Scrapping aptitude test: A wrong decision

University of the Visual and Performing Arts

By Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa|
Faculty of Visual Arts
University of the Visual and Performing Arts

A few weeks back, the Minister for Higher Education made a public declaration regarding the Aptitude Test, which is held to select students for the University of the Visual and Performing Arts. He said that the above practical examination would not be held hereafter, and that the criteria for entrance would be three passes including an A, for an aesthetic subject at the GCE Advanced Level Examination.

An Aptitude Test is an internationally accepted criterion used in selecting students for universities offering distinct courses like Painting, Sculpture, Music, Dance, Drama, Theatrical Arts and Architecture etc; to evaluate the creative capacity of the applicant. This methodology has been a regular feature for a long time in our university as well as our earlier institutes. The history of higher education pertaining to Visual Arts in this country goes back to 1893. The Drawing and Painting Course which was held at the Maradana Technical College progressively developed into the Faculty of Visual Arts at the contemporary University of Visual and Performing Arts. In 1952, J.D.A. Perera, the eminent painter, who was also the principal of the Government College of Arts, became a pioneer by introducing Performing Arts, Dance and Music to the existing subjects of painting, sculpture and craft to tertiary level education in this country. The Faculties of Dance and Music at our present university is the result of the development of these two subjects. Accordingly, the history of visual arts in tertiary level education in this country spans for 119 years while performing arts spans for 60 years. Throughout this long history, students for these subject streams have been selected through the means of Aptitude Tests. 21st century international universities conducting visual and performing art courses have developed their level of education by advancing these aptitude tests to a higher standard.

The University of the Visual and Performing Arts is the only university in Sri Lanka to offer courses in visual and performing arts. It is wrong to compare it to other universities.

There are similarly unique universities differentiated according to their subject streams. Among such universities, the University of Moratuwa has a special identity. Our university produces artists and artisans. So, the authority to select the most suitable students according to these disciplines should be held by the particular university. Gaining an A Pass for an aesthetic subject at the Advanced Level examination alone is not sufficient for this purpose. Particulars of the subject matter that are not taken into consideration at the GCE Advanced Level should be looked into at this stage. As an example, an applicant’s capacity for creativity, his skill in using visual space for his 2D creations and his cultural specialty can be read by his drawings and painting compositions. In music, the applicant’s sensitivity to singing and the playing of an instrument, high and low pitches as well as personality when performing are important to us. Likewise, the distinguished body formation in dance, rhythmic peaks in movements, and again the personality in performing should be observed by the university in direct contact with the applicant. These details are not taken into account at the Advanced Level examination. On the other hand, marks at the Advanced Level examination is given on the basis of 50% for the practical paper and 50% for the art history paper. In this regard, a student with a low skill in practical knowledge could also get an ‘A Pass’ by writing a good theory paper.

There are approximately 5,000 applicants, qualified in their GCE Advanced Level, waiting to gain admission to the University of the Visual and Performing Arts every year. However, taking into consideration the available facilities and space at the university as well as the job market, only a little more than 500 can be accommodated. Because of this reason, it is imperative to select a skilled, practical group with a higher capacity for creativity. More than 100,000 students per year pass their GCE Advanced Levels in this country. From this amount, fewer than 25,000 students are selected for universities. What we do is to select the most suitable student. Regrettably, based on petitions we have been informed by a circular to stop these aptitude tests without having any academic discussion or a proper investigation.

Practice elsewhere

In similar universities in other countries designated for Visual and Performing Arts, an applicant must prove his sensitivity and creativity towards the chosen subjects in the field of Architecture as well. A mere ‘A pass’ at university entrance examinations is not considered a qualification in those universities. The competition is at the admission/aptitude test or at the interview. The aptitude test, personal portfolio or a performance in front of an examination board to judge their capabilities is mandatory in this regard. The Delhi College of Art in India, LaSalle College of Art in Singapore, Tokyo University of Fine Arts & Music in Japan, Central Academy of Fine Arts-Beijing-China, Silpakon University-Bangkok-Thailand, University of Wollongong-Creative Arts-Australia, The University of Arts-London, Academy of Arts University-San Francisco, California, Surikov-Moscow serve as examples.

Removing us from this system is a wrong decision. Subsequently, our universities in the future will produce artistes who can only speak about art but without practical ability. International universities imparting visual and performing art education, pay much attention to these guidelines to maintain the standards of these practical oriented degrees and to uphold their reputations as renowned universities. To list two brief examples, the Royal College of Art in London, accepts only four students per year worldwide for their course in Bronze casting at the Faculty of Fine arts. Likewise, at the State Academy of Art Institute in Moscow, the intake is only nine students per year worldwide. These limitations are based on many factors.

The present Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake, held a one-day seminar at the BMICH under the theme ‘Beyond the Horizon’ soon after he took up his appointment. At this seminar it was stressed that the standard of Sri Lankan universities should be on par with international universities. However, through the autocratic decision that has been taken regarding our university, the standard of recognition for our disciplines has been lowered. These decisions are not compatible with the 21st century vision of Visual and Performing Arts education.

Disregard for procedures

Decisions on examination methods, cut off marks, preparing guidelines etc. are taken by the University Senate based on the recommendations of the Faculty Board. These recommendations are arrived at after several academic discussions, debates and in-depth study of facts. This responsibility is carried out in keeping with the University Act. The decision to do away with the aptitude test has been taken without any such discussions with the Faculty Board of the University. The methodology of legalising these foolhardy decisions is also dangerous. Lecturers are highly frustrated over this decision. An incident that happened during the last year can be cited here as an example.

A circular dated 2011.08.25 and No. UGC/AD/1 was sent to us from the University Grants Commission, under the heading "University Admissions Academic Year 2010-2011 (Extra Intake). It reads:

"This refers to the discussion your university had with the Minister of the Higher Education regarding petitions forwarded by the students in connection with the practical test which was held by your university.

As agreed during those discussions, it has been decided to bring down the pass mark of the practical test to 40% from 50% .... According to this an additional 183 students have been successful in gaining admission to courses being held at your university for the academic year 2010/2011…."

By bringing down the pass mark from 50% to 40%, it can be decided whether we are going beyond the horizon or being limited to this island. What actually happened was that the Vice Chancellor, the three Deans of the Faculties and only the Heads of Departments of the Faculty of Visual Arts were summoned urgently for a discussion with the Minister. The Minister came into the meeting saying, "We have to bring down the pass mark for the practical examination. There were petitions from students against this examination. This has to be stopped." This meeting was neither open for discussion, nor was the minister patient enough to listen to those present. The whole meeting lasted for about 15 minutes. The Heads of the Department were against lowering the pass mark and also against terminating the practical test. Nevertheless last year, lowering the pass mark to 40% was legalised by a circular and accordingly, the extra number of students gained admission to the university. Because of this additional intake we now face many difficulties regarding infrastructural facilities.

Again, from this year the methodology of selecting students from an aptitude test has been terminated without any academic discussion. So much for transparency and academic freedom! It is rumoured that the government has taken this decision as some of the applicants who failed at this aptitude test have political connections and therefore a decision has been taken to lower the marks and terminate the aptitude test.

Insulting lecturers

According to the Minister of Higher Education, the Aptitude Test is tainted with corruption. Lecturers admit students who are on good terms with them, according to him. The Ministry claims to have received many petitions on such alleged malpractices.

This is an insult to the lecturers of our University. If the minister’s claims are true then they should be investigated and punitive action taken against the culprits after an impartial inquiry. It is a common practice in our country for applicants to write petitions when they fail a test. Even in 1998, this aptitude test was suspended by the University Grants Commission. Following objections by the lecturers, the Dean of the Creative Art Faculty of the Wollongong University, Australia, Prof. Sharon Bell was appointed to look into this matter as a one-member committee. Her recommendation at that time was also that the aptitude test was essential to strengthen and develop art education and to make it more productive. I wish to gratefully mention Professor Carlo Fonseka, who supported this decision in his capacity as a member of the University Grants Commission at that time. Accordingly, the test was restored. There are ways and means of conducting this examination free from malpractices. We have experience and the methodology to do so. Even now, the examination boards for these aptitude tests comprise, apart from the permanent lecturers of the faculties of Visual Art, Dance and Music, one visiting expert on the subject, a member of the University Grants Commission, Heads of department and Deans of Faculties. It is illegal for lecturers who are conducting private classes to serve on examination boards. A written declaration is also obtained to this effect from these lecturers. The proper procedure is to find methods to conduct the examinations with complete transparency. Scrapping the aptitude test is not the answer.

The writer is a renowned sculptor. He is former Director of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. He was involved in a campaign which led to the restoration of the aptitude test after its earlier suspension.

(2001 – 2002)

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