August 30, 2006

For the Sake of Quality

The Telegraph, 30.08.2006

Here is a trivia for readers. Let us say that there is an academic institution ‘A’. Its admission criteria for post–graduation courses states that “applicants require a high 2:1 or a first class at BA level, but admission is at the discretion of the degree committee, which judges each case on its own merits”. For those not acquainted with the nuances of British classification of undergraduate degrees, a 2:1 implies an upper second class honours degree — a perfectly respectable and often a very good result if you are studying the humanities or social sciences. Now let us assume that another institution (‘B’), has this unambiguous one liner— all graduates from “other universities” require a “First Class Honours”. Note the capitalization, possibly to underline the inflexibility of the stringent requirement.

Now for the question. Which of these two institutions would you guess is the more esteemed centre of higher education? My guess is that you would vote for ‘B’, given that it requires applicants to be of a supposedly higher academic calibre. So would I, had I not known their actual identities. For ‘B’ is the University of Calcutta, while ‘A’ is the Cambridge University.

A parochial individual might conclude that Cambridge has dropped its high standards, while CU has somehow leapfrogged ahead of it. Hardly. If you glance at the latest university rankings published by The Times, Cambridge ranks at the top while CU is nowhere to be seen.

New rules

This particular admission criterion of CU is proof of how excellence is barred from Indian institutions. This may sound strange at first, but not if you consider the following factors. First, institutions of repute never install an academic criterion that discriminates against ‘outsiders’. Graduates who come from colleges affiliated to CU with much lower marks have no problems in applying for the post–graduate courses. Also, the argument that CU examiners are strict when it comes to doling out marks is preposterous. Getting high marks in world class British universities is no cakewalk either.

Second, different universities have different cut off points. For example, 60 per cent is enough for a student to secure a first class at CU. But that becomes 70 per cent in most British universities. So someone with 68 per cent from Oxford cannot even apply to CU, but a CU graduate can apply even with 50 per cent.

Making a difference

Third, the difference in the quality of these two institutions is ignored by the admission criteria. A degree from a top class institution is often more challenging than that from a lowly ranked one. Thus, someone with a first class from a poorer university can stroll into CU at the expense of a hard–working student from a top university who misses a first class by a whisker.

All this makes a mockery of the concept of neutrality. Some would argue that any admission criterion is exclusive in nature for it invariably discriminates against a certain group of students. But the importance of merit in making an institution a centre of excellence is undeniable. And the door is being firmly shut on the face of merit by criteria such as these. If rules like these stay in place, the handful of Indian students who decide to come back and contribute at home would also not return.

So what is the way out of this mess? The admission criteria should be made more subjective and sensitive to individual applicants. It might mean that the application process will have to begin earlier but then that may well have to be the case. A choice has to be made — whether we vouch for mediocrity or whether we become more selective and promote excellence, at least in some institutions in India.

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