P V Indiresan

Quotas can't bridge social gaps

P. V. INDIRESAN | Updated on November 17, 2011 Published on September 10, 2011

The apex court ruling on OBC admissions at university level misses the point. Instead of carrying on with quotas, the IITs and other colleges should have the autonomy to admit rich students so that they can cross-subsidise poorer ones.

According to the Indian constitution, India is a “socialist republic”. Yet, the government never talks of UNDP's Human Development Index which describes the quality of social development in a country. It does not because India's performance is woefully poor. All our political groups swear by reservation of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and the lower castes as their programme for making India a truly socialist state. In its latest order, the Supreme Court has supported reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by making a distinction between eligibility marks and qualifying marks and has come down strongly on the side of eligibility marks.

VARYING STANDARDS

Eligibility marks are pre-fixed; nobody below that can be considered for admission. Qualifying marks vary; they depend on the competition among the General Category candidates. They also vary with the round of admissions. In the first round, they are highest. When the candidates are fewer than the seats available, the qualifying marks are lowered, and more general candidates join. When that too is not enough, the qualifying marks are lowered still further, and so on the process continues until enough general candidates join any institution.

The Supreme Court has rightly observed that this variation imposes a strain on the OBC candidates, because when qualifying marks are chosen as the guide — their qualifying marks too vary. Incidentally, it is not at all concerned about the strain on the general candidates, whose qualifying marks too vary.

Be that as it may, going by the law of the country, as determined by the Supreme Court, OBC candidates alone are marked by the eligibility marks, while the admission of general candidates is determined by qualifying marks.

COLLEGE AUTONOMY

It is also not clear whether every college has the autonomy to determine its own qualifying marks, or whether all colleges have to accept the number set by the university to which they are affiliated. Can the abler colleges set higher eligibility marks or should they accept the standards set by their poorer colleagues? That is not clear; that may have to be checked.

The case of the IITs is peculiar — they have no second lists at all. They set qualifying marks and offer admissions once and once only — whether a course is over-filled or under-filled. Do the IITs have the right to adopt the qualifying marks or are they compelled to fix some eligibility marks? That is not clear. Perhaps that too needs to be checked with the Supreme Court. We have interesting times ahead.

Mr Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resources, laments as to why the IITs have not produced any Nobel Prize winners in spite of admitting the very best students (community wise) and having (by Indian standards) large budgetary contributions. I must say that he needs to rethink a little. However grand it may appear from the Indian point of view, the budget of any IIT is woefully small compared to that of its competitors abroad. More important, foreign institutions have an autonomy which the IITs lack.

What Harvard and Stanford have and the IITs do not is freedom, freedom to admit whosoever they like, freedom to select teachers, and freedom to teach what they like. American universities have that freedom because (a) they are not dependent on government grants, and (b) particularly because the American government does not let its babus breathe down their necks.

Hence, American universities are free to admit (the way Indian institutions were) anybody they liked, particularly both rich students who make valuable monetary contributions and also abler but poorer ones.

CROSS-SUBSIDISATION

Harvard makes no secret of it; it will admit children of rich parents whereas the IITs will not. That is how Harvard has accumulated over Rs 120,000 crore worth of endowments which it uses to subsidise brilliant but poor students, support research of fundamental nature or hire outstanding faculty at high salaries. With cross-subsidy from the wealthy, it performs social development better than the government can. The fact is that constant government interference has destroyed the quality of education in India. It is time to ask some tough questions.

Will our politicians and bureaucrats send their children to the schools which they administer rather than to private schools? (2) Do they agree that brilliant but poor children should get the same kind of education which they want for their own progeny? (3) Then, will they offer scholarships to enable them to do so? (4) Will the governments decentralise and let schools make the selection of poor but brilliant children instead of insisting on nationwide or state-wide tests?

India is a socialist state where the rich are free to spend their taxed (and untaxed) incomes in any manner they like. They can and do send their children abroad but they cannot pay even large amounts to get them admitted to Indian institutions (except under the table).

The government dictum is the rich cannot cross-subsidise the able poor. It is unable to do that itself but will not let the willing rich to do so voluntarily. Our politicians — and our Supreme Court too — should ask why our system does not promote social justice. Should the government (and hence the courts) insist on how educational institutions should run, or will the country be better off by giving institutions freedom to administer schools and colleges the way Western nations do?

After all, every institution would like to get the best students even if that needs some rich ones to cross-subsidise them. Our politicians are like the one who rides a tiger but cannot get off — but the Supreme Court need not be!

(This is 311th in the Vision 2020 series. The last article appeared on August 27.)

(The author is a former Director, IIT Madras. [email protected])

Published on September 10, 2011
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