Has access to higher education through affirmative action improved the lives of the poor and those from historically disadvantaged groups? And how has the reservation policy affected the achievements of those who don’t benefit from it? The controversy surrounding “Aarakshan,” meaning reservation, a new Bollywood film by Prakash Jha, has once again brought to the fore the unsettled and simmering issues around caste-based reservation in higher education. The matter is so politically charged that Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh banned the screening of the film, although the ban was later lifted in the latter two states.
The policy of reserving 22.5% of government jobs and university seats for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, known as Dalits and adivasis, respectively, goes back to the Indian Constitution. But far more controversial was the more recent mandating of an additional reservation of 27% of seats for people who fall into other disadvantaged groups, known as Other Backward Classes, bringing the total reservation up to almost 50%. This additional reservation in higher education was finally mandated by the Supreme Court in 2008.
The principal rationale for caste-based reservation in India, akin to race-based affirmative action in the United States, is to create equality of opportunity for historically disadvantaged groups. A related argument is that the historical fact of long-standing social repression is in itself a morally compelling reason for the counter-balancing force of reservation.
As I’ve suggested recently, inequality of outcomes is crucially affected by inequality of access. So, in theory, the argument that reservation, by creating a level playing field, will in the longer run alleviate inequality and other social deprivations makes sense. However, this begs the question of whether the system does, in fact, deliver on these benefits for disadvantaged groups.
Critics of reservation, as cited in a recent paper, argue, amongst other things, that caste-based quotas stigmatize rather than uplift targeted groups, and they entrench rather than alleviate long-standing inequalities. As Mr. Jha himself notes, one often hears people ask, “Would you want to be treated by a doctor who got in to medical school through reservation?”
Caste-based reservation may also carry unintended negative side effects along other dimensions of historical disadvantage. A much cited study finds that caste-based reservationreduced the overall number of women gaining admission into engineering colleges, because women were under-represented amongst those applying in the reserved category.
Leaving these arguments aside, the crucial questions are the ones I started with: Does caste-based reservation lead to improved educational outcomes for students in both the reserved and open categories?
A recent study by economics professor Sheetal Sekhri of the University of Virginia uses data from Indian college admission tests and exit results to test statistically whether the introduction of reservation raises educational performance as compared to an alternative hypothetical scenario of a pure meritocracy, where students are admitted based only on their rankings in admission tests.
The results of the study are not encouraging. A higher average “quality” of upper-caste students, defined by high performance on admission tests, has a negative impact on the academic performance of lower-caste students, the study says. Further, the performance of upper-caste students, as measured by exit tests, is also adversely affected by reservation, with the strongest effects on high-achieving upper-caste students.
Professor Sekhri interprets these results as suggesting that upper and lower caste students are in “competition” over scarce academic resources, such as access to faculty, support services, social networking, etc. and thus they tend to provide peer support only to their own caste members. Her striking conclusion is that a more integrated college environment, mandated by reservation, doesn’t achieve its intended goals of raising the educational performance of disadvantaged groups. And this discouraging finding is in line with other scholarly studies, such as by Anjani Kochar of the Stanford Center for International Development.
Reserving seats for the underprivileged has also created a private sector response by the relatively well off, who come mostly from the upper castes. Just take a look at the booming industry of “coaching classes,” which prepare students to take admissions tests for the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management.
Of course, reservations didn’t create coaching classes, which have been around for a long time as a response to the poor quality of the education system. But reservations certainly accentuated the growth of this industry by inducing upper caste students to compete for a smaller share of a fixed number of university seats.
An estimate by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry suggests that the coaching industry is worth a whopping $2.2 billion a year, with the typical student paying over $2000 for eight months of coaching, comprising as much as a third of a middle-class family’s budget. The cost of coaching is beyond the reach of many poor and lower middle income families, who are disproportionately represented by lower castes.
- But scrapping reservation would be the wrong answer. Not only is it a legal, political and practical impossibility, the fact remains that true equality of opportunity still eludes many disadvantaged people in India. The challenge, therefore, is to make caste-based reservation work better, and that is as much about raising the quality of public education in India. Where the well-to-do have the option of sending their kids to coaching classes, and the rich can send them abroad, the hopes of the disadvantaged for social and economic uplifting rest largely on the quality of public education.