How to Provide a Meaningful Dimension to College Autonomy

The assumption is that the system of cut-offs is meaningless but fair – all stakeholders must commit to challenging this assumption.

The Indian media was recently engrossed in covering the scandal around the CBSE paper leaks, which turned the needlessly traumatic admission process for colleges a lot more traumatic. As expected, the governmental response was punitive and showed little understanding of the deeper dimensions of the problem. The real problem is the poorly designed CBSE exams that does not reward original thinking and only asks for standardised answers. Consequently, the real solution, as evidenced in the educational system of any advanced country, is to bring down the value of these standardised exams in the admission process (rather, like a basic SAT score) and instead increase the value and discretion of colleges to develop admission processes that best speak to the fit between the individual college and the individual student.

In other words, ideal education can only happen when both colleges and students customise. This is the way research grows (on the side of the faculty) – on the side of the student, the benefit is the best alignment of their interest with the top scholars in that field. The current system is largely a joke. For example, all the metropolitan cities have colleges which are simply famous for being famous and which may not have a single scholar of international repute. It is sad that neither parents nor students know how to assess a college and regulators don’t insist that college communication be comprehensive and up to date.

Just as it is wise to be careful about what one eats by reading the ingredients on a label, students should beware of fast-food like mass education. It is an irony in India that there is more trust for a college with impressive physical infrastructure than for an institute with an understanding of what individual student growth entails. The point of college is to enter the adventure of knowledge, without being burdened or pinned down by pre-determined choices (by choosing law, medicine etc.).

Instead of generic brand names of colleges, students should learn to look up faculty profiles and expertise and target departments they want to study in – for example, a particular college can develop a reputation for physics. The responsibility of college principals should be to lay out a vision for expertise in a chosen special field (or set of special fields) over, say, a ten-year horizon. This would be a meaningful dimension of college autonomy – autonomy at the levels of curriculum, evaluations, personal growth. Regulators should support this individuation of colleges – principals should thus be chosen for having an intellectual, forward-looking view on the path of their college, rather than simply being bureaucrats who keep the wheels turning and take the easiest admission path of mechanically matching marks to course.

Regulators should also support the autonomy of admission processes – keeping adequate safeguards to the socially disadvantaged – for one of the blockages to the execution of such an admission policy is the low level of trust. The assumption is that the system of cut-offs is meaningless but fair – all stakeholders must commit to challenging this assumption. The government can show some boldness by insisting that different colleges develop different expertise, or perhaps some colleges can individuate by concentrating less on research and more on high-quality teaching (like liberal arts colleges in the US).

The harder, but more meaningful work, for both student and faculty is to try and find each other. For example, if I am a physics faculty, I would want a physics student who has taken the time to come up with an impressive portfolio – perhaps the student has written some of her thoughts and readings, has conducted certain experiments and calculations, has demonstrated an effort to read up on a specialised field of physics far in excess of what her textbook mandates.I would care less what this student’s overall grade was, especially one in a generic test.

Similarly, if I were a student of history, I would want to find a history faculty/department (the college should not particularly matter, as long as there is a basic standard) whose books I have enjoyed reading, or has written about historical eras in a way that I find engaging or insightful. I then need to be able to directly write to this faculty and make my case – again, through showing, in turn, my sincere interest in history through my readings, or through a short film I made on the topic etc.

If the faculty is interested, then the application can go through the next filter – perhaps a more centralised admission committee, for not all faculty or students can be thus matched, as seats would be limited. Admission portfolios, beyond grades, should be allowed to make space for larger statements and demonstrations of one’s interests. Indeed, simply preparing this package is a life-skill and forces the student to reflect on who she is, as an intellectual, scholar and citizen. Ideally, there should be counsellors appointed at the school level whose job it is to recommend certain colleges and especially courses and programmes for each different student – such a counselling process should ideally take place over the course of Class XII.

College admission processes are stressful all over the world, but there is a difference between the meaningful stress of finding a new, intellectual home and a kind of stress that is simply meaningless and unnecessary due to our cultural and educational lack of imagination.

Nikhil Govind is the head of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University.