• From Equity to Preferential Equity

    An extract from History of Education Policymaking in India, 1947-2016

    R V Vaidyanatha Ayyar

    May 5, 2018

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    Equity and Education

    It is axiomatic that without equity in education a just society is inconceivable; a hierarchical society can be transformed into an egalitarian society only by promoting equity in education. A perennial theme in the history of modern education in India is the question whether equity in education can be attained through equalization of opportunities alone or whether in addition it is necessary to provide preferential opportunities to groups which are educationally backward, particularly those groups subjected to long-standing discrimination in a patriarchal, hierarchic, and inegalitarian society. That question is not limited to education; it also arises in regard to public employment, representation in elected and nominated bodies of all types, allocation of resources for development, and access to welfare and development programmes. The maximal version of preferential opportunity is a quota system, seats in a professional education or jobs in Government and public sector undertakings are earmarked to a category which is deemed to deserve preferential opportunity in proportion to its share in the population. Overall, from the mid-1980s one cannot miss the steady advancement of the preferential opportunity principle in many contexts such as the implementation of the Mandal Commission, the demand for reservation of seats in Parliament and State legislatures for women and OBCs, the demand for Special Component Plans for OBCs and Muslims on the lines of such plans for SCs and STs, and proposals to provide reservation for minorities, particularly Muslims, in educational institutions and public employment. By mid-2000s all political parties including the BJP and the Left which were ideologically opposed to policies which fostered caste identity had come to accept the principle of preferential opportunity. At the same time one can discern the emergence of the word ‘inclusion’ in political and policy discourse, an example of the proposition that the use of a new expression in the vocabulary of discourse might not be a mere linguistic shift but might be associated with an attempt to shift the perceptions about the subject covered by the expression. One comes across many terms qualified by the word ‘inclusive’ such as inclusive growth, inclusive banking, and inclusion in education. The conceptual underpinning of inclusion in education is a sociological view of society which views beneficiaries of inclusive policies to be victims of deliberate discrimination by the society; consequently, the objective of inclusive policies is eliminating the social barriers preventing the victims from participating in the development process, education system, and so on. Thus it used to be said that children do drop out because of the economic conditions of the parents, and a pedagogy which pushes out first generation learners without a home congenial to learning with the irrelevant curriculum and a teaching method which emphasized rote learning. The contemporaneous discourse on inclusive education holds out that children are pushed out mainly because of the discriminatory attitudes and practices of teachers, fellow pupils, and educational administrators, and therefore it is as important to bring about an altitudinal change of teachers, fellow pupils, and educational administrators as economic incentives and better pedagogy. And further, the advocacy for inclusion is interwoven with the idea of entitlements and socio-political mobilization, and is more assertive than the idea of equity which in the contemporaneous age of rights and entitlements has a flavour of noblesse oblige on the part of Government.

    Dimensions of Equalization of Oppurtunity 

    Equalization of educational opportunities has six dimensions: spatial (regional), gender, social, addressing the special needs of some children, quality, and learning outcomes; what the first five dimensions imply in the Indian context was broadly outlined by the National Policy on Education (NPE), 1968.


    The fifth dimension calls for measures to ensure that the system education does not aggravate the existing social and economic inequalities by consigning children from poor and disadvantaged background to study in substandard institutions. This dimension calls for a steep improvement in the quality of educational institutions in general and of Government institutions in particular.  


    Universalization of elementary education is a Constitutional goal, and universalization of secondary education came to be a goal during the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007–12).

    Universalization is inconceivable without expanding access to an extent whereby everyone who ought to attend educational institutions is assured of a seat. In contrast, in stages of education where universalization is not yet the goal such as higher and professional education, the number of applicants often exceed the seats available; this is particularly so in respect of highly prized institutions like IITs and IIMs.

    The home environment as well as the economic capacity to pay for ‘coaching’ for the entrance examinations might privilege those from a better social and economic background in the competition for scarce seats. The traditional mode of helping the underprivileged students to overcome the handicap is to lower the cutoff marks for admission, and to organize and finance the coaching of such students for competitive examinations. From the mid-1980s, the idea of preferential equity had advanced enormously so much so that mere coaching is considered not enough ‘to neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past’, and that it is necessary to extend reservation in educational institutions beyond SCs and STs to other social groups; some States like Andhra Pradesh had extended reservations in institutions of higher and professional education to women also.


    From 1990 to 2004

    The eleven month long reign of the V.P. Singh (National Front) Government marks a watershed in the history of post-Independent India; the policies of that Government fuelled the growth of identity politics, further fragmentation of the political system, and a moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. The most far-reaching of these policies was the decision to implement the Report of the Mandal Commission. This decision is generally believed to have been taken V.P. Singh to consolidate his power over his own Party by neutralizing his rivals Devi Lal and Chandra Sekhar. Whatever, in August 1990, orders were issued providing 27 per cent reservations in Central Government employment for persons belonging to the OBCs. Within three months of the order, the V. P. Singh Government fell as BJP, a constituent of the Government, withdrew its support as it was alarmed that OBC reservation might splinter the Hindus on caste lines and thereby thwart its attempts to consolidate the Hindus as a single voting bloc. Even though Rajiv Gandhi opposed the introduction of OBC reservation, the Congress Party Government which assumed office in 1991 reissued orders of the Singh Government but adding the rider that in allocating 27 per cent of the jobs to OBCs preference should be given to candidates belonging to poorer sections among OBCs.


    UPA Government and OBC Reservation 

    Contest of Ideas

    Central Government educational institutions were and continue to be at the very top of the academic hierarchy. In comparison with the famished and politicized State universities they were extremely well-funded and enjoyed a good measure of autonomy; they were national in character in terms of their faculty and students. Admissions to IITs and IIMs and even many post-graduate courses of several Central Universities are based on the performance in all India entrance examinations; entrance tests to IITs are among the most competitive in the world. The students and faculty of these institutions had every reason to believe that they are a cut above their counterparts in the State universities. In admissions, all of them had quotas for SCs and STs. However, unlike most Central Universities they did not lower the cut-off marks for admission SCs and STs so as to match the admissions and the quotas for SCs and STs.

    They offered special coaching for SC and ST students so that they could perform well in entrance examination, and admitted only those who secured the cut-off mark or above with the result that the students admitted fell short of the quotas. As befitting its reputation as a haven of liberal and left-leaning faculty, JNU was an exception in that it put in place an affirmativepolicy to set off the handicap of students from disadvantaged groups other than SCs and STs such as women and OBCs. Deprivation points were added to an academic merit score (maximum 100), and the eligibility for admission is determined with reference to the overall score.

    Unlike in most State universities, recruitment to Central Government educational institutions did not have quotas for SCs and STs, not to speak of OBCs. Political patronage no doubt played an important part in the selection of Vice-Chancellors; however, unlike in most State universities, caste and community considerations were generally absent.

    While generalizations are no doubt facile, the overall mood in the campuses of Central Government educational institutions was opposed to the OBC quota. The opposition was more intense in IITs and IIMs whose faculty and alumni prided on their global brand value and were agitated that their reputation for excellence would be tarnished if only half the students were selected on merit. The IIT and IIM faculty, students, and alumni, perceived the OBC quota as an assault on academic autonomy and institutional excellence… The overall feeling on the campus was that … the OBC reservation struck at the very heart of academic autonomy, namely the right of an educational institution to pursue academic excellence by regulating admission with reference to merit. Alternate opinions were articulated mainly in Central Universities by students and academics who leaned to the Left as well as those who espoused group rights; while some went along with OBC quota others preferred better targeted affirmative policies.


    This extract is from the book History of Education Policymaking in India, 1947-2016, chapter 14, 'From Equity to Preferential Equity.' Published here with permission from the publisher.

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