Sunday, April 20, 2008

Education, reservations and reform

Here is a brilliant economic analysis of the reservation policy by Atanu Dey on his blog on development. It is, at first glance, very impressive. He uses economic theory, common sense and impeccable argumentation to prove that reservations are untenable. But, all is not right with his reasoning. I can still spot a few weak links in the arguments, though I am no economist.

First, he states, rather unambiguously, that
"Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on this: there is no shortage of jobs for qualified candidates. In fact, there is a shortage of qualified people. The shortage arises from the limited supply of seats in educational institutions. That shortage of seats is mandated by the government. The government mandates the shortage and then assigns itself the power to dictate how the rationing of seats will be done. That rationing is motivated primarily by vote-bank politics."
First things first, as someone points out in the comments section, there is no real shortage of seats as mandated by the government. In fact, thousands of seats are left vacant at the end of counselling for engineering admissions every year in the state of Tamil Nadu. According to Wikipedia, Tamil Nadu has 40 universities. This page should provide more information on the state of education in Tamil Nadu. According to the statistics given above, the state has over 1000 colleges providing professional education, in addition to 255 engineering colleges, and 13 medical colleges. Admittedly, Tamil Nadu is one of India's more progressive states, but with good governance and political will, there is no reason why even the BIMARU states must not do as well. Secondly, the question of supply of education is a tricky one. Must all education necessarily lead to a degree? What about companies that recruit graduates of arts and science courses and train them to perform the work expected of them efficiently? One good example would be the TAS, which trains and qualifies young recruits. So, actually speaking, the claim that there is an artificially created shortage of education is a myth.

Dey suggests that higher education must be opened up to private enterprise. I agree. But the point here is, it already is. Sure, there are regulations and processes such as accreditation, but that must remain in order to maintain the quality of education. Then is the emphasis on separating education and testing. I agree again. But, that's what board exams and university exams are all about right? An autonomous arts and science college under the Madras University is free to decide on its syllabus. It's free to do what it pleases during the academic year. At the end of the semester, the students are tested on what they were taught during the semester. The exam process is overseen and endorsed by the University which then delivers the degree. What more can be done? I don't really get the point.

Third, the pricing issue. Privatisation of education and a total absence of control will lead to anarchy. Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating the nationalisation of colleges, or complete government control. Far from it. Education is already quite private, to a very large extent. Prices are sky-high. What the government can do is to provide scholarships, grants and stipends to those who deserve it. To contend that private colleges will charge less than government ones because they run their companies better is both ridiculously short-sighted and foolishly optimistic. I am no fan of government control, but this logic simply does not appeal to my brain. Private companies want profit. So will private colleges. In such a situation, how exactly will they agree to offer education at a lower cost than the government?

I can foresee one negative fallout if Dey's idea were implemented. India will go the way of the United States. While colleges in the US are some of the best in the world, it a fact that many who finish grad school spend half their lives trying to repay their educational loans, pay off home mortgages and rid themselves of debt. And in a country like India, which is trying desperately to improve its enrolment in institutes of higher education, this is a really bad idea. A situation like this will lead to a decline in overall education levels and India's already abysmal human development indicators will only fall further.

This said, I do agree when Dey says reservations are a terrible idea. Only, my reasons are entirely different from his. I read in the Times of India yesterday that the cutoff marks at the IIT-JEE had been reduced. While I did not exactly understand the logic behind the marking scheme, I also read that there was to be a 10% relaxation for OBC candidates. Suppose I am an OBC candidate. The normal cutoff mark in an entrance exam is 70%. But, I am given a 10% relaxation because I belong to the OBC category. That means I just need 63% to qualify. So, essentially, the government is telling me this, "Since you are underprivileged, and have been oppressed for centuries, we consider you to be less intelligent than your upper-caste counterparts, and hence incapable of scoring the mandatory 70%. We are being generous and giving you a chance despite your questionable intellect." I am sorry if I am being hyper-sensitive, but I find the attitude both patronising and demeaning. And that's the reason I am so against this practice of norm-relaxation.

1 comment:

Badri said...

Amrutha: Education in India is not exactly privatised, in the sense Atanu Dey or I see privatisation.

By privatisation, I would also like to see profit making, corporatised, education services. Currently, good, clean, honest private business entity cannot provide education in India, in the accredited space. NIIT is outside the accreditation space. ICFAI has chosen the same space, but needs to struggle a lot.

On the other hand, unclean characters have set up educational charitable trusts and operate education sweatshops in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, offering lower quality education and making billions of rupees as black money (by way of capitation fee, donations etc. without providing any receipts).

If you look at the engineering seats left vacant, they are invariably in colleges where the quality of facilities and education are the worst. Students figure out that it is not worth studying in these self-financing engineering colleges by paying a lakh an year.

The abundance of such low quality seats cannot be shown as an example to counter Atanu's argument on "shortage of seats". We have shortage of "good" seats, because of the governmental policies.

I quite agree with Atanu's arguments, except for the reservation issue. I think reservation is required for a long time to come.