The Delhi University undergraduate system and the schooling system are representative of a deeper malaise that we encounter around this time every year but refuse to do anything about.
Instead we choose to remain satisfied with the largely nonsensical notion that each year cut-offs for university admission are higher because young people are becoming progressively brighter. Such simplistic thinking, especially when given voice by so-called educationists, should cause us grave alarm.
For, it only serves to mask the different levels of the problem that neither our policy-makers nor politicians seem able to address. This, in turn, subjects a very large number of young people to the vagaries of poorly-thought-out pedagogical systems and, for those who are unable to find a place in it, the idea that they are failures.
Our education system undoubtedly embodies the social and economic complexity that characterises broader society. However, it has also been bedevilled by policy-making that has little interest in enhancing either teaching or research capacities, and hence producing well-skilled and employable graduates.
It is the dismal state of the university system that lies at the heart of the bizarrely astronomical cut-offs for admission to courses at Delhi University.
A student needs social curiosity, and not 97%, to study sociology and political science. To meet the requirements of cut-offs that have little to do with learning, and everything to do with memorising, school boards have increasingly succumbed to marking schemes based on ‘key words’ and rote learning.
Within this massive university system (not counting the private sector), only about a handful have faculty that produce national-level research, let alone that which might stand wider scrutiny.
Lack of involvement in research usually translates into limited or poor teaching practice. This is the state of the overwhelming majority of our universities and the reason why a small number of competent universities and colleges face such heavy demand for admissions. And, the rot goes deeper, even many of our elite colleges (that routinely peg their cut-offs at 95% and above) have little to offer by way of innovative teaching or a context where teaching and research are integrally linked.
And yet, instead of well-administered funding of existing institutions, the state has sought to simply bypass the problem through spending several hundred crores of public money on national-vanity projects that offer the delusionary promise of instant ‘global’ institutions.
Bihar is the site of one such project. Public education in Bihar — whose resuscitation could benefit a very large number of desperate youth in that state — is in a shambles, but we insist that its student body eat cake.
As co-editor of a sociology journal, I am frequently saddened at the quality of submissions received for publication from academics around the country.
The vast majority of such authors have been provided little or no training in research and do not appear to have kept up with anything that remotely resembles current scholarship. This leads to a vicious cycle where students enrolled at universities and colleges outside the tiny circle of competent institutions are taught by ill-trained teachers to become ill-trained graduates. Some of the latter will, in turn, acquire positions as the next generation of university academics.
If we are to ever prevent the ridiculous state of affairs that prevails at admission time at Delhi University, we will require that the facilities — physical infrastructure, teaching and research — at, say, Lalit Narayan Mithila University (Darbhanga, Bihar) and North Orissa University — are of a standard that inspires confidence in their abilities to impart education that carries value.
(Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. The views expressed by the author are personal.)