Between Equality and Excellence: India’s Higher Education Dilemma
Why does the University of Delhi use such a rigid, almost purely marks-based criteria for admissions?
Delhi University (DU) has directed colleges to do away with any riders, or extra eligibility criteria for students seeking admission to the university. The only colleges exempt from the rule are St. Stephen’s College and Jesus & Mary College.
The move is in keeping with what has now become a long-standing tradition in the University towards centralisation and uniformity.
Why do colleges in India in general, and Delhi University in particular, have such a rigid, almost purely marks-based criteria for admissions?
A Question of Numbers
Over 54,000 undergraduate seats are up for grabs at DU. Last year, there were a whopping 2,70000 applicants, and the number is only likely to rise this year.
The staggering scale of the operation poses more than just an administrative dilemma. Considering our population, there are very few quality institutions in the country. This places an inordinate strain on the institutions that do function with an acceptable degree of competence.
There is no objective criteria, besides marks and grades, to determine which students are best suited to a particular course or college.
But what about subjective criteria? Shouldn’t colleges be allowed to decide how they select students? Perhaps debating skills and sports, along with academia is something a particular institution wants in it’s students.
Also, entrance examinations are not conducted uniformly across colleges. Entrances often prove to be a relatively better way to chose students, as board exams do not necessarily work out equally for all applicants. Only a few departments in certain colleges (e.g. English departments) hold entrance tests.
However, in a country as complicated as India, answers are never as simple as that.
Everyone’s a Topper
Marks today are higher than ever before, and so are cut-offs. Are kids today genuinely smarter than all the ones that came before? Quite unlikely. Clearly, checking has become more lenient, which has led to grade inflation.
Exams are not always an accurate way to judge academic potential. Tuition centres have more or less cracked the system and can basically ensure you get a decent mark with little or no talent.
So how can colleges decide which students are the best? Well, they raise the bar to entry. Sometimes as high as it can go. Seriously, cut-offs have touched a 100 per cent last year!
Now with this latest move, colleges are no longer allowed to use any discretion at all in accepting students. Can the cut-offs go even higher?
Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater
The reasons behind restricting admissions are fairly simple and compelling.
1. People from privileged backgrounds and private schools have a massive advantage when it comes to ‘soft’ subjective criteria e.g. theatre, art, debating, etc.
2. The more discretion we leave in the hands of college authorities, the greater the chance of corruption and nepotism.
These are both valid points. However, the fear of corruption and favouritism cannot be a reason for compromising on excellence. Academic institutions need to be free, and yes, trustworthy enough to choose their students.
The law does provide for economically and socially weaker sections as it should.
A well-rounded and diverse student body cannot be obtained merely by accepting students on the basis of exorbitant marks. Competent, honest academics and administrators need to be able to nuance that criteria somewhat. The need of the day is a weighted admission system that takes into account marks, extracurricular activities, economic, and social background etc.
The real hurdle to this isn’t corruption, but the sheer pressure of numbers our top universities face. Unless there is an expansion of universities across A and B terms, the quality of education and students will only go down, even if their marks keep increasing.
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