Saturday, September 30, 2006

Rservation in premier institutions

By Prabhudev Konana

While reservation is a political hot button, it is about societal endurance, ethics, and value issues. If it is a pure political solution then, unfortunately, premier institutions will probably lose the battle.

THERE IS an intense emotional debate over reservation in premier institutions of higher education. Those against reservation fear quality degradation and brand dilution. Others object that these government-supported institutions are inherently designed for the fortunate ones. Is the government's action purely political and populist? Do the institutions of higher learning have an obligation to address social inequities? And can we learn from institutions of higher learning in the U.S. that have addressed similar issues?

The key word in this debate is "government." Successful government-funded institutions often attract scrutiny. It is an oxymoron to scrutinise success. But this is not surprising when beneficiaries appear to be predominantly from a privileged caste, majority religion/race, or powerful social/economic strata or region. Any social inequities and injustices become politicised. Consider the attention institutions such as IITs and IIMs have attracted in recent times — successful entrepreneurs and jaw-dropping salaries — and frequent bragging of intellect; yet little is discussed showing broader societal access, benefits, and representation. Ironically, success perceived by some stakeholders amplifies the negative aspects (for example, social inequities) for other stakeholders. The government is a major stakeholder of these institutions and its concerns cannot be ignored. This is no different from the strategic choices the private sector faces, given the conflicting stakeholder values in an uncertain business environment (for example, the recent Pepsi and Coca-Cola run-ins with various entities).

The problems run deeper than a simple political debate. First, the reality is lack of a level playing field. The very highly selective system is inherently biased towards those with access to better schools and resources, or with superior mental capabilities. I suppose there are no issues with the latter, but the former raises questions. Families spend more than the per capita GDP of India to prepare their children for entrance examinations . Those who get selected appear to be predominantly from urban and well-educated families. A majority of students from socially and economically backward environments have little chance to compete. The exceptions are few and far between.

Second, there is a significant lack of information that draws inequities to the forefront. Currently, premier institutions reserve 22.5 per cent of the seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. How have these students fared academically and in the corporate world relative to other students? What impact have these students had on the larger society? It is not important to know if students admitted under quota can compete effectively over time. Maybe, every government-funded educational institution should consider declaring the aggregate profiles of its entering and graduating students (like caste, religion, region, and social and economic background). It is a common practice for private and public U.S. universities to <243>provide such information (for example, see<243> Harvard University details at<243> <243>Many questions can be asked based on the published data. What are the reasons for over-representation or under-representation of any segment of the population? Have these premier institutions made any attempt to encourage under-represented groups to become competitive? In the absence of such information, institutions are opening the door for scrutiny and political interference and will lose opportunities to monitor and strive for improvement. Without such data, it makes little sense to argue about quality or brand dilution.

This conflict and debate of social equity and representation in higher education are not unique to the Indian context. The U.S. universities provide great cases to analyse, but with a major difference. In the U.S., it is minority under-representation, while in India it is probably majority under-representation. The 1964 Civil Rights Act enacted after the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King explicitly allowed the use of race in the admission and hiring process in universities (referred to as affirmative action). Affirmative action has been a driving force to create diversity and opportunities for minorities. But affirmative action has faced numerous hurdles in many great institutions, including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of California, Berkeley. Several lawsuits alleging strict use of number quota or reverse discrimination have been fought in the State and federal courts, reaching even the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a 5-4 majority verdict that race can be one of the factors in admission decision because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body." Further, the court opined that race itself cannot be the dominating factor since it is unconstitutional. These are indeed interesting observations that Indian policy-makers and institutions should note.

To avoid constitutional challenges related to preference based on gender and race, many States have enacted fascinating policies. Texas has mandated guaranteed admission to any state-supported university to students who graduate in the top 10 per cent of their high school class. The top 10 per cent rule circumvents affirmative action while recognising the fact that many schools in poor neighbourhoods, border towns, and farming communities have minorities in large numbers. Hence, the top 10 per cent rule provides an excellent opportunity for the minority and economically disadvantaged to join prestigious universities. Many States have enacted similar laws. California has the top four per cent rule and the State ofFlorida the top 20 per cent rule. There are other actions as well. In Texas, higher education institutions have earmarked funds for first generation college students. Further, there is an explicit awareness among universities that understanding different cultures and backgrounds is not just a social equity issue, but also an important core value of education to all members of society.

Most private and public universities in the U.S. have special head-start programmes for promising minority high school students. They visit laboratories, meet star faculty, and attend classes to get a glimpse of the opportunities. The McCombs Business School (MSB), where I teach, has numerous initiatives to increase awareness and to promote diversity. We are part of many consortia to identify talented minority students and to attract them to our programmes Since minority representation is low among MBA students, MSB has partnered with eight major global businesses (for example, Deloitte Consulting, FedEx, AT&T) to provide 3 years of work experience to bright minority undergraduate students with deferred admission to the MBA programme. These efforts are being replicated in other private and public universities.
We need to recognise that diversity provides "core educational value" for students. A great example of diversity needs is in management education. If management programmes are about creating future leaders, why not admit a tiny fraction of students who come from rural India and have demonstrated unmatched leadership, but cannot get through the entrance examination ? They may provide better insights into challenges in rural India that are helpful in designing and marketing products, or will inspire others on social responsibility. But in our emotional debate, we ignore this core value.

The reservation debate is now extending to the private sector. While government interference in the private sector is troubling, it doesn't absolve this sector of the responsibility to promote diversity and social equity. In fact, firms can use these as strength. Some of the best firms to work for in the U.S. are also known for diversity (for example, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard). Numerous U.S. companies have officers for diversity-related issues (My university has a vice-president for diversity). Recently, reputed advertising agencies signed an agreement to increase minority representation with the New York City after realising that hiring of minorities barely increased in the last 40 years. This agreement requires these private firms to submit hiring and promotion details to the city! Should the private sector wait for such public embarrassment and government interference, or take proactive action? Collectively it can support, identify, and nurture bright under-represented students to succeed in the corporate world rather than subject themselves to government or political interference.

In India, the sheer magnitude of the problem to reach out to the masses is daunting. But that does not preclude reaching out to any. Each institute will not have the resources to tackle this nation-wide problem. But joining with other educational institutions like NITs, industry associations like NASSCOM and CII, NGOs, and businesses, they can form entities (like associations in the U.S. to encourage minority enrolment) to identify and train promising students from economically and socially backward communities to succeed. Since the government cannot do everything, it is left to the institutions and all their stakeholders (including alumni, students and faculty) to bring about some, or even incremental, positive change. Without these actions, it is hypocritical to expect government funding but show no social responsibility.

The system of affirmative action or reservation is not perfect, but the spirit must be acknowledged. While reservation is a political hot button, it is about societal endurance, ethics, and value issues. If it is a pure political solution then, unfortunately, premier institutions will probably lose the battle. Of course, there are significant problems with explicit quota. The real beneficiaries of reservation may be the economically well-off "backward community" members who generation after generation reap the benefits at the expense of the real needy. The government needs to put a stop to such abuses.

One can endlessly debate reservation, but it is a good debate! It raises awareness of the social inequities, and hopefully will inspire individuals to rise to the occasion for a better India. Hopefully, self-governance will minimise government interference. "Strength in diversity" need not be political or feel-good rhetoric; institutions and their stakeholders must bring this to fruition with passion, new ideas, and a positive mindset.

(The author is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and can be contacted at
From : The Hindu, online edition, September 30th,2006