New Delhi: It’s exam season in India and also a time when suicides peak with students buckling under parental pressure to get high marks to gain admission in top universities that can land them high paying dream jobs.
Newspapers carry tragic daily reports of youngsters who have killed themselves because they fear the shame of a bad report card.
On a single day last month, media reported two teenage boys in New Delhi hanging themselves at their homes. One was falling behind in his studies and the other was afraid of an English exam. A final year Bachelor of Commerce student committed suicide by hanging herself in Mumbai because she was not prepared for her economics paper and did not want her family to feel ashamed of her performance.
A grade 12 student from Surat chose to end her life, succumbing to pressures of scoring high grades and meeting parental expectations while another threw herself before a moving train in Allahabad.
In 2007, an average of 16 students killed themselves every day
“Teenage suicide over exams is a national disaster,” said Samir Parikh, psychiatrist at Max Healthcare. In 2006, the most recent year for which official figures are available, some 5,857 students or 16 a day killed themselves due to exam stress.
Police say thousands more suicides go unreported because parents want to keep the cause of death a secret. Competition to get into higher education in the country of more than 1.1 billion people is fierce with stratospheric averages needed to obtain the few places available in India’s “Ivy League” colleges.
For instance, the cut-off average mark to pursue an undergraduate economics degree at Delhi University’s top commerce college last year was 97.8%. With barely a couple of dozen top-notch “branded” colleges, seven Indian institutes of technology and six of management, these institutions can take only 16,000 undergraduates each year. What about the rest?
High school results are round the corner and suicides may peak
In the last few weeks since the start of exam season, there have been a string of suicides in India’s capital by students as young as 12.
“Over the years the kind of marks students need to get into ‘good universities´ has started touching the roof. They need 90-95% averages,” psychiatrist Parikh said. Also “parents have high expectations and give undue importance to exams and for children the marks are benchmarks of their self-esteem. The combination can be fatal.”
While the global teen suicide rate is 14.5 per 100,000, a 2004 study by the Christian Medical College in Vellore reported 148 for girls and 58 for boys in India. The girls’ rate is higher because many fear being married off if they flunk, experts say.
Educators criticise exams for stressing memory work over reasoning.“We must structure exams in such a way that they do not bank on memory, rather emphasise thinking capability,” said scientist Yash Pal, who headed India’s recent curricular reform steering committee.
Tutors, memory pills, aptitude tests add to pressure
Tutors are called in and parents take time off to coach their children through exams. “Memory pills” are devoured, nutritionists are consulted for the best “brain food” and newspapers devote sections to tackling exams. On top of the finals, there are the university tests. Some students take half a dozen or more exams to try to get into big-name institutions.
A 2006 study of 231 teenagers by Anuradha Sovani, a clinical psychologist at the University of Mumbai, showed that the students were more frightened of exams than accidents, earthquakes or bomb attacks.
And even when students get into good Indian colleges, the pressure does not end -- with university suicides also regularly reported. “We have to give youngsters -- and their parents -- the life skills to know marks are not everything in life,” said psychiatrist Parikh.