What is Merit?, With Debating Society

What is Merit? – 1


February 5, 2017

105, New SAC

Current System:

We define merit on the basis of marks that a person gets in a competitive examination. JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) is one example.

We must take a holistic approach to the definition of merit. A three to six hour examination, like JEE, cannot judge a person’s merit. It cannot judge one’s preparation for over two years. It may be that a particular examination did not go as planned.

There already exists an idea of comprehensive and continuous evaluation (CCE) in CBSE. Is that enough?

This CCE is actually a better method.


The discussion begins with a definition of merit as an objective criteria, where the objectivity comes from quantifiability and uniformity: the JEE examination presents a paper which is same for everyone and its results are quantitative and undoubtable.

We begin troubling this definition thereafter. An opinion suggests that the JEE happens once over a timespan of three to six hours, and one limited test alone cannot claim objective assessment of a student’s merit. The argument is that  there are factors other than an individual’s ‘merit’ which may affect a test score.

Another opinion stated that the CBSE came up with a continuous evaluation scheme that monitored students throughout the academic year. We discussed whether this was a better method to judge ‘merit’ and reduce the effect of other environmental variables.

Social Opportunities:

We should consider the opportunities that someone has availed apart from continuous evaluation.

Institutions can look at students only from the perspective that judges current abilities. The history of individuals, which might explain their achievements in adverse conditions, should not be a factor. Opportunities should have been provided to the student earlier. Though we are deficient here, we should ignore it during admissions.

Difference in opportunities means different starting points in this admission race.

The opportunities availed by people in the past as well as their present abilities should factor in to judge a person’s merit.

I agree.


We next discuss the idea of merit itself. Is merit something that is defined in terms of performance in tests, or does a more ‘objective’ definition include the kind of opportunities that are availed by students?

Opinions were split on this question: a few of us believed that institutions should not take opportunities into account while discussing merit because at every level a student is supposed to possess a few basic abilities. To consider opportunities and not abilities is thus not the institution’s responsibility — to provide opportunities is a separate responsibility.

Others said that institutions could not avoid the fact that not all students were allowed access to same opportunities and develop their abilities. They argued that this is a valid concern — institutions could not choose to ignore this fact.


Will this be practicable? How can we judge this in a large country like India?

It is not workable to inspect each case on its own. We need some broader category like caste in India.

An opinion states that judging opportunities along individual terms is not possible within a huge population like ours. We need to come up with categories that encapsulate lack of opportunities — categories such as caste.

Some lower caste people get undue advantage from the existing system. Shouldn’t the criteria be an economic one?

Do we have a better model for replacement.

I must point out the large number of cases where people use false income certificates. Reservation along economic criteria is prone to misuse too.

We do not have proper statistics for this. Is class the only factor that plays a role in providing opportunities?

While talking about opportunities, we often see lower caste people who have access to these opportunities use reservations to take undue advantage of the system. An opinion thus claims that the criteria should be an economic one.


We next come to the question of access to education.

What about the access to quality education?

What is access?

I guess affording education is access. The physical existence of educational institutions near students is also access.

Yes, but think of a family which does not send its daughters to school. Access is also not having any social constraints, over physical and economic ones.

The group realizes that access may link up to affordability, physical presence of schools as well as social norms which allow or disallow people to reach schools.

Let us understand the issue at a more fundamental level. Why cannot there be quality education everywhere with access to all? There is a lack of sincere efforts in this direction. We should work in this direction and improve government schools. We should learn from the successful models of other countries, such as the Nordic ones.

An opinion says that access to schools must be fundamental. The problem with access can be resolved only if school infrastructure is improved. The problem of access, then, reduces to the availability and the nature of government schools.

We all agree that there should be no location or class barriers.

The merit of individuals is judged only when they seek admission to colleges. So, increasing the number of seats in the colleges will address this issue.

The quality of education would then become a serious concern. Can every school provide quality education?

To provide quality education, the school will need more resources and it will charge more fees. Not everyone can afford that.

Education depends on the social structure. We need to consider the factors like caste, class and gender which determine this structure. For example, quality school education will not lead parents to send their daughters to the schools.

An opinion states that education has to be seen in relation to the society. One cannot separate the two. Factors like class, caste and gender complicate the definition of access as availability of schools, because they also talk about social norms which may or may not allow a particular student to go the school even when a school is physically present.

I disagree. Improvement in the quality of education will motivate the parents to send their daughters to schools.

A counter-opinion states that education and physical access to schools will help lead the society out of gender and caste injustice of access. Good schools will motivate children of lower castes or girls to go to schools.

Should marks be a criteria to judge people? The moment we start putting numbers and judging people by them, we are bound to leave some people behind.

An opinion says that quantifying achievement is a way of excluding people who would otherwise be carried along in the educational field.

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