As many as 26 per cent male and 35 per cent female students from India’s most disadvantaged castes and tribes in 245 engineering colleges would not be there without reservations, according to a new study that says affirmative action policy in higher education works largely as intended.
However, reservations do place those who do not qualify for affirmative action at a disadvantage, said the study of 53,374 scheduled caste (SC), scheduled tribe (ST), other backward caste (OBC) and general students by researchers from the US’ Carnegie Mellon University and published in the American Economic Review.
Naveen Gurappu’s story: From diffidence to confidence
Naveen Gurappu, 25, an electrical engineer and doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Powai, is an embodiment of India’s 34-year-old system of reservation for the most disadvantaged groups.
“I would never have come so far if it had not been for the scheduled caste quota and my dad,” said Gurappu, a native of Hyderabad, son of a bank clerk who himself got his job through reservation.
“My dad enrolled me in St Martin’s High School in Hyderabad, a good school, because he wanted me to study well,” said Gurappu, from a scheduled caste called the Malas. “SBI (State Bank of India) pitched in with a yearly fellowship of Rs 500 for stationary and the like. We could not afford extra tuition or the internet at home, even though I badly needed help. Dad paid for my college, coaching and books, he treated me to my first movie — I was in class 11.” The family took a bank loan, which they are repaying, to finance Gurappu’s studies at IIT, which charges SC/ST students about Rs 60,000 per annum for the engineering programme and PhD.
In his first year at IIT, Gurappu struggled to grasp lessons, unlike his upper-caste peers. “Still, I was better off than other disadvantaged caste students because I came from a city,” he said.
Reservation helps and motivates the disadvantaged
Affirmative action spurred students from disadvantaged castes — who still lagged upper castes — to perform better in college than in school, said the Carnegie Mellon study, which compared the first-year college scores of 42,914 students with their high-school scores.
Gurappu — who initially struggled to cope — agreed with that assessment. “In time, I adjusted to the IIT system and standards, and even caught up with toppers in some subjects,” he said. “With the right mindset and opportunity, any socially disadvantaged student can excel in higher education.”
Disadvantaged-caste students were more likely to choose competitive majors, such as electronics, communication and computer science, than other students.
Reservation is an equaliser, but it does not get enough SC/ST/OBC students into higher education.
“Even with the attendance gains from affirmative action, the most disadvantaged castes still attend in smaller proportions than their population shares,” Dennis Epple, co-author of the American Economic Review study and Thomas Lord University Professor of Economics at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, told IndiaSpend.
“Our work also indicates why affirmative action policies generate debate,” said Epple. “We find that improved educational outcomes for disadvantaged students come at a cost to those who do not receive affirmative action.”
The bottom line: SCs/STs/OBCs benefit from reservation in higher education, but affirmative action should be carefully implemented, periodically reviewed and adjusted to deliver the best outcomes.
IndiaSpend dissected higher-education enrolment data to determine what reservation is still justified in India.
Reservation and higher education expansion boost SC, ST enrolments, but not enough
India introduced 15 per cent and 7.5 per cent reservations for SC and ST candidates respectively in government-aided educational institutions in 1982. Some states tweaked those percentages to factor in local demographics, which the constitution allows. So in Tamil Nadu, 18 per cent of higher-education is reserved for SCs and one per cent for STs. In some central universities in the tribal-dominated northeast, 60 per cent of seats are reserved for ST students.
Between 2000 and 2014, the Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) of SCs — a measure of the percentage of actual enrolments in higher education, regardless of age, in a given academic year, to the 18- to 23-year-old population eligible for higher education in that year — more than doubled while that of STs doubled.
Reservations have had a domino effect, spurring new generations to educate themselves.
“Reservations in past decades have increased the numbers of SC/ST families with highly-educated members, who can encourage — and provide support for — younger family members to continue their education,” said professor emeritus of economics at the University of Michigan, Thomas E. Weisskopf, who has argued in favour of reservations for marginalised Indian social groups in higher education.
If parity existed between the share of SCs and STs in the general population and participation in higher education, SCs would occupy a third more seats than they do now, while STs would occupy close to double the seats.
5 ways to increase SC, ST higher-education enrolments
* Create more infrastructure
* Extend affirmative action to private-sector institutions
* Support students at the intermediate level
* Counsel students about opportunities
* Encourage CSR initiatives in education for disadvantaged students