As thousands of school-leavers seeking admission to colleges and universities navigate their aspirations through the labyrinth of skyrocketing “cut-offs”, the uncertainties imposed by COVID-19 have exacerbated anxiety levels. Almost 80 per cent of the 37.4 million students who inhabit the higher education space are undergraduates. The nearly 40,000 colleges added approximately eight lakh students in 2019 and 10,59,080 students passed the CBSE Board exams alone this year. About 1,50,000 scored more than 90 per cent and 38 per cent of them more than 95 per cent in this one Board alone. A number of these “high-achievers” are unlikely to gain admission into the top 50 institutions for courses of their choice this year.
The recent petition in the Delhi High Court by two young artists — challenging the decision of the University of Delhi (DU) to scrap the extracurricular activities (ECA) quota for art and culture from the academic year 2020-21 — brings home “serious shortcomings” in the very basis of “selection”. The incomprehensible retention of the more muscular “sports quota” appears to indicate that the clout of the powerful sports federations seems to have protected them from the axe.
DU had, for several decades, provided for a reservation of up to 5 per cent of seats for students who demonstrated exceptional talent in sports and cultural activities allowing for up to a 15 per cent compensation in marks. This was intended to draw in students who, though less dexterous in “cracking” the Board examination, could potentially add value to the mosaic of events and activities that enhance the undergraduate experience.
Colleges of the university that built and sustained reputations on the quality and range of their academic and cultural canvases used this enabling, not compulsory, provision to judicious advantage to nurture the diverse potential of their students. Most of them devised transparent criteria and methodologies for evaluating performance standards to legitimately provide for what Howard Gardner calls “multiple intelligences” to play out and find articulation. A space opened for those not batting purely on an academic wicket to attempt a bricolage around the barriers of evaluations based on formulaic standardisation. It also provided an opportunity for the inventiveness of “non-conformers” to strike an unusual trail and, as Thoreau said, march to the beat of a different drum.
Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) in India today take pride in that their admission processes are based purely on “merit” and consequently are “impartial” and “objective”. Herein lies a contradiction. “Merit” in everyday parlance has become conflated with marks obtained in Board examinations.
The unrealistically high cut-offs, where a shortfall of a mere 0.25 per cent can be a make-or-break situation for the student and an arbiter of her future, have paradoxically turned into algorithms for weeding out, not selection.
Between the CBSE, ICSE, IB and several state school boards there exist wide disparities in the awarding of marks. Some state boards have earned notoriety for routinely inflating scores to provide their students easier access to the best HEIs. Others have been overly parsimonious and non-facilitative. Do we need to wait till the average marks awarded by school boards catapult to 99 or even 100 per cent to unscramble what we describe as the “merit” criteria?
The examination-rank method and the “merit-only position” as sociologist Satish Deshpande reminds us, also obscures the causal contribution of pervasive socio-economic inequalities towards the unequal distribution of merit that blocks access to higher educational opportunities.
With an exponential increase in the numbers of students seeking admission and the growing demand for one-window procedures to reduce inconvenience to admission seekers, large affiliating public universities, like DU (with over 77 colleges) and Mumbai University (with more than 700) adopted centralised registration procedures. They came under persistent pressure to curtail pluralism and diversity and standardise admission-criteria in the interest of “transparency”. In the process, several colleges, (other than minority institutes), including the so-called autonomous colleges in the country, either lost or abdicated to their parent universities their crucial role in shaping the selection processes best suited to their mission, ethos and vision for the future. The centralised admission for sports and ECA at DU was the culmination of these broader processes underway for several years.
The assumption that centralised processes are more fair and objective remains unsubstantiated. The tendency towards centralisation in the higher education space in India has earned it the sobriquets of “over-regulated” and “under-governed”. The penchant for micromanagement and control afflicting all tiers of the higher education hierarchy, right up to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, has divested many colleges — especially in public universities — of both agency and self-confidence. This gap between policy pronouncements and reality on greater freedom for colleges remains an abiding contradiction.
A system that fetishises standardisation is inherently mechanistic — equipped to plot “output” but impervious to qualitative learning trajectories. Admission processes must be in tune with the imagination of the academy as a ruminative space where students are given a chance at every possible avenue of creative exploration. Evaluations must be done by those who will teach the applicants and are best positioned to assess them. The portals of higher education must be rendered hospitable to a diversity of talent, open to what Amartya Sen calls “capacious heterodoxy” — transcending the silos and hierarchies of departments and disciplines.
This involves meticulous hard work and cannot be compressed into two frenetic months. The best universities in the world take a year on an average to select and admit students. The UK-based Times Higher Education lists some of the criteria that the top 50 universities adopt when selecting students. In addition to good grades, they include a positive attitude towards study, a passion for the chosen subject, the capacity to work and think independently, to complete tasks, an inquiring mind, good writing skills, ability to work well with groups and, interestingly, “common sense”. Applications are carefully assessed and balanced with “needs blind” and “leg-up” affirmative action processes. The applicant is more than a number. She represents both potential and aspiration. It is sobering that, of the 7,50,000 Indian students who have moved on to study in some of the best universities abroad, several may well have been pipped at the “cut-off’ post in their own country.
A liberal education of quality, whether in the arts or sciences, is also experiential learning that attempts to harmonise the physical, intellectual, social and aesthetic dimensions, infusing the voyage of discovery, the spirit of adventure and liberty that Bertrand Russell advocated as integral to “the creation of an educated democracy”.
It seems ironical that today, in the land of Aurobindo, Tagore, J Krishnamurthy and S Radhakrishnan, their protean vision of holistic learning, though extensively taught and invoked, finds little application in higher education practice. The synthesis that nurtures the “Whole Mind” to make connections across disciplines must be restored to the canvas of learning especially if, as its proponents remind us, the future belongs “to creators, empathisers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers”.
Knowledge, experience and wisdom from diverse fields must permeate the everyday discourse, practice and rhythm of colleges and universities for the tokenism of quotas to be rendered redundant. What we need today is an iconoclastic reclaiming of our own Shantiniketan moment.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 22, 2020 under the title ‘Reclaim Shantiniketan moment’. The writer is Chair, Centre for Policy Research and Principal Emerita, Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi
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