The irony in India’s College Education

CBSE and ISC boards announced their results in the last few days. What was shocking to see was the focus on the toppers of the respective boards scoring equal to or upwards of 99.5%. As we climb down the ladder, the fall is less than 0.1% per rank, with many students sharing the same rank in most of the cases. And this is  not high school, it is the 12th grade, which now leads to college for the next three or four years. These surely are the most crucial years of a student’s formative years of their life. I intend to discuss India’s college education from a few viewpoints in this article. I have borrowed a few ideas from Satish Deshpande’s June 2006 EPW paper, Exclusive Inequalities and build up on them in the current context. We start the discussion keeping in mind that from this point onwards, universality of education does not apply anymore.

A top score of 99% or more make a decent score of 80% look menial. There is no reason to not celebrate if you have scored an 80%, it means 8 out of 10 answers are correct, and that is a fantastic position to be in, but then, if the topper has 9.9 answers correct out of 10, you may want to rethink the implications. In this free distribution of marks, you may bump a kid who might otherwise score 85% to a 95%+ score, and similarly a 60% kid to an extremely inflated 80% score, but does that lead anywhere? Everyone in the middle gets bumped up too, leading to extremely high cut-offs. The 60% kid, who is now shown to have scored an 80 and is amazingly happy about it, remains without a college seat in a decent institution. If at all he wants to pursue college education, he has to pay an extremely high monetary price for it, and still not be attached to a University of recognition.

Students’ parents are now paying out of their nose for their children’s education, right from the beginning of their child’s school-going life. This problem gets more magnified and intense when looked at together with the previous one. Paying such a high fee for an undergraduate education makes no economic sense. Firstly, you will not land a decent paying job immediately after your graduation, if you are not from an IIT. Secondly, a mediocre college or deemed University is not helping you much inherently for a postgraduate course from an esteemed Institute, unless you are a brilliant and highly determined kid. Thus, sending a kid to a mediocre college is not an investment that is going to give you returns, but only add to your future expenditure.

Let us compare this to the scenario of New York State, where the Government has guaranteed free college education. Again, this is not universal free college education, even though that may nearly be the case there, as the number of students is way less than India and the number of seats may equate them. With Government expenditure in India on education falling, and the highest proportion of expenditure going to higher education, is a New York-like scenario imaginable? The tuition and hostel fee combined for IIM Ahmedabad is close to Rs. 24 lakhs for the entire programme.

No Postgraduate course is cheap, the only exception being JNU. But jokes apart, Postgraduate studies are a privilege you have to work for. Not everyone can aspire to be an engineer, or a doctor, or even an economist, for it requires a lot of aptitude and mental capability to achieve the same. Thus, it makes perfect sense to have lower number of seats at that level, to maintain quality standards. However, two things happen here. One, the gap between number of students passing out of college and of those getting accepted to postgraduate courses is huge and increasing, keeping other things like pursuit of foreign higher education constant. Second, these lower number of seats are gutted with reservations. As Deshpande’s paper goes on to explain, reservations are of utmost importance at the postgraduate level for it uplifts students belonging to underprivileged backgrounds where generations and generations have faced atrocities. This leads to a crunch of seats for those applying under the General or Open category. This is of course a debate that has been around for than a couple of decades, of whether affirmative action is required, or is done in a correct way.

Inflating scores and fees is only hurting students who want to pursue college education but fall short by a few marks sometimes, or a few thousand rupees. Then, is it now time to ask if the contemporary marks system is of any use? How much of a role can the teacher play to gauge what the student is good at or bad at? Can the entire college education system be based on recommendations given by teachers? Will this make education non-commercial, non-competitive and help impart more knowledge to the student who finally is not under pressure always about scoring a 20/20 on the next monthly test? These are some really crucial questions that policy makers should ask themselves. Yes, there are a ton of students and the student-teacher ratio is going up the roof. Another article can be written on the quality of college teachers. But this vicious circle needs to be broken somewhere. College education is as undermined in India, as sanitation or health, and needs a new set of eyes to be looked at from.



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