The challenge in higher education is to increase opportunities without diluting
Late June and early July are a season of anxiety in urban
India. Large numbers of students, who have completed their Class XII
examinations, and their parents, are on tenterhooks. The only exceptions are the
few who have already obtained admission into professional courses in engineering,
medicine or law through entrance exams that are an almost Darwinian selection process.
An overwhelming proportion of school leavers, however, seek admission to undergraduate
courses in social sciences, humanities, sciences and commerce. But undergraduate
colleges are mostly poor in provincial cities and simply do not have enough places
in metropolitan cities. Declining academic standards, everywhere, accentuate the
problem, as talented students migrate intensifying competition for places in good
At the University of Delhi, for example, those with 90% marks, or even 95%, cannot
be sure about getting admission to a college and subject of their choice, while
those with 70% marks can be sure that it is almost impossible for them to get admission.
Surprise turns into shock and anguish turns into despair. For those excluded, no
consolation can suffice. Yet, it is important to understand why this is happening.
It would seem that marks awarded to students in Class XII seem to increase year
after year. This is simply grade inflation. For a long time, the school examination
system was perceived to be subjective and error prone. In order to address this
problem, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) tried to make the examination
system as objective as possible to neutralise error or bias recognising the reality
that the quality, or conscientiousness, of teachers who graded scripts is so uneven.
In this endeavour, CBSE did succeed. But the objective nature of questions and answers
led to grade inflation.
With the passage of time, students helped by their schools and private tutors mastered
the art of writing CBSE examinations. Grade inflation gathered further momentum.
Excellence in performance went from 75% to 80% through 85% to 90% and beyond to
95% plus. It is not that students got so much better or brighter. Their grades rose
steadily, not only at the top but also across the board, even though the quality
of the top 1% or 5% of the students has not changed.
It is no surprise that cut-off points for admission to undergraduate courses rose
at the same pace as grade inflation. This was a consequence rather than a cause.
As marks obtained in Class XII exams, whether CBSE or state boards, have climbed
over time, so have cut-offs. And it is wrong to blame universities or their undergraduate
colleges, in Delhi or elsewhere in India, for this situation. If anything, universities
and colleges that adopt cut-offs in school leaving examinations as the criterion
for admission are transparent and fair, accountable to both students and parents,
in a system that is increasingly susceptible to intervention or manipulation.
The fundamental problem is different. It has two dimensions.
First, the number of school leavers seeking admission to undergraduate courses has
increased at an exponential rate. The underlying demographic factor of our increasing
young population is the driver. But the growing aspirations of the young also see
higher education as the only access to employment possibilities and social opportunities.
Second, the number of places in undergraduate education, apart from seats in substandard
private institutions, has registered little if any increase. The bottom line is
that we simply do not have enough capacity in terms of seats for undergraduate education
of an acceptable quality. It is obvious that we need to create far more opportunities
in higher education for young people. Until that happens, the situation can only
The problem of admissions is far more acute in the top 10, or 15, established undergraduate
colleges, particularly at the University of Delhi, where places are limited but
demand is enormous because these few institutions provide an imprimatur. Their brand
equity opens up a vista of opportunities for their graduates. They draw aspiring
students almost like magnets. Their attraction has become even stronger over time
because of the sorry state of institutions that were in the premier league not so
long ago. There has been a steady decline in these institutions outside Delhi, in
Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Pune, Allahabad, or even Patna. Thus, students from elsewhere
in India also flock to Delhi in search of educational opportunities. It is not that
the University of Delhi, or its colleges, have got better. It is just that others
have got worse.
What is to be done the challenge in undergraduate education is to increase opportunities
without diluting standards. This means increasing the number of places for students
in our megacities. But it is neither feasible nor desirable to expand capacities
by increasing the intake in existing colleges or the number of affiliated colleges
in existing universities. Both are already stretched beyond limits. And governments
center and states alike simply do not have the resources to finance such expansion.
It is imperative that we establish a central board, as also state boards, of undergraduate
education, which would set standards, curriculum and examinations. These boards
would be empowered to grant affiliations to undergraduate colleges, much like CBSE
does for schools. Such colleges could be established by the government, the private
sector, or public-private partnerships. The time has come to think big and think
The writer is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University,
and Former Vice-Chancellor, University of Delhi.
Courtesy: Times of India