Sociological Analysis of Competitive Exams in India

“If meritocracy is an aspiration, those who fall short can always blame the system;
but if meritocracy is a fact, those who fall short are invited to blame themselves” – Michael Sandel, Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University
(famous for his work and course on Justice)

Sociological Analysis of Competitive Exams
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From UPSC to NEET to JEE, the competitive exams are a way to secure a career, status, and prestige in society. With millions of aspirants in numerous fields, the competition is soaring higher than the limit of the sky, and the crucial play of ranks has turned education into a profit-motivated industry. Merit-based results have become the life-death question for aspirants around the country. The limited seats versus innumerable candidates is a sight of a throat-cut race for being at the top. Intelligence is measured through marks and ranks, and everyone keeps repeating the mantra of hard work. The reality is that ‘efforts don’t get rewarded, results do.’

The question is not about passing exams but doing better than others; more than a way of learning, competition is a system of comparison and anonymity. The competitive exams not only test knowledge but ability and skills, too. Yet, several factors affect a candidate’s performance, which can be social, economic, political, and psychological.

The competitive exams and their vast market are now a bitter reality in the education sector. This article aims to analyse the sociological perspective and dwell upon the various aspects affecting the system and the individual.

Logic of Competition: Davis-Moore Theory of Stratification

In the essay ‘Some Principles of Stratification,’ Davis and Moore put forward their functional theory of stratification, conveying that stratification is a system through which role allocation is determined in society. Therefore, it is inevitable around the world. According to them, essential positions need exceptionally talented people, and talent is scarce in society. Thus, high rewards are attached to crucial roles to attract talent and hard-working individuals. These roles require skills and training; higher qualifications are needed to prove one’s worth and achieve these positions. People invest time, money and potential to prepare themselves for challenging and leading roles; the sacrifice and dedication must be compensated with worthy rewards. Concerning Davis-Moore’s theory, competition is a way to pick out talent by testing the skills and competence of an individual required for the job they are contesting. Competitive exams are the means to stratify candidates according to their qualifications, skills and potential. Hence, these exams are conducted to fulfil positions and work as a mechanism of social stratification in the larger society.

In India, the legacy of meritocracy and centralisation entailed the formation of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in 1926 to reform and democratise the recruitment process, which has become one of the principal sources of social, economic and political mobility in independent India.

Merit vs Privilege: socioeconomic disparities and reproduction of privilege

UPSC, JEE, and adjacent exams are based on excellence, democracy, and equity of opportunity. While the examination based on the system of meritocracy may present an ideal in a vacuum without systematic disparities, the accurate picture remains contested. In a world of socioeconomic inequality, the perpetuation of meritocracy clashes with the reproduction of privilege.

The competitive exams are based on meritocracy, which rewards individual talent and achievement, irrespective of social status. Standing on the ideals of equal opportunity and upward social mobility, meritocracy provides space for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed and climb the socioeconomic ladder through the virtues of their abilities. However, despite the ideal, unequal resource access remains a bitter struggle. Individuals from affluent backgrounds have better access to quality education, coaching institutes, study material and library access, which provides an inherent advantage.

One of the most critical aspects of privilege is ‘Cultural Capital’, which is rarely talked about. While having capital (money) gives the power of wealth, cultural capital provides cultural assets. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, developed the idea of cultural capital to describe the maintenance of social hierarchy or social order. In the paper Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction (1973), Bourdieu defines cultural capital as ‘familiarity with the legitimate culture within a society.’ In simpler terms, cultural capital refers to ‘non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means, such as education, intellect, style of speech, dress and even physical appearance.’ Individuals from well-off and high-class families possess knowledge, habits, and networks that help them perform better in competitive exams, which is why many first-generation scholars find it comparatively challenging to make their way through academia and other institutions.

The following excerpt from interview with UPSC aspirants is evidence of the same,

‘My uncle is an IAS, and I have understood the examination process better with his guidance. I also met with his fellow officer to prepare with better strategy and information. But sometimes, even with my family’s support, I feel a little overwhelmed, so I cannot even think about the pressure on candidates whose families have no background in education or otherwise.

-An aspirant based in Panipat, Haryana

On top of it, in exams like UPSC, 50 percent of the selected candidates belong to the government officials’ families. According to data from Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), the country’s top services training academy, the fathers of 166 of the 326 officer trainees (OTs) — 50.9 percent — who took the foundation course in 2019 belonged to government services.

The disparity doesn’t end at class but is a systematic consequence of hierarchy between caste, class and gender. Historically marginalised castes, economically disadvantaged classes, and systematically discriminated genders face barriers in access to resources, affecting the participation and success of candidates belonging to such groups. Even with the affirmative action of reservations through governmental policies, the gap in the social hierarchy persists as the reproduction of privilege is a factor which stands against the ideal of merit.

Social Validation: power and status

Individuals who pass these exams gain prestige, admiration, and esteem from their family, peers, and society. The exams, based on meritocracy, provide ample evidence for the intelligence and ability of a person, which acts as proof to source social validation. Exams like UPSC act as a societal mechanism to gain access to power through bureaucracy, policy-making, diplomacy, and political connections. Entry into elite circles of society through success in tests leads to enhanced status, which garners respect and recognition. Other than economic mobility, the esteemed competitive exams in Indian society also act as a means for social approval by enhancing one’s power and status in the social hierarchy. Success through rigorous competition allows access to positions of authority and prestige. Hence, social validation is one of the prominent motivations for people from all sections of society to sit in these exams.

Coaching Centres: commercialisation of education and the psychological pressure

From Mukherjee Nagar to Rajendra Nagar to Kota City, the rise of the coaching industry is a testament to the fact that the craze of competitive exams has provided a profit boost to the education sector. With the promise to provide quality teaching and guidance, the coaching institutes charge fees of lakhs. The profit-based coaching model has commercialised education, with institutes spending lakhs and crores on advertising to attract aspirants or consumers. Shows like TVF Aspirants and Kota Factory showcase a candidate’s struggle not only in result-driven coaching centres but also in terms of accommodation, social adjustment, and pressure from family, relatives, and society.

‘When you start preparing for UPSC, JEE etc, and become an aspirant, societal behaviour changes towards you. Not only family but also relatives and neighbours start expecting success, which increases the pressure manifolds. Your coaching institute, teacher, place of accommodation, behaviour, everything turns into a topic of discussion and debate.’

-An aspirant based in Karnal, Haryana

The coaching centres around the country are filled with millions of students who aspire to succeed and are expected to make their parents proud. Families who spend a fortune on education and accommodation expect great results and accomplishments from their children, which psychologically increases pressure and stress on the students. When front pages of newspapers and hoardings are printed with rank toppers, it teaches a comparison mindset, which turns the exam into a rat race. Society has turned success into an objective measure of a goal rather than motivating a subjective understanding of individual achievement.

The race is never-ending, as after clearing the exams, the placement becomes the next goal, and this is why suicide, as a harsh reality, is not limited to aspirants. Still, students of prestigious IITs and IIMs face many challenges to remain on top of the competition and many succumb to it. Clearing exams may guarantee a successful career, but a satisfied life seems impossible in the present pressure-mounting scenario. Rather than effective learning, scoring marks are the primary motivation for preparation for any exam. As the article ‘Doing Better than a Competitive Exam’ postulates truly: “Test preparation has corroded the Indian education system.”

Searching for a solution:

Criticising Davis-Moore’s theory of stratification, MM Tumin says that ‘society does not provide equal opportunities so rewards cannot be functional, and there is no sacrifice other than suspended earning (while family provides support) and they work in pursuit of psychic gratification from potential success.’ While these points are valid, Davis and Moore answer that without a system of rewards, there will be no motivation to attract people to go through training and hardship. Thus, the functional theory of stratification may have some drawbacks, but its importance cannot be denied.

Albeit, the solution to the problem of socioeconomic inequality in the mechanism of meritocracy is not so simple, and it cannot be solved by emphasising the importance of merit.

‘Test prep is not education. Education allows one to analyse information critically, make good judgements and apply knowledge in new domains. While genuine understanding of science, mathematics and logical reasoning can result in good scores in entrance examinations, the converse is not true.’

-from Doing better than a competitive exam, Business Standard

The need is to move beyond standardised tests by emphasising learning rather than rankings. Along with policy reforms for greater inclusivity and equity, broader social changes are needed through education reforms and social messaging. Recent rules, such as coaching centres should not admit students under 16 and compulsion of psychological help, are examples of crucial changes that the Indian education system needs.

The solution involves accepting the systematic disparities and inherent privileges and providing work toward balancing. It is crucial to mitigate the systematic disparities by making efforts towards equitable access and, most importantly, holistic evaluation.

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Tamanna Nandal, a passionate master's student in Sociology with a keen interest in human experiences, completed her graduation from UoD. She is currently enrolled at Ambedkar University. When not immersed in academic pursuits, she ventures into the artistic world through poems and photography. Tamanna finds solace in the pages of fiction, fantasy, and short stories, making literature an integral part of her life.