Reforming the Admissions System | Muhammad Hamid Zaman

Every year, thousands of students across the nation enroll in medical schools and engineering universities. Many more thousands apply and aspire — only to be told that they are not good enough. The entire process is robotic and devoid of human experience, and therefore prone to accept people of a certain mould and reject those who may have a lot to offer in terms of personal stories, commitment and passion. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here; let us first look at how the admission system works in the professional higher education sector.

At most universities, admissions are a combination of high school record and an entrance test. An analysis of this system shows deep problems. Let us start with a public display of blatant sexism. For example, the premier national engineering institution, the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) Lahore, on its admissions page assumes that only male applicants would apply( In the eligibility criteria for admissions, the university website states: “He should have passed the Intermediate (Pre- Engineering) Examination with Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics from a Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education of Pakistan or an equivalent examination recognized by the University.” What about any female student? Is she not welcome? The list of requirements is too long to be reprinted here, but the only pronoun the university uses is for a male applicant. This is despite the fact that nearly 20 per cent of its current enrolled students are female. The university sends a clear message to its applicants. UET Taxila is no different( A society that desperately needs to integrate everyone into its innovative workforce cannot afford to be blind to its most promising sector, the female students. Just to clarify, it has nothing to do with majority of students being male, since medical schools, where majority is female, do not use a similar sexist language.

The second troubling aspect of the admission process is a deep disconnect with the applicants. As I went through the admission criteria of institution after institution, across the country, nowhere did I see any indication of the university being interested in the individual. A fundamental question, of why do you want to become a doctor, or an engineer of a particular type is nowhere to be found. The universities never bother to ask the prospective student his or her opinion on why the chosen profession matters to him or her and what major problems of the day inspire him or her? We continue to debate and speculate why so many of our graduates never become part of the workforce, but what if they never wanted to? What if it was only parental pressure? What if they were not passionate? The way things currently go — there is no chance of us finding out.

The admission test is also not particularly focused on open-ended problem solving and creative thinking ability. The English exam is particularly troubling which does not focus on writing and expression, but instead focuses on a mechanical approach to language.

At the core, the only criterion of admissions to public engineering and medical institutions is the ability to do well in a test — be it in HSSC or the entrance exam. Anyone with a real world experience in engineering or medicine would attest that assumption of this correlation is fundamentally flawed, and ability to take the test alone is not a sign of innovation, creativity and passion to solve problems.

The consequence of poor access to quality education combined with a flawed admission system is that not only we miss students, who may not do exceptionally well in an exam but may make outstanding professionals, but we also admit those who may be gifted test takers but not interested or capable of solving our grandest challenges.

Admissions is a complex process, a serious business and requires careful thought. By no means can it be relegated to a cookie-cutter formula. By using a formula, instead of focusing on the person, we have created a mismatch of what we need and what we produce. It’s time we revisited and optimised our admissions to attract those who demonstrate creativity, passion and a personal commitment.

We need leaders, not robots.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2016.


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