The will to centralize can be addictive. Kapil Sibal has been on a high, blazing the national higher education firmament with his eagerness to reform. As human resource development minister, most of his ideas emanate from a certain vision of the Centre as unifying, patronizing and therefore controlling institutions of higher education in the name of streamlined administration and fairness. Historically, this is a tendency that lies at the origins of the Indian State, going back to the framing of the Constitution, when the various spheres of governance were being allocated to the Central or state lists. Higher education has been, ever since that time, the Centreís zealously guarded territory, and although the country, and its position in the world of excellence, has changed profoundly after that founding moment, the Stateís attitude has remained essentially the same. So, Mr Sibalís joyful announcement that the country will have, from next year, a single Joint Entrance Examination for all Central engineering institutes (including the IITs) will surprise nobody. But it will annoy and alarm all educationists committed to excellence and autonomy.
Mr Sibalís template is probably the SAT and GRE examinations in the United States of America. But most colleges and universities of any worth in the US are free to ignore the results of these tests and admit and fund students according to their own strictly merit-based criteria. So, the new JEE, if it has to be imposed throughout the country for the sake of some peculiar ideal of uniformity, should have the same sort of rudimentary status, making it possible for individual institutions to establish their own attitude of deference or indifference to it. What is rather inexplicable is that all subjects other than engineering are deemed to be outside this notion of uniformity, so that institutions can frame their own modes of entry for students wanting to study them. Besides, regional as well as qualitative variations, together with differences in the ethos, prompt different institutions to create different kinds of entrance examination. Such idiosyncrasies are essential to the institutionsí sense of their own autonomy, and are just as essential to their own ways of maintaining distinctive benchmarks of excellence. Levelling them down to a single standard is inimical to every progressive idea of academic excellence and democratic practice.