India’s Toxic Obsession with ‘Merit’: Policy and Propaganda

    • By,
      Pritish Anand – Student, Kautilya

What is the purpose of education? Is it the one that enables an individual to achieve their fullest potential? How does one define potential? Moreover, how does one measure potential?

In India, the potential gets assessed through marks and grades in a competitive system that pits students against each other. This process starts so early in life that it gets ingrained into the individual psyche. Our policies perpetuate a culture of merit that is rooted in exam scores and competition. Such a system has reinforced the same social hierarchies that it meant to address. It also reflects the dominance of English. Further, one’s privilege strongly influences the perception of one’s merit.

While the word ‘merit’ or ‘meritorious’ has been used 14 times in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, the policy does not define merit. A definition would have explained how government perceives the ‘quality of being good’. The subjective interpretations of merit are often comparative, where a student is labelled as a high performer or low performer based on their scores in exams. Contrary to this, the national education policy also pitches education as a ‘great leveler’ in the introduction section.

In India, merit gets manifested in exam outcomes. These exams test everyone on uniform indicators without accounting for disparities in privilege. NEP 2020 acknowledges that “The current nature of secondary school exams, including Board exams and entrance exams – and the resulting coaching culture of today – are doing much harm.” So why does the policy not do away with these exams? It’s not just the Board exams but also the regular exams in other grades that have contributed to the hustle culture from primary and secondary school stages. The existing systems of exams and tests lead to outcomes that decide one’s acceptance and value in family and society. Why do we need common aptitude tests at higher educational levels? If the assessment is ‘for learning’ and not ‘of learning’, how do the institutions use the student data to guide future learning? Is the selective entry barrier a way to mask the lack of sufficient quality institutions for every student demanding higher education?

NEP 2020 makes mentions finding talented students. To underscore this, the policy encourages expanding the reach of ‘olympiads’ and ‘competition’, creating a picture of education as a race. As these students grow up, the highly selective competition for IIT, NIT, UPSC, etc., further perpetuates this race among students.

The policy asserts its focus on a merit-based but equitable admission process. If the admission process is merit-based, how can it account for the lack of privilege in disadvantaged groups? One may argue that reservations address this. But in higher education, 78.6% of colleges are privately managed, where reservations don’t apply, and these colleges account for 66.3% of student enrolment. Thus, the higher education opportunities for most students are dependent on merit that is skewed in favour of the privileged class.

Be it NEET, CUET, or JEE, the idea of testing students on merit to ‘select’ them for admissions is normatively controversial. This idea goes against John Rawl’s view that the most disadvantaged shall get top preference in social desirability. If testing is critical, why are many prestigious universities making standardized tests optional globally?

India’s education ministers and bureaucrats have often headed to Nordic countries like Finland to understand their education model. The interesting aspect, often ignored, is that the Finnish education model does not have a system of standardized exams except for one voluntary test. Further, there is no competition between students.

Merit is also lethal. Its manifestation in exams and the competitive pressure that arises from it kill many students every year. A total of 1673 suicides in 2021 were due to failure in exams (NCRB, 2021). Further, between 2014 to 2020, the failure in exams accounted for 17446 suicides (NCRB, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020). The exams and tests tend to increase peer and societal pressure. If insights and experiences are the critical part of a student’s education, how are these insights and experiences reduced to their ranks and scores? Why do these ranks and scores dictate one’s trajectory? The rigorous preparation for many such exams have implications on students’ mental health. With about 10 lakh students appearing for UPSC exams and approximately 700 seats, the ultra-competitive culture is set up to ‘fail’ most students. This selectivity is aggravated by the disparity in access to resources, socio-economic background, etc. It must be noted that exams are not the real culprit; instead, merit as a basis of someone being better than the rest is problematic. Hence, the idea of merit in education needs to be challenged.

The role of privilege in merit also seeps into day-to-day classroom situations. Do certain students, depending on their socio-economic background, become less confident in speaking than others? Are students who are more fluent in English taken more seriously? Do students from disadvantaged backgrounds get more shouted down by teachers as compared to other students? Does fluency in English impact grades, posing a relative disadvantage to some students?

Merit causes exclusion at a workforce level too. If you notice ‘IIT/IIM Candidates only’ in a job description, ask ‘why’. Is this because only IITs and IIMs have suitable candidates for that job? Or is it because they offer a fast talent access pool? Both questions have problematic assumptions. The first question assumes rigorous selection criteria by concentrating on institutions and assuming a skilled pool that cannot be found elsewhere. The exclusivity of skills in IITs and IIMs is not backed by credible research. Modern roles require critical thinking, planning, empathy, etc., which are not exclusive to these institutions. The second question on the fast talent access pool may be a reason for skewed job descriptions, but isn’t the rationale discriminatory? This approach excludes students who would be equally suited for a work opportunity but being from non-elite institutes distances them from the labour market. Thus, the preference of elite institutions skews the recruitment process based on relative privilege.

The current education system based on merit is nothing short of classist and casteist propaganda. The evaluation of merit based on fluency in English, English as a language in standardized tests, or the idea of competitive exams reflects a monopoly of the upper class and upper caste elite groups who have a relative advantage over each of these three components. An example of this argument is highlighted by Ajantha Subramanian in her 2019 book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India. In the context of IITs as elite institutions, she states that “how, in less than a century, the engineering profession in India went from being the purview of lower-caste artisans to becoming integral to state power, economic development, and upper-caste status.” The locally skilled labour of diverse classes got deprived due to the elite capture of IITs by pushing the unskilled upper class into white-collar jobs. The highly selective admission into IITs based on merit thus deepened social stratification.

In conclusion, my dilemma has been that I am part of the same Indian education system that I am critiquing. Hence, I cannot just run away from it. Either we can do away with merit or redefine merit that accounts for socio-economic disparities. Nonetheless, some open questions emerge from this discourse: Does the meritocratic system of education make one become ‘free’ as the philosophy of education often intends? Could there be a vision of an education system that is free from the shackles of scores, grades, and competition? Are we ready for such a vision? Are we willing to change the status quo?

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.