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Sunday, 12 February 2012

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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 suggestions.

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 implemented.

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 university admission.

From our experience, we know that physics is a relatively difficult subject for students, especially for the students of the biology subject stream.

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 mark.

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 national universities.

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 arts stream.

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 Level examination.

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