In recent times several relatively better-off social groups such as Jats, Patels, and Marathas, that do not belong to the scheduled castes or tribes, have been agitating for reservations in higher education and jobs. Often, state governments have responded positively by trying to implement new reservation regimes for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Although it may be too early to pass judgement on the merits of reservation for OBCs, a recent study by G. Sen and Rakesh Basant (Working Paper No. 2016-07-01 of IIM Ahmedabad) has shown that reservation has not had a significant impact on the participation of OBC in higher education.
The share of currently enrolled persons in higher education courses (under-graduate and above) in the relevant age cohort of a social group provides a good measure of its current status in higher education participation. A higher share signifies higher participation, and if the share in the total population for a specific group is higher than its share in the enrolled, the group suffers from a “deficit” in participation.
But the interpretation of this measure may be misleading if one does not consider eligibility for participating in higher education. To be eligible to enrol in higher education, one has to complete higher secondary education. Thus, instead of only focusing on the entire population in the relevant age group, measures of participation should also consider the segment that has crossed the threshold of higher secondary education and is thus eligible to go to college. A focus on the eligible population brings the links between secondary and tertiary education explicitly into policy discussions.
Measures of higher education participation for Socio-Religious Categories (SRCs), such as Hindu Scheduled Caste (SC), Hindu Scheduled Tribe (ST), Hindu Other Backward Classes (OBC), Hindu Upper Castes (UC), Muslims, and Other Minorities show some interesting patterns. There are no deficits for UC and other minorities and virtually none for Hindu OBCs. The deficits are very low for STs as well, when one looks at the eligible population. In 2009-10, the share of Hindu OBC in the total population in the relevant age cohort was 34%; it was 33.8% among the enrolled and 34.1% among the eligible population. For STs, the share in total population was 7.6% and 3.1% in enrolled population, showing a deficit of 4.5%. But their share in eligible population was 3.7%, indicating an effective deficit of only 0.6%.
Eligibility is a critical factor for participation in higher education. Deficits for the under-privileged SRCs (SC, ST, and Muslims) are significantly lower among the eligible population. Thus, once persons from under-privileged groups cross the school threshold, the chances of their going to college are comparable to other SRCs. This suggests that a better understanding of the constraints on school education is critical if participation in higher education is to be enhanced.
Detailed analyses show that once other factors, such as economic status, region, and parental education are controlled for, inter-SRC differences in the probability of participation in higher education decline significantly. Interestingly, chances of participation in higher education increase significantly with parental education, especially parental graduate education. This effect persists even after controlling for household economic status, region (state), gender, and socio-religious affiliation (caste and religion, which forms the basis for reservation or discussions around reservation). The impact of parental education (higher secondary and above) is greater than that of SRC status in both rural and urban areas!
Given these results, should affirmative action be linked to deficits of respective groups? And if yes, what type of deficits should one go by? For example, the deficits for Hindu OBC are non-existent when one looks at the currently studying or eligible population. Moreover, once other factors are controlled for, inter-SRC differences decline dramatically and the “hierarchy of deprivation” is not clear empirically.
Alternatively, should policy focus on ensuring eligibility for higher education? The chances of going to college for the under-privileged are quite high once they cross the school threshold. Other studies suggest that the supply of schools positively affects the participation of various groups in higher education, presumably through the process of enhancing eligibility. Therefore, policy needs to focus on the factors relating to school education that adversely affect the completion of schooling.
Arguably, reservation in higher education is an incentive to cross the threshold. Similarly, job reservation can potentially enhance the incentives to participate in higher education. Are these adequate? Apparently not. Evidence shows that the efficacy of reservation policies depends on other complementary instruments that ensure better academic preparation and financial support.
These findings raise questions about the efficacy of socio-religious affiliation as the sole focus of affirmative action. Since factors other than socio-religious affiliation influence participation in higher education significantly, an exclusive focus on such affiliation for affirmative action seems inappropriate. The importance of economic background as well as of location highlight the role of the supply side factors in affecting participation of various groups in higher education.
Implementation of reservation policies has been beset with a number of challenges, such as the correct identification of beneficiaries and uncontested interpretation of constitutional provisions. High information needs for caste-based reservation make implementation of reservation policies difficult. If reservation is considered an appropriate form of affirmative action, parental education can be a good criterion, as it is easy to measure and, unlike caste categories, does not present problems associated with designation.
Children of illiterate parents would then form the most backward category, followed by those whose parents possess less than secondary education. Children with parents having graduate education would be outside the purview of affirmative action. Such a programme will not suffer from information failures and will be self-limiting as only one generation can benefit from it. But the share of state institutions in higher education is on the decline and reservation, even if effective, can at best help a small population. Reservation in private higher education institutions is beset with a variety of knotty issues. Clearly, affirmative action must go beyond reservation.
Rakesh Basant teaches Economics at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. This article is based on the research undertaken by the author with Gitanjali Sen.