Irrational and demoralising?

Increasing the number of quality institutions may be one way out of the current impasse. Swati Daftuar in Delhi

The Union Human Resource Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, calls the new cut-offs ‘irrational'. At 100 per cent, Sri Ram College of Commerce is literally setting an impossible standard for its applicants, and the other colleges in Delhi University are not far behind. Almost every college in D.U. is playing incredibly hard to get, with cut-offs hiked by anything between eight and 15 per cent. Hindu College has set a near-perfect score as its B.Com. (H) cut-off too, setting it 99 per cent for non-commerce students.

Irrational? Of course. But also upsetting and demoralising.

It wasn't just the Education Ministry that went into a tizzy on Tuesday after SRCC declared a 100 per cent cut-off for non-commerce students. The people hardest hit, quite obviously, were the students themselves. “I'm not even surprised. If it wasn't so scary, it'd be amusing. They want us to get a perfect score or we don't get into colleges? This is ridiculous!” says S. Radhika, a science student with a best of four aggregate of 96 per cent. The SRCC Principal, P.C. Jain, feels differently though. He defended the college's decision of setting the abnormally high benchmark, claiming that the criteria had been developed to ensure that the college got students who could give it the best input. “It's a screening process,” he said.

Too cautious?

At a press conference, Sibal assured students and parents that the situation would be taken care of. The cut-off all but ensures that it becomes impossible for students from a science or humanities background to even apply to SRCC, at least in the first list. The D.U. Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh promised the students that the four more cut-off lists yet to come would bring down the percentage significantly. He further explained that the high cut-offs were only due to the high scores achieved by students in the board exams. “Colleges are being cautious in the first cut-off,” he said.

“This kind of unrealistic benchmark only forces the students to set unrealistic goals for themselves. Then, when they do not achieve perfect results, it leads to frustration, disappointment and disillusionment. The results they do achieve give no satisfaction. The process is extremely stressful and can lead to many emotional, mental and physical problems.” says Dr. Ripan Sippy, clinical psychologist and special educator.

On the other hand, Chhavi Sodhi, a commerce stream student who has made it into SRCC in the first list, explains why she feels the high cut-off for non-commerce students isn't a ‘big deal'. “We commerce students work extremely hard and manage scores that will get us into the best colleges. Why shouldn't it be tougher for students from a different stream to compete with us? They are changing streams. Either way, it won't make a difference to a really high scoring science student, because if he or she is getting such high marks, they'll obviously choose to go to the best colleges from their field. I also think SRCC is getting so much media attention because it's the most renowned college for B.Com. (H) in the university. ‘Venky' and Kirorimal have set their cut-offs for commerce students way higher than SRCC has”.

“I wouldn't completely blame the system, though. The number of students with a score of 95 per cent or higher has more than doubled. So the cut-offs were bound to go up,” says Aditya Varma, a Class XII commerce student from Don Bosco School. “I don't think the next step is to bring the cut-offs down; it's to open more quality institutions like SRCC so that the skewed ratio between good colleges and good students is fixed. The cut-offs will automatically drop.” In the same breath, Aditya adds that, despite everything, the prospect of facing so many closed doors is very demotivating. The issue of more quality institutions is certainly an important one and, surprisingly, while D.U. is progressively making it harder for students to apply, getting into engineering colleges has become easier, with 15 IITs and WBJEE declaring ranks almost equal to the number of examinees.

As the pressure mounts on students, their parents are feeling the impact of the situation too. “We're demanding too much already with near-perfect scores. There is bound to be reaction and upsets. It's not fair on anyone,” says Mrs. Kriplani, the mother of a Class XII humanities student. “Of course, parents are bound to feel helpless, because they know that there is only so much they can do to help and, despite their best efforts, it might not be possible to get their child into a good college. This kind of helplessness can translate to depression and other problems in not only the child but the parent too,” explains Dr. Sippy.

Skill vs. consistency

Cut-offs may be convenient but not adequate as writing an exam is merely a skill… Meera Srinivasan in Chennai

“Not good enough” — this is probably how most students feel after obtaining their results in the Class XII exam. With colleges across the country raising the bar for entry, by way of high cut-off marks, hundreds of students are left with the feeling that their performance was not good enough for being admitted to a premier institution.

Academicians such as D. Kumaran of the Department of Education, University of Madras, say that setting high cut-off marks is “unavoidable”. “In today's context, where there is such a huge gap between the number of applicants to a particular course and the number of seats available in it, institutions have little choice,” he says.

Pointing to trends in Tamil Nadu from the 1960s, Dr. Kumaran says that then, anyone scoring above 60 per cent was eligible to apply for professional courses. “They would be selected based on an interview.” Following scepticism about the interview process, some groups insisted that there be more transparency. Interviews were even recorded. “Over the years, there was a need for a more transparent and systematic process of elimination. That is when cut-offs began gaining prominence in our admission system,” he says.

However, cut-offs may not reflect a student's consistency in performance, argue some experts. They often serve as a tool that helps in elimination rather than in selection. How can one final examination alone indicate a student's potential and readiness for a particular course? Are factors such as aptitude, ability, interest in extra-curricular activities and other skills that an examination may not necessarily reflect, adequately accounted for?

True test?

According to C. Selvaraj, principal of St. Thomas College of Arts and Science, Chennai, writing an examination is simply a skill.

“Not all intelligent students may have it. I have had many good students who had a very good understanding of concepts, but did not like writing the long answers that the examination system expects,” says the former Head of the Economics Department of the Madras Christian College.

Moreover, consistency and ability are matters to be judged over a considerable period of time. S. Muthukumaran, former Vice-Chancellor of Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi, says considering a student's performance over the last four years of schooling, from class IX to XII, is important. “The way some of the syllabi are designed, it is possible to learn Class X content even without attending class IX. In such a scenario, a student's performance over a few years becomes relevant in reflecting his or her degree of consistency,” he notes.

It is also time to reflect on prevalent evaluation and assessment patterns, Dr. Muthukumaran observes. “A good test will clearly point to the differences in students. These days, examination results present a skewed distribution, more towards the pass percentage. In that sense, our evaluation system may not be a true representation of students' knowledge,” he adds.

The culture of such high cut-offs which seem rather unrealistic to many, also has other implications. An institution of higher education is a community. “Resorting to admissions using such cut-offs denies large sections of our student population equity and access to higher education,” says Dr. Selvaraj.

A mixed group of students from varied religious, economic and social backgrounds, and different academic abilities, can add value to the learning experience and facilitate peer learning, he adds. “These high cut-off scores are administratively convenient, but can never be justified academically. We must remember that each student is a human being.”

Systemic faults

The high cut-offs could make students select new but promising disciplines they wouldn't have considered before. Vinaya Deshpande in Mumbai

The word ‘cut-off' invokes a feeling of dissatisfaction in Mumbai, among both the students and the principals. The reasons are different though. The students feel that however hard they work, they just don't seem to make it to their dream college. The principals raise systemic issues and feel that that the marking system itself is “chaotic and imbalanced, which makes a mockery of good evaluation.”

“The cut-offs are on the rise. Getting more than 80 per cent in disciplines like arts and commerce is just not enough. The competition is getting tougher by the day. But the most depressing thing is that there are a lot of reserved seats. There is 45 per cent reservation for Christians in St. Xavier's college. Their cut-offs are half the cut-offs for us. There should be merit-wise admission,” Vasundhara Rajeshirke, a Class XII student said. She wasn't the only one. Many students rued the reservation of seats, feeling it deprived them of seats which they would have got on the basis of merit. Nikita Mondkar, another student who recently passed Class XII said, “It has become very competitive. That is also because the reserved category gets too much preference.”

The principals raised systemic issues. Father Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of St. Xavier's College, one of the most sought-after colleges for traditional courses in humanities, social sciences and basic sciences, said, “The whole system of education in India has gone wrong from Class X onwards. The courses between Class 10 and 12 reward rote learning. There is no focus on concepts. The question papers are set in such a manner that fetching 100 per cent marks is possible.”

Father Mascarenhas says the real problem is that question papers are not set to test creativity. “The level of difficulty of papers should be such that the result should reflect normal distribution curve,” he said.

For most of the traditional undergraduate courses, seats are reserved for in-house students who pass their Class XII from the same college. But the competition intensifies for admission to Class XI, where students vie for the best of colleges. High cut-offs hit the most at that level.

Allure of new disciplines

But there is growing trend of students opting for new disciplines, which have more demand in the professional industry. “Many students prefer integrated courses or applied disciplines like biotechnology, mass media, etc. There is no reservation for in-house students for such courses and the competition is very high,” Professor Devayani Ganpule, Vice-Principal (Senior College), Ramnarayan Ruia College of Arts and Science said.

Various educationists rued that the demand for pure science courses had plunged considerably. Thus, the cut-off for B.Sc. courses can be as low as 50 per cent. “There is total misconception among students that professional courses give better opportunities. If you see the syllabus, the basic concepts are the same and they are taught much better in a B.Sc. course. More often than not, a B.Sc. Chemistry student gets a job more quickly than a B.Sc. Biotechnology student. Then they feel disappointed and disillusioned,” Vatsala Pai, former Vice Principal of Ramnarayan Ruia College said.

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