The cut-off story of DU

Another college admission season in Delhi University (DU) is set to begin within few months.

With 12th boards approaching, students are worried about their future colleges and courses. Last year, we saw the usual stories about insanely high cut-off’s. Ram Lal College, rarely in the news for its academics, hit the headlines with a 100% cut-off in Computer Science. DU officials came on TV and talked about how there are still some seats available in random courses. Weekend supplements carried articles on how to reduce stress on the child and the family as a whole, and how failure doesn’t really matter. Soon, we saw the customary second, third and fourth lists, and the gates closed.

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A tiny fraction of students who scored near perfect scores in their board examinations made it inside the DU fortress. The rest twiddled their thumbs or settled for one of the many private colleges that spend more money on television ads than on real research and academics. As soon as the season ended, media went back to their usual stories of scams and communal politics after the selection of the so-called “best students and future leaders”.
A student who scores 95% is highly unlikely to be worse than a 98% student who gets the seat. In fact, the 95% student may, in fact, be better as the scores are for one exam conducted for a limited range of topics.

The more insane the cut-off’s become, the less the difference between the students who are selected and rejected.

And yet, we continue with this practice, ignoring a child’s talent, personality, communication skills, his or her ability to work in teams, motivation, dreams, vision, imagination, creativity, values, convictions, and opinions. Anyone with substantial life experience would point out that board marks are hardly the primary determinant of future success. So, when the admission comes down to minor differences in scores, it becomes almost irrelevant.

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More subjective and broad admission procedure will ensure inclusion of the best talent. The US for instance, has an elaborate admission process for its top colleges. The selection is based on academics, essays, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation and achievements outside the classroom. This impacts not only the students who finally get in but also influences the rest who aspire to get there. Until we go ahead with these reforms, all this talk of ‘there is more to life than marks’ will ring hollow. If there is indeed more to life, change the admission process. Make it more subjective, over a wider range of topics and choose people who deserve to be leaders of the society.

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A word of caution here, on the word ‘subjective’. The moment anything is made subjective in India, nepotism creeps in. The brutal cut-offs may have many flaws, but the ‘highest marks gets in’ criterion reduces the scope of manipulation. Given how our country works, it is quite likely nephews, nieces and neighbours of the admission committee officials will be seen as outstanding all-rounder candidates. Any reform must ensure that the new admission process is just as accountable, even though subjective. The Army does it, the UPSC does it, and the MBA schools also have multiple criteria. There is no reason DU cannot do it, perhaps with the help of independent advisers. A robust talent identification and promotion system is essential for a progressive society. We’ve not focused on it enough, leading to a warped education system.

Let’s not have another admission season go waste.

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