I write a monthly column for The New Indian Express, a predominantly South Indian newspaper. My column titled Indo-Angliana looks at Indian society, business and culture through the prism of Indo-Anglians, the largely english-speaking, highly educated and largely upper caste Indians who dominate our markets, media and our minds.

My second column was on a concept I call ‘meritshifting’, where elite India is driving a redefinition of merit on subjective terms to better enhance their kids success, as the chances of their kids’ success in entrance tests (JEE, NEET) begins to decline.

The article is below. It also inspired a critique from Prof Dheeraj Sanghi, a Professor of Computer Science at IIT Kanpur, and a highly respected commentator on Indian education. I enclose both the original article and the reply below.

Defining Merit In Ways That Suits Us
The New Indian Express, 18 November 2018

In Indo-Anglian circles, no topic gets as much importance as education or specifically higher education. For it is education that creates and defines us Indo-Anglians and remains a key marker of identity. In my (Indo-Anglian) circles, with our kids now reaching teenagehood, talk quickly veers these days to career and college options. Increasingly these days I am beginning to hear a line to the tune of: “I got into IIT/IIM but my son/daughter is unlikely to”.  It is a stunning line, for the IITs/IIMs are at the apex of Indian education, with admission to them sealing your entry into the white-collar elite.

It is what got a lot of us Indo-Anglians to where we are. Thus when we admit to our kids considering alternatives, we are in effect turning our back on an educational pathway that propelled us to success. Why is this happening? Why are we rejecting the IITs/IIMs? To answer this, let us take a step back in time.

In the closed economy of the ’60s-’90s, entry into selective institutions such as IITs/IIMs or their peers was the best way to break into the formal white-collar economy, and move into a structured career pathway. Seats were scarce and demand was high. To determine who was deserving or meritorious enough to get a seat, the competitive exam became the arbiter of choice. Over time the notion of ‘merit’ itself became synonymous with acing the entrance examination.

While success in these exams denoted merit, the exams themselves weren’t a level playing field. It gave an ‘unfair’ advantage to a small sliver of India—urban, predominantly upper caste Hindus in middle to upper-class families, fluent in English and whose parents could afford to coach. Access to coaching clearly meant discretionary income, which meant you were in the top 10 per cent of India. And most exams were in English, which only about 5 per cent of Indians then (about 10-15 per cent now) could speak or write comfortably.

Over time, entrance tests started getting flatter. From mid-90s, IIT-JEE—until then conducted exclusively in English—expanded to Hindi as well, and in ’98 the compulsory English paper was dropped. Reservations were introduced to correct the resource discrimination built into these exams. Internet and the expanding coaching services industry (and rising incomes) flattened the field even further by making it easier for the masses to access these tests and succeed.

As these tests got flattered and hyper-selective (only about 1 per cent of applicants get in), the number of Indo-Anglian kids getting through have dropped. These exams require far too much single-minded effort and focus. Indo-Anglian kids go to progressive, air-conditioned IB/IGCSE schools which stress all-round development and discourage rote learning. They lack the competitive hunger or even inclination to attempt the IIT and IIM exams. Even Delhi University colleges and National Law Schools, once safe options, are getting tougher to get into.

It was time then to redefine merit, from an ‘objective’ entrance score to a more subjective set of criteria. And this meant creating and supporting a new wave of private universities that have emerged to tap the Indo-Anglian market—Ashoka, OP Jindal, ISB etc. In these universities, admission is based on a mix of hard and soft factors such as academic scores, a well-rounded personality, communication skills, extra-curricular activities etc, as with a US university; clearly areas where Indo-Anglian kids have an advantage given their education and upbringing.

We are thus seeing the emergence of a two-track educational market, coalescing around two distinct definitions of merit. Indo-Anglia defines merit in subjective terms, built around assessment of the overall personality, while the rest of India sees merit in objective terms, built around success in an entrance exam.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, every privileged group defines merit in the terms that suit it. Until the mid-90s, objective merit suited Indo-Anglians. Now that the masses have caught up, it is time to change the rules of the game a bit.

The emergence of ‘subjective’ merit has fascinating parallels with what happened in elite US universities in the mid-1920s, when Harvard, Yale and Princeton moved from an objective score-based exam system to one that had considerable subjective evaluation, such as background questionnaires, photos, letters of recommendation, interviews etc. This was done ostensibly to assess ‘character’ and suitability for the programme, but in reality to reduce rising Jewish admission rates as they were scoring highly on the objective tests, and thereby keep the numbers of elite WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) high.

I wonder if we will ever see a similar pivot from some of our notable institutions such as IIT-Bombay or IIM-Ahmedabad. One where they dilute their objective standards of merit in favour of subjective assessments to capture the elite market. Somehow I doubt it. That is why we made it to the IITs and IIMs, but our kids will go to Manipal and OP Jindal.

On Sun, 18 Nov 2018 at 13:38, Dheeraj Sanghi <sanghi@gmail.com> wrote:
Read your article.

Your primary thesis is that a certain section of society (Indo-Anglian) used to be in favor of merit being defined by exam(s), and now it is in favor of a broader definition of merit. This change has happened because the earlier definition of merit helped this group in those days and today the newer definition of merit will help.
I am not a social scientist, but I tend to disagree.
Even in earlier times, if you look at the most popular higher education, it was an IIM education, they were broad based. If the admission was strictly on the basis of CAT scores, the number of engineers in general, and IITians in particular would have been even higher.
Also, this group really had no control on the definition of merit which was chosen primarily based on ability of IITs (and other institutions) to defend their process in courts. Even today, whenever IITs try to make any change in admission process (and small changes are being made often), this is the group that opposes those changes most vehemently. I always look at this group (which I guess I am part of) as defender of old order since any change in admission process is seen by them as a hint that perhaps they themselves did not deserve to be in IITs.
Also, the broad based admission process is used by too few colleges, mostly liberal arts, and if their goal was to perpetuate the privileges of Indo-Anglian, that would anyway happen because the fee is so high. So they really didn’t need to change the definition of merit for this.
I see the issue as vastly different. And I had actually said this in a proposal to one of the state governments on setting up a college (which never happened) about 15 years ago. At that time, I had suggested a broader and different admission process. My take was that you can’t compete with IITs in short or medium term, and if you were to admit students through JEE, people will immediately compare you with IITs (and other places that take admission through such exams) and rank you without giving you a chance to come up. So a completely different criteria avoids comparison with existing places. Second, I strongly believed even 25 years ago that merit is multi-dimensional and a huge number of “meritorious” students don’t give JEE or don’t do well in JEE. Any new institution should attempt at attracting them and one way to attract them is to use a completely different definition of “merit.” Was I subconsciously trying to perpetuate my privileges and thinking of my son who wasn’t even born then. Possible, but I would like to believe that I was trying to see how new institutions could succeed in India. And I have discussed this specific idea of attracting good students and avoiding comparison with current good institutions by having a very different admission process with a lot of people over a period of time.
I also have discussed this issue of when to start JEE coaching, whether to do coaching at all, and other education related matters with a large number of Indo-Anglians. My understanding is the following. A lot of IITians believe that while they benefited immensely from IIT education, there are alternate paths to success today. IIT admission has a 1% success rate but for people with privileges this becomes 10%.. But even that is too low to take a risk. So one standard path is you start JEE coaching from 8th or 9th class onwards, no sports, no hobbies, no extra-curricular, basically you spoil your childhood. And if you can’t get in IITs, you might get into the next ones – NITs, IIITs, and may be this coaching will also help you with BITS, etc. Alternately, you continue with good quality broad based school education with some coaching only in 12th class, and get into Manipals of the world. People from privileged background can afford private education, can provide an environment where the ward can learn other interesting stuff through MOOCs, have connections to ensure that they get interesting internships. So learning is decent, and then send them to a good foreign university for Masters.
(By the way, you mentioning Manipal went against your thesis. Manipal too consider marks and not a broad based “merit” but the marks cutoff is low enough that a student from privileged background can get in somewhat easily and if s/he could not, the chances are they wouldn’t have come into IITs anyway even with a lot of coaching.)
Increasingly, many people are realizing that getting into top 10 institutions is simply too difficult and if you compare the two paths – 4 year coaching + NIT + whatever versus 1 year coaching + Manipal + whatever, there isn’t much difference because three years of extra broad-based schooling in a top school would have given you skills that were invaluable in many ways. Note that this is not an option for most people, but only for those who have access to those 3-years of quality schooling. Others would prefer 4-year coaching.
In summary, from the university point of view, broad based merit has major advantages in terms of getting quality students and not getting ranked in comparison with existing good colleges. And from the point of view of students and parents, new India provides so many opportunities and the cost of success in single exam is so high that it is worth looking for options.
thanks and regards,