The minimum required marks for several Delhi colleges, in sought-after programmes such as economics and commerce, have hovered in the high 90s this year, if not at 100 per cent - and even then, colleges have more students who qualify than places available.
Only the perfect score as lack of places means Indian universities demand 100% in exams
NEW DELHI // Steep rises in the cut-off marks for admission to the best universities this academic year have created a storm of protest from students and their parents.
The underlying mismatch between the number of secondary-school graduates and the number of places in prestigious colleges will have long-term consequences for students in India as well as Indian students applying from the UAE.
The uproar began when the New Delhi-based Shri Ram College of Commerce, part of the University of Delhi system, announced last week that students who had not studied any commerce-related subjects in school would need to show a secondary school leaving examination mark of 100 per cent to qualify for a place in its Bachelor of Commerce degree programme.
The examination, administered by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), pertains only to schools run by the central government. Roughly 770,000 students, in India and abroad, took the CBSE exam this year.
Last year, the cut-off for Shri Ram College in the same category of students stood at 98.75 per cent. For students who have studied some commerce-related subjects in school, the lowest possible cut-off this year was 96 per cent.
The minimum required marks for several other Delhi colleges, in sought-after programmes such as economics and commerce, have similarly hovered in the high 90s this year, if not at 100 per cent.
Even as these cut-offs were debated on television and in newspapers, however, the colleges found more than enough students who qualified. In Shri Ram College, for instance, 378 students have been admitted for a commerce course that has only 252 spots.
"The cut-offs may have been perceived as unrealistic," PC Jain, the principal of the Shri Ram College of Commerce, said in a statement to the media. "But the rate at which these seats got filled up and the number of students who are still turning up for admission indicates that our cut-offs were actually a little low."
The rapid response to even these steep admission requirements had indicated a wide gap between the demand and the supply of quality higher education.
An opinion columnist pointed out in the Economic Times: "Eventually, even at these cut-offs that act as symbolic guillotines, the colleges in question fill up their seats very quickly, so the high cut-offs are not an aberration, but a reflection of the reality of the education marketplace."
India has the third largest higher-education system in the world, after China and the United States. It has 504 state and central universities with nearly 26,000 colleges, according to the Ministry for Human Resource Development's 2009-10 annual report.
But Narayanan Ramaswamy, a partner at KPMG India and the head of its education advisory, said that for the 23 million secondary school graduates produced in India every year, the number of places in these institutions was falling far short.
"Even if you assume 20,000 seats per university, which is hardly the case, we're nowhere near that 23 million figure," Mr Ramaswamy said. "And right now, out of every 100 students who enrol in primary school, around 10 graduate from secondary school, and there's a drive to increase that number to 30. But there simply aren't the universities to absorb them. It's an issue of mind-boggling proportions."
The system is hampered, Mr Ramaswamy said, by an over-reliance on exam marks to gauge the quality of students. Unlike in universities overseas, secondary school graduates do not write essays or statements of purpose to apply for the course of their choice.
"So it's difficult to blame colleges like Shri Ram College, because either there should be a credible alternative or they are forced to go by the marks," he said. "What's the alternative? There is no alternative."
The 10,000 students in the Gulf who took the CBSE examination did, on average, better than their counterparts in India; 94.2 per cent of them passed the exams, against 81.7 per cent in India.
Traditionally, a majority of CBSE students in the Gulf go to India for undergraduate study. But in response to the exacting admission requirements this year, many were looking elsewhere - Singapore, the United States, Australia or Canada - for options, said Mohan Valrani, chairman of the Indian High School in Dubai.
"They're looking for other options," Mr Valrani said. "The number of those going back to India has decreased."
A case in point is Akhilesh Mohan, a student in the Abu Dhabi Indian School who scored 98 per cent in his science exams. Normally, such a score would be considered excellent, but Mr Mohan finds himself having to hedge his bets. He has chosen to take the entrance exam for an Indian engineering college in Dubai, just in case he does not get into an engineering college in India.