Saturday, September 10, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Quotas can't bridge social gaps (Opinion)

Quotas can't bridge social gaps

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.


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

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.


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


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

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.


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