Saturday 30 January 2016

Reservations for castes and/or economic classes in higher education: Is there a way forward?

Many a debate are raging on reservations for Dalits (lower caste) in higher education in India. This is in light of recent tragic cases of suicides of Dalit students, on account of alleged discrimination. To lose lives to discrimination is testimonial to how we refuse to learn, adopt and apply an appropriate value system that puts value to life over other trivial issues. I began to think this through to gain clarity for myself on what may be a solution at least to the dilemma of reservation in higher or other education systems.

The primary questions, for me, in this are:

1) Should there be reservations on the basis of caste and/or economic criteria?
2) Should there be reservations at all?
3) Where should there be reservations, if at all?

My thoughts on the subject are:

Firstly in a country where universal primary and secondary education are being promoted and considered a fundamental right, the real question that is then being asked is not about broad inclusion to such educational opportunities, but access to premier education institutions. The problem therefore is about quality of educational institutions and not the basis of admission. Importantly, if in the school education system anyone is discriminating against anyone on any basis, then there is a problem and the need for eliminating this bias. Therefore, any form of reservation herein is unacceptable. This, thus, also means that we need to ensure prevention of discrimination rather than creating a case for reservations. So the question to focus on is, how do we ensure an equitable, transparent and unbiased process of admission and have checks on any form of discrimination thereafter. To me this does not seem as big a problem, especially in today’s world where technology and an aware populous can be leveraged towards creating this system. It also requires a grievance registration and addressing system to be put in place and monitored.

Once students have got similar education at the school level, is there a need for further support?  I personally don’t think so. There may be a case for providing loans to economically disadvantaged people, but not a case for reservations. Again, this presupposes transparent, unbiased and merit based admissions, to avoid discrimination. Of course, if we take a somewhat visionary view of education, there is a further debate to be had whether even merit should be the case for limiting the aspiration of those who want to access higher education. 

In the case of limited capacity, that is the problem that should be addressed. 

If the aspirant has not gained minimum required eligibility in terms of skills, knowledge or experience to cope with requirements of the course, then they should have pathways to acquire those and then pursue their academic interests. 

Of course this requires to establish the minimum requirement for eligibility and validity of this criteria. Given our school education, its examination system and the variation in the quality of these institutions, there may be a case for validating the credentials of the students independently based strictly on the essential eligibility criteria required for pursuing further or higher education in the chosen discipline. Where possible, aspirants should be provided with remedial and supplementary options to make up shortcomings and gain eligibility.

I think the bottom-line for me is that we have to focus on the following instead of reservations:

  1. Increase capacity to meet demand.
  2. Ensure there is no discrimination in admission and other educational processes.
  3. Steadily increase the quality of education across the board and not merely promote and create categories within education institutions.
  4. Provide a remedial education system to help weaker students make up to the required eligibility criteria of the course, this should be standardised across the country as a National Eligibility Criteria for these qualifications. This would be something akin to National Occupational Standards in the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education & Training) system align to the National TVET/Skills Qualifications Framework.

For any of these to happen we need to increase funding allocated to education at all levels and this money has to be spent intelligently on aspects that truly enhances quality. This includes mostly on engaging those who have the correct value set and competence to develop and deliver such education.

Whether such a vision of the future is practical or not can be argued at no end, but it is my opinion that to delineate, conceptualise and define the ideal possible scenario and the underpinning principles is critical to engender and manifest the possibility itself.