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'St Stephen's 99% cut-off wrong at several levels'

By Ritika Bhatia
June 23, 2015 09:16 IST
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"The pressure on admissions has intensified with population growth, and with such a large number of candidates to choose from, colleges have ended up using a vulgar yardstick like the marksheet.

A former principal of St Stephen's told me that if he were to call a talented student for an interview even if his marks were two per cent below the cutoff, he would also have to interview several hundred others with the same marks or he would fall afoul of the courts," says former minister of state for external affairs and later HRD, Shashi Tharoor (pictured, below).

St Stephen's College, New Delhi, released its first cut-off list for admissions last week. It revealed that to gain admission to the English Honours programme, a commerce stream student is required to have scored 99 per cent in the Class XII exams. Shashi Tharoor, an alumnus of the college and Member of Parliament, talks to Ritika Bhatia about the marking system that leads to such anomalies as well as the future of higher education in the country

What do you make of St Stephen's College's cut-off point of 99 per cent for commerce students seeking admission to the English Honours course?

Frankly, I find the entire thing wrong at several levels. The whole marking system is such that it leaves out much more subjective areas, and is flawed in principle itself -- based entirely on one index -- the marks.

First, the marks are absurd: you can get 99 in mathematics but qualitative subjects like English or History are marked subjectively and the difference between a 99 and a 95 may have more to do with the grader than the student. Second, relying on marks cut-offs reduces admissions to one criterion -- academics -- whereas a good college like St Stephen's ought to be able to take into account an applicant's other qualities and extra-curricular activities as well. In my time, a friend was admitted to English Honours who had obtained third division marks in high school but was an outstanding actor and debater -- he went on to shine in college and earn a great reputation in the TV and documentary film world. Today he wouldn't get in (nor, for that matter, would Albert Einstein.)

Do these incredibly high cut-offs reflect the quality of today's students? Do you think students now have better knowledge than students of your generation?

Absolutely not. In my time, marks were awarded more stingily, and I broke the record when I topped the University in history (Honours) with 65 per cent! If anything, the standards of marking have slipped.

How has higher education changed from then to now?

Well, the pressure on admissions has intensified with population growth, and with such a large number of candidates to choose from, colleges have ended up using a vulgar yardstick like the marksheet. A former principal of St Stephen's told me that if he were to call a talented student for an interview even if his marks were two per cent below the cutoff, he would also have to interview several hundred others with the same marks or he would fall afoul of the courts.

Why do you think this is happening? Is it because we haven't increased the number of colleges and seats, especially in the top institutions?

That's partly the case. We should have opened up the higher education space much more to meet the demands of a burgeoning population, and also encouraged high-quality colleges like St Stephen's to increase the number of seats or to open other campuses.

The college is blaming the secondary education boards. Is the marking system unrealistic? What do you think this sort of marking does to children?

The system is too uneven, and there's no real way of weighing the marks given by different boards. I've met parents in Kerala who are switching their kids from the Central Board of Secondary Education to the state syllabus because it's so much easier to score 99 per cent in the latter.

What do you think the way forward should be?

I think we should have a single nationally-recognised aptitude test like the American SAT with just one standard of marking for all school children, irrespective of which board they study under. That would level the playing field instantly.

Do you think if you were applying to St Stephen's today that you'd make the cut-off?

Yes, I would. I was inconveniently good at taking exams, and scored "5 points" in my Indian School Certificate or Senior Cambridge exams ("1"s in all five subjects, which ranked me first in the country in 1971). In fact, St Stephen's was so impressed with my marks they admitted me without an interview!

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Ritika Bhatia
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