On Tuesday, the Supreme Court implored the government to do away with affirmative action in higher education institutions, arguing this would be in the “national interest”. The court was hearing two cases related to reservations in super-specialty courses in medical institutions, where the tightly controlled supply of training by the Medical Council of India has created a dearth of specialist doctors. Limited seats force doctors to seek specialised training abroad, after which many choose not to return. This also feeds into resentment of quotas and the candidates who avail of them, or are perceived as having benefitted from them. There are many instances of bright, promising SC and ST students being driven to suicide at the country’s best colleges and universities, including AIIMS, the IISc and IITs, due to the insensitivity they face from faculty and peers. The apex court’s positioning of reservations as anti-merit lends credibility to an argument that is oblivious to the way educational capital reproduces itself, and to how difficult it is for less-privileged students to access books and other materials, or even leisure time.
The court’s diagnosis of what ails higher education, therefore, misses the larger issue. While higher education institutions need to confront their internal biases, quotas are especially contentious largely because of the yawning gap between the demand for quality graduate study and its supply, not just in medical education but across all disciplines. Despite an expansion in the number of higher education institutions, the state has struggled to ensure commensurately high standards that would guarantee that the young people entering college are employable upon graduation. Nor has it created an environment that would allow private players to plug the gap in supply and demand, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Instead of systematically addressing the story of creaky infrastructure, abysmal teacher-pupil ratios and poor instruction quality characterising higher education, the ministry of human resource development has rushed into one avoidable confrontation after another. We need more initiatives like Gian, which looks to recruit over 200 scientists and academics from abroad for up to 28 hours of instruction at Central universities. Rather than seeking to supplement such innovative short-term teaching programmes with long-term solutions for, say, chronic teacher shortages, the UGC, after emerging victorious from a damaging spat over Delhi University’s Four-Year Undergraduate Programme, picked a fight with the IITs, over whose degrees it claimed jurisdiction. Later, the HRD ministry got in an unseemly public disagreement with Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the IIT-Bombay board, and in June appeared headed towards an altercation with the directors of the boards of the oldest IIMs, on suspicion that it sought to strip away their autonomy. That the ministry’s overbearing interference extends to the most prestigious graduate institutions is a measure of how deeply dysfunctional higher education in India is. The apex court’s solution of doing away with quotas is unlikely to change that.