Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When merit and hard work don't really pay dividends

Although I've spent almost 30 years in Chennai, I've never really understood how the education system here works. When I graduated with a first class and topped the Commerce course in college in Calcutta, I don’t remember having scored more than 70 per cent. Later, when I topped a course in Journalism and bagged the best student award, I don’t think I averaged more than 65 per cent, with probably about 61 per cent or so in English. Of course, those were different times and far younger days. I never looked at school and college marks as a parent. It was only much later, when my daughter was preparing for her CBSE Board exams that I began taking a little interest.

I was stunned and flummoxed when I learnt that students had to score more than 95 per cent marks to stand any realistic chance of making it on merit to reputable colleges. If you scored in the 70s you were considered unfit to pursue further study; it was an indication that you could start thinking about doing business. Scoring in the 80s was not much help either unless you had the influence or the money power to boot. And if you just tipped the 90s, it was like so far and yet so near… The one word I kept hearing on and off was ‘centum’. I soon came to learn it meant 100 per cent. There were indeed students, many of them, who easily scored ‘centums’, almost at will. No Utopia this. And for them, Heaven’s gate was always open.

I had never heard of such happenings in Calcutta where I studied and grew up and graduated. I was curious to find out if things had changed in the City of Joy as well. But no, it really hadn't, my sister and other friends confirmed. There, of course, it was the other extreme – you were lucky if you were called to attend the convocation. I still haven’t attended mine because I wasn't informed, or possibly Calcutta University is still to hold the convocation of my batch. Who knows! I realised I didn't have a degree certificate when I was refused admission into the Journalism course by the dean who couldn't hold back his laughter when I told him that I had the mark sheet and that was enough. It was then that I decided a visit to the university was a must. How I managed to get the degree certificate I do not quite remember, but, yes, I did manage the impossible.

Anyway, to double-check, I called up an uncle in Mumbai. He was a senior academician and I asked him whether there was this problem of paying hefty fees (upwards of Rs 8 and 10 lakh and not refundable in most cases) and not getting admission into a decent college even if you had scored well past 80. He said there was no such thing in Maharashtra and students by and large were given a fair deal.

In her Plus-2 exams, my daughter scored 89 per cent. She couldn't get into the 90s bracket because she was petrified of science and math. She had wanted to do Psychology ever since she was in Class 7 or 8. But despite her fairly good marks it took a Herculean effort to get her admitted into a reputable college. She got in as the principal’s candidate! She of course went on to do her master’s in the UK and now works for a multinational, but that’s another story.

I sometimes wonder at the plight of those many, many bright students who neither have such luck nor the money power to pursue higher education. What a burden on their chests! Apart from the marking scheme, reservation has played spoilsport. There is no also doubt that parents and teachers are to blame. More in the next.