Do competitive exams conceal the exclusion inherent in higher education? Why might it be unfair to grant people from elite colleges an aura of brilliance?

This weeks extracts are about:

  1. How competitive exams persuade students that those who are admitted into a college are exactly those who deserve to be there
  2. How the perception of IITians as naturally gifted influences notions about whom the IITs are meant for

From Exclusive Inequalities: Merit, Caste and Discrimination in Indian Higher Education Today, Satish Dehpande (2006):

Suppose an institution called XIT has 3,000 places available to be filled through an entrance exam. Then “merit” for XIT – and therefore for the candidates aspiring to enter it – means all ranks from 1 to 3,000. From the point of view of XIT, ranks lower than 3,000 are all equal or the same in the sense that they all belong to the category of “Did not qualify”, which is indistinguishable from the category “without merit”

The dreaded “cut-off point” is the guillotine that severs the candidate pool into the mutually exclusive categories of “meritorious” and “without merit”. But how is this cut-off point determined? By the number of places available. In short, the number of meritorious candidates is pre-determined; the exam is only a means to identify who they will be. How is this identification to be made? By ranking the candidates. The first social function of the exam is to produce or elicit evidence of inequality from the candidates.

The exam is thus an implacable device for generating inequality along a continuous scale, the measurement units of which can be infinitesimal – three decimal places are now commonly reported. But a curious reversal takes place once this inequality is successfully generated and the ranking done – then, the obsessively continuous scale suddenly transforms into a dichotomy with the guillotine of the cut-off point creating two internally homogeneous but mutually exclusive groups [the selected and the rejected]. The second social function of the examination is to provide an ideologically defensible method of saying “No” to large numbers.

business college composition desk

In principle, examinations identify merit, and merit provides sufficient justification for discriminating in favour of its bearers and awarding them admission in preference to others who do not have merit. In practice, examinations coercively generate inequality expressed in a rank ordering, and they help to persuade both the “selected” and the “rejected” that the division is fair.

This is the underlying system that, under the pressure of large numbers of aspirants, produces the arcane world of third decimal point differences and cut-offs that are accepted as justifying large claims about the presence or absence of merit. The purpose of this argument was to show that the moral weight that is placed on merit is in practice borne by examinations, and that examinations cannot but be arbitrary under the conditions imposed on them.

As Marc Galanter has pointed out, three broad kinds of resources are necessary to produce the results in competitive exams that qualify as indicators of merit: (a) economic resources (for prior education, training, materials, freedom from work, etc); (b) social and cultural resources (networks of contacts, confidence, guidance and advice, information, etc); (c) intrinsic ability and hardwork. It is some combination of these that allows people to “acquire merit”.

Once we recognise the causal contribution of other inequalities towards the unequal distribution of merit and hence of higher educational opportunities, this opens the door to considering interventions for their redressal.

From Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste, Ajantha Subramanian (2015):

The semantic equivalence between the general, the casteless, and the meritorious reinforces the idea that those who fall within the general category do so, not on the basis of accumulated caste privilege, but by dint of their own merit. By definition, then, those who fall within the “reserved category” do so by virtue of their caste. It has allowed those who fall within the general category to invoke what Bourdieu calls an “imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties” to argue that it is the system of reservations, and not historical caste privilege that produces inequality and undermines the modern republican ideal of equal citizenship.

[The] class profile of students at IIT Madras has slowly shifted over the past decade to include some from poorer small town and rural families without as much social or cultural capital. Their arrival, however, has not been met with equanimity.

IIT Madras’s former director, M. S. Ananth, clarified that he was “looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors. The coaching classes [for the entrance exam] only help students in mastering pattern recognition skills. With this, you cannot get students with raw intelligence”

From The Statesman, 19th August 1951

This notion of “raw intelligence” places the ideal IITian outside institutional or even social formation as a naturally gifted individual with a native capacity for technical knowledge. In conversations with Ananth and other IIT administrators, I heard their concerns that the coaching industry undermined the ability of the exam to test for those who were truly worthy, in the process admitting students who would eventually dilute the institutional brand. It is clear that this divide between “the gifted” and “the coached” is not actually about who attends coaching classes since virtually all IITians do. When I probed further about “the coached,” I heard that they were from less urban, professional, and English speaking backgrounds. These were students who came from schools where, as one administrator said ruefully, “rote learning was the norm and the IIT merely represents a paycheck and a local job for life.”

It is indeed strange to hear IIT administrators bemoaning the economic instrumentality of “the coached” when one of the hallmark features of the IIT pedigree is its market value. After all, this is what is encapsulated in the term “Brand IIT.” For them, as for students, the contrast between “the gifted” and “the coached” seems to hinge on a perceived relationship between non-market and market value, or inalienable and alienable, forms of knowledge. “The coached” are deemed illegitimate because they are seen as gaining admission to the IIT, not through their inalienable [intrinsic] knowledge, but because they paid money for coaching classes. While they are pure creatures of the market, “the gifted” have “raw intelligence” that is recognized, but not produced by, the market. Through this shadow play between market and nonmarket value, the class distinction between “the gifted” and “the coached” is glossed as regional difference, and “true” merit denied to [the latter].

Bonus Content

Watch a 6 minute video by The School of Life about unintended consequences of advocating for meritocracy.



Deshpande, Satish. “Exclusive Inequalities: Merit, Caste and Discrimination in Indian Higher Education Today.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 41, no. 24, 17 June 2006, pp. 2441–2443.

Subramanian, Ajantha. “Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 57, no. 02, 2015, pp. 291–322., doi:10.1017/s0010417515000043.