Delhi University admissions show up supply problems

25 Jul


This week there would be jubilation in a few households as years of slog, technique, sleepless nights, neat notebooks and perfectly underlined answer papers bore fruit. The few that did get admission to Delhi University.

Why does Delhi University generate so much pressure and get so much attention? For starters, it is in the capital city and is ranked the highest in India when measured in International rankings. Does that mean it provides great higher education? Possibly not, when measured globally – it still does not figure in the top 200-300 places. Never has. It has received much flak for tales told by visiting students of the teaching methods there – lecturers speak, dictate notes and do not engage the classes. True, the mode of ‘instruction’ is a little out of date – by a few decades. Communication is often unidirectional. The focus is on content, not analysis. Quantity downloaded, often processed partially is the goal. There is much to learn, very little time (especially since many of us bought our books in the last quarter of the year) and the incentives are built around precise replication of the downloads in annual examinations.

On a personal note, I studied at Delhi University. And loved it. The slog was not so hard in our times.. twenty years ago admittedly, the cutoff marks were reasonable. We worked hard, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun(literally). There was room for journeys of discovery, thought not necessarily in the classroom. I went to one of the three or four colleges where people actually attended classes regularly. A mass bunk was almost unheard of in practice – we left that to the others. We did learn a lot from our professors and lecturers. We were Delhi students – nobody every stopped us from asking questions, questioning what we were taught. We challenged, discussed, learnt, shared. Maybe not as much as we would have in an American Liberal Arts college. But as much as we needed to be satisfied that we aligned with what we learnt. I hear it was not so at other universities always.

I speak to students who are at the same college now. They worked as hard to score the 99 percent and above marks. Often to the exclusion of much else. Some had to give up on reading good literature along the way, others on a social life. Some missed out on learning family traditions and myths, others missed out on music. A valid choice, a sacrifice worth the benefit. A place at Delhi University is still the best there is – for traditionalists who seek credentials….even with the controversial four year liberal arts approach. (For those who don’t seek medical-engineering glory)

Seats are scarce.  Now, with the famous 100% cut-off (99.6 this year I hear), the college is at 25% overcapacity. There are so many students with those marks. The college would be better off operating at capacity, but it can scarcely declare a cut off of more than 100%. Delhi university colleges are groaning under the strain. The journalism course at DU received a record 55,000 applications this year compared to 2,200 last year. How does a University cope with such demand? How does a nation?

There are just not enough seats.

I repeat:

There is just not enough supply of good quality higher education in India.

The supply has not kept up with the demand. Simple demographic analysis could have predicted this surge in demand (and it did), it is compounded (and this is a good thing) by the rise in aspirations. More people want to acquire a degree – a passport to a better quality of life. Aspirational and potential Gross Enrolment ratios have risen much faster than higher education capacities have grown.

So why not throw the sector open to private investment? Both domestic and foreign? India needs more HE institutions.. and needs them fast.

We do have private investors in the over regulated and under governed sector of education. There is little to fear from ‘outsiders’ in education if the governance framework is strong and well implemented. Letting them proliferate is a terrifying prospect, understandably. And in acknowledging this, the honest truth has been acknowledged – India does not have the governance machinery in place.

Here is a little suggestion: Let the government invest in governance of education and scale up it’s mechanisms for managing quality. Could even disinvest in some public education institutions. It is not as daring as it sounds – has been done for PSUs. Use the funds to invest in good design, organisation and implementation of governance. Let the institutions flourish. Trust the market – the bad ones will not survive. (See what is happening to engineering and management institutions). Watch over them, rap them on the knuckles when they don’t perform. Don’t do their job for them (building capacity), and don’t expect them to do your job (managing governance). Let there be enough for all – just give it a chance to bloom.


Meeta Sengupta
02 July 2013, 01:06 PM IST


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