Test ahead for India’s universities

 Financial Times
February 19, 2007
New government quotas designed to give the poor greater access to higher education remain contentious

On a mild winter day at Jawaharlal Nehru University, students bustle unconcerned about the leafy campus of one of New Delhi’s best-known universities. But later this year, JNU and nearly all India’sgovernment-funded universities will undergo a dramatic change. According to a bill passed in December by India’s parliament, they must drastically increase enrolment to reserve places for quotas of students from under-represented lower castes and tribal groups.

Opponents say such drastic measures threaten the quality of education, especially at India’s elite institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology. These too must comply with the law along with any government-funded institution of higher learning whose degree is recognised by Indian accreditation.

About 300,000 people a year sit entrance exams for about 5,500 places at seven IITs; about 195,000 students compete for fewer than 1,300 places at the six IIMs.

A small group of research-focused institutions is exempt from the new “reservations” system, as are private institutions, including the 1,200 or more private Indian business schools, such as the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. All institutions that offer undergraduate or postgraduate degrees – including MBAs – must comply.

The reservations system will set aside 27 per cent of places in national educational institutions for so-called “other backward castes” (OBCs), historically disadvantaged groups that account for large swathes of India’s population of 1.1bn. The increase is in addition to the 22.5 per cent already reserved for those at the bottom of the social pyramid: “scheduled castes and tribes”, respectively known as dalits (once “untouchables”) and adivasis (indigenous peoples).

The government has ostensibly enacted this sweeping affirmative action policy so that disadvantaged groups are treated more fairly. But some critics say the quotas are an attempt by the Congress party to shore up political support from 300m-500m members of India’s “backward” classes.

Newspapers and television news channels last summer blared coverage of fierce student and faculty protests against the scheme. Opponents grew more incensed when policymakers decided that reservations would also include affluent members of “other backward castes”, sometimes labelled the “creamy layer”.

Since then, the public furore has died down. University officials are reticent when asked about the new reservations policy, replying that they must comply with the new mandate.

“We have to pursue this as a policy of government,” says Rajendra Singh, for the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, which launched two MBA programmes in 1997 through its department of management studies. Some of the most prominent Indian business leaders have earned degrees from one of the IITs, such as Narayana Murthy, former head of Infosys, to Arun Sarin, the chief executive of Vodafone.

Universities say the government has not issued clear guidelines as to how and when the new policy will be implemented – for instance, whether the 27 per cent increase will be phased in over the next three years or all at once ahead of the next academic year.

For now, many universities assume they must welcome thousands more students in the next academic year. JNU, for instance, expects its student enrolment to jump from 5,300 to more than 8,000.

Pragmatic challenges loom. There has been little provision for how to account for a surge in demand for teachers, classrooms,dormitories, computers and facilities such as laboratories and libraries.

About 85 per cent of JNU’s students live in dormitories and the university is scrambling to find more housing in Delhi where land prices and rents are sky-high. JNU has a faculty to student ratio of 1:10 and is now contemplating the recruitment of hundreds of professors when hiring is already a strain.

Government rules prevent the universities increasing faculty salaries. “There is a tremendous problem with attracting young academics in India. In computers, economics and law, private corporate sector jobs are very lucrative. They start at a salary that is more than me as vice-chancellor,” says B.B. Bhattacharya, vice-chancellor of JNU. “Or they get good offers from western universities.”

JNU already had an affirmative action policy that gave weighted “points” for female and poor members of “other backward castes”. Since enacting its policy a decade ago, JNU had boosted total enrolment by these under-represented groups to 20 per cent. Prof Bhattacharya points outthat the new government policy does not give extra consideration for females or the poor when determining admissions.

As universities prepare for the influx of new students, questions about the effectiveness of the reservations policy remain.

“Various countries have come up with different solutions for affirmative action. Most people believe that affirmative action is necessary but the best way forward is not clear to anyone,” says Mendu Rammohan Rao, dean of the privately funded Indian School of Business. “The Indian government is making an effort to create opportunities for the underprivileged in education.I understand that it isessential but am not sure which is the right approach; it is a complex situation where one solution is not likely to fit all.”

Others have voiced stronger criticism. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, last year resigned from the taskforce on education of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, when the new legislation was introduced.

In the end, opponents contend, the reservations policy does not level the playing field for the truly needy.

“We are all committed to social action and to helping those people who are disadvantaged. Reservation isone way to do that,” says Yogesh Andlay, president of the IIT alumni association in New Delhi. “But thereare other ways too: improve the quality of overall school education. Reservationsare not the most effective means of providing long-term upliftment. You can give a man a fish or teach him how to fish.”

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