AS freshers all over India embark on the first terms of their college careers, I found myself ruminating over the process by which we put them there.

A year ago in New York, I met 16-year-old Himanshu Singh Dhillon, a remarkable young Indian who came to the United Nations headquarters to speak for Indian youth at an international conference. Himanshu was by far the most impressive young person on display amongst adolescents from around the world — a spellbinding speaker with obvious intelligence, compassion and self-confidence. I asked to meet him afterwards and was struck both by his maturity and his modesty. It is rare to see such unusual gifts of public speaking accompanied by such a complete lack of arrogance or pretension. When I learned that such a gifted young person was applying to my alma mater in Delhi, St. Stephen’s College, rather than to Harvard or Cambridge, I felt, as a Stephanian, that it was our good fortune to have him. For one thing, I expected him to win every inter-collegiate debate or speech contest for his college.

Imagine my astonishment, therefore, when he wrote to me to say that St. Stephen’s had not even called him for an interview. “The most surprising thing,” he wrote, “is that St. Stephen’s College, with its famous debating and dramatics societies, does not consider an applicant’s extra-curricular achievements. They do however have a sports quota, which relaxes the requirement by 15 per cent. This means that if the cut-off for Economics Hons is 90 per cent (best of four subjects) any student who has participated at the State or national level in one of the `recognised’ sports will be called to the interview, even with a best-of-four-subjects aggregate of 75 per cent. On the other hand, a student with national level debate and dramatics certificates or even one with international level participation in creative writing and public speaking is not even called for the interview.”

I was appalled; this was certainly not how St. Stephen’s used to be. Some of its outstanding graduates, who have gone on to stellar careers in the public eye, would blush to have their high school marks revealed. They had been selected for admission despite their grades, not because of them, by admissions committees which had valued their extra-curricular talents. Himanshu’s best-of-four subjects aggregate was 82.75 per cent. He had been a speaker, debater, writer, conference participant and volunteer social worker, but none of these credentials would even be considered till the interview process — and without 90 per cent, he was not even eligible for the interview. A sportsman, however, could have been considered with an aggregate of 75 per cent, as Rahul Gandhi once famously was.

“I always wanted to go to St. Stephen’s since I had heard a lot about the college and its various societies,” Himanshu wrote. “A dream which has been squashed by a technicality.” Convinced the college was making a mistake, I wrote to Anil Wilson, the principal of St. Stephen’s, drawing his attention to the case. “I fully respect the stringent selection criteria employed by the college, which ensures the high quality of our student intake,” I wrote. “At the same time, I know that St. Stephen’s has always understood that some of the most important elements of our education occur in college outside the classroom, and that the remarkable young all-rounder with 82 per cent marks is often a worthier Stephanian than the swot with 95 per cent. “The Principal himself had authored an article titled `Marks Can’t Be the Sole Indicator of Merit’ on the St. Stephen’s College web site ( Young Himanshu was, I told him, someone St. Stephen’s should be proud to admit; to turn him down over a few percentage points was folly indeed. “Back in 1972, I was admitted to St. Stephen’s without an interview,” I concluded. “This young man is merely asking for a chance to be interviewed, so that you can judge for yourself the qualities he could bring to the college …. I truly hope you will overrule the unimaginative number-counters who denied him an interview.”

My self-righteousness faded immediately, for the principal replied with astonishing promptness and courtesy. “Since 1972,” Anil Wilson explained, “much has happened and not all of it is for the good.” A court challenge in the 1980s to the college’s admissions interviews “went right up to the Supreme Court where a five-Judge Constitution Bench decreed that we should not interview more than five candidates per seat. Thus if we have 10 seats, we can interview up to a maximum of 50 candidates and these candidates have to be called by their merit of marks. Himanshu’s score is 82.5 per cent whereas the cut-o

Source: The Hindu