For many first-time voters, the most anticipated results in May will not be of the elections, they will be the results of an assortment of exams. For a vast majority of students thinking about higher education prospects, this induces a nervous dread. The supply of good institutions is woefully small, the competition fierce and the structures of pedagogy almost life denying. More of the privileged students will secede from the system by going abroad. Higher education reform is urgently required. But it is going to remain a formidable challenge. The regulatory tangle the courts and government have created, the political economy of vested interests in the system and obduracy in large parts of the academic establishment have slowed down constructive change. This sector is notoriously hard to change; 15 years of missed opportunities make it hard to drum up confidence that change is imminent.
But there is perhaps one modest proposal that might mitigate some of the pathologies associated with the current system of admissions. The current system is based on scoring high on exams to determine college places. But as cut-offs increase, as more and more students bunch around particular marks, so does the neurosis of the system as a whole, since every marginal mark counts. The difference between 98 and 98.5 per cent can make a huge difference to your prospects. So there is a single-minded pursuit of the marginal mark, almost at the cost of a real education.
This administrative principle has given rise to some myths. The first is the myth of meritocracy: the idea that the person who got 98.5 per cent deserves, in some deep sense, to get a place above the kid who got 98 per cent. The students who get in have a sense of entitlement. The second myth is that having only high scorers (leave aside the issue of reservation for a moment), makes for better colleges. Both of these are myths. Most educators have the sense that within some bandwidths of achievement, any random distribution of selected students would produce similar results. This is true of universities like Harvard; it could probably just randomly choose from a large pool of applicants above a certain threshold and still get similar results. Similarly, a Delhi University college that cuts off admission at 96 per cent would probably be no worse off if it just randomly chose students above a certain percentage, maybe 85 or