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Grace At Birth, Too

May 09, 2003

My friend Navin Khare was certainly unusual, I'll say that. In a long-forgotten college test, he got half on twenty-five. (I got a big fat zero, but that's another story). That's right, half a mark out of a maximum of 25. Still, that fraction alone was not what made this a memorable occasion. Good old Navin picked up his paper and streaked off to the concerned professor's office to protest. But not, as you might imagine, that he had been given an unfairly low grade. "Half a mark is a disgrace!" he told the professor. "Please reduce it to zero!" he pleaded. "At least then I can show my face to my friends in the hostel!"

That was Navin. Always good for some laughs.

I've been thinking of him of late, protesting the "disgrace" of half a mark. I've been thinking of him because of some college papers someone I know well graded recently. Now you need 35 per cent to pass a subject at the University of Bombay. 35 per cent, that's right: seems absurdly low to me, but there you are. Even so, when this person was teaching at Elphinstone College in Bombay some years ago, it was apparently a "college rule" that students who got 29 were to be "graced" six marks. Thus taking their total to 35. Thus passing them. 35 is the pitiful standard you have to attain to get through, but this generous "college rule" watered even that down to 29.

And this time, with these papers, this person was dumbfounded when people who had collected all of 27 marks were given two grace marks. Which took them to 29. And then they were given another six grace marks. Thus taking them to 35. Thus passing them.

Allow such misplaced generosity to plumb its logical depths, and you might as well pass students who turn in exam papers with cricket scores scribbled all over them. Not even Navin did that, back in those good old days when I walked college corridors. No grace marks for him -- he was certainly an all-or-nothing kind of guy.

What is it with grace marks, anyway? Who thought up this peculiar concept and why?

In 1998, the University of Bombay actually spent some months wallowing in a scandal over grace marks that seems to have set the precedent for my friend's recent experience. It was during the final MBBS exams, and no, those medical students did not scribble cricket scores all over their anatomy papers. But the university gave all those who took the preventive and social medicine exam up to eight grace marks after it was corrected. This veritable shower of grace let 64 of those students pass the MBBS exam, where they would otherwise have failed.

So in 1998, the University of Bombay produced 64 qualified doctors -- oh, I'm sure they display they degrees very proudly in their clinics -- who qualified only with marks they did nothing to earn. (Aside: I'm reminded of the famous question people ask about the effect of reservations. What would you do if the doctor you went to had graduated not on merit, but because he used reservations to get his seat in a medical college? But that's another story too).

Why did this scandal happen?

Apparently, the university relied then on Ordinance 264 of the University Act, which says: 'Where it is found that the result of an examination has been affected by error or by malpractice, fraud, improper conduct or other matter of whatsoever nature ... the [university authorities can] amend such result.' The then vice-chancellor, Dr Snehalata Deshmukh, said that in granting the grace marks, 'the board of examiners relied on the provision that the results could be changed on the basis of the words "other matter of whatsoever nature" [in Ordinance 264].'

Well, fine. The Ordinance explains for us the mechanism by which the university awarded the marks. But simply quoting the law that allows something to be done does not tell us why it was done. Thus it is no kind of answer to why the marks were awarded in the first place. Just what was that "other matter of whatsoever nature" that applied in this case?

I followed the scandal for a while then, and never read a credible answer to this. By now of course, as with every other scandal, the whole thing has been buried and forgotten. To tell you the truth, I only thought of all this again when my friend heard what happened a couple of weeks ago. At that time, there were one or two reports that hinted at student complaints that some questions in the PSM paper "were not from the syllabus," and thus were too tough for them. There was also a suggestion that these "tough" questions involved writing "short notes" about NGOs like Child Relief and You. Without knowing what the actual questions were, without even knowing for sure whether they were the real reason for the grace marks, there was no way to react to these vague hints.

All the more reason for the vice-chancellor to have spelled out, clearly and unambiguously, what made the university hand out these grace marks.

But instead, things got more curious. Dr S N Deshmukh, then dean of medicine at the university and incidentally the then vice-chancellor's husband, suddenly submitted his resignation to her. He told the press that there had been a "vilification campaign" against him and his wife by "some disgruntled persons." The decision to award the grace marks, he said, was a "bold" one that would "prevent suicides" by medical students.

Laudable, no doubt, this "bold" desire to "prevent suicides." But can that be a reason to pass 64 students, to qualify them as doctors? Why fail anyone at all, then? Give everyone 100 grace marks and award them their degrees. In fact, why ask them to take any exams, or even attend any classes? They can stay at home, collect their grace marks when the time comes, then their degrees, and then begin work on us patients of the world. And hold on, wasn't there a famous Indian politician who suggested that every Indian be awarded a college degree at birth? Why not?

No suicides. No problem.

I'm wandering into the absurd, you say. But this is no more than the logical end to the slope that grace marks push students, and their universities, onto. The absurdity begins when you award them in the first place. The absurdity is that 35 is diluted to 29 is diluted to 27. That already low academic standards are so easily lowered further and college rules and Ordinances are cited as justification. That this entire phenomenon goes by the label of "grace marks," when what it actually does is disgrace a university and a profession.

Then as now: I know nothing about Dr Snehalata Deshmukh and I have nothing against her. But through that entire episode, something smelled rotten. I wished she had cleared it all up by telling us just what happened and why.

But she never did.

So now, ignorant about what transpired with the Grace Marks Scandal, I find myself wishing for something else: that the current vice-chancellor of Bombay University -- or whoever is concerned with these things -- promulgates another "college rule." This one will forbid the award of any grace marks. Not one. Whoever the student, whatever the reason.

Yes, this will cause occasional heartbreak among students. That's more than offset by the benefits to us all: of setting standards and sticking to them.

As for Navin, I believe he's a wildly successful Delhi businessman now. Maybe because he got rid of that disgraceful half mark.

Dilip D'Souza

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Number of User Comments: 37

Sub: Grace Marks and Reservations.

Dear Dilip, Instead of writing on six or eight grace marks, awarded during the final MBBS examintion you should have written on the problem of ...

Posted by Sharad Korde, Thane.

Sub: Grace at birth

I donot think this article has any relevence since even in US universities like Harvard and Standford take the students who has connections and what ...

Posted by JDR

Sub: for the article ''Grace at Birth''

I think if the point discussed by the author gets straight to the present vice chancellor of Bombay University, it would be a BIG achievement ...

Posted by Tejkour

Sub: Grace marks ??

These grace marks are realy a disgrace on us.At least v should protect the professional education/degrees from this disgrace. Syed A.Quadri

Posted by Syed Abdullah Quadri

Sub: Re:Grace At Birth Too

Hey Dilip D'souza, You have written a lot of articles on the Godhra incident and the aftermaths. So, what's with this defeaning silence when some ...

Posted by Ravi Menon


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