Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Comfort, commerce, cut-offs

There is a mad rush for seats. Not in local trains, but at colleges.

Actually, it's not 'seats' which are scarce but seats in certain institutes are more in demand. Others, students don't wish to attend at all.

Over 56,000 seats in Mumbai lay vacant after the first round of FYJC (class 11) admissions. As the TOI put it: "There are enough seats for everyone in all streams, say principals, but even average students want to get into reputed colleges" .

And there just isn't enough reputation to go around. This is the 'hearsay' education economy where people believe there are only a few stairways to professional paradise. They're only partly right. The mad rush for commerce seats is a case in point.

The state education department found that on the 4th of July - the day on which the first round of admissions closed – only 4706 students confirmed admission in the arts stream. 22,692 joined the science stream while 53,188 confirmed admission in commerce colleges.

Most students sat on the fence, waiting for second and third lists to come out. But cut-offs dipped only marginally, leaving thousands dejected.

The desire to join a 'reputed' college one can understand. It's a different thing that most of the repute is paint-deep. But lack of inspired faculty or overcrowded classrooms is hardly an issue. Who's planning to attend lectures anyways?

The number one concern for the 10th class student entering college is:"Is there any attendance ka jhanjhat?" The idea is to enrol onself in college but spend all your time in coaching classes for engineering/ medicine.

But fashions change - and not just in clothing. Like white becoming the new 'black', commerce is the new, cool alernative to science. There are still a lot of takers for the engineering-medicine slogathon. And another bunch plod through science in order to 'retain all options'.

But a growing number of students believe commerce 'has it all'.

Prestige bhi hai (cut-offs for commerce rose by 4-5% in Mumbai colleges like HR and Podar this year).

Padhaai bhi kam hai ("One week study before the exams is good enough!" BCom students gloat).

And most important of all: Attendance ka koi locha nahin hai.

HR college - one of the 'most wanted' commerce colleges in Mumbai - claims to have compulsory attendance. The reality is quite different. "The reason most students take up BCom is so they can do something else side by side," explains a second year student. She has just completed an event management course.

College timings are just 7 to 10 am. And attendance isn't actually enforced.

It's the same at Podar, where admissions closed at 87.08% this year, up from 84% in 2006. "I attended 15 classes in 3 years," says a recent Podar graduate. The majority of the junta is busy preparing for CA or CFA alongside. An enthusiastic few focus their energies on extra curriculars. The rest are busy working . College is for recreation - ek tarah ka mental 'recharge'.

That leaves us with Arts. It's the 'dumb blonde' option as far as the average 16 year old is concerned. Why? Because. That's the way it's been for a long, long time.

Argument 1: Arts does not teach you anything 'useful'
Well, neither does commerce, unless you want a job as a book keeper.

Argument 2: You have to attend classes... even study!
Believe it or not, Arts may actually require more attendance, more extra reading, and a lot more writing in exams.

Who wants that?!!

Degree college is something like an airport waiting area. As far as students are concerned, Arts is the general plastic seats - plebian and uncomfortable. While Commerce is executive lounge. You're both stuck in the same twilight zone before your career actually takes off. It's just that the latter is so much more comfortable.

And if more and more ‘bright’ students are opting for comfort as their primary motivator – surely that is cause for concern! And it's not just a 'commerce' mindset.

The 'bright' and the bored
A recent audit at IIT Delhi found that at least half the students skip 25% of the classes and around 10% fail to meet the 75% minimum attendance criteria.

Faculty say this trend has become more pronounced in the last 3-4 years. "Most students are extremely career-oriented and so much pre-occupied with preparations for tests for higher studies abroad and CAT that they neglect their engineering studies," said IIT D’s R R Gaur to the TOI.

The irony of it! First you spend 2-6 years of your life preparing to get into IIT. Once you get there, there’s no desire to excel anymore. Maybe there’s no bheja left after years of entrance exam bheja fry. But at a more fundamental level it’s knowing you’re not there to gain knowledge or skills.

IIT is a ‘superbrand’ - it prepares you for anything.

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck disagrees. "Labels, even though positive, can be harmful", she says. "They may instill a fixed mind-set and all the baggage that goes with it."

People with a fixed mindset view themselves as fundamentally good, or fundamentally bad. The good ones believe they don’t have to work hard, and the bad ones believe that working hard won’t change anything.

On the other hand, there are people with a ‘growth mindset’. They view life as a series of challenges and opportunities for improving.

Essentially it's a performance mindset vs s learning one.

India is a performance oriented country. Reach X or Y institute and ‘your life is made’, is what we’re told. Until we reach the ‘destination’ we learn and grow. Once we get that label fixed on our foreheads, we too become fixed. “Hum to smart hain hi. See the proof!”

The lucky thing is, so far it’s worked. Because many employers also have a fixed mindset. They minimise their risks by putting their golden eggs in a few, known baskets.

But the other, more potent reason is this: the guys who fail to get into a cool college or a happening stream also develop a fixed mindset. "We’re no good… hamara kuch nahin ho sakta." Naturally, they remain stuck where they are.

We are not born to stagnate. We are born to seek and explore. To discover our potential, to give wing to dreams.

Let our dreams not be small and restricted. College admissions, choice of streams - these are only small victories, or minor setbacks.

As a nation, we've managed to get out of the ‘fixed’ mindset – grown far beyond the ‘elephant and snakecharmer’ labels. It’s time we grew as individuals as well!


  1. Hi Rashmi,

    Just finished reading ur blog after everyday slogging in usual service sector major, IT.

    I think this craze for Commerce and more want of the 'cushioned seats' is just in the metros. There are still students in not so metro'ed cities who see Commerce as the option for not so brilliant students and option for guys who has their family business n just want to come to college for hang out.

    They still think that science is more 'option-giving' in future... Or people like us who wanted to join as a techi in Armed Forces still consider it the better option. (landed no near where we wanted to... ). Unlike Metros, students in villages still consider arts as an option to 'consider'.

  2. And do you know what the bigger joke is?

    It is that the college you choose for the 11th and 12th standards matters almost zero. Everyone ends up doing classes, where there is not "merit list" to get in, and so you have as much chance of coming the merit list from Ruparel as from Siddharth college.

    Add to this the fact that the SSC's outdated patter has not changed, means that more and more people each year figure out how to crack the exam and the cutoffs can only rise.

    The day you can predict the questions in this year's paper based on what were the questions in the previous four years, you know the system is doomed. This is not just true for Std 10, but also for Std. 12 and Engineering (I did four years there, it was quite disheartening).

    We're encouraging mugging in vast numbers - why not try setting the paper so that 20% of the questions are from out of the syllabus, while 30% of the questions are from the syllabus but not directly copies of questions in the text book? Only the folks who actually know their stuff will start acing, and also force the teachers to teach understanding rather than learn-by-wrote.

    (This is my all-time education pet peeve, so sorry for the rant!)

  3. is there a comparable post available for colleges in Chennai? do you know of anyone who does such things?

  4. Hi Rashmi, a friend of mine spoke about your writing skills and directed me towards your blog. I hope it is OK if I tag you?
    Must applaud on your writing skills and breadth of topics :)

    Shine on,

  5. helo maam ,as a student i really pity our entire education system....this mad rush can be seen not only in 10/12 admissions, but even post grad admissions specially courses like MBA are no different...getting the tag of a particular brand becomes even more relevant (and one shot fame) in MBA education. this reflects in the mentality of indian management students throughout the course...

    btw enjoy reading ur blog, am a big fan of urs !

  6. Okay great written Rashmi.

    I wonder why dont people focus on entrepreneurship. 99% of India i believe needs Robert Kiyosaki's advice badly. Yes "Rich Dad Poor Dad" changes life. The book teaches the philosophy behind financial literacy in a excellent manner. I am in class 12 and boldly say that yes i want to be a entrepreneur. Though this doesnt mean that i am gonna drop my studies. But the focus of studies do change. The reason why my friends goto college is for a job and i go for knowledge so that i could establish and run my business better.

    The main reason why people hate entrepreneurship (MOST INDIAN PARENTS DO) is because of lack of proper financial literacy. School teaches us everything we never need in life and leaves out things we really need to know in life. The spirit of entrepreneurship and leadership (both deeply related) is something which has to be cultivated at a very young age right from the school.

    Indian parents have filled their children's mind with certain thoughts like. "You need to study to get admissions to good college so that you get a good job" ......."And in certain case you dont get a good job, you cant survive on planet earth" is exactly what my parents used to advice me earlier. Though it took me a long time to cure their IIT fever.


  7. That ain't just the India thing! Big brands sell the world over. Indian (and English) education system is perhaps the best in the world. The rote learning, the cramming, the struggles early on in life prepare us for all kinds of positions!
    Could you cite even one single system which is better than ours? There are those that look better, that feel better, but are nonetheless wanting in performance.

  8. Lovely inspiring and brilliantly analytical post, Rashmi --- have been following your blog for long but I rarely comment. Do keep these coming!

  9. Hey Rashmi,
    Great topic for a post. I do agree with most of what you've got to say (classes being the more prominent deciding factor in results than college lectures, commerce as the "in" thing etc.) except for the end. You say "College admissions, choice of streams - these are only small victories, or minor setbacks" Of course they are not !! Choice of stream matters primarily as a vocational choice but also (and more importantly) coz you get to gel with like-minded people who also share your career interests. Same holds true for college. More often than not, students choose a college to "fit in" & are bound to get disappointed if they don't make it to the one that tops their list by a fraction of a percentage, you can't blame them. To take your own example, would you be as proud to tell people that you are an alumnus of "Lal Bahadur Institute of Management" as you are of saying that you are an IIM-A passout??
    Hope I've not offended anyone's feelings, did not mean to :)

  10. After two silly posts (Unilever and Ginger) which were as stale as they get, you are back with a BIG bang with two lovely, well written, extremely well researched posts.

    Kudos to you Rashmi.
    Make way, the Queen has arrived and how :)

  11. Very well written post. We must discard this "pigeon-holing" mentality. It's like a double-edged sword. The giddying amount of praise and bouquets showered on achievers steals their focus. Gloating over success stories and resting on past laurels becomes the order of the day (case in point : the Indian Cricket Team!!! ). Likewise, the non-performing assets go on a self-deprecation overdrive.

    It's very important to strike the middle ground.

  12. @Amit
    The rote learning, the cramming, the struggles early on in life prepare us for all kinds of positions!

    Rote learning inhibits the ability to understand fundamentals of the field of study. It prevents an analytical approach. Also prevents new paradigms to be exprored.

  13. Hi Rashmi,
    Interesting post. Recently I met a boy who had secured 85% in his 12th. I asked him what is he planning to do. He replied that he is still not sure as he hasn't got admission in the course he wanted. His father has a shop and he has been helping his father during his holidays. He further replied that he has got interested in his father's business, and maybe he will continue with him along with his studies.I felt it's good that this boy understood that just getting a degrree is not everything in life, experience do matter. Why doesn't our universities develope syllabus so that people like this boy are well prepared for in life, espicially today when reservations is raising its ugly head again?
    Shouldn't we prepare our youngsters to stand on their own feet, rather than expecting government to do everything. After all we are 100 million people.

  14. Awesome post. Yes, Brand IIT is a best-seller. Spending 4 years there and a year later, I can endorse that. The reason companies invariably resort to this brand is not because of its courses or the grand infrastructure there, but because of the intellectual quotient of the junta who spend 4 years in the hallowed campus and between similar prodigies.

  15. Still stand by my words
    but the writing here did make me think of things over n above commerce , arts , science

    Will discuss someday


  16. Great post.

    As a parallel at the workplace, it is interesting to note the performance vs effort effect. There is hardly anyone who accepts new and challenging work outside their responsibilities. Because if they fail, their failure would be hyped not the fact that they tried something new.

    And above all that, everyone thinks they are doing a great job of THEIR work, they are doing exactly what they are told to do.


  17. Brilliant post Rashmi. I am glad you brought up the point about art subjects being looked down upon as stuff for the no-gooders and dumb blondes. Well, I am one of those freaks who studied medicine, worked at a hospital for an year and dumped it all to do a Masters in Literature from IGNOU. Let me mention here that studying literature and linguistics was far more taxing to my grey cells than any science subject I had studied over the years. Artsy stuff forces you to think beyond the obvious and the apparent- there is always more than one "right answer". We (Indians), with our match-box mentality, often fail to look beyond the MBBS, B Techs and the MBA's. Its time we expanded our horizons (and our mindsets).
    Thank you again for the wonderful post.
    Shuchi (www.shuchikalra.com)

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