Any discussion on University education must inevitably begin at the epicentre of the global attraction – the United States of America. In the US, the college admissions mechanism can be said to fall in between the two extreme cases of centralised admissions where students can apply to all the colleges in the country based on a unitary mechanism, which is usually a test, and decentralised admissions where students can apply to only one, and every university is at liberty to decide its mechanism of selection autonomously.
In the United States, students are required to take centralised examinations such as the SATs, but also submit college-specific requirements like admission essays. Students can apply to more than one college, but usually, send only a few applications due to their high costs. Thus, the admission mechanism straddles the centralised and the decentralised, while the selection criteria pose to straddle academia and personality. Most universities like Harvard approach the process of selection from a “holistic” point of view, claiming to evaluate the applicants’ “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure,” transcending the academic obsession of universities, say in the UK and many universities in Africa and Asia.
Some universities in the US are considered the most coveted, especially the likes of Yale, Princeton and Harvard that top global university rankings every year. Students submit not only academic transcripts and standardised test scores but lists of extracurricular activities, community service and multiple personal essays and letters of recommendation.
Characteristics, qualities and privileges of race, athletic ability and legacy respectively are also factored in. The rat race causes flagrant moral impunity: grotesque demonstrations of compassion and good-nature; volunteer work and club presidency for the sake of application and not passion. A judgement of personal characteristics through tailored essays with questionable authorship can hardly hold credible, yet it provides a multiplicity of channels to contest and impress as well as the luxury of undecided majors in the first two years – which can be a model of flexibility.
Criteria beyond academia also become vital in such renowned universities because of the sheer bulk of applications they receive. Harvard alone accepts 35,000 applications every year. Universities in the US are best known to herald debt on account of their exorbitant tuition-fees and costs of accommodation, even though financial aids, grants and student loans are said to be liberally provided to those who require them.
The United Kingdom follows a centralised admission mechanism operated by the UCAC (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), which allows students to apply for up to five courses and requires students to meet minimum entrance requirements as well as submitting a personal statement and academic references.
Interestingly, at the undergraduate level, it is not possible for students to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same academic year. In contrast to the US, in the UK academic record and potential are decisive. “We pick the best and brightest students purely on their academic merit and passion for their chosen course,” reads Oxford’s admissions website. Cambridge’s mission too, is unabashedly academic. Applicants to universities in the UK are also required to write personal statements, but these focus on academic interests, not general passion. Even at academic interviews, professors pose open-ended questions designed to gauge candidates’ potential for intellectual engagement. It can be said that such an approach allows predictability of getting accepted to universities and builds career-driven and brilliant young individuals but it trivializes the individual as a means to the ends of institutional brilliance.
The US can at least be appreciated for taking cognizance of an applicant’s individuality in the light of their economic, cultural, social and creative background, with some colleges offering need-based admissions, even if, as mentioned before, its parameters for assessment of this treasured individuality is not without fault.
Tuition fee and the cost of living in the UK is exorbitant, and cost of tuition differs for students from within the EU and those from outside, with international students paying substantially higher amounts.
All the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – provide higher education free of charge for their citizens. Norway, Iceland and Germany do not collect tuition fee from international students either. It can be said that a tuition-free system supports international social justice by giving students from ‘developing’ countries an opportunity to participate in higher education.
The opposition that supports the introduction of tuition fee says it is unfair for taxpayers to pay for the education of international migrants and competition for international students would enhance the quality of teaching and make Nordic universities more competitive in the international marketplace. However, these universities do consistently well on global surveys intended to measure how innovative or innovation-friendly they are. The persistence of these countries to provide free higher education highlights the most important difference between the Nordic countries and countries such as the UK: the ethos of education as a civil right and a public service rather than a commodity. Degrees are not seen as commodities to be exchanged in the marketplace and universal higher education is seen as an equality issue. These universities are almost completely publically funded and can act as a model for countries that chase global reputation at the cost of student welfare.
Turkey has a centralised admission mechanism where a single national examination called YGS/LYS is conducted, on the basis of which the colleges are assigned. Japan also has a centralised ‘National Center Test.’ However, all public universities in Japan require students to take a secondary institution-specific test that takes place on the same day, preventing students from applying to more than one university. Japan has a decentralised admission mechanism, in the sense that colleges decide the student intake independently.
Gaokao, China’s centralised university entrance exam, emblematic of the Chinese education system as a whole, directly determining which universities students will go to and to some extent whether they will become blue-collar or white-collar workers later in their lives. It is conducted once a year in the summer, and as many as 9.7 million students sat for it in 2018. The West sees it as monolithic and a system that relies on rote learning but the Chinese see it as tough but fair. The justification is that of the population, and rightly so, for any other model cannot withstand the weight of millions. It can, at best, be called expedient, although threats such as cheating, paper-leaks and illegal migrations to low-population provinces act as leakages that require modifications and precautionary measures to be taken annually.
However, it is also true that a single test based on memorisation fails to capture a student’s individuality, their passion for learning and discovery, while they endure years of stress and impossible expectations.
In China, the top universities can select as few as 1 in 50,000 students. With a graduate unemployment rate of about 16% and college impacting a person’s career and even marriage prospects, hopes of socioeconomic mobility are placed on the Gaokao.
The wild insecurities of the Chinese have been commercialised and built into a $120 billion after-school tutoring industry, a wicked friend of the status-quo: entrenching the privileged and the wealthy and strengthening economic disparity in the same stroke.
It is, on the other hand, also true that the system’s grueling schedule and supposed high standards are increasingly admired overseas. A student’s acumen and intellectual breadth are adequately nurtured and appreciated while other domains of literature, global-political reflection and theory, and personal thought remain ignored and shriveled.
India’s higher education system is highly centralised, with a host of public universities offering seats to the underprivileged sections of society through mandatory reservations and conducting standardised tests nationwide like CLAT for law-aspirants, IIT-JEE for engineering and NEET for medicine.
Private universities usually conduct their own entrance tests or may rely on secondary school test scores. States conduct exams for state-run universities too, like the WBJEE in West Bengal and BCECE in Bihar. Minority institutions also provide representation to religious minorities like the Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.
In a developing country with a massive and diverse population, linguistically, culturally and religiously, affirmative action becomes essential, especially in the knowledge-age and can act as a constructive step towards universalising higher-education and bring peripheral groups that have been historically and systematically marginalised into the mainstream. Standardised tests through anonymity and impersonalisation can prove efficient and viable tools of equitable evaluation without the interference of regional or linguistic bias and discrimination.
In the last few years, Brazil’s higher education has seen dynamic shifts of inclusion and testing efficiency from the Vestibular to Enem, both standardised tests for admission to tertiary education institutions, the former has often been criticised for its stress on memorising and knowledge which unequivocally favors the wealthy who have access to private training institutions and resources. The Enem, on the other hand, has been praised for emphasis on logic and interpretation rather than cramming. The Enem can be seen as an effort to reduce class disparity. Taking the Vestibular for induction into a public university is no longer mandatory, and in its place, Enem scores can be submitted.
At the same time, to make Vestibular more equitable, the government had introduced social and racial quotas through which students with a public school education got quotas, so did African and indigenous Brazilian descendants, who gained a small percentage of bonuses. In stride with the principles of equality and universalisation of education, federal universities are tuition-free in Brazil. The efforts of the government can act as a precedent for countries to not only take affirmative action to aid marginalised sections but also emphasize student welfare in the age of capitalism and knowledge.
Globally recognised standardised tests decide the fate of millions in international universities like LSAT for law, used by the US, Canada, Australia. The TOEFL and IELTS to assess English language proficiency, the former being more common in the US and the latter in the UK and other countries closely affiliated to it. The SAT and ACT for admission to undergraduate programs in the US, MCAT for prospective medical students in the US, Canada and 19 other countries.
These tests prove effective in providing benchmarks of average performance, which can be scrutinised in conjunction with essays and interviews for maximum student review. However, establishing standardised tests as the only basis, dominantly the case in India, restricts the scope and relies heavily on a single examination result, encourages cramming and discourages actual learning.
Another interesting phenomenon in the higher education universe is that of parallel agencies or consultancy firms in countries like the US, UK, Canada and Australia that thrive on global attractiveness, obsession and student competition.
In countries like India, Brazil and China, that rely on single standardised testing and suffer from overpopulation, post-school tuition or coaching industry has established itself through alarming competition and influenced the difficulty crescendo. It has generously contributed to stress, anxiety and suicides, not to mention its ever-expanding market extracting big bucks while playing on student-parent insecurities.