The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) recently came out with a report on the ‘Impact of Reservation Policy in Higher Education in India’. Amidst the din of the general election and the war in Sri Lanka, it appears to have received scant attention in the press.
The report is a veritable treasure of facts and figures with respect to economic and educational backwardness. The initial part of the report documents the economic status of different social groups based on a number of social parameters. It concludes:
Poverty and deprivation is higher among STs, SCs and OBCs among Hindus and Muslims. Hindu STs are the poorest… while Hindu OBCs are close to national average and lie between Hindu SC, Muslims SC, ST & OBCs, Muslim Others on one hand and Christian SC/ STs, Hindu Others, Christian OBCs, Sikhs, Jains and Zoroastrians on other. In terms of economic deprivation, higher percentage of Hindu SCs & Muslims (Muslim SC, ST, OBCs & Others) fall under ‘very poor’ category as compared to Hindu OBCs…Higher the level of deprivation/poverty in a particular category, lower the number of graduates from that category. So the percentage of graduates and above belonging to poor, very poor and middle economic strata within SC, ST & OBCs are less as compared to those in top two categories (upper middle and rich) within their own community. A high number of poor amongst the most deprived socio-religious groups (Hindu & Muslim SC, ST & OBC) attain graduation and above.
As far as middle and secondary education is concerned, it concludes that ‘Hindu OBCs are adequately represented as compared to their share of population at middle and secondary school levels but their attainment drops at higher secondary level’. SC/ST enrollment as noted from the census appears to have marginally improved over the years.
Strong urban-rural (rural enrollment lower than urban; more so for lower castes than upper) and gender (lower female attainment for SC/ST/OBC/Muslim; higher disparity with diminishing household income) gaps are also noted. As for OBC representation and enrollment in higher education, it concludes that their numbers remain low as compared to Hindu Others, Jains, Christians and Zoroastrians.
The last point regarding OBCs, even if true overall, has important exceptions as their data in the next section indicates (this part is really the core of the study). The team conducted a caste-wise breakdown of university admission and performance in select universities across three states – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. A survey of students, faculties and administrators was also conducted where diverse opinions were voiced.
The data sets are not always complete but they still provide some sense of the social implications of reservation policy. In Maharashtra, while OBC enrollment in Mumbai University was found to be low, it was adequate at Marathwada university and at the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences. While CET and higher secondary (HSC) exam performances were better in the general category in engineering, OBC students performed better than the general category in medical CET and HSC marks. In terms of university level performance, general category students performed better than those in the reserve category both in terms of pass percentage and the number of first and second classes.
In Tamil Nadu, backward class (BC as distinguished from Most Backward Class, MBC) students outperformed the open category (OC) students in qualifying for medical admission and very nearly matched the open category for engineering admission. The report notes that even while engineering education in the state is highly privatized (96.7% of all engineering colleges are self-financing), BCs and MBCs were adequately represented whereas SC/ST numbers are low. Also 27% reserved category candidates who are selected for MBBS in Tamil Nadu take admission without any reservation. The majority of these (25%) are from BC and MBC categories. It also states that at the exit level of professional courses, no marked difference exists between the performance of reserved category students vis-à-vis the general category is noted and hence quotas have not diluted merit in engineering institutions. The last finding is erroneous as the conclusion can only be asserted with confidence with respect to BCs and MBCs, not SC/STs (see table 7.9 and explanation on p.53).
In Uttar Pradesh, OBC applicants to professional courses were fewer than their proportion in the overall population and filled fewer slots in medical colleges than the allotted quota but exceeded the stipulated 27% in engineering colleges. Performance-wise (as determined by pass percentages), there is something of a surprise: OBCs fared the worst, SC/STs the best with general category students in between. No explanation is however offered to account for these seemingly anomalous findings (fake SC/ST certificates?). Reserved seats were not filled in post-graduate engineering courses and an inverse correlation was found between demand for a course and the number of SC/ST/OBCs enrolled in it.
The team also studied enrollment rates to some centrally funded institutions, namely the IITs, AIIMS and TISS. They note that the percentage of SC/STs preparing for the IIT-JEE through self-study is much higher than for other groups and the sharp urban/rural and CBSE/state board divides probably affect the success rate based on the adverse impact they have on these sections. They speculate that disparities in parents’ educational status as well as household income are other important factors affecting the performance of SC/STs. A similarly high rate of failure of SC/STs in the AIIMS entrance exam is also noted. As for enrollment at TISS, it is stated that SC/STs have surpassed their respective quota shares and while the numbers are only rough estimates, a significant number of OBCs (~10%) are believed to be getting in through merit although their percentage is still less in proportion to their eligible population.
The report offers considerable food for thought.
1. Backwardness is better understood as a relative term with communities being hierarchically graded along a continuum without a clear backward/forward distinction. This could be an argument in favor of developing what was proposed earlier – an individualized deprivation index scoring system taking into account a diverse set of factors including location (urban/rural, proximity to educational institutions and coaching facilities, etc.), parental accomplishments, etc. and applied to all applicants rather than a pre-specified caste-based quota.
2. The continuing reservation policy in Tamil Nadu, at it applies to BCs and MBCs, does not appear justified in light of these findings. There is also a reasonable case to take a hard look at the distribution of OBCs in Maharashtra.
3. A recurring theme of the report is that candidate numbers in various courses are not proportionate to their population. Firstly, this point ought to be seen only in association with the number of applicants since a lower number of applicants would be a likely explanation for the fewer number of successful candidates. Secondly, the smaller applicant pool would only imply backwardness provided preferences of the community are excluded as a possibility. While a graduate degree may well be an entry barrier to the employment market, the same is not always the case for post-graduate education in which case, it may simply be an artifact of varied preferences.
4. An aspect of the debate related to the above point has been whether the goal of the reservation policy ought to be to promote classroom diversity or social advancement. The difference has not been all that material since for the bulk of the populace, the two have been closely related – any policy for upliftment will also invariably be accompanied by an increase in diversity. But as this report indicates, that may not always be the case. In courses related to agriculture, enrollment of students from the general category is very low which raises the question: should institutions actively promote themselves to sections that are not backward in the interest of diversity? To give another example, if members of a traditional merchant community were to prefer entrepreneurship to signing up for a doctoral degree program after graduation, should it be obligatory or even desirable for institutions offering such programs to resort to affirmative action to reverse the imbalance?
5. In a majority of educational courses, it seems clear that backward class performance is lower than that of the general category. To the extent that this is an indicator of scholarship/merit and a determinant of the educational environment, quotas do appear to lead to a dilution of the standard (this is a point that follows clearly from the data but a conclusion the report does not explicitly state anywhere as far as I can tell). The question then is whether this is a problem and if so, how it ought to be remedied. The authors favor a multi-pronged approach with increased assistance provided right from the HSC level to reverse this ‘inverted funnel effect’ and similar support both before admission to the university and after.
6. Given that reservation policies have had very different impacts in different parts of the country, what are the factors that contribute to this extensive disparity and how might they be remedied? The report generally recommends improved access to education but unfortunately does not specifically dwell on this question.