Fair university admission policy:
Public still ignorant of core issues
The University Grants Commission has released the handbook for
university admission in 2012. In this process, the set of formulae used
for combining the z scores of new and the old syllabus students of
Advanced Level examination led to a serious controversy.
However, the core issues related to a fair university admission
policy have been overlooked by almost everybody. Unfortunately, the
trade unions of university and school teachers are also interested only
in the district rank error and the solution given to combine marks of
two groups of students in new and old syllabi. This is probably due to
the political connotations associated with the issue and possible link
up efforts with non state universities.
It is dismayed to note that the real issues overarching the entire
university admission procedure, which should be discussed, debated and
agreed upon have never been surfaced properly at right discussion
forums. The objective of this article is to highlight these important
issues with the intension of making university admission offered to the
best group of students.
There were series of articles published in national newspapers
supporting or criticising the approach adopted by the Expert panel of
statisticians appointed by the University Grants Commission. In
addition, several leading professional personalities came forward to
propose the released results are erroneous, without engaging in proper
scientific evaluation of the background facts and realities, probably
due to their political affiliations.
The criticism that the pooling techniques introduced by the UGC
expert panel are unfair to a group of students has some merit in it.
The use of the common mean and a standard deviation from the combined
data based on student numbers in each stream makes the point that the
mean and standard deviations are not derived from the same data
distribution and hence the derived data cannot produce a standard normal
distribution with mean zero and standard deviation of 1.
Firstly, in order to generate a standard normal distribution, the
data must be processed using the two central tendency and dispersion
parameters derived from the same set of data.
Secondly, the assumption is made in pooling the data are not revealed
and it is impossible for somebody to verify the conditions assumed in
the use of the pooling formulae. Further, it is noted that the developed
formulae were selected reviewing the actual results and not based on a
sound conceptual footing.
As an alternative and a better method as claimed to be was proposed
by Prof. R.O. Thattil. He is of the view that the two data series need
to be combined on the merits of z scores which are calculated separately
for individual data series separately. Although he is my most respected
statistics 'Guru', I have several reasons to disagree with his
In reviewing this approach, it is obvious that simple combination of
the individual z scores would make the university admission open to
equal number of students from new and old syllabi. For example, if 100
students are selected for medicine from new syllabus group, the proposed
method would ensure that there would be another 100 selected from the
old syllabus group.
Here the assumption made in relation to this allocation is that the
two groups should be given equal opportunities.
However, analysing the ratio of students who secured admission in
national universities during the last ten years, it is evident that the
students on first attempt and the students on second/ third attempts
have not gained admission in equal numbers.
Hence, this method also has a serious flaw and favours one group who
has been less capable. Is it the justice that the teacher unions are
unknowingly demanding as a solution? Accordingly, further considerations
are needed before concluding the acceptability of the method of
combining the z scores directly. The students who have a higher share in
admission in the past would seek legal redress even if this approach is
In view of the need to establish a fair and consensus solution for
university admission criterion, a very pertinent issue has been ignored
now and also in the past.
Students who are sitting for the A/L examination first time are
expected to perform at the same level with students who are sitting for
the examination in their second or third attempt, probably even after
few years of continuous studies. With the self experience in
acclimatizing for the examination, they are immune to most of the
problems encountered in a virgin attempt by a student.
This introduces a greater injustice to fresh students because all the
students who seek admission are not given level field to compete and one
group claims an unfair advantage.
It can be easily understood that with all the additional time and
experience gathered in sitting the examination once or twice before, the
senior students are capable of performing better than a newcomer.
Those who hail justice by making a mountain out of a mole hole
regarding the pooling equation, do not seem to notice the greater
injustice made to new students by treating them equally with the other
privileged group of experienced students at the most competitive
examination. Obviously, the students making an attempt for university
admission in their second or third time, should be given a higher target
than that of required by the new group of students.
The so-called experts in teacher unions shouldering an
anti-government propaganda make an attempt to correct a minor deviation
while ignoring some of the critical issues popped up towards
streamlining the university admission process. Public should realize
that there is no perfect solution for the problem on the absolute scale
but what is required to be implemented is a process which is free from
obvious injustices like in the case of treating first and second/ third
year groups equally.
There is another confounding factor which again causes serious
injustice to a certain group of good students in the process of
From our experience, we know that physics is a relatively difficult
subject for students, especially for the students of the biology subject
Therefore, some students opt for agriculture science in place of
physics. The use of the z score for admission empirically considers the
best student in physics is equivalent to the best student in agriculture
science in offering admission to the universities for agriculture and
biology degree programmes.
There are several subject combinations which are at different levels
of standards being treated as equal for university admission. It should
not be misunderstood that highlighting this fact is an attempt to take
away the obvious merits of using z score in place of simple aggregate
However, this issue needs to be discussed at a wider forum to prepare
suitable strategies to avoid injustice to good students due to the
selection of a specific subject combination in seeking admission to
Until last year, there were only four streams that students can
choose for university admission namely, biology, physical science,
commerce and arts. There were defined subject combinations for each of
the first three streams and those who do not qualify for the first three
streams based on their subjects offered fell into Arts stream.
However, this has been revised this time introducing a fifth stream
named as 'other' defining a complex subject combination options for the
This has not been communicated to students prior to their selection
of subject combinations. This also poses a serious challenge to a
certain group of students and the teachers' unions are either blind or
insensitive to this issue as well.
Determination of university admission based on both merits and the
district quota system.
However, 60% of the admission opportunities are reserved for the
district quota system.
When the student numbers for university admission of each district is
determined based on the population of the district and not even on the
basis of total number of students sitting for the examination in a
particular year from each district, it is obvious that students residing
in districts where the proportion of number of A/L students per 1000
people is low, gain an unfair advantage over the students in other
districts where the said ratio is high.
In addition, there are schools with all the facilities and resources
while there are resource-poor schools in every district.
Treating both these types equally in the guise of nominal district
identification introduces a serious injustice to students from
resource-poor schools. The relative injustice here may be much higher
than that of all the above issues but the teachers' unions are
tightlipped about this issue.
There should be a performance quality index for classifying schools
based on the overall resource availability and this index can make the
basis for providing an identification for resource-poor schools rather
than adopting an approach based on district label for qualifying
students under district quota system.
In summary, it must be emphasised that there are several issues
related to university admission which have not been brought to
limelight. These issues need to be discussed in detail and a consensus
solution must be formulated with a wider participation of stakeholders.
It is disheartening to note that the teachers' union and other
politically motivated groups make a concerted effort to discredit the
government highlighting the weaknesses in the pooling approach adopted
by the examination department in combining A/L marks while being
ignorant or insensitive to some of the major issues prevalent in the
university admission process.
The public should be made aware of the background realities of the
problems and issues in the university admission process while exposing
the characters responsible for the unscrupulous allegations levelled
against the entire examination process and university admission.
The writer is the Vice Chancellor of the Uva Wellassa University and
Professor in Agricultural Engineering at University of Peradeniya. He
served as a member in the Expert Panel appointed by the H.E. the
President to report on the district rank error in the G.C.E. Advanced