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The mechanics of choice in the University: From objective evaluation to optimum research

The mechanics of choice in the University: From objective evaluation to optimum research

university of delhi


Niharika & Praem Hidam

Among the recent series of onslaughts on public funded universities in the country, coercive implementation of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ) for entry to Masters and MPhil and PhD research more particularly in the humanities and social sciences has shown a much darker side of the current danger that we all are facing today.

university of delhi

University of Delhi

As we all know, an immediate outcome is awakening of a dormant clause of the 50% qualification requirement in MCQ based paper to be able to sit for admitting interviews in MPhil and PhD studies. The implementation of the new UGC regulations revised the number of students who were otherwise qualified for the interview, in most cases much less than the actual seats available. While there has been opposition to the last-minute implementation and rightly so, considering the absence of social-equity in the new ordinance and the many futures it puts in jeopardy, our concern here is to share some reflections on a few neglected aspects of this move.

An important target of the opposition to this mode of examination has generally been the weakness that is ingrained in it that fails to evaluate students’ capability for critical articulations. This attribute of the MCQ mode of examination forms a deeply bureaucratised narrative of how to study a ‘humanities’ discipline in a University today, where subjectivity in approach is being erased in favour of an administratively more acceptable clinical metric called objectivity and impartiality. Both have been incorrectly assumed as qualities that positively induce transparency and equality in the system and continue to be promoted from the first rite of access to higher education.

We need to however see that the limits, weakness or incapacity of this mode of examination may not actually just be its faulty objectivity, or the limited way in which it overcomes tediousness and inefficiency. Too often students coming out of such examination have this contempt of blaming the questions as ridiculously senseless, too rudimentary and ludicrous at the same time, confusingly predetermined and an excessive mockery of capability and test.

This disdain for pre-set choices however goes well with the growing infatuation of the ideological machinery with this contempt. To put it precisely, the limit itself is the constant measure and applicability that is so innocuously and yet deceptively framed in such mode of examination. MCQ is connected to a wider milieu that later becomes a norm of administrative and academic disciplining, and more alarmingly, a deeper process of thought control at various check posts and outposts of which entry to MPhils and PhDs are merely one of many such moments of political formation. This leads to another direction where the charge of being errancy in its mechanism and substance may not help any further to understand a sudden readiness for overly getting everybody accustomed to the charms of MCQ’s deceptive efficiency and objectivity.

Elevating ideology over critical thinking

Even if one goes on reading the mechanics of MCQ, it is obvious that this mode is entirely based on a thinking capable of eliminating rather than critical. Availability of choices one of which is the answer does not readily suggest thinking of new possibilities; it instead pushes to use practical manipulation to return to the conclusion. Acknowledging a technique as this in a discipline such as political science, sociology, literature and history is retrograde to the critical thought that attempts to dismantle norms and not return to them. This precisely is what this mode of examination is designed for. MCQ is not therefore merely a mockery of creativity and criticality, the purpose being deviating all possible ways of questioning and doubt altogether to be interpellated to the call of bureaucratic-non thought machine.

On the other hand, by qualifying for the required bar under this massive evaluative structure may not serve any conventional purpose of the examination either. Eligibility under MCQ architecture (though it applies to all forms of examination as an institution in variable constants) is not a condition of getting access to the university but a condition of reorienting the student as a conformist ideologue of desirable thought practice. The student exists as tired and incapacitated, active only in certain way of being qualified, and act in the theatre of power-knowledge as only the constituted and not as the constituent. The method behind the craze for efficacy and objectivity has a close affinity with that of the phenomena described above.

To elaborate it, MCQ is the symptom of changing principles and logic of operation of universities across the world. It is a veritable conscientiousness of what the university has become of today. There is after all no possibility of engaging in a disorderly way with a MCQ. A way too much into the orderly maintenance of all thought and insights keeping away from questioning the orderliness and attempts to reorganize the given is what answering a multiple choice question requires for everybody to get at. This has been on the path to encouraging certain research projects which would contribute to the general growth of the economy and policy mind. University has become a much powerful agent in transforming itself to a crucial point in the ever growing network of neoliberal relations and process.

In a much rationally crafted similitude of the infamous four choices of an MCQ set, all researches under neoliberalized academic administration and performance have been pre-decided once funding and faculty network have access to the implication of a research project. Despite this being a long established tradition in the history of research-policy-funding nexus in almost all sectors of institutions including university, we have seen that it has been increasingly the case that ‘power-knowledge’ is reorganised under much sanitised, conformist research projects generously funded by the government and its global partners. Undoubtedly, acceptable conclusions get funded. It is quite common to hear stories and about non-traditional theoretical interrogations, interdisciplinary combinations, unrehearsed methodologies having trouble finding a funding and a supervisor. The university at all times has increasingly been adapted to modulating the students and researchers towards saleable projects.

University as assembly line production

Recently, there have been conflicts over how academic professionalism and academic pursuit in higher education must be conducted along the wishes of the university administration. Questions of attendance, faculty dissent and appointments, career growth, academic activities and contribution are all imbricated with cumbersome measures of regulation and the things to be measured. In a profession and a career which is always pushed to finding new measures of outcome and product and what they must be in order to be productive pursuit has been a point of contention. All these attempts to rigidify academic measurement is not only telling of how merit thus measured is produced but also what gets measured. Fetishism for facticity, useful knowledge and orthodoxy of work output finds their thread in the entrance exam, sweeps through the course structure and finally finds occupancy in the research projects that get funded.

The mechanics of university have for long now been juxtaposed with that of an assembly line factory production. While this analogy is fundamental to exploring possible ways of re-composing university as not only a site of resistance, but also an agent of transformation and a network of ‘desiring-machine’, and making differences and innovation, university unfortunately has already made itself an ‘automaton’ in a global network of knowledge factory.

Administrative obsessions with structure of examination, qualification requirements, pattern of question paper have always been performed faster and held precedence over bringing into development of teaching, learning and research infrastructure. It may well be said that student does not enter the university post an examination, the university begins from the system of examination. That students’ academic curiosity is already alienated can be seen in the general nature of the MCQ paper. The production of such a seemingly distorted technique but a well-crafted tool of control cannot be other than an addition to existing tendencies that drive the university, in all its new avatars. It is in the format of control like MCQ examination that the student is tamed to be familiar with the truth of the university, that bureaucratic regimentation, maze of manifold doors, thought control and manufacturing knowledge can only proceed with students’ passivity and infirmity, both inside and outside the walls and the gates.

The knowledge factory has over the years reimagined itself more in the possibility of easier administration over things which are much tricky and complex to regulate and discipline. Displacement of research seats, qualification and mode of admission as happening currently, all coming together to simplify the order of things, reordering of things to conveniently handle, move and replace. The genesis is standardisation of simplification, that is the move that MCQ is.

There is another pre-set choice that encapsulate MCQ’s pre-set answers and that choice is already assumed in the test that expects a student to think, feel and will within the fate of confinement and under the compulsion of reducing everything to one, all done with a deep commitment to the truth given that never gets questioned. But only cautiously and feebly, if ever done only inside that never comes out, and then no other truth, never coming up other than the one out there. This is not deferral; it is summoning of an eponymous absence to be present, believed and practiced only to kill it, making an absence absent completely, permanently. No Multiplicity. No Choice. No Questioning.

Inside and outside the campus, there are multiple campaigns coming up against the deceptions. The truth being exposed that the deception is the truth of its power: university being reduced to one, absence and silence. It is a time to truly have an examination for the university to rebuild itself, one that respects multiplicities, desire for choices and instigation for questioning. Time to have real Multiple, Choice and Questions.



Niharika is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

Praem Hidam teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.