Who Studies What, Where and Why? Systemic Inequalities beyond Affirmative Action Policies in Indian Higher Education

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by V. Kalyan Shankar.

V. Kalyan Shankar is ICSSR Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Economics, University of Pune (India). His doctoral research was based on the emergence and deepening of inter-country value-addition chains among select Southeast Asian economies.

In the delivery systems of higher education in India, there has been an attempt to counter social inequalities through implementing a system of affirmative action policies – implying positive discrimination – in favor of the disadvantaged. Lack of access to education is posited as a problem of those left out from the delivery systems, of inadequate representation and participation of certain social groups. The state intervention in countering underrepresentation has been through the constitutional provisions for reservations. The debates surrounding reservations and their implementation have been fought on several turfs. In addition to the more conspicuous divide of affirmative action versus meritocracy, academic enquiries have probed into reservations on caste versus class grounds, on the need for expanding the umbrella of reservations to a wider segment of the society and more recently, on the inadequacy and irrelevance of affirmative action once the turf changes from academics to employment.

Even as these debates are running their course, what about the delivery systems of education, the terrain on which the edifice of reservations is built? While socio-economic backgrounds do influence individual participation in education, can differentiated access to education be attributed solely to them? Can the systems be really termed fair in their attempt at creating equality of access? It needs to be recognized that the systems themselves generate their own set of embodied institutional distortions that get superimposed over and above socio-economic inequalities. This project seeks to explore the systemic dimensions of inequality in Indian education. This work has been centered on the distortions resulting from structural overlaps in the delivery systems and the restriction of choices in higher education based on the medium of instruction in schooling.

In the delivery systems of higher education in India, there has been an attempt to counter social inequalities through implementing a system of affirmative action policies – implying positive discrimination in favor of the disadvantaged. Lack of access to education is posited as a problem of those left out from the delivery systems, of inadequate representation/ participation of certain social groups. From this premise, improving access translates into improving equity as well. Gross Enrolment Ratios (GER) in higher education in India – the ratio of the population attending higher education from the relevant age group of 18-23 years – was 20.4 percent. But the GERs for SCs and STs were much lower at 14.5 and 10.8 percent respectively; just as the GER for girls was lower than that of boys (Government of India, 2013). Access to higher educational opportunities therefore continued “to bear the stamp of multiple dimension of inequalities that characterize our society: gender, caste, religion, class, locality and disability” (UGC 2013).

The State intervention in countering underrepresentation has been through the constitutional provisions for reservations. As pointed out by Radhakrishnan (1997: 203), they form a package of protective, preferential and developmental practices “intended to create conditions for the social advancement of the historically disadvantaged groups, their integration into mainstream society and participation in its opportunity structure on equal terms with the advanced groups”. The debates surrounding reservations and their implementation have been fought on several turfs. In addition to the more conspicuous divide of affirmative action versus meritocracy, academic enquiries have probed into reservations on caste versus class grounds (Desai 1984; Shah 1985; Ramaiah 1992); on the need for expanding the umbrella of reservations to the OBCs and whether it remains justified (Mohanty 2006; Sundaram 2006); on the emerging skews in availing reservations, the argument of ‘creamy layer’ versus others (Chaudhari 2004; Weisskopf 2004; Saksena 2007); on the inadequacy/irrelevance of affirmative action once the turf changes from academics to employment (Jodhka and Newman 2007; Raghunath 2010).

Even as these debates are running their course, what about the delivery systems of education – the terrain on which the edifice of reservations is built? The increase in GERs fails to provide us an understanding of how the increasing numbers of enrolments are being accommodated. The delivery systems are assumed to be neutral in determining participation, leading to a questionable premise that policies on social equity of participation would be adequate to deliver the desired results. Citing from Sen (2005: 10):

‘The system makes sure that some young people, out of a huge pool of the young, manage to get privileged education. The picking is done not through any organized attempt to keep anyone out (indeed, far from it) but through differentiations that are driven by economic and social inequality related to class, gender, location and social privilege’.

While socio-economic backgrounds do influence individual participation in education, can differentiated access to education be attributed solely to them? By doing so, there is a certain exoneration of the delivery systems and their inherent limitations in enabling access for some while (inadvertently) denying it for others. Can the systems be really termed fair in their attempt at creating equality of access? It needs to be recognized that the systems themselves generate their own set of embodied institutional distortions that get superimposed over and above socio-economic inequalities.

Along with Prof. Rohini Sahni, I am part of a project on Inequalities of Access in Higher Education at the University of Pune (India). Through the project and my current postdoctoral work, we have been exploring the systemic dimensions of inequality in Indian education. Our work has been centered on the following themes:

 

Theme 1: Inequalities of Access are not only Social but also Systemic

Across educational institutions in India, the typically displayed admissions-matrix of selected and wait-list candidates is an interplay of two student-centric variables (a) the marks obtained by students placed in descending order and (b) a segregation of this order based on their reservation backgrounds. However, as we would like to argue, admissions remain far more layered than to do with either marks or reservations. As a matter of fact, caste/class-based reservations come into effect only after some of the meta-level “systemic reservations” get factored in. Otherwise, what can explain a situation where a lower scoring candidate gets admitted before the higher scoring one, even though they both technically fall under the same category of admissions? Intriguing as it may sound; there exist perfectly legitimate systemic guidelines making this possible.

Starting 1977, following the recommendations of the Kothari Committee, the (10+2+3) format of education was standardised across the country. It replaced the previous heterogeneity of (10+2+3), (10+2+2+2), (11+3) and (11/12+1+3) years existing across different states in India. In this format, a student is expected to complete ten years of schooling culminating in the Secondary School Certificate (S.S.C or Class X), two further years leading to the Higher Secondary Certificate (H.S.C or Class XII), then three years of graduation and so forth, the academic junctures being well established.  From the institutional side however, the demarcations are not so distinct. For example, a student could appear for the Class X examination from a school that could be offering anywhere between classes (1-10), (1-12), (5-10), (5-12), (8-10) and (8-12). This innocuous “structural overlapping” between institutions could become an important bottleneck for students while moving from one leg of education to the next.

This part of the project seeks to highlight how the structural overlapping in the delivery systems gives rise to skews that are beyond the scope of affirmative action policies. Moreover, because of these skews, the implications of the affirmative policies remain highly varied. Within the overarching frame of enquiry into who gets to study what, where and why, we identify some of the systemic constraints of availability and how they curtail of individual choices within higher education. Starting from Class X (a prerequisite for entry to higher secondary) and progressing through Class XII and graduation, this paper highlights how different limiting or skewing factors of access get pronounced within the system at different stages (like geographic distribution of institutional numbers, medium of instruction, streams of education). Emerging from this skew of institutions is a skew of choices. We seek to highlight how the available choices become compulsory by default for higher education aspirants. Meaning to say, how an individual gets systemically compelled to aspire only to a certain form of higher education and thereby get excluded from others.

For substantiating on our arguments, we make use of official documents on the procedures and guidelines for admissions followed by higher education institutions in the state of Maharashtra (India). While putting forth this less explored systemic dimension of exclusion, we raise a more fundamental question. The delivery systems of education are the chosen sites for social inclusion; but what can be done if they have structural limitations that make them the sites that exclude?

 

Theme 2: Inequalities of Access arising from Language

In the state of Maharashtra (India), there is a massive concentration of English medium schools in select, urbanized districts. Of the 7,15,010 enrolments in English medium schools in the year 1999-2000, Greater Mumbai (49.5 %), Nashik (20.9 %) and Pune (19 %) dominated the numbers. Over time, this skew has become less pronounced but continues to plague educational choices for students.

Of particular concern is the impact of medium of instruction in schools and how it shapes educational choices going further. The major systemic division at Class XI emerges in the form of the tripartite streams of arts, science and commerce. Of these, Arts and Commerce have bi-lingual options – they could be studied in both English and the vernacular language, Marathi. Science on the other hand is offered only in the English medium.

The English versus vernacular language problem remain posited as if the concerned students remain poles apart, without any interaction between them. At a school level, such a characterization can be affirmed, considering that the media of instruction leads to separate classrooms even within the same school. However, it overlooks that fact that there exists a hybrid form of ‘semi-English’ existing independently, where some subjects are taught in English while others are in the vernacular. However, coming in higher education, particularly in professional streams, a definitive shift into English becomes warranted for the vernacular medium students. The two worlds that have remained mutually exclusive compartments since the very first year at school end up converging into one in an engineering or medical classroom. How then to ensure equality in a classroom beset with students coming from the English versus vernacular divide?

References:

Chaudhari, Pradipta (2004), ‘The ‘Creamy Layer’: Political Economy of Reservations’, Economic and Political Weekly, 39 (20): 1989-1991

Desai, I.P (1984), ‘Should ‘Caste’ Be the Basis for Recognising Backwardness?’ Economic and Political Weekly, 19 (28): 1106-1116

Jodhka, Surinder and Katherine Newman (2007), ‘In the Name of Globalization: Meritocracy, Productivity and the Hidden language of Caste’, Economic and Political Weekly, 42 (41): 4125-4132

Mohanty, Mritiunjay (2006), ‘Social Inequality, Labour Market Dynamics and Reservation’, Economic and Political Weekly, 41 (35): 3777-3789

Radhakrishnan, P (1997) ‘Mandal Commission Report: A Sociological Critique’ in M.N.Srinivas (ed.) ‘Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar’, New Delhi: Penguin

Raghunath, Nilanjan (2010), ‘The Indian IT Industry and Meritocracy’, Working Paper Series No. 140, NUS: Asia Research Institute

Ramaiah, A (1992), ‘Identifying Other Backward Classes’, Economic and Political Weekly, 27 (23): 1203-1207

Saksena, K D (2007), ‘Policy Changes Needed on Reservations’, Economic and Political Weekly, 42 (26): 2494-2498

Sen, Amartya (2005), ‘The Country of First Boys’, The Little Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 1 and 2, Page 10

Shah, Ghanshyam (1985), ‘Caste, Class and Reservations’, Economic and Political Weekly, 20 (3): 132-136

Sundaram, K (2006), ‘On Backwardness and Fair Access to Higher Education’, Economic and Political Weekly, 41 (50): 5173-5182

UGC (2013), ‘Nurturing Social Equity in Higher Education’, New Delhi

Weisskopf, Thomas (2004), ‘Impact of Reservations on Admissions to Higher Education in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 39 (20): 4339-4349


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