College Education: What Reservation Has Done to It

College education in India is plagued by myriad problems, the biggest being reservation.

College education in India is plagued by myriad problems, of which, I believe, the biggest is reservation. Considering the absence of a discourse on eliminating the so-called ‘positive discrimination’ in mainstream avenues, I have taken it upon myself to discuss it here. For decades now, those resentful of it have only cribbed, while, at the cost of being pessimistic, I think it is rare-to-find anti-reservation champions, like Rajiv Ghoswami, who have laid down their lives for what is almost a lost cause.  But it would not be entirely fair to censure those who’ve mouthed complaints without precipitating a change to that effect, because when not unified they cannot achieve much. This idea can see the light of the day only and only if, inspired by the aforementioned cause, a group of like-minded voters manage to outnumber pro-reservation voters, and hold the powers at the Center and in the states ransom for nothing short of a promise to abolish reservation of all sorts in the education and employment sector. Yes, this sounds impossible to accomplish, yet, it is an important battle that every meritocratic person must ideally fight, irrespective of their castes. In the following paragraphs, I shall adumbrate the game plan of, and my rejoinders to, the narrative that supports this unfair practice.

It is alarming to see how so many so-called caste-annihilation champions, leftist-liberals, and intelligentsia of the country perceive social and economic hierarchy. Like a broken leg, if casteism has to be fixed, then responsible action must be taken. An injured foot needs medical attention, and not always crutches to reestablish its mobility, at least in cases that permit one to be optimistic about recovery, like ours. They’re at a loss to grasp that providing a flimsy compensation like reservation is not the solution to the problem of caste discrimination. They simply can’t come to terms with the idea that applying a cream to the knees will not fix a dislocated bone, i.e. they don’t understand that forcefully increasing representation will not lead to inclusion. They’ve clubbed ‘social’ with ‘economic’, to come up with the farce called ‘socio-economic’. Assuming that special treatment in educational institutions will translate into better employment opportunities and thus improved standards of living, which will in turn invert extant social equations, is their biggest fallacy. And they simply don’t understand that hurting your other leg just because one is disfigured is irrational, at best.

What is needed is procuring legal redresses in cases of caste discrimination and not making a clamor for unfair and unmeritorious representation in avenues with little scope to recompense. Yet, all that left-liberals, activists, etc. have done is to champion the promotion of unqualified professionals graduating from public academic institutions in various streams, and thus making them subjects of ridicule and scorn for their ill-deserved and unethical climb up the ladder of career. Why are we then surprised that certain talented General Category (GC) individuals hate their inefficient bosses, professors, classmates, and co-workers from non GC? It is not the caste per se, but the dearth of qualification and competency that is despised.

Let’s not even venture into the ambit of whether the Jats, Patels, or Marathas deserve social affirmative action of this sort, since such a discussion is of no consequence to the larger issue at hand. However, it is noteworthy that these were the communities that first fought against reservation, and when left with little hope of success, chose instead to become a part of the bandwagon. And the simmering discontent of these and more such communities, who will join the league may propel some social strife that will lead to the collapse of the entire social system. The 49.5% seats that accommodate the quota parivar in non-minority institutions will soon reach their points of saturation, leading to incessant in-fighting in the race to greater reservation for more egregious backwardness. But this, on the other hand, makes the materialization of our ‘United Anti-Reservation Front’, if you will, even more elusive, since more and more interest-groups that were formerly aligned with us, are now entering a foolhardy bargain.

Let us not forget the in-house quotas, which are an even bigger mess, wherein all unmotivated and incompetent candidates, among others, are allotted seats that they haven’t earned, simply by virtue of, either having warmed benches there during Junior College or, having paid huge sums to its partner institutions during high school. For example, when promoted from class 10 to 11, or from class 12 to the college, students, who have already been studying in the said school come in through quotas in which cut offs sink to, for example, 50%, while the poor GC candidate, who is an outsider has to struggle with matriculation even with a good 95%. Simply because one scored good marks in class 10, does it mean he can get away with not doing well in class 12? Does it imply he is still as meritorious, hardworking, and dedicated, as he was two years back? And if it does, why even make him write class 12 exams? Also, is being tested for compatibility to study class 11 syllabi tantamount to being tested to analyze texts as a College Freshman?

Next on the list are reservations for religious and linguistic minorities. Any non-Hindu trust can run a college, with the necessary conditions fulfilled, and can become a religious minority institution, if it likes. This applies to Jain, Parsi, Christian, and Muslim institutions funded by the government. In these schools, 50% seats are reserved for students of these religious communities, even though that culminates into blatant discrimination against Hindus, who, owing to their sheer size, contribute the biggest chunk of taxes to the national treasury, from which lakhs of Rupees are poured into the defrayment of these minority seats.

Let me use an example to draw home the point about linguistic minority reservation. Should you be a Gujarati living in Mumbai, you can benefit from the 50% seats reserved by Gujarati-minority institutions for Gujarati speakers in the state of Maharashtra. The same applies to Maharashtrians living in Gujarat. In a nation where the constitution confers upon every citizen the right to freedom of movement, why should these linguistic minorities not be asked to integrate with the majority, to live among those, whom they have consciously chosen? I would not entirely blame a begrudging Bengali, if he wished ill of a Marwadi, who has the same score as the former, and who goes to a reputed minority run government-aided college, while the Bengali-speaking native has to settle for a mediocre one in the heart of Kolkata. And then we wonder why achieving cohesion among different ethnic communities in the country is a daunting task!

The most ridiculous defense of this retrograde system that I have come across is that these institutions are run by minority members, so they can take a call on how the seat distribution must transpire. I intend herewith to remind these people that they reside not in a banana republic, but in the Republic of India, and that the government funds these minority institutions, not the Vatican or Saudi Arabia.

The management, army, extracurricular, and sports quotas have also long overstayed their welcome in government institutions, where the taxpayers’ money is involved. Is the ward to be held reprehensible and punished through non-preferential treatment, if his parents are not serving in the Indian army? Is a student at fault if he likes to play an instrument not listed in preferred extracurricular activities’ quotas? Or how one is to accept the bigotry at the heart of sports quotas, which favor athletic abilities, that are not correlated substantially with academic brilliance, and that do not serve as a standardized testing-parameter? How can one buy the logically vacuous argument that kinfolk of management officials have a more superior right than others to avail institutional offerings, while employees must actually be remunerated exclusively by salaries and bursaries? That said, the handicapped quota must continue because individuals who suffer some substantial physical impairment must be supported by such measures.

Let us remember that even diversity quotas in the IIMs, even though unsaid, are yet another joke on all those, who work hard and miss the cutoff by a mark, only so that some girl with a poor mathematical acumen can occupy that seat, and blabber ubiquitous facts in fancy English in her management classes, only to show off her social sciences or arts background. Why can IIMs not make their examinations more comprehensive instead of employing such ambiguous parameters during interview rounds, if they actually want to welcome an eclectic student pool? This is perhaps for them to answer.

The conventional solution offered in regard with caste-based reservations is that the creamy SC/ST layer be excluded from these provisions, just as the creamy OBC layer has been, and a ‘poor upper castes’ one be added to this exhaustive list. Simplifying this, it is proposed that economic status and not social conditions be made the yardstick to determine neediness. While the latter (reservation based on economic status) is a far better solution than the former, is the poor preparedness of quota beneficiaries to take on college curricula or real world challenges going to be compensated by reservation?

Let us consider the case of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, a Christian Minority institution, where I have completed my college education, to answer this question. Xavier’s has 360 seats for Bachelors of Arts, a whopping 15% (54 seats) of which are earmarked for the Management quota. Of the rest, that is 306 seats, 50% (153 seats) are meant for Christians, both applying from other schools to St. Xavier’s Senior College (they get in through a Christian students’ merit list) and those who studied there in Junior College (All those who want to continue studying there are automatically admitted through the in-house quota). You can imagine getting 96% marks and yet being at the bottom of the Second General Category Merit List for ISC and CBSE Class 12 students, and ending up in tutorials with students, who have secured admission into Xavier’s with a 70% in Class 10 through the Christian quota, and who then got promoted from class 12 to Senior College with a 40% score in class 12, this time thanks to the In-house Christian quota. Need we be bemused, then, when affluent Indian students prefer mediocre Community Colleges in the US to top-notch institutions in India? Now, that’s not even all. Of the remaining seats (153 seats), another 49.5% (76 seats) are reserved for SC, ST, OBC, Sports, Military etc., which again include both outsiders and in-house entrants. By default, the remaining 77 seats are occupied by General Category students, but this number is not exclusive of in-house students. If my estimate is not wrong, not even 10% students of the 360 that commence undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s, a college renowned for its Arts and other faculties, do so as General Category Outsiders (non-in-house).

Also, let’s not forget that professorial positions too are not left out of the purview of reservations. Imagine how much more productive, fair, just, and successful any college as a whole could’ve been, if only reservations were struck off the agenda? Even if a government-aided college wants to do away with the reservation, it cannot, because of the provisions of the State and Central governments, which provide the necessary finances to these public institutions. And mind you, it is in these public institutions that the majority of our graduates are produced, so aggregate student quality is definitely going to be impacted by these issues.

Besides, it is hardly pragmatic to believe that students who accrue these benefits actually end up well-to-do in their lives. Does it help these academically average students to be under constant pressure to match shoulders with elite performers of the class? The answer is a resounding no. Apart from denigrating the quality of classroom discussions and examinations’ difficulty levels, reservations put candidates on pedestals where they don’t belong, often making them victims of inferiority complexes and diffidence. Far from ameliorating their aptitudes, reservations make underperformers complacent, over-achievers content with what, they believe, they can achieve in the class-room, and professors recumbent, because considering the qualitatively eclectic nature of the class, they cannot raise difficulty levels beyond the stipulated level. Devoid of challenge, and bereft of motivation, the entire system is taken for granted by all actors involved, making it even easier to shift all culpability on the already antagonized ‘other party’. Additionally, companies that visit graduate and post-graduate institutions for campus placements will definitely look at report-cards and CVs, and pick the best of the lot, making the journey after graduation a remarkably bouncy one for those who have undeservedly had a smooth ride until then.

The solution to this atrocious menace lies not just in dispensing with reservation, but just as much in improving primary and secondary education, so that everyone is assured a level-playing field when at the college threshold. This must be supplemented by greater integration of private players into the system, standardization of syllabi across all college boards, and a revision in the fee-structure to ensure that the quality of public institutions matches that of private ones. I do not intend to suggest here that standardization should lead to rigidity, lack of innovation, and absence of subject choice in the system.  All I am proposing is that schools and colleges be made to establish relatively more comparable parameters of testing that can allow students to move from a state to another, without being bogged down by the discrepancies of the extant heterogeneity. This will erase all chances of discrimination against any candidate, and will trounce the inane camp fighting for domicile and sons-of-the-soil quotas.

While gradual accretion in the budget allocated to education is definitely required, perhaps the government must reconsider its approach towards subsidization. Using income-tax returns and Aadhar UIDs as proof, the government must bear the burden of educational expenditure both at school and college levels, only for those families that require such assistance. Besides, the amount contributed by the government towards the education of the child need not be uniform, and can vary as per need and ability determined by tax brackets. This will effectively put to rest many, if not all concerns surrounding fair access to education, and most certainly the qualm that the backward sections of society don’t have enough entry-points to empowerment avenues of the society.

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The author has completed his Bachelors with Honours in Economics from St. Xavier’s College-Autonomous, Mumbai. His other interests include Indo-European languages, Hindustani Classical Music, History, Math, Politics, and Sanskrit literature.