Are high cut-off marks for subjects that require reflection and introspection an indication of a larger malaise, asks Radhika Santhanam.

Shyamini Mehta, intelligent and articulate, had been scoring the highest in English in her class right through school. But when her CBSE Board exam results were announced this year, this 18-year-old was shocked to find that hers was among the low scores: “only” 75 per cent. “I aspired to study Economics at Delhi University but after I got to know my marks, I understood there was no chance,” she says. Shyamini scored high in her TOEFL exam, however, and is now ready to pursue an undergraduate degree in the U.K.

Amritha Ram, a student from the ISC Board, says no humanities student from her class even applied for courses in the “best colleges” for humanities in the country as the cut-offs were “too demanding.” Cut-offs, referred to as “high” earlier, are now “unattainable”, complain students. One student says that even 90 per cent is a “low score” while others even refuse to divulge their marks.

Cut-offs have created a system of inclusion and exclusion in higher education where career choices and college options are determined by only one set of exams. A minute percentage of students, as a result, successfully surmount the odds and pressure to pursue courses in colleges that are their first choice. The rest often choose courses that they are not necessarily interested in and some enrol themselves in colleges such as St. Xavier’s College (Mumbai), or Presidency College (Kolkata), for the brand value alone.

But what makes the debates on cut-offs interesting now is that they span all disciplines, with the humanities also joining the coveted above-90 league. The first cut-off in Lady Shri Ram College for Women was 96 per cent for Psychology while St Stephens College demanded a minimum of 95.25 per cent from humanities applicants. “And we used to get excited with a 70 per cent in English when we were students,” laughs Dr Sujata Ramanathan, former Head of Department of Sociology, Stella Maris College. High cut-offs, especially in subjects that require students to reflect and introspect, are indicative of a larger malaise.

Craze for marks

“The education system is going through many changes right now but it is facing a strange sort of crisis,” explains Deepika Papneja, Assistant Professor, Department of Elementary Education, Lady Shri Ram College for Women. “On the one hand, NCERT textbooks have improved in content tremendously. Humanities is no longer about rote learning; it seems to be more application-based. “But at the same time, more marks are given to students, and students only aim for marks. Securing high marks in subjects such as Psychology, where understanding of the subject is important, is now so easy. It’s an unusual contradiction and I don’t know when this craze for marks will stop,” she says.

Knowing the meaning of concepts alone in humanities is not sufficient. Explication of them also entails a historical understanding of their origin, and the context in which they arose. For example, for a political science student to know what democracy now means in India also requires learning why it emerged as a form of government in Greece. Similarly, merely knowing the meaning of patriarchy is not sufficient to understand how it is manifested, violently and subtly, in everyday life.

To mull over these elastic concepts and find them altering form is what makes the humanities fascinating.

What has gone wrong?

The problem with our education system is that we pay more attention to performance rather than this understanding, says Sujata. “As these subjects are qualitative in nature, students can provide variable answers. Teachers face a problem when they correct papers,” she says. With no fixed formulae as reference points for marking, it is no wonder that all Boards resort to the same system of grading. They check if key words are mentioned, expect students to list a couple of points and mark them accordingly. “Even in an English exam, we were expected to write the basic points and underline them,” says Ajita Singh, who is pursuing a degree in Philosophy.

The route towards cut-offs, as the best solution to pick out the good students, starts at the school-level. After passing out from different streams in high school, all students are massed together and assessed with the same parameters before joining college. But when they all pass out of school having written the same points and scored exceptionally well, this creates an atmosphere of stress and desperation and cut-throat competition. “I don’t understand why entrance exams have been done away with for some subjects in some colleges,” says Deepika, when speaking of solutions. “Colleges should also set an entrance exam for students and conduct interviews, if possible. Board exam marks do not determine a student’s intelligence or capability.”

However, Sujata sees a problem in this solution. “Students from different social and educational backgrounds join colleges. If you have entrance exams, they will be discriminatory on two accounts. First, students who don’t have a background in the subject will be at a disadvantage. Secondly, the way they are taught to answer questions differs from one Board to another. It will be unfair,” she says.

Selection process

Many students believe that more parameters for selecting candidates must be introduced. “Universities abroad look at recommendation letters, insist on knowing about the applicant’s extra-curricular interests. They assess essays and ask applicants what interests them about the subject they’re applying for. It’s a much better method than what we follow here,” Shyamani asserts. Knowing what interests the student in the course, especially in the humanities, is important since most of them seldom have an answer to the question. “Most students in my class, when asked why they chose the subject, said they didn’t get admission to a Zoology or Physics course. There were around three students who really wanted philosophy. Is there any relation between these subjects?” asks Ajita.

While students branch off unhappily into streams that are not their first, second or even third choice, cut-offs for humanities meanwhile, are steadily reaching the 100-mark line. “It will only be a few years before it touches 100 and then no one knows where we’ll go from there,” says Deepika. Sujata however sees this as an inevitable situation. “I don’t see why scoring high in humanities comes under flak,” she states. “I remember a student who wrote a brilliant answer for a question on the Age of Enlightenment. I wondered later why I gave her only 7/8 when she deserved full marks,” she says. But they all agree that this pursuit of marks erodes its value and the ability to grasp knowledge for its own sake. “The situation clearly tells us how the quality of education in totality has declined,” concludes Sujata.