The notorious word ‘cut-off’

If it’s June-July in the nation’s calendar, there can only be two things furrowing the brows of the average Indian: the monsoons, and college admissions. Admittedly, the latter affects a somewhat smaller percentage of the nation’s populace than the former, but nevertheless it is a considerable number. This is especially so in the department I teach in, where the ever-increasing number of applicants every year gives food for serious thought about this whole process called admissions.

If you live in the capital, the notorious word ‘cut-off’ – not referring to jeans – surfaces at this time in the year. Over the past few years, there has been shock-horror-outrage at the 100 per cent cut-off demanded by some colleges under the Delhi University: many other colleges routinely demands cut-offs in the high nineties. We are a bit bemused by this in West Bengal, for cut-offs in this region hover round the 70-80 per cent mark – and sometimes even lower – even in the most premier institutions.

Let us take a concrete example. The department of English at Jadavpur University, where I teach, is widely regarded as one of the best centres of English studies in the country. Every year, we have over two thousand applications for the 50-odd seats in the department. This year we had a record 3,410 applications for 60 seats, of which 2,181 turned up for the admission test. We had to conduct admission tests for all these aspirants, grade the scripts, and publish the results, all within a week.

Why do we conduct this painful exercise every year? There are many colleges and universities in the state, and also departments in our university, which admit students solely on the basis of their grades in the board exams. Typically, one adds a component of the total marks (or aggregate) to a component of the relevant subject and arrives at a total which becomes the basis for preparing the merit list. But this is a lazy method, for different boards have different standards of marking, and there is no way one can arrive at a formula which provides a level playing field for all aspirants. So a student from the CBSE system, for example, where the top marks are routinely given in the high nineties, enjoys a distinct advantage over students from say, state boards, where the marking regime is somewhat less lavish.

What is the way out? Is it for the state boards to bring their marking on par with the highest marker, so that everyone has a fair shot at the fabled cut-off?  But this can only work where all students study the same curriculum and are uniformly evaluated. The first is not the case, and the second an impossibility where tens and thousands of different evaluators are involved in the task of evaluating. Short of setting a question paper where all the answers are of the multiple-choice type, it is impossible to ensure uniform evaluation in board exams. This is more so in the humanities and the qualitative disciplines, where the judgement and interpretation of the evaluator plays a significant role.

For all these reasons, my department decided to admit students solely on the basis of an admission test. To put it bluntly, we do not trust board marks beyond a point. Our department is rife with examples of students who were wretchedly marked down by their boards, but have since gone on to have brilliant academic careers. And since we did not trust the board marks, we decided to keep our cut-off as low as possible. This year, for instance, anyone who achieved a 70 per cent in aggregate was allowed to write the admission test for English. This meant that we had over 3,000 applications and had to go through the nightmare logistics of testing them. And though we had about 20 evaluators grading the scripts, the top 100 or so were graded over and over again by a committee of reviewers, so that there was consensus on the grading.

Should the top colleges of Delhi be doing this as well? Of course, in an ideal world, students should not have to write so many tests. In an ideal world, their school-leaving exam should be an adequate enough test of their abilities. But in reality, many undergraduate programmes – particularly engineering and medicine – have their own admission protocols. Centres of excellence too will insist on their right to choose their own students, as the recent kerfuffle between the MHRD and IITs illustrate. The idea of a common admission test across a country as large and varied as India seems to lack merit. Such an admission test will likely cater to the lowest common denominator and compromise the intake into centres of excellence. But an optional CAT may not be such a bad idea. Students, as well as institutions, may opt for the CAT as a means of getting entry into a certain number of institutions affiliated to the CAT regime. For the rest [and these are likely to be the more premier institutions], there is always the separate admission test.

But the biggest concern with the idea of a CAT is that of evaluation. How do you ensure fair evaluation when you are a conducting a CAT with tens and thousands of applicants? Do you not replicate the board exam model on a slightly smaller scale? What guarantee is there that the scripts will be uniformly evaluated? Similar criticisms apply to examinations held in higher education, such as the deplorable National Eligibility Test (NET) conducted by the UGC for recruiting the teaching cadre in Indian universities. Of all the public exams conducted in the country, the NET is perhaps the most idiotic – I hope to write about this in detail in a future column.

All this reminds me of my own entry into the university system in the 80s, when I only had to appear for an interview for admission into the university where I now teach. The protocol then was to take percentages of the aggregate, relevant subject and the interview: I remember discussing an obscure American writer in one interview, and reciting an execrable poem of my own composition in another. But those more relaxed times, when departments had the leisure to talk to the students who wanted to get in. In an ideal world, a friendly chat reveals more about a young person than all the examinations in the world.

Abhijit Gupta is an associate professor of English, Jadavpur University.
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