What can be said about an education system in which a prestigious Delhi University college sets 100 per cent marks as a cut-off for entry to undergraduate courses? That it is broken, perhaps irreparably. That it rewards a laughable idea of perfection, rather than intelligence and inquiry. That an outdated system of evaluating a student’s “merit” and “ability” has, in a frenzied race to the bottom, run out of relevance and value. The Indian education system has long set itself up for such a fall.
It is an open secret that the majority of the country’s schools fail in nudging children towards inquiry, curiosity or learning. The tyranny of marks has long crushed the spirit of many Indian students, but, at least, it had a limited use for higher education institutions in assessing their capacity for a degree. As school boards have out-competed each other in an insane “grade inflation” over the years, however, it has made those very grades increasingly meaningless. An analysis of CBSE Class XII results revealed, for example, that a 95 per cent aggregate in 2017 was 21 times as prevalent as it was in 2004.
The marking system is dead, long live marks. But the cut-off crisis in DU spotlights more cracks in the edifice. The obsession with the elite college itself is a sign of a massive skew and supply gap in Indian education. Around 3.5 lakh students applied for 70,000 seats in DU colleges this year, setting thousands of students up for failure and anxiety. Beyond these shiny icons of “excellence” scattered in Delhi and some state capitals, lies the vast, un-lit wasteland of higher education, both private and government, which doles out a half-baked learning experience to the majority of Indians. For those hobbled by inequalities of caste, gender and class, such bad colleges push them further into a cycle of deprivation. The National Education Policy has suggested a common entrance system for university admissions as a way out of this crisis. Such a system will also call upon colleges to have the freedom and resources to engage with applications on an individual level — and not just reduce a student to her marksheet.
The government must find ways to push school boards to inject a dose of sanity to its marking system. But, even so, only a reimagination of education and a greater inclusivity of opportunity can rescue it from the obscenity of the 100 per cent cutoff.
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