Access to excellence

Sat 17 Jun 2017

Summer is one of the toughest periods of the year for anyone graduating from school. This means we are talking about almost one crore students who gave their class XII exam. With an enrolment ratio of around 24.3%, we are looking at almost 30 lakh students desperately trying to obtain good scores in their XII board exams or sitting for entrance examinations for various higher education institutions. If their scores are not good, their careers will be perceived to be dead.

Thirty lakh students! This is an astounding figure for the Darwinian struggle they know they will be getting into. Why? Because the higher education system in India is a binary phenomenon. You either have intellectually elite colleges, a handful of them, or a vast majority of mediocre ones which have lost their ability to even signal the quality of their students — one of the most basic purposes for an educational institution to exist. The trajectory to professional success then crucially hinges on your ability to secure a seat in one of the good colleges.

Cut-throat competition

How many seats are we talking about? The top 10 colleges in, say, arts, science, humanities, engineering, medicine, architecture and law, every year — with the most liberal estimate — will not go beyond 100,000. Now imagine 30 lakh students competing for 100,000 seats. For the top IITs, the selection rate lies at 0.01%. By contrast, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) selection rate is 8%. The QS World University Rankings List was released recently. IIT Delhi, the best from India, secured a rank of 172. MIT was at the top!

The lack of an adequate number of quality institutions then ratchets up the value of the few better ones unusually high. Cut-throat competition for securing a place in a so-called elite institution in India continues to push the cut-off higher every year. Top colleges in the University of Delhi have routinely rejected students who do not score above 95% or so.

This creates a new normal. It puts students into a constant struggle akin to that of ‘survival’. Those who cannot score above 95% are the unfortunate lot, just like the 99% of those students who won’t clear the entrance exam. For a minority who have the resources, they go abroad. The rest gaze at a career unfolding its misery in front of their eyes. A self-defeating impulse reigns, devastating human dignity. It’s an “educational calamity” in India, unreported, unaddressed and as ubiquitous as invisible. There is practically no family that you would know of that has not suffered at the hands of this calamity. Many of these students may become successful in later life, but for the time being, these scars will pain them and their families unbearably. For many, the performance of failure will never be forgotten.

This is not a rhetoric, but let’s pause for a moment to see what have we internalised. What kind of educational structures have we installed in place that create such heinous exclusivity, so early in life? Which school of thought claims that someone lying one notch below the cut-off is not a worthy candidate? And what gives the nation and society the right to judge the character of its citizens based on how many marks they received? Have we become so insensitive that we fail to distinguish between what we need and what we demand? Or are we blindly importing the ideas of competitive performance from economics to humanity, failing to realise that capability enhancement is inherently opposed to the idea of meritocracy?

About avoiding failure

The results are disastrous. Failure becomes the most fearsome entity. The new goal of society is to avoid failure. That alone defines your character, personality and essence of life. Costica Bradatan, the Romanian-American philosopher who is currently writing a book on failure, says that our capacity to fail is essential to what we are. And this capacity is stripped off our students. In the long run, instilling such loathing of failure among our students drives them to recalibrate their ethical compass to what wins, not what is right.

At the heart of this malady is the wretched education system which creates exclusivity and elitism. We have failed to cultivate institutions of excellence for everyone, for people to enjoy growing up in India, to learn while they grow up.

Aristotle, the genius that he was, spoke about telos, the essence and purpose of anything. Justice and ethics are teleological. The primary factor to decide who should be granted admission into a university must then be decided by what the telos of a university is. It’s not scholarly excellence, for if it is so, then affirmative action cannot be allowed. It is in fact promotion of virtuous citizens in a society. Universities are a place of learning values of life, and not just employment. And there is no reason to believe that only those who have academic merit must be worthy of being honorific citizens. In fact for a university that claims itself to be engaged in a nation-building project, all the more reason to select those who do not have good scores.

And how do we do it? Well, as a start, shift the policy discourse from elite to non-elite, ‘B grade’ institutions. That’s where most of our youth are — dissatisfied, while growing up to be part of the country that has given it nothing much.

Yugank Goyal and Arun K. Kaushik teach Economics at O.P. Jindal Global University


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