After the faulty first implementation of the computer-based CAT thwarted the dreams of several IIM aspirants in the country in 2009, there are high expectations from Prometric and the IIMs for an unblemished CAT 2010 from everybody involved in the management education sector. Here's a look at stakeholders who are praying for a frictionless CAT and why.
1. The MBA applicant community is expecting a smooth CAT because it needs to develop the confidence that the computer-based testing format can be an accurate and fair assessment of their capabilities. It's disappointing to invest months into studying hard for a dream that gets aborted by a faulty system. Besides the expectations of a community, there's a lot of money riding here. Even if we assume that half of this year's CAT aspirants have spent in total Rs 20,000 on coaching and buying b-school forms, that's a fat Rs 200 crore breathed into the industry (a very conservative calculation, as the CAT-coaching industry alone is valued at Rs 400 crores). If the biggest MBA entrance exam of the country fails again, it is a threat to the industry as a whole.
2. Business schools are praying for a smooth CAT for two reasons. First, those that use the CAT score for admissions would like to develop the confidence in potential recruiting companies that their students have indeed been filtered through a truly meritorious process. Second, many b-schools which still organize a paper-pencil test are waiting and watching for the CAT to turn out right so that they too can take their entrance test online. Taking an exam to the computer has clear benefits for a b-school, but those such as IIFT do not wish to do it if there is going to be embarrassment at the end of it.
3. Management faculty of b-schools that hold their own exam invariably bears the brunt of the task during the weeks leading to the exam. Quite like government schoolteachers who are forcibly put on duty at polling-booths during the time of elections, it is the b-school's faculty who has to travel to exam centers across the country to supervise a smooth test. It's a job professors hate doing and would therefore like a system that gives them back time for doing what they are good at --- teaching, consultancy and research. If the CAT 2010 runs like a normal exam, more b-schools with their own tests will want to go online, which would be a move their professors will welcome with open arms.
4. Test-preparation institutes have been in an unenviable position this year. In 2009 when the CAT went computer-based, most invested crores on computer laboratories (directly or as franchisee businesses), powerful websites and Internet-based test infrastructure hoping that the growth in the number of CAT takers will continue from where it left in 2008 (2.76 lakh candidates took CAT 200. However, a natural discomfort with computer-tests has been said to be a major cause in the decline of the number of people taking CAT (the number dropped to 2.4 lakh in 2009 and further to 2.04 lakh in 2010). This obviously derails the core businesses of many test-preparatory companies. If the CAT 2010 is conducted successfully without major glitches, the confidence generated could send the CAT-taking population back on growth path, bringing back hope to the Rs 400-crore CAT coaching industry.
5. Computer-testing companies, especially those competing with Prometric have been direct victims of the CAT 2009 fiasco. The murmur in the computer-testing industry is that of general disgust. It appears that until CAT 2009 started, several universities and educational institutions in the country were approaching the final stages of moving their entrance tests to the computer in collaboration with a handful of testing companies. They stopped short as the CAT 2009 started receiving bad press. Several deals between the testing-agencies and colleges were frozen. "Frankly, the mismanagement of the CAT has brought a bad name to the entire industry and although as a competitor I should not be saying so, but I really hope that they handle the CAT better this year," said a gentlemen in the senior management of one such testing company to me last week. The higher-education entrance-examination market is valued at Rs 4,440 crores and these testing companies want more than just a piece of it. They are clearly eyeing a successful CAT so that shying colleges return to the negotiating tables again.
6. The Indian Institutes of Management as a brand was accused of being managers only in talk but not in action. Indeed, to conventional wisdom, it was confounding why management institutes failed when it came to executing what they taught. Debates born at the time of 2008's economic recession were stoked in context --- did the CAT fail because the IIMs' project management knowledge was all merely theoretical? The IIMs are already facing a number of challenges in various frontiers --- crippling faculty crunch, new IIMs opened in economically backward locations, financing growth, the impending threat from foreign universities, etc. They do not need a 'CAT 2010 fiasco'. Therefore the IIMs themselves would be looking forward to a credible CAT.
7. Prometric, the testing company that delivers the CAT has perhaps more at stake than any other. CAT 2009 not only brought it a tremendous amount of bad press, there was a brief period in which according to sources, it was on the verge of losing the $40 million CAT contract with the IIMs to another testing company. In terms of perception, the company was flogged on practically every student forum as the spoiler of careers and in general became a very hated company. As day after day in CAT 2009 threw up more failed computers, more cancelled centers and angry IIM-hopefuls, the company was either inaccessible (the student helpline was poorly handled and the press was given very vague replies) or issuing stock denials completely incongruent with the buzz on the ground. No wonder that CAT 2010 hopefuls had a sentiment of skepticism for Prometric.
The Prometric of this year is noticeably humbler than that of last year. The company has proactively tried to reach out to the CAT junta through the press at regular intervals and has gone to the extent of explaining complex psychometric evaluation methodologies to journalists via senior experts from Prometric, USA. While that has had limited effect in terms of mainstream journalists actually penning those concepts down in their coverage (journalists tend to be Math-phobic), the effort is notable. The CAT website works better than last year (save a brief hacking episode), the helplines haven't been a reason for complaints and things have generally been looking alright.
However, much depends on how smoothly Prometric conducts the CAT 2010, how it reacts and sounds like if a crisis situation resulting in a public outcry occurs again. If it can win this battle, it will stand to benefit from short public memory that remembers anything by the quality of its last action.