Quotas will only hurt IIMs and IITs

Quotas will only hurt IIMs and IITs

It’s uncertain if the human resources development ministry’s impatience to deliver ‘social justice’ by using reservations will eventually do much good to our society. But certainly, it has initiated the decline of two of the most powerful brands of independent India: the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

These two institutions should have been left out of quota politics. More than intellectual capital, it’s the credibility of admissions where money or influence has no role to play that contribute to their brand image.

If reservations for Other Backward Castes happen, it’s the selection criteria that will pull down these brands. Half the class using the caste tag to get in is a disturbing aspect of the selection process.

In the debate over reservations, we sometimes overlook the fact that at some level at least there should be no compromise with excellence. All societies need excellence for their elevation to a higher state of existence. We need to keep at least some institutions away from caste politics.

The use of reservation as an instrument for affirmative action has limitations. It creates more an illusion of strength by benefiting only a minuscule percentage of weaker sections of our society. More so when this act is not supplemented by other measures to effectively elevate their socio-economic conditions.

It also doesn’t serve the cause of social justice if proper identification of most disadvantaged sections is not done. The Supreme Court’s intervention is justified here. The Green Revolution and subsequent political assertion of some backward castes in different states has led to their upward mobility, creating vast disparity within these castes. In the present circumstances, these well-off segments are likely to corner the benefits of reservation.

Apart from accentuating caste consciousness, there is another dimension to reservations if prolonged for a long time; an erosion of self-respect for the beneficiaries. It’s the difference between getting something as a dole and earning something on one’s strength.

There is one basic misconception, especially among upper segments of our society, about caste and intelligence. Some social groups are perceived to be naturally less intelligent than others. Research all over the world has proved this assumption is wrong.

In fact, the probability of every child excelling in any area is similar irrespective of caste and creed provided the external environment is conducive to one’s growth. If our successive governments had focused more on social security, health and education for disadvantaged sections, and then left everyone to compete, chances are that their representation in institutes of higher learning would have been in their actual proportion, or close to 60%.

They would have got what they should have but with pride and self-respect.

This kind of change happened in the erstwhile Communist East Germany where education was free, uniform and compulsory for everyone. The weaker sections were given special coaching by highly-trained faculty so that everyone could excel in his or her area of strength. But after high school, everyone had to compete for higher education on equal terms.

The paucity of seats in quality higher education institutes is a principal factor of social tension over reservations. It’s more of an artificial scarcity like in the bad old days when we had to queue up for a phone connection or for cement bags. Increasing supply was the mantra, which we did finally, but only after wasting many years and causing hardships to many. In the field of education too we need to create surplus so that no student is deprived of the opportunity to excel.

Besides increasing capacity, we also need radical reforms in improving quality of delivery, especially at the primary and secondary level.

The present system creates a sense of alienation between living and learning in most of the schools. The learning process is so boring, painful and insufficient that a child develops contempt for learning. Massive investment is needed in creating the appropriate infrastructure, innovations in pedagogy, developing relevant curriculum, attracting competent minds to teaching and in faculty development. The investments needed for the same is not even comparable to what we are spending now.

The government needs to show alacrity in this area for ensuring social justice on a more concrete basis. Swapping budget allocation for defence with that of education for some years won’t be a bad idea.

Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting & Research in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools. Comments are welcome at businesscase@livemint.com