Jandhyala B. G. Tilak
Equality of opportunities in education has been one of the most important policy objectives in civilised societies. Equity and diversity in education are noble ideals of any strong and vibrant education system and they need to be constantly nurtured. But it is difficult to sell these ideals in the present competitive market system. The market-oriented policies, in general, and the steep increase in fees in higher education in public and private institutions, in particular, have led to a significant change in the attitudes of the people. As the middle- and upper-classes pay high, even exorbitant, fees and `buy' admission into places of higher education, they convincingly argue against reservations and even against public subsidisation of education of weaker sections.
With the Union Government's recent initiative to reserve 27 per cent of the seats in central institutions of higher education for Other Backward Classes there has been a polarisation of the forces favouring and opposing reservations. Many, however, do admit that weaker sections are still severely under-represented in education and they need to be encouraged with policies and programmes. But they feel that the inefficiencies in administering the reservation policies have caused grave errors in targeting. Though originally intended to be only for a decade, that is, until 1960, the continuation, not to speak of increasing the level, of reservations does not address the problem of inequalities.
Some others feel that while those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes deserve protective discrimination, the OBCs do not, as many of them are not socially, culturally or even economically and politically backward.
Another set questions the caste-based against class-based, reservations system and also argues that problems of implementation of class-based reservations are not more severe than those faced in the caste-based reservation system.
High degree of reservation?
There is quite a strong opinion against the high level of reservation (together it accounts for over 50 per cent of the intake), pushing down the relative availability of seats to general category students. Many also doubt the Government's promises, made while countering the anti-reservation protests, of allocating large sums of money to increase the capacity of the system, without diluting the quality.
While an expansion of the system, a dire need of the day, will provide admission to a larger number of students of all categories, the high proportion of reserved seats, would continue to be the cause of disagreement. This might, it is felt, satisfy the current generation of students, but the discontent is only deferred.
Doubts on the Government providing an additionalRs 16,500 crore, as proposed by the Veerappa Moily Committee in its interim report, to expand the higher education system also become stronger as at the same time attempts are being made to shelve the draft Education Bill itself, citing essentially financial constraints on the part of the Union Government (and to leave it to the resource-starved State governments to make their own Acts).
Further, it is also doubtful if the capacity of the system can be expanded within a year or two, as such an exercise would require not only financial resources, but also quality teachers, who cannot be produced in large numbers overnight, and a massive expansion of the infrastructure qualitatively and quantitatively, in terms of more colleges and universities. The Veerappa Moily Committee favours more contract and part-time teachers, using Post-Graduate and Doctoral students as teachers, and to increase the age of retirement of teachers to 70. How far this would help arrest the deteriorating quality and standards in higher education is yet to be examined.
Threat to merit?
The reservation system is seen as posing a threat to merit. But this argument cannot be stretched too far, as a good proportion of seats in higher educational institutions (in the name of management, NRI quota, etc.) are all but `auctioned' to the highest `bidder' and in this process merit is not a consideration. Public policy on education or, more appropriately, its absence has contributed a lot to all this.
The problem is further aggravated by declining public budgets for education. Five-Year and Annual Plans (one has already forgotten Perspective Plans) include a few lines on higher education; no goals and targets are mentioned, no strategies outlined.
With respect to funding, while efforts to raise fees and other private sources are initiated, hardly any serious attempt has been made to raise Budget allocations to higher education; in fact, there have been severe cuts.
As a result, many universities and other institutions of higher education, as also schools, are in an impoverished condition. Thousands of faculty positions remain vacant for more than a decade. Many universities are run with alarming numbers of under-qualified contract teachers and teaching assistants. A large number of study programmes, including what can otherwise be regarded as normal courses of study in humanities, languages and social sciences, are offered on a self-financing basis.
As a corollary, there has been a rapid growth of private institutions of all kinds, more sub-standard and commercialised in nature, outnumbering by several times the number of public institutions in many States.
The country would not have been in such a sorry state had public education at all levels been strengthened and expanded with heavy investment, instead of reducing public expenditure on education, allowing the unbridled growth of the private sector and legitimising self-financing courses.
The fundamental requirements are: provision of universal free and compulsory public education of good quality up to the end of the school level (of common school system); provision of well subsidised, if not free, quality higher education for all; and strong compensatory mechanisms for socially and economically weaker sections freeships, scholarships, residential facilities, supplementary coaching, etc., at all levels, but more at the school level.
In the absence of such measures, many reserved seats and faculty positions will remain vacant, despite reservations. In fact, strong and sustainable mechanisms will eventually make reservations in education and employment redundant. Then, affirmative policies of giving preference to the weaker sections, other qualifications being equal, would be good enough to promote equity, as in countries such as the US. The system of reservations has to be seen, at best, as a short-term need that has necessarily to be phased out, as originally envisaged by the Constitution-makers.
(The author is Head, Educational Finance Unit, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)