World-class universities plan has caste action flaw

The Indian government’s plan to elevate 20 of the country’s top universities to ‘world-class institutions’ has run afoul of the country’s existing affirmative action policy, under which half of higher education places must be reserved for students from socially 'backward classes' and castes.

An inter-ministerial group has been formed to deal with reservations and other issues, such as adequate funding, to see the plan through, according to reports. The world-class universities plan announced in February is to upgrade 10 public and 10 private institutions, later relabelled as ‘institutions of eminence’.

Collaboration with foreign institutions, part of the world-class plan, has also been criticised. This involves hiring the best academics in a ‘brain gain’ policy at one level and, at another, reserving a further 30% of seats for foreign students on top of the 50% reservation for so-called ‘backward classes’, scheduled castes and tribes and physically handicapped students, leaving just 20% of seats open for local students coming in on pure merit.

Earlier, Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar promised top institutions increased funding and autonomy, but had never made clear whether that autonomy could extend to affirmative action procedures.

“The autonomy promised to the selected institutions would, in all probability, not be wide enough to bypass reservations – though we need to wait for a final decision by the government,” says Ajay K Mehra, director at the Centre for Public Affairs, and former Ford Foundation Chair in Dalit Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university in New Delhi.

Dalits, at the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder, are among the various groups that benefit from higher education reservations under provisions in India’s constitution.

Politically sensitive

Higher education experts say they are not surprised at the plan’s deferment as the reservation of seats in educational institutions and government appointments is a politically sensitive issue that no government would tamper with.

Mehra says exempting institutions of eminence from the reservation policy would be against existing constitutional laws. “It would not be considered at all.”

“Reservations are a historical necessity in certain cases, but in India they have become a political tool of ‘vote bank’ politics – that’s where the problem arises,” says Mehra, referring to the tendency of particular castes and communities to vote as a bloc securing reliable ‘vote banks’ during elections.

Many experts have argued that reservations go against true merit – under affirmative action policies students from disadvantaged groups can be admitted with lower marks than the general population – and could hamper attempts to compete with the best universities in the world.

However, M Rajivlochan, a member of the Punjab State Higher Education Council and director of the internal quality assurance cell at Panjab University, Chandigarh, says it is a fallacy that reservations hamper merit and performance.

“There are also high political costs to removing reservations. It will have to be balanced against performance results – these may or may not accrue by removing reservations,” he told University World News.

Rajivlochan added that if the government is showing signs of getting cold feet on the institutions of excellence scheme, it could be because it realises its promised outlay of some US$15 million per institution per year in extra funding under the world-class universities plan may not be enough to make a difference in their position in international higher education rankings, which are highly skewed towards research output and impact.

“Will a faculty begin to perform better because there has been a 15% hike [on average] in the budget of the university? That is one of those perennial problems for which there is no sure answer,” Rajivlochan said. In his view, high-value research at an institution translates into an increase in the number of superior performing students.

The inter-ministerial group tasked with reviewing the world-class universities policy comprises Javadekar; Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, who preceded Javadekar as human resource development minister; Power Minister Piyush Goyal and Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, according to a report in the online newspaper Mint, published on 20 June.

“The four ministers will now decide the fate of the world-class university plan,” the paper said, citing unnamed officials.

Photo credit: Sandeep Saxena