Defining merit in ways it suits us

In Indo-Anglian circles, no topic gets as much importance as education, or specifically higher education.

Published: 18th November 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th November 2018 07:54 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose.

In Indo-Anglian circles, no topic gets as much importance as education or specifically higher education. For it is education that creates and defines us Indo-Anglians and remains a key marker of identity. In my (Indo-Anglian) circles, with our kids now reaching teenagehood, talk quickly veers these days to career and college options. Increasingly these days I am beginning to hear a line to the tune of: “I got into IIT/IIM but my son/daughter is unlikely to”.  It is a stunning line, for the IITs/IIMs are at the apex of Indian education, with admission to them sealing your entry into the white-collar elite.

It is what got a lot of us Indo-Anglians to where we are. Thus when we admit to our kids considering alternatives, we are in effect turning our back on an educational pathway that propelled us to success. Why is this happening? Why are we rejecting the IITs/IIMs? To answer this, let us take a step back in time. 

In the closed economy of the ’60s-’90s, entry into selective institutions such as IITs/IIMs or their peers was the best way to break into the formal white-collar economy, and move into a structured career pathway. Seats were scarce and demand was high. To determine who was deserving or meritorious enough to get a seat, the competitive exam became the arbiter of choice. Over time the notion of ‘merit’ itself became synonymous with acing the entrance examination. 

While success in these exams denoted merit, the exams themselves weren’t a level playing field. It gave an ‘unfair’ advantage to a small sliver of India—urban, predominantly upper caste Hindus in middle to upper-class families, fluent in English and whose parents could afford to coach. Access to coaching clearly meant discretionary income, which meant you were in the top 10 per cent of India. And most exams were in English, which only about 5 per cent of Indians then (about 10-15 per cent now) could speak or write comfortably. 

Over time, entrance tests started getting flatter. From mid-90s, IIT-JEE—until then conducted exclusively in English—expanded to Hindi as well, and in ’98 the compulsory English paper was dropped. Reservations were introduced to correct the resource discrimination built into these exams. Internet and the expanding coaching services industry (and rising incomes) flattened the field even further by making it easier for the masses to access these tests and succeed.

As these tests got flattered and hyper-selective (only about 1 per cent of applicants get in), the number of Indo-Anglian kids getting through have dropped. These exams require far too much single-minded effort and focus. Indo-Anglian kids go to progressive, air-conditioned IB/IGCSE schools which stress all-round development and discourage rote learning. They lack the competitive hunger or even inclination to attempt the IIT and IIM exams. Even Delhi University colleges and National Law Schools, once safe options, are getting tougher to get into. 

It was time then to redefine merit, from an ‘objective’ entrance score to a more subjective set of criteria. And this meant creating and supporting a new wave of private universities that have emerged to tap the Indo-Anglian market—Ashoka, OP Jindal, ISB etc. In these universities, admission is based on a mix of hard and soft factors such as academic scores, a well-rounded personality, communication skills, extra-curricular activities etc, as with a US university; clearly areas where Indo-Anglian kids have an advantage given their education and upbringing. 

We are thus seeing the emergence of a two-track educational market, coalescing around two distinct definitions of merit. Indo-Anglia defines merit in subjective terms, built around assessment of the overall personality, while the rest of India sees merit in objective terms, built around success in an entrance exam. 

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, every privileged group defines merit in the terms that suit it. Until the mid-90s, objective merit suited Indo-Anglians. Now that the masses have caught up, it is time to change the rules of the game a bit. 

The emergence of ‘subjective’ merit has fascinating parallels with what happened in elite US universities in the mid-1920s, when Harvard, Yale and Princeton moved from an objective score-based exam system to one that had considerable subjective evaluation, such as background questionnaires, photos, letters of recommendation, interviews etc. This was done ostensibly to assess ‘character’ and suitability for the programme, but in reality to reduce rising Jewish admission rates as they were scoring highly on the objective tests, and thereby keep the numbers of elite WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) high. 

I wonder if we will ever see a similar pivot from some of our notable institutions such as IIT-Bombay or IIM-Ahmedabad. One where they dilute their objective standards of merit in favour of subjective assessments to capture the elite market. Somehow I doubt it. That is why we made it to the IITs and IIMs, but our kids will go to Manipal and OP Jindal.  sp@sajithpai.comtweet @sajithpai

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