The great quota standoff

The HRD Ministry’s decision to introduce 27 per cent OBC quota across IITs,IIMs and all central educational institutes....

Written by Anubhuti Vishnoi | New Delhi | Published: February 7, 2009 3:01:51 am

The HRD Ministry’s decision to introduce 27 per cent OBC quota across IITs,IIMs and all central educational institutes — thus bumping up the total quota for STs,SCs and OBCs to 49.5 per cent — did not spark controversy across the student community alone,it led to a heated conflict between the Government and NKC,which objected strongly to the move. In addition,the NKC’s suggestion to expand the number of universities was met with indifference,as were its proposed financial reforms.

Even though the PM-backed panel voted 6-2 against the OBC quota,with two of its members — convener Pratap Bhanu Mehta and noted sociologist Prof Andre Beteille — even quitting in 2006 in protest against the Government’s move,the HRD Ministry barely batted an eyelid. The NKC’s cause was not helped by the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh maintained a studied silence on the issue.

Notably,even the two NKC members who voted for the OBC quota did so only after making clear that the reservation plan would only work if combined with a massive expansion exercise in the education sector in order to preempt a decline in academic quality.

Reservation reforms

The NKC maintained that instead of reservation per se,affirmative action should be based on a Deprivation Index to provide weighted scores to students — the cumulative score could be used to supplement students’ performance in examinations to boost their eligibility for admissions. The panelists also recommended that a blind admissions policy could be balanced with a high number of scholarships and cross-subsidies.

“We all accept access has to be expanded and that the test of our social commitment will be in terms of how many students from marginalised communities go to these institutes. But there are different models to be followed. The whole quota debate ignored where the problem actually lies,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta told The Indian Express.

But despite the NKC’s nuanced approach to the quota debate,HRD Minister Arjun Singh hit back with a heavy-handed retort. “With all due respect to the great NKC,I must point out to them that they are not above the Constitution,” he said. “They do not need to speak to any of us. They do not know that there is a Parliament and there is a law passed by Parliament also. If they are unaware,then I can only pity them,” he added.

The Union Minister then went on to launch a personal attack against NKC chairman Sam Pitroda as well. Eventually,the HRD Ministry managed to bulldoze the additional 27 per cent OBC quota through last year,riding roughshod over the NKC’s recommendations.

Expansion proposal

The NKC’s luck was only marginally better when it recommended a massive expansion of opportunities for higher education to 1,500 universities nationwide. It argued that this would enable India to attain a quantum leap in Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) — 15 per cent by 2015. With about 350 varsities at present,some too large to ensure high academic standards and good governance,the panel called for the creation of additional,and and smaller,universities,reminding that neighbour China had added 1,250 new varsities in just three years.

The panel also advised the setting up of 50 exemplary department-based national universities with government allocation of substantial public land. Part of this,it further said,could be used as a source of income generation along with providing education of the highest standard. The students,it recommended,should be admitted on an all-India basis for the highest standard of education. on the basis of a blind policy. In addition,a blind policy,salary differentials and periodical reviews would attract most accomplished faculty.

But the HRD Ministry,as an NKC member described it,“hijacked” its proposal. At first,the ministry rejected the move saying it was an exercise in “elitism” and that the creation of “exclusive enclaves” would not be of any use. But the ministry later came up with its own plan for setting up some 373 colleges and 14 world-class or national varsities,with a tentative blueprint for the latter that bears a striking similarity to the NKC’s draft for national universities. While nothing substantive has happened on the HRD Ministry’s plan,it has managed to recently promulgate through an ordinance a legislation to create 12 new central varsities and upgrade another three to central varsity status. The NKC objects to this legislation as it continues to deny autonomy to the proposed varsities.

Finance and fees

While there has been at least some kind of movement on the addition of varsities,the financial reforms suggested for them by the commission have been ignored. Pointing to the serious resource crunch,the panel had noted that while 75 per cent of maintenance expenditure is on salaries and pensions,15 per cent goes towards preemptive claims like utility bills. This means that less than 10 per cent is left for maintenance and development,leaving laboratories and libraries languishing. The NKC further called for innovative asset management plans and,rationalisation of fees.

It noted that fee structures have been unchanged for decades and constitute less than 10 per cent of expenditure of varsities,yet no attempts have been made to rationalise them because of “populism in the political process”,as an NKC member put it. Besides,there is no incentive for varsities or colleges to raise income through higher fees as the sum would be deducted from their UGC or state government grants. “The fee debate verges on emotionalism and irrationality. Fees must be linked to potential earnings of students. After all,why do people go to private institutes paying very high fees and capitation fees? The answer is simply because there is a supply problem. Price controls never work. In fact,they create more scarcity,” said the NKC member. “On one hand you have students paying such high fees at schools and a mere pittance in colleges,while on the other there are several hundred Indian students who go to study abroad,paying higher fees,and thereby cross-subsidise foreign varsities. So,fee rationalisation will have to be done sooner or later”,adds the member. The NKC has recommended that fees should meet at least 20 per cent of the varsity’s expenditure and the fee should be adjusted every two years through price indexation. This should be matched by more subsidies and fee waivers for needy students. The University Grants Commission (UGC) should also not penalise varsities for raising fees by matching deductions from their grants-in-aid.

The HRD Ministry has again unwound its red tape,instituting a committee to look into the All-India ouncil of Technical Education (AICTE) and UGC’s functioning and another to look at fee regulations. The reports for both are yet to come but the ministry insists it’s on course.“We have actually implemented some of their recommendations like a national ICT mission. Other recommendations need more debate. We also discussed some of these recommendations with state governments. These issues will be taken up soon when the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meets to discuss these,said D Purandeswari,Minister of State,Higher Education,on the sidelines of the All Indian Editors’ Conference on the Social Sector.

An NKC member now questions why the commission was even formed.

“The NKC recommendations needed to be embedded in ongoing educational programmes. The fact that it did not happen has a lot to do with why most of these remain on paper. If the Government was serious about initiating reforms ,it would have ensured that happened,” said the member under condition of anonymity.

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