What will reserving one in 10 HE places achieve?

The Indian government has decided to reserve 10% of higher education places (and government jobs) for the relatively less affluent members of the so-called upper castes of the country. These people do not benefit from the caste-based reservation system that prevails in the country.

This is an important step being taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the right-wing party currently ruling India – during what is an election year. There is a need to analyse the policy from multiple angles.


India’s caste-based reservation system has been adopted due to historically shaped social discrimination. This discrimination has negatively impacted access to higher education for students from lower castes and other underprivileged groups.

For example, the majority of children from scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) do not complete school education. Moreover, the average score of these students who do finish school is often lower than that of upper castes. That is the rationale for reserving higher education places for underprivileged groups including the SCs and STs.

However, it is not a valid reason for reserving places for students belonging to upper castes. Most of these students not only complete school education but also pursue one kind of higher education or another if they want to.

What then is the social justification for this new reserved category? It seems to be aimed at appeasing those who are hurt or affected by the caste-based reservation system.

Since households which earn up to a maximum of INR800,000 (US$11,000) per annum are included in the category affected by the new policy, it is not only those who are truly poor who are covered. Through the new legislation, the government is attempting to make a substantial number from the upper castes happier.


Will students belonging to upper castes benefit from this legislation? It is very likely they will.

Most of these students complete school education and can apply to enter one or other kind of higher education (unlike scheduled castes and tribes, the majority of whom don’t acquire the qualifications needed to enter universities), but the new reservation system may help students from upper castes climb one or more steps in terms of the social ranking of the college that they can gain admittance to.

Will this new legislation be effective in terms of the government’s political goals? This depends on the additional support that the party in power can garner among these upper castes. A substantial share of these groups already supports the BJP in different states. However, this move may reinvigorate the support base of BJP among these castes.


What are the social benefits of this decision? It aims to increase the number of places in existing universities and other higher education institutions by 10% and this net increase could be positive, given the unmet demand for higher education within India.

Enrolment in higher education in the country is not very high and an increase in the availability of places is useful. This increase may not be that costly to the public exchequer since governments may ask existing institutes to stretch their facilities rather than investing many more additional resources. This may have a negative impact on the quality of teaching.

Does this move solve any fundamental problems faced by India in the domains of education or development? This is unlikely. A major problem faced by the country is the non-completion of, and poor learning achievements in, school education. Since the rate of non-completion is severe among students belonging to the so-called lower castes and other such groups, they may not benefit much from the prevailing caste reservation system.

Different governments should have made greater efforts to prevent school drop-out and ensure that most children in the country complete schooling. There is also a need to strengthen and improve the quality of post-secondary vocational education. All of this may require substantial changes in the allocation of resources and priorities on the part of state and central governments.

The nature of India’s economic development – which is focused on services with a stagnant manufacturing base – also makes the economic impact of this new decision likely to be less significant.

Those people who will benefit from this additional capacity in higher education will compete for jobs in the service sector that may not have many more new jobs to offer. The non-completion, and poor quality, of schooling (and other extraneous factors) may prevent the growth of the manufacturing sector and employment therein.

In essence, the decision to reserve places for some members of upper castes is in keeping with the political economy of the current ruling regime, but its impact on education and development is uncertain.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University, India. He teaches economics for development practitioners in the university, and carries out research on education and development issues.


Indeed, it's not scaffolding specific social groups to post-secondary education that requires super attention at this time but attention to compulsory-level schooling funding, enrolment, and completion-supporting initiatives. That's from where the individual, social group, and national benefits will flow; all with its own potential to achieve a positive adjustment in numbers of caste-disadvantage-identified students attending Indian universities.

Patrick Kelleghan on the University World News Facebook page