Written by Parth Maniktala and Prashant Khurana
One of the features that sets Delhi University (DU) apart from many other public universities in India is its commitment to diversity. DU has for decades served as a socio-cultural hub for people from across the country. The university’s diversity isn’t just restricted to ethnic, regional, or religious inclusiveness – it is also a diversity of thoughts, skills, and ambitions. And one of the hallmarks of this diversity has been the Extra-Curricular Activities (ECA) quota, which provides an avenue to students with exceptional skills in activities like dance, drama, debate, creative writing and much else to seek admission into prestigious colleges. Colleges have to reserve not more than 5 per cent seats in each course under the ECA and sports quota combined. The selected students could avail of a 15 per cent relaxation in cut-offs.
Unfortunately, DU has decided to scrap admissions through the ECA quota this year because of the pandemic. This policy, however, does not apply to those seeking admission under the sports quota or through the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and the National Service Scheme (NSS). Though trials stand cancelled across the board, students can apply through these avenues based on their certificates. The university has reasoned that certificates under these categories provide easier verification, and so credentials may be assessed without actual trials.
We do not challenge the reliability of sporting, NCC or NSS certificates, and we concede that certificate verification for ECA students is cumbersome, given the variety of competitions and their differing reliability. However, as individuals who have been involved with ECA admissions as both organisers and aspirants, we can attest that certificates are not of primary importance in the selection process. They are usually relied on for sorting out the obviously frivolous or weak applications. Beyond that, the real test of a candidate has always been trials. But the DU administration seems unwilling to explore alternative options for conducting trials: They can be moved online for most categories; and, where not possible, they can be conducted with reasonable social distancing.
DU has ruled out online trials fearing “lag or glitches”. However, for the past three months, DU has been more than insistent on conducting online examinations for final-year students using the same medium. Presumably, entrances for several bachelors and masters-level courses would also be conducted online. In this context, technical issues – albeit a reality – cannot be a valid reason to deny thousands of talented aspirants their shot at a DU seat.
Trials can be conducted over platforms like Skype or Zoom, which are already being relied on for online classes. These platforms are free, and even offer recording facilities to ensure transparency. We recognise that online trials would raise genuine concerns about accessibility. But the solution there is not to kill the process altogether; rather the University must undertake sincere measures to increase access and inclusivity. For instance, students from regions that have restricted internet access should be allowed to upload their audition videos later, as opposed to taking live trials. Similarly, delays in uploading videos can be understood, and the university can be more accommodative of individual requests. When faced with a crisis such as the present one, universities have an obligation to institute mechanisms that reduce accessibility barriers. They must not, instead, prioritise their own convenience over what is good for the students. Notably, several world-class universities are taking up their students’ causes in times of peril: Harvard and MIT are going as far as to sue the US government over the new ICE guidelines that require international college students to leave the country.
Indian universities have retained an archaic process of admissions based solely on qualifying examinations – ostensibly to introduce objectivity and fairness. This, however, is a false equivalence: Objectivity by itself doesn’t guarantee fairness. Exams create a single point of entry and fail to account for impediments like differences in socio-economic status, personal conditions at the time of the exam, the vast difference in educational outcomes among schools based on location and funding, and a host of other factors. This is not to say that the ECA quota is without its issues; but, at the very least, it offers the prospect of a more inclusive admission process.
Premier universities across the world have adopted a more holistic admissions criteria, where a student’s academic merit is often weighed alongside their contribution to extracurricular activities, and other social or professional efforts. DU, on the other hand, has become notorious for its towering cutoffs – going as high as 99 per cent. In this environment of cut-throat academic competition, the ECA quota offers a much-needed respite to those who went beyond the confines of the classroom and developed other aspects of their personality. Students who devoted innumerable hours in honing their non-academic talents cannot suddenly be told to compete with others who did not make such investments of time and effort. This is where the ECA quota balances things out; it offers students a chance to be rewarded in fields they truly excel in.
For one of the authors of this article, the ECA quota has been life-changing. They hadn’t scored enough marks in the Class 12 Boards to secure a seat in any DU college. Last month, they completed their LL.M. from a prestigious foreign university. Had it not been for the ECA quota – that secured them a seat in DU – and offered countless opportunities, this journey would have never been possible.
Extra-curricular activities aren’t just hobbies that students at DU pursue, they are often the most defining part of their college lives. They enable students to form new perspectives about society, register dissent against oppression, share their ideas with the world, and pursue myriad undiscovered paths. It is no surprise then that some of the country’s greatest artistic talent has emerged from this university.
By scrapping the ECA quota, not only have talented students been denied the opportunity of studying at DU, but DU has been deprived of the brilliant and powerful ideas and expressions these students would have added to its environment.
Maniktala is an LLB Candidate at the Faculty of Law, DU. Khurana is an LLM graduate from the UCLA School of Law, USA