from their past practice, it is clear that the academic judgement of the
specialists in several fields of study in JNU is that exclusive reliance on the
MCQ mode will lower standards of selection to their respective programmes.
Are the Centres not the most competent to make such judgements? Can anyone else
in the University claim to have greater competence to make that judgement, and
if so, on what basis?
JNU has been conducting entrance examinations on an
all-India scale for several decades. In designing the process, something to
which the students of the University have also contributed immensely, the
University faculty has accepted as its own larger social concerns that
selection processes in a public university should not only be fair but also
appear to be fair. The faculty has acknowledged the fact that all assessment
processes are imperfect to some degree and that teachers themselves are not
necessarily infallible. They have further recognized that these problems are aggravated
by our social context where one can find not only great diversity but also the
prevalence of a variety of extreme social inequalities. All these perceptions
translated into an admission process that went beyond existing regulations and
constitutional provisions to facilitate the entry of the best talent from
across the spectrum of Indian society into the University’s programmes. This
included an assessment process heavily weighted in favour of blind evaluation
of the written examination and setting limits on the discretionary component
(like viva). This was a departure from what is the practice in most
internationally reputed universities where faculty enjoy great discretionary
powers in post-graduate admissions. In JNU, not only was the national reservation
policy implemented, and in all programmes, the system of deprivation points
acknowledged that the disadvantages of some necessitated adjustments to the
ranking of candidates beyond just their performance in the examinations.
However, preparing the question paper and deciding on the nature of questions
was left to the Centres, who then were also in a position to adapt and adjust
these in the light of changing circumstances and developments in their different
disciplines. This flexibility was crucial to developing a consensus, arrived at
through deliberations in University bodies at different levels.  This system gave the faculty in each Centre
the space to apply their specialized academic expertise, knowledge and
experience to the creation of an assessment and evaluation process that
would also address the larger concerns that were not discipline specific. It is
this actual living system, perhaps not perfect but capable of organic
development that is today under threat in JNU. This is because the decision-making
process has marginalized the vast mass of diverse specialized academic
expertise available within the University and sought to subject them to the
dictates of an administration fundamentally incapable of possessing all the
necessary knowledge but refusing to acknowledge its own limitations. Like the
Director’s circular in our fictional story – the implications of this for
‘standards’ should be evident, no matter what claims are made.
A Postscript
What is happening in the case of the JNU Entrance examinations
is of course only a symptom of a larger tendency towards centralization of
academic decision-making and erosion of academic autonomy in which not only
Vice-Chancellors but also the University Grants Commission (UGC) is complicit.
The 2016, UGC Regulations on Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.PHIL./Ph.D Degrees is a stark instance of such
overreach which has also facilitated overreach at the University level. One
particular part of the Regulations, which are ‘mandatory’ in nature,and which
perhaps deserves special mention in the context of the discussion on entrance
examinations is Clause 5.4.2. This clause includes the stipulation that t
he “syllabus of the Entrance Test shall consist of 50%
of research methodology and 50% shall be subject specific”. This stipulation
left teachers across disciplines scratching their heads and wondering what
questions could be framed for students with a Master’s degree that would meet
this requirement. Mind you, the UGC Regulations uses the term methodology and not methods – and
between these two there is a vast difference. Any specific research requires
the use of methods appropriate to that inquiry – no conclusion can be termed
valid unless the process of arriving at it is valid. Research methodology deals
with the analysis of these methods and procedures themselves, to provide the
basis for choosing the ones appropriate to the inquiry at hand. It is one thing
to know from science textbooks that it is the earth that goes round the sun
rather than the other way around – it is quite another thing to understand how
this is established as the truth and why in this particular case what appears
to be an observable ‘fact’ is actually not so. Meeting the UGC’s requirement in
entrance examinations was thus already a Herculean task. It has now been
rendered almost impossible for JNU teachers by the decision that all questions
must follow the MCQ format. While at one level teachers face the threat of
‘punishment’ from the JNU Administration if they do not follow the diktat of
preparing an MCQ based question paper, they can also be hauled up in Court if
an applicant brings a complaint that the question-paper they prepared did not
meet the ‘mandatory’ provision that 50 per cent weightage has to be for
questions on research methodology. Honest academic judgement may not even allow
them to deny the charge, and their only defence might be to plead temporary
insanity, not their own but of those who imposed such decisions on them.  This is the ridiculousness that is inevitable
when you try to legislate what should not be legislated and depart, in the
process, from the fundamental principle that academic decision-making should be
left to those whose knowledge, experience and location makes them most suited
to take those decisions. Wisdom is not the monopoly of some who happen to temporarily occupy positions of
authority and power! It is not very wise on their part to forget this.
The author is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University and elected faculty representative to the University’s Executive Council (2016-2018)