For someone who graduated with a political science degree from Hindu College, Delhi University (DU), at the turn of the current century, these are confusing times. It’s difficult to decide whether to bask in the reflected glory of the news that the college has closed admissions to the course at an incredibly high cut-off of 99 per cent or to see it as yet another spell of DU mythology, collegiate absurdity and the inexplicably generous marking of school boards holding sway.
The case for the latter is stronger. For decades, the appeal of DU’s undergraduate colleges—more than its postgraduate departments—has hinged on a vicious cycle of reputation. That simply means that their reputation will persist till they see a frenzied scramble for admissions. And this rush for admissions will not wane as DU continues to be “reputed” in public perceptions.
Even in the 1970s, this was a late realisation for undergraduates of the much coveted St Stephen’s College—the red-brick holy grail of undergraduate admission fantasies, particularly in humanities and liberal arts streams. Six years ago, in a piece for Outlook magazine, an alumnus of the college hinted at the disillusionment felt almost five decades back. “St Stephen’s College admitted only those who had performed brilliantly in their school-leaving exams. It didn’t matter if many of our teachers were not exactly above-average,” the alumnus recalled.
A decade later, in his debut novel, another Stephanian wrote about an interesting conversation which tried to explain the meandering campus scene in India and, by extension, hint at the orientation of most seeking admission to DU colleges. The 1988 classic English, August (1988), the debut novel by 1983 batch Indian Administrative Service officer Upamanyu Chatterjee, has been compared to JD Salinger’s coming-of-age novel Catcher in the Rye. Chatterjee’s novel begins with a chat in a car between young IAS probationer Agastya Sen and his Yale-alumnus friend Dhrubo:
Dhrubo: “…But here in Delhi, all over India, education is biding time, a meaningless accumulation of degrees, BA, MA, then an M.PhiL while you join the millions in trying your luck at the Civil Services exam. So many people every year seem to find government service so interesting.”
Agastya: “You’re wrong about education, though. Most must be like me, with no special aptitude for anything, not even wondering how to manage, not even really thinking. Try your luck with everything, something hopefully will click. There aren’t unlimited opportunities in the world.”
From the 1980s onwards, however, the rush to DU colleges from different parts of the country was as much a case of no-aptitude meandering as it was of other key factors.
DU was seen as an escape from a dysfunctional stage that started plaguing once-reputed centres of higher education, particularly universities in Hindi heartland states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. What added to this push factor was the pull factor of the central university in the country’s capital being seen as the cradle of future bureaucrats—a career dream that was central to the academic existence of most students flocking to DU from Hindi heartland states even in post-liberalisation India of the 1990s. Apart from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, outstation students ranged from the Northeast, northern states like Punjab and Haryana, and far less from southern and western parts of India.
Little did they realise that this perception was reinforced by the success of these migrants in civil services examinations. They had earned DU that reputation; it wasn’t the university that was facilitating their entry to bureaucracy. So the stories of university hostels like Jubilee Hall and Gwyer Hall, seen as “IAS factories”, reinforced such appeal for generations of outstation students.
What, however, has been less documented is the abuses and stereotypes Delhi had for them in the last quarter of the twentieth century, particularly for Bihari students whose fate as the targets of such abuse was no different from Bihari migrant labourers in the capital. In his work The Republic of Bihar (1992) , scholar Arvind N Das alluded to this.
“The out-migration of Bihari students, like those of labourers, to places of learning in other parts of India integrates Bihar further into the national labour market even as it produces a quasi-racial backlash in places such as Delhi which have started fearing incursions of Harrys (Biharis) from the east much in the same way as Britain did in the international realm,” Das writes.
The rush, however, isn’t an entirely migration-driven scramble. For locals as well as outsiders, it has been a mix of looking for the relatively safer alternative amid the broken state of public institutions offering non-technical undergraduate education, some campus folklore and some flawed reasoning for opting for particular courses. While government-appointed committees on higher education or scholarly works like Andre Beteille’s Universities at the Crossroads (Oxford University Press, 2014) have tried to grapple with issues plaguing the university system in India, dysfunctional campuses around the country are reflected in the mad rush for admissions to few colleges in DU.
Here the high cut-off of 99 per cent for a social science subject like political science also leads to some questions about the nature of marking in school boards. The undergraduate admissions to humanities subjects are open to all streams: arts, science and commerce. Though there are few takers for arts at the senior secondary level, their numbers jump at the undergraduate level, particularly populated by science stream students who failed to make it to a prestigious engineering or medical college.
However, that doesn’t mean that with current trend of incredibly generous marking in humanities subjects in schools boards, 99 per cent doesn’t accommodate humanities students. Now it does. Two years ago, for instance, a student topped CBSE’s Class 12 examination with an incredible score of 99.6 per cent. The credibility of the score dips further when you consider the fact that she is from humanities stream and with English, History, Political Science, Economics and Psychology as her subjects, she scored 100, 99, 100, 100 and 99, respectively.
As this writer had noted: “The absence of media scrutiny in disciplines like humanities, which are open to subjective assessment, raises questions. For generations, Indians have considered it unthinkable to score anything close to 90 per cent in humanities. Hence, it’s absurd that there is uncritical acceptance of such impeccable performance. Even if the answer script was so flawless, what about the element of subjective assessment? Has evaluation been reduced to a robotic process?”
Coming back to the scramble for the political science course in DU this year: it’s not only Hindu College. Twenty colleges have closed admissions (most requiring marks in the 90s) after the first list only. A report in The Indian Express cited civil services dreams as one of the prime propellants for the rush. Such reasoning on the part of students could be seen in the recent spike in success rate of candidates choosing political science as an optional subject in the civil services examination. This rationale, however, is deeply flawed.
The popularity of an optional in the civil services examination is a combination of many factors and cyclic too. Subjects like psychology, history and public administration, which enjoyed immense popularity, have witnessed a remarkable decline in successful candidates. The same fate awaits all optional subjects—though none hit rock-bottom, every subject has success stories. But there is something more important that has missed attention.
The overwhelming majority of students cracking the civil services examination with political science don’t have any academic background in the subject. They are mostly from engineering, medical or pure science backgrounds. Most of them prepare for the political science syllabus within a year of the run-up to the examination.That to an extent highlights the generality of the subject matter which could be covered by anyone with an intent for examination-specific study and strategy. That sounds very familiar to what humanities education stands for in this country and, for that matter in any stream: examination robotics draped as education.
The number one preferred subject in undergraduate admissions to Delhi University 2019 reveals that three decades after liberalisation, the access to that towel-covered chair in a government office still fuels young dreams. That’s a persistence that is as fascinating or alarming as what a former professor of Delhi University and well known academic Professor Manoranjan Mohanty told a newspaper as early as the mid-1990s: “Delhi University is becoming a degree printing machine.” The university now is printing many more degrees. Perhaps many more “no-aptitude” Agastyas are trying their luck.