College admissions: When will the cut-off mark madness end?

Along with the election results, May this year brings the results of many examinations that decide the future of millions of plus two students in the country. And then, it’s about the crazy world of cut-offs and admissions.

Writing in the Indian Express on Tuesday, columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes that “for a vast majority of students thinking about higher education prospects, this induces a nervous dread. The supply of good institutions is woefully small, the competition fierce and the structures of pedagogy almost life denying. More of the privileged students will secede from the system by going abroad.

He’s bang on when he says that the high cut offs, that the present system is based on, is not necessarily an indicator of the merit of students given that the difference between 98 percent and 98.5 percent is so huge in terms of number of students who fall into this bracket.

 College admissions: When will the cut-off mark madness end?

The rush for the percentage point has consumed Indian education: AFP

In terms of merit, the person who gets 98 per cent may not be less meritorious than the person who gets 98.5 per cent. “There is a single-minded pursuit of the marginal mark, almost at the cost of a real education,” he says.

This has been a result of the huge mismatch between supply and demand. There are thousands of meritorious students who want to get into the top of the line institutions, but unfortunately there aren’t enough of them. The only way is to employ a time tested system of merit for admission. In the process, everybody tries to get close to what is called the “cut-off” which is always very very high.

Some institutions, for example for engineering and medicine in Tamil Nadu, employ the plus two examination marks (the highest they received) as the cut-off, while many others such as the IITs and private institutions have a combination of the results of the entrance examinations and the plus two marks. Noted private institutions such as BITS Pilani depends completely on their entrance tests.

Either way, the entry criteria for both are cut off marks. Thousands fall on the wayside, when the institutions eliminate them based on the cut off even if they have scored very high. A person with a mark less might have to scramble for admission in the second or third rung of institutions, whose pedigree is nowhere near the top.

The solution may not be random selection from a band of marks and picking students randomly as Mehta seems to suggest, but to increase the number of institutions and number of seats. There is no escape from this - the number of quality institutions have to multiply manifold - in arts and science, engineering and management.

Take for example, the “neurosis” of the aspirants who try to seek admission to the National Institute of Design, the only college of its kind in India, where the maximum number of seats on offer is 150. Thousands of children get eliminated in a single stroke. The same situation happens in the IIMs and IITs.

But the problem is that often the expansion isn’t accompanied by adequate adherence to quality. For instance, the IITs have expanded its numbers, but the top five IITs still remain the most coveted ones while the less pedigreed ones fail to fill their seats. In engineering, some private institutions are trying to fill the gap, albeit to a very small extent, but they are way too expensive. The others ones are plain useless - for instance thousands of seats in private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu and Kerala go unfilled every year.

The expansion, to keep education still accessible to the country’s vast majority, has to happen in the public sector and it has to happen according to a plan which takes into consideration the quality of faculty, location and institutional linkages both within India and abroad.

On the other hand, the existing merit based system as employed by institutions such as the IITs, RECs and BITS does indeed have an advantage - a pre-selection of students that employers can easily access. If potential employers want hard working, sharp students, the first screening would have been done by the entrance examinations of these institutions. Whether they are better or worse than students in other institutions is immaterial because these institutions demand a certain rigour in their selection and subsequent academics. It’s therefore not surprising that they are the favourites of prestigious companies for campus recruitment.

The challenge is if the country can multiply this system many times without diluting quality. This is what the 12th Plan document says on education: “Recognising the importance of education in national development, the Twelfth Plan places an unprecedented focus on the expansion of education, on significantly improving the quality of education imparted and on ensuring that educational opportunities are available to all segments of the society.”

Let’s see what happens in the next five years.

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Updated Date: May 07, 2014 12:29:04 IST