When will our colleges make the grade?

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The 100 percent cut-off is a symptom of a broken education system. Will opening up the sector raise the bar? Rohini Mohan reports on the mess

Photos:Pushkar Vyas

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of a 100 percent cut-off by Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi has invoked every cliché in the history of discussions about Indian education. A fresh batch of students is frustrated, a new mob of parents let down, the same handful of top colleges apathetic and another embattled Human Resource Development (HRD) minister assuring rehashed education policy changes. The debate is only marginally less cynical and despondent than those between bored co-passengers on a long train journey.

Disturbingly, what occupies the foreground in the glut of opinion is a bunch of policy suggestions responding solely to the drama of a student’s heartbreak. No one wants stressed students scarred for life with an unfair sense of failure, of course, but the solutions seem to all lie in demanding lower cut-offs, more seats in colleges, and more private colleges. To use a journalistic cliché to describe a governmental cliché: knee-jerk reactions. Strawberry ice-cream for a hungry toddler.

“Lower cut-offs are still cut-offs, private players and more seats won’t help, as long as the obstacles of capitation fees and purely marks-based admissions remain,” says educationist Anil Sadagopal. “The education sector has been desperate for a revamp for three decades, but the real solutions are not those being suggested today.”

Some colleges have outsourced their admission process to private players and that has added to the woes, says Sadagopal.

The fix-its today are trying to tackle the immediate questions. How did SRCC dare to raise the cut-off to an impossible 100 percent? The college says there are enough 12th standard graduates in CBSE schools with a 100 percent score to merit the centum bar. But does it not exclude a lot of bright, ‘less-perfect’ students and increase competition to a fever pitch? Undoubtedly. And it also makes things difficult for students from ICSE and strict state boards.

Future tense The government’s policy of under-funding higher education has resulted in students fighting for a seat in a shrinking circle of good colleges

Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal recently promised that admission tests would soon replace cut-offs, therefore reducing the obsession with marks. Plus, for a country with a myriad boards — state, ICSE, CBSE— all of which have varied practices of teaching and marking, perhaps entrance tests could serve as an equaliser.

Privatisation in the south has resulted in higher fees and abysmal quality, says Prof Yash Pal

But entrance tests, as the IIT-JEE and CAT experience shows us, will only feed the coaching industry. Former Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental warns that entrance tests destroy creativity and devalue school education. Even if introduced, he believes, it should be only half the admission criteria. “We will be doomed if instead of going to schools, all the kids sit in coaching classes,” he says.

The less obvious questions about why students are still applying to these colleges, or choosing careers the system slots them into, however, explode the debate into a realm of what education, and access to it, means in India. Colleges like SRCC, IITs, and a handful of others centred in metropolitan cities, are brands that ensure students not only jobs, but also an admission into a sort of elite club. They believe they will be set for life. As more students apply to top colleges, but fewer get in, the exclusivity itself, self-fulfillingly, makes the colleges more sought-after.

Somewhere in the HRD ministry is a file with a wonderfully daunting name, Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India, authored by a 24-member team, and submitted in June 2009, well before the cut-off rage was unleashed. It proposes less standardisation (removal of uniform syllabi, fixed subjects, and marksoriented admissions), and more autonomy for educational institutions.

Prof  Yash Pal, who chaired that team, says that the government, by over-regulating what is taught, who teaches it, and who gets admission where, has ossified every bit of fluidity.

“By dividing education into science, commerce and arts disciplines, we have created sacred little islands that don’t interact with each other,” says Pal. “Standardisation is a sure way of manufacturing ball bearings, not educating people.”

In a broader sense, the incredible cutoff is an indirect result of the government policy of under-funding higher education. “There’s today no plan for improving the 500 universities and 20,000-plus colleges in India,” says Sadagopal.

Given this, there is a steady decline in the quality of institutions offering higher education. In the end, the few good colleges can demand their pound of flesh — cut-offs and prohibitive fees.

To accommodate the rising number of rejected applicants, the government and a section of the education sector propose more private colleges.

The principal of a Delhi college, requesting anonymity, says that opening up the education market will lead to competitive pricing and more access. But many educationists fear it will addle education with a profit motive. “Why will fees drop as long as banks keep providing low-interest education loans?” asks Sadagopal.

“In the south, where there is great privatisation of higher education, fees are only going up, and quality is abysmal,” says Pal. He points out that the majority of reputed colleges in the country (good education, not the ones with good ads, he adds) are government-run. “As soon as the motive is solely profit, there is exclusion, and corruption.”

Entrance tests, as the JEE and CAT experience shows, will only feed the coaching industry

STILL, THE magic spell is not bigger state budget allocation. Only money will not make a difference. “What we need is to realise that the objective of higher education now is to produce highly skilled but an entirely slavish and unimaginative workforce that serves the global market,” says Sadagopal. “We have squeezed out the Tagores and CV Ramans.”

Today, we have more proof, in a sense, that our education system is broken. The search for the perfect, 100 percent student raises scary, long-term issues that might not console today’s SRCC applicant, but addressing them could mean wonderful things in a few years.

Like being able to do engineering and social work, or violin and politics as your majors. Like the establishment of more colleges in the Northeast, or a top-class university in a town in the Konkan. In other words, college degrees for more of the 86 percent of young Indians who cannot dream of having one today.

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
rohini@tehelka.com

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