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100% cut-offs: Why this outrage?

Last updated on: July 06, 2011 18:17 IST
Dhananjay DhurandharLet the specialness of India's old institutions wither away as they take in quota-kids and people with unfamiliar surnames -- for if we are honest, that specialness was built on social exclusivity and little else writes former consultant Dhananjay Dhurandhar.

Things always used to be better. The sky was bluer, jalebis were sweeter, and poor people used to stay in their villages -- where they belonged -- instead of coming to our cities and trying to earn a bit more. And of all the ways in which the past was better, surely the most important was the unimpeachable nature of college admissions.

It appears that our townsmen are somewhat exercised that their offspring cannot walk into the college of their choice, the way their fathers did. This outrage is framed as shock that Delhi University cut-offs -- the marks required in the school-leaving board exams to enter a particular college -- have gone way too high. Of course, as always, the outrage is apparently about A High-Minded Issue, but is actually about Something Else Altogether. Especially where "merit" is concerned, as I discovered the time I turned up to a "Youth for Equality" rally -- purportedly about keeping AIIMS's (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) standards high, but at which medical students theatrically brandished brooms in opposition to lower-caste reservations, making their actual complaint painfully clear.

The point is not that some unfortunate spent a month between getting her unexpectedly high CBSE marks and discovering that all it got her was Honours in Sanskrit at Venky. The point is that India's "good families" are discovering the top institutions aren't open to them in the way they've been led to expect.

Let's consider the Shri Ram College of Commerce, which infamously (and successfully -- they filled their quota) demanded 100 per cent from students without any math or econ (economics) background who wanted the privilege of sleeping through three years of BCom (Honours) at that moderately august institution. Shri Ram College of Commerce, while a nice place with a decent canteen, isn't precisely the beating heart of Business Studies. The frontiers of double-entry book-keeping have not been pushed back in its laboratories recently. No bestselling pop-management books have emerged from its staff room.

So why, precisely, are we seeing this panic that it's out of reach? What exactly has changed? After all, much has remained the same at Shri Ram College of Commerce, as it has at all our colleges for the liberal arts and natural sciences: a few hundred teenagers a year continue to be admitted, be given no education in particular, allowed to prepare for predictable and not very strenuous examinations, and sent off into the world having been suitably branded. So the cut-off mark those same hundred teenagers have to achieve goes up, driven partly by relentless grade inflation by India's boards. Is that sufficient reason to moan?

No, it is not. And it is not, in fact, the reason people are moaning. They moan because they suspect the social composition of those few hundred teenagers has changed. Those whose parents walked into Shri Ram College of Commerce with 80 per cent and the right pedigree -- or 80 per cent because they had the right pedigree -- suspect, with good reason, that seats which would have been theirs a few short years ago are going instead to bright kids from small towns and strivers from disadvantaged backgrounds. The simple truth is that, in a country where true distinction is difficult to demonstrate, we are trying to stuff new-fangled ideas about aspiration and merit into old-fashioned institutions meant to perpetuate privilege. We expect that if we put "merit" in, we will get privilege out.

All that has gone, and I for one welcome its passing. Let it all change. Let the specialness of India's old institutions wither away as they take in quota-kids and people with unfamiliar surnames -- for if we are honest, that specialness was built on social exclusivity and little else. These institutions did not live up to the legends of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, much though they pretended to. No sleepy-eyed, brilliant dons marked essays and engaged in disputation. These were places where you whiled away three years surreptitiously smoking in the canteen before you actually learned what work was, doing your Master's in a small Midwestern state university.

And here's the bad news: that small Midwestern state university could never really tell the difference between Shri Ram College of Commerce and Behrampur University anyway. Because the difference lay only in the surnames of the people who went there. Today's screams of outrage herald a future in which these fortresses of privilege will fall, and I for one will be waving the tricolour in triumph.

Dhananjay Dhurandhar is a former consultant. He lives in Delhi, in overpriced rented accommodation. This article first appeared on The India Site
Dhananjay Dhurandhar