NEW DELHI: A public outcry over stratospheric pass marks needed to enter Indian universities has highlighted the deep malaise in an education system that is failing to keep pace with rapid economic growth.
The trigger for the uproar was the announcement by one of Delhi University's most famous colleges that it would require some students to score 100 per cent in their final school exams to apply for a place.
The resulting media frenzy sucked in politicians, academics and business leaders as the debate turned into a wider critique of the system as a whole, with charges of elitism, mismanagement and corruption.
Indian high school students face intense pressure — scholastic and parental — to secure a place at a top university which is considered vital to their career prospects.
With entrance requirements soaring in recent years, even near-perfect marks are no longer a guarantee of admission.
Minisha Bharti thought her exhausting hours of extra study had paid off when she scored 92.25 per cent, only to find that the economics course at her favoured college had set a cut-off of 95.75 per cent.
“When I got my results, I threw the biggest party of my life,” the 18-year-old told AFP. “Now, I'm just shattered.
“My parents are consoling me, but I see the terrible disappointment in their eyes,” she said.
The federal minister in charge of education, Kapil Sibal, condemned the “completely irrational” cut-off levels and promised his government would “take care” of the situation.
But experts say the supply-demand imbalance has now become so critical that nothing less than a complete, systemic overhaul would have any real impact.
Why the crisis?
The underlying causes are many and complex; spanning an exam system that rewards rote learning, the growing aspirations of India's population, and an inability to provide more places at the most favoured universities.
“It is neither feasible nor desirable to expand capacities by increasing the intake in existing colleges,” Deepak Nayyar, a former Delhi University vice chancellor wrote in the Times of India newspaper.
“They are already stretched beyond limits. And governments, both central and state alike, simply do not have the resources to finance such expansion,” Nayyar said.
And India's young population promises even greater challenges as the number of people seeking a university education explodes.
“With more than 30 per cent of the population below the age of 15 and more than five million people entering the 15-24 age group annually, the demographic momentum alone is huge,” said Devesh Kapur, head of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, at the University of Pennsylvania.
The number of school leavers seeking admission to undergraduate courses currently stands at around 13 million and is expected to balloon to 30 million by 2025.
One popular Delhi University college received more than 21,000 applications for just 400 seats.
A large number of private institutions offering undergraduate courses have sprung up in recent years, but have largely failed to ease the supply-demand crisis.
Poor regulation means the quality of teaching and facilities vary enormously, while high fees have led to accusations that some private institutions are essentially offering degrees for sale.
In 2009, the government suspended the chairman of the body that licenses the launch of all engineering, management and other technical courses for taking bribes to clear ill-equipped institutes.
Popular colleges, meanwhile, defend their high cut-off rates by pointing to the dramatic increase in students earning top marks in their final exams.
In 2008, 8,253 students scored 90 per cent and above. This year the figure was 21,665.
Some state boards have been accused of inflating results, but the main problem, teachers say, is that the system rewards rote learning and exam technique.
“A board paper does not test any real learning,” a Delhi government school teacher wrote in India Today magazine.
“It only tests your capability of answering a paper according to a prescribed answer sheet.”
Anil Jacob, a senior advisor at the US-India Educational Foundation, said India needed to adopt a more “holistic” approach similar to the US college admissions systems, which combines standardised tests with written essays, letters of recommendation and grade history.
“We as a society appear to be taking the lazy way out and using (exams) to exclude, rebuff and repulse, rather than to select groom and train,” Jacob said.
For the moment, many students like Sneha Jagtap from Mumbai, who scored 93 per cent but failed to get in to her preferred college, have no choice but to endure a nerve-wracking clearing process.
“I'm still feeling stressed after getting my results,” Jagtap said. “In fact I think I'm more stressed than before my exams.”