Why the college cut-off system needs to be rethought.
For many first-time voters, the most anticipated results in May will not be of the elections, they will be the results of an assortment of exams. For a vast majority of students thinking about higher education prospects, this induces a nervous dread. The supply of good institutions is woefully small, the competition fierce and the structures of pedagogy almost life denying. More of the privileged students will secede from the system by going abroad. Higher education reform is urgently required. But it is going to remain a formidable challenge. The regulatory tangle the courts and government have created, the political economy of vested interests in the system and obduracy in large parts of the academic establishment have slowed down constructive change. This sector is notoriously hard to change; 15 years of missed opportunities make it hard to drum up confidence that change is imminent.
But there is perhaps one modest proposal that might mitigate some of the pathologies associated with the current system of admissions. The current system is based on scoring high on exams to determine college places. But as cut-offs increase, as more and more students bunch around particular marks, so does the neurosis of the system as a whole, since every marginal mark counts. The difference between 98 and 98.5 per cent can make a huge difference to your prospects. So there is a single-minded pursuit of the marginal mark, almost at the cost of a real education.
This administrative principle has given rise to some myths. The first is the myth of meritocracy: the idea that the person who got 98.5 per cent deserves, in some deep sense, to get a place above the kid who got 98 per cent. The students who get in have a sense of entitlement. The second myth is that having only high scorers (leave aside the issue of reservation for a moment), makes for better colleges. Both of these are myths. Most educators have the sense that within some bandwidths of achievement, any random distribution of selected students would produce similar results. This is true of universities like Harvard; it could probably just randomly choose from a large pool of applicants above a certain threshold and still get similar results. Similarly, a Delhi University college that cuts off admission at 96 per cent would probably be no worse off if it just randomly chose students above a certain percentage, maybe 85 or 90 per cent.
Universities perpetuate the myth that something objectively distinguishes a selected group of students from those that did not get in, but who were also above a certain threshold. This may be true at a scale approaching genius, but it is not true for a vast majority of students, even at the top end of the distribution. The difference between the 500 who get into a particular college and the next 5,000 is negligible. It is at most, as someone once put it, an aptitude for showing aptitude, perhaps not even that. Anyone who has served on admission committees knows that.
If this is the case, why not go for a saner and fairer admission process which is a form of weighted lottery? Just as a crude example, a college where cut-offs might be 97 per cent could simply say: we will put anyone above 90 per cent into a lottery. The exact number is not important and would, of course, have to be arrived at with care. There will have to be consideration of what the thresholds are. We might also want to think of weighted systems: your probability becomes greater at different thresholds. These issues can be debated. But you get the general idea. What are the advantages of this system?
First, it may cut down the neurosis induced by the quest for the marginal mark, a quest whose psychological and pedagogical consequences are debilitating. Being good enough is good enough, and that philosophy may allow for more creativity and diverse interests to flourish. Second, this is a more honest system. It says that we know how to make broad distinctions between students in different bands of achievement. But it is fooling both ourselves and the students to think that there are some objective criteria by which we have distinguished a 98 from a 98.5 per cent. Yet we have legitimised an entire system on this pretence. Third, it will completely bust this myth of meritocracy, in which we cloak happenstance. It is probably a healthier attitude for those who get in to recognise that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of kids who could easily have taken their place without a drop in quality. The sense of entitlement that a pure meritocracy induces is hugely deleterious. Fourth, you may actually end up with a more interesting mix of students.
If designed well, there should be few pedagogical objections to the lotteries within bandwidths approach. The big resistance will come from those who have a stake in current institutional identities. Institutional reputations are bound to these circles of illusion: “X college is the best because its cut-off is 98 per cent, and the cut-off is 98 per cent because it is the best.” Our investment in these illusory fine gradations does not come from pedagogic goals. It comes from the need to create and maintain social distinctions between colleges and among students. This scheme would not do away with such gradations entirely. Colleges will be able to sustain minimal cut-offs for the threshold, based on their quality. In fact, it might be healthier for truly distinguishing good colleges from less good ones. This is because the entire burden of quality signals will not be borne by the admission cut-offs only. To show they are genuinely good, colleges will have to do more than parade their cut-offs.
This is not a one size fits all recommendation. There may be some courses where the finest distinctions matter to pedagogical outcomes. The Dutch apparently have such a system for admission to medical colleges. Different institutions should try different methods. We also need to have a larger debate on what we are testing for. We need a strategy for creating or improving vast numbers of good institutions. But as an approach to university admissions, this may not be unreasonable. Lotteries often militate against our sense of achievement and entitlement. But as the Greeks knew, lotteries can also be more honest and fair. This system has the advantage that if thresholds for eligibility are defined intelligently, this method does not compromise on excellence. But it does get rid of the neurosis that myths of pure meritocracy and illusory distinctions can produce.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’