Over the last decade or so, high cut-offs for admission to undergraduate courses in Delhi University have been given extensive – much of it front page – coverage every year. Admissions have become extremely difficult for even the brightest (defined in narrow terms of the marks obtained in the Class 12 boards). But what these front-page stories and prime time discussions fail to show, however, is how these high cut-offs exclude those who need affordable public education the most – students who have studied in government schools and are invariably from poor, working class families.

An analysis of last year’s Class 12 results of schools in Delhi will make this point clear.

Pass percentage isn't everything

The pass percentage in Delhi’s government schools has been consistently rising over the last decade, and successive state governments have used this fact as a marker of the improvement of the condition of these schools. While in 2006, the difference between the pass percentages of private schools and government schools was 10.62%, in 2015, the gap had reduced to merely 1.64%.

However, just looking at the pass percentage isn’t enough as this figure conceals the huge variation in the average marks obtained by students in government and private schools. This is important because admissions to Delhi University are on the basis of average marks.

Low averages

Take for instance, the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas, which are one of the best government schools in Delhi. They are run on the model of the Centre-run Navodaya Vidyalayas, with admissions based on merit. Out of the 17 such premier Delhi government schools, not a single one had an average score of more than 90% last year. In fact, the highest average score in 2015 was 84.26%, and only eight schools crossed the 80% mark. Now, while these marks are still no mean achievement, they simply aren't enough to get admissions to Delhi University’s most sought after courses and colleges.

Among the non-Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas, that is, ordinary government schools, the highest average score last year was 78.21%.

The minuscule presence of government schools in the Delhi government’s list of Top 100 schools illustrates the stark gap between private and government schools further. From 2006-2014, the number of government schools in the top 100 schools in Delhi has not exceeded 10.

Admissions to Delhi University depends on the best of four score (average of marks scored in four subjects) for the humanities and commerce courses, and the best of three (average of marks scored in three subjects) for the science courses. There are some courses for which entrance exams are also conducted. The huge gap in the average marks obtained by students of government and private schools makes it clear that Delhi University’s cut-off system give private school students an edge. In 2015, of the 24 subjects offered in Delhi, there were only three subjects – Geography, Chemistry and Sanskrit Core – in which government school students scored more than private school students. Here too, the relative advantage was minuscule as private school students had a huge advantage in the other 21 subjects.

Finally, while students from the upper middle class, who are unable to get admission in Delhi University, always have the option of applying to the many private universities mushrooming in the Delhi-National Capital Region, students from poorer families have no option but to take admission in the non-regular stream in the School of Open Learning and Non-Collegiate Women Education Board.

The failure of the governments to increase the number of college seats can be blamed for this, but it's difficult to miss the reproduction of class differences at work here.