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Mainstream, VOL LX No 28, New Delhi, July 2, 2022

Affirmative Action in Higher Education: India and the West | Arup Maharatna

Saturday 2 July 2022, by Arup Maharatna

Abstract: There are distinct indications that a persistent pressure for rapid expansion of enrolment or market or revenues particularly in the case of growing private HE institutions has fuelled and contributed to a rising spread, popularity, and reach of affirmative action in HE generally in developed countries. A considerable uncertainty prevails over the extent of realization or realizability of the purported effects of affirmative action in HE and of increased diversity in the campuses on the disadvantaged groups and their social integration and equity. On the contrary, there exists a lingering concern about the affirmative action’s plausible effects towards lowering the overall academic standard and quality in HE. In India too, while affirmative action in the form of ‘reservation’ or ‘quota’ has been instrumental to a massive expansion of both overall HE enrolment and diverse educational courses over the recent past, its effects on the academic ‘catching-up’ by disadvantaged groups and on the overall learning outcomes and its standard appear, on the whole, far from encouraging, or indeed worrisome particularly from the standpoint of the amply plausible declines in the overall academic quality and standard for all groups.

Affirmative Action in Higher Education: India and the West

In the USA and UK by the 1990s the post-war phenomenon of rising demand mostly from the middle/upper classes for higher education (HE hereafter) was met both by a fairly rapid expansion of the existing or pre-existing institutions/universities and by the creation of new ones over three decades since the 1960s. As a further steam for keeping up the pace of expansion of HE sector, the route of ensuring effective participation in HE of the youths from historically underrepresented social classes began looming large under a generic rubric of Affirmative Action and more lately under the so-called ‘social inclusion’. [1] The voice (largely of political and civil rights genre) that HE should be equally accessible to all eligible including those of historically disadvantaged/marginalised/indigenous social groups has been well-received, recognised and legislated for long at international forums and in many countries of the world. After the end of WWII, the heat of persistent social inequality in HE participation began being harnessed to feed into a voice increasingly turning against the pre-existing notion and arrangements of (traditional) academe itself. For example, John W. Gardner in USA in the early 1960s raised (admittedly) rhetorical voice of why academia should remain virtually a hereditary elitist preserve of only ‘academicians’, and hence he called for a transformation of traditional university or HE at large — which he branded as an ‘Ivory Tower’ of a few elite families - into a common academic arena for all sections to join in. [2]

In the USA, ‘affirmative action’ — a set of preferential norms, rules, guidelines, and practices intended to end discriminations based on race, ethnicity, or class - originated as an offshoot of the civil rights movement against long-existing discrimination and/or inequities in educational and job opportunities for non-whites in general and African Americans and women in particular. The earliest use of the term ‘affirmative action’ appeared in an Executive Order in the USA in 1961, which declared discrimination in employment practices based upon race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin unlawful. With the American court ruling against the provision of ‘reservation’ or ‘quota systems’ in the sphere of HE, Affirmative action programs in these institutions provided some relaxations or bonus points for admission purposes and/or financial assistance or scholarships. Through a paradigmatic shift of emphasis from “minority” to “diversity”, the affirmative action policies in the USA of late have created a new vision for universities. The USA’s affirmative policy in HE has entailed a distinct switch from promoting equality of opportunity to a more proactive role in selecting students from the underrepresented strata, with the new explicit goal of promoting ‘diversity’ in the campus. Diversity in the campus has now come to be considered important for not only for the students and faculty, but also the entire nation per se at least for three different (alleged) reasons: (1) ‘it makes the blending of ethnicities, cultures, races, religions and genders possible in an enabling and inclusive environment of civility, collegiality and mutual respect’; (2) ‘it makes good business sense to provide quality education to the fastest growing segments of society if a nation wants to compete in the global economy effectively’; and (3) ‘it helps the hitherto unrepresented and underrepresented sections of society in realizing their best potential’, as standardized testing is considered insufficient to tap such a vast pool of human resources. [3] It is often argued that in the age of globalization in which people of diverse races and genders are participating in a global community, a qualified diverse workforce is an absolute necessity. Also, the intermingling of students and faculty from diverse backgrounds is thought to help inculcate a ‘spirit of empathy, tolerance and mutual respect, so vital for social justice in any given polity’.

Thus, the acceptance of affirmative action policy in the matter of admissions to HE institutions implies extending the elasticity of the notion of “merit” to include not only rigorous academic grades and test scores but also the immeasurable human qualities and capacities ‘including artistic or musical talent, athletic ability, strength of character, leadership qualities, participation in extracurricular activities and community service, as well as promoting geographical diversity, etc’. It is worth noting that the implementation of affirmative action in HE is generally thought to serve not only the interests of students and faculty but also the wider interests of business and economic growth. This seems to be the major explanation of why its approval from the political elite in government and as well as judiciary has often been rather readily forthcoming. Indeed, it is easily understood by the political elite and the academia as well that without affirmative action in HE, the USA, for example, can scarcely compete in an increasingly globalized and multicultural world dominated by non-whites. The US leadership seems to have an imperative need to deal not only with minorities and ethnic groups within the country but also across its borders, as they cannot win trust and legitimacy of non-whites if whites continue to monopolize the highest and key positions.

However, measuring the extent to which diversity among students affects ‘learning process’ in a classroom is an inherently difficult task. For example, quantitative indicators such as grades and standardized tests have some deep weaknesses as measures of so-called ‘learning outcomes’ or what, or how well, a student has learnt. Therefore, it is even more challenging to separate out the impact of racial/ethnic diversity on the learning process. In a major empirical study providing some systematic evidence on the consequences of race-based preferences in admissions to US universities, William G Bowen and Derek Bok, in view of these difficulties, have limited their assessment of the diversity’s impact to an analysis of the responses of graduates to several questions in a sample survey relating to inter-racial interactions. They report that 57 per cent of the African-Americans and 46 per cent of the Whites in their entering cohort of 1976 felt that their college experience contributed significantly to their "ability to work effectively and get along with people from different races”. [4] The corresponding figures on the proportions having ‘significantly’ benefited in terms of ‘learning experience’ in an another oft-referred empirical study among the law graduates at the Michigan Law School were found to be 60 and 35 respectively. [5] The findings imply not only that a sizeable proportion of students do not benefit from an artificially created integration between two races, but also that White students admitted without any relaxations benefit proportionately less in terms of learning experience.

The question of whether enhancement of ‘diversity’ per se as an independent goal of education by itself has some diluting ramifications for academic rigour/standard of overall teaching and learning as such remains relevant, especially at HE level which generally conducts specialized disciplinary (academic) courses. It is often argued by the advocates of diversity per se in HE that a considerable portion of curriculum would be enhanced by a discourse made possible by heterogeneous backgrounds of students. As runs the argument, a substantial part of education in colleges/universities takes place outside classrooms, in extracurricular activities where students learn how to work together. However, as these supposed benefits of learning and working together within more diverse group of students pertain mostly to non-academic/non-intellectual domains and channels, one cannot rule out the possibility of its adverse impact on the academicstandard of learning (distinct from ‘quality and texture’ of education) through the germination of (plausible) distractions or aberrations attributable to an artificially injected diversity per se (especially when the notion of ‘diversity’ could partly involve a wide variation of academic abilityand aptitudes across diverse students). More specifically, when students of some particular social groups are admitted through ‘bonus’ or concession or relaxation in the entrance requirements, a rather strong plausible fallout in form of a certain degree of academic dilution in the overall standard of teaching and learning remains often wished away.

For example, some critics of these two above-noted American studies have argued that there is a strong plausibility of overestimating the academic achievements or academic standard of Minority students, ‘because many professors and administrators bend over backwards to help Minorities and to be lenient toward them in enforcing requirements’. [6] Indeed, university administrators might have a strong stake in the success of Minority students admitted through racial preferences and may thus like to do whatever they can to ensure these students’ staying on into the programme and finally becoming graduates. In this context two kinds of leniency extended to Minority students could arise and need to be carefully distinguished. First, administrators and professors might invest, on average, more time and resources into the learning of Minority students than they normally do for their White counterparts. Secondly, the administrators and professors might choose not to exert themselves on the Minority students’ learning and thus hold them to a lower academic standard and show leniency to them otherwise. There can scarcely be any doubt that the former form of leniency for the Minority students is a very welcome effort and initiative, especially given the fact that they often continue to suffer race-related social tensions and various forms of discrimination even within the campus.

In this context it seems, as suggested by Thomas E Weisskopf, to be a more plausible scenario that ‘academic standards might be lowered to some degree for all students, not just for Minority students, in a context in which race-based preferences result in admission of students with — on average — lower scores on standardised entry examinations’. This is best exemplified by the Indian experience in which affirmative action in admission practices in HE sector generally amounts to some blatant compromises or concessions or relaxations in terms of stipulated (minimum) level of academic ability or scores set for admission of the underrepresented or historically disadvantaged sections of the society — a topic which we pursue in the following section of this paper.

In the UK, the Dearing Committee Report of 1997 pointed to ‘inequality in participation rates for different groups and gave a renewed urgency to the need for widening participation.’ [7] It recommended some concrete steps for facilitation and enabling of wider access of the disadvantaged groups so that they can ‘succeed’ not exactly in academia but in their efforts in career-building and well-being upliftment in life. Almost immediately, the UK government, in response to the Dearing Committee Report, outlined its priorities and policies in The Learning Age: The Renaissance for a New Britain [8] in which it sought to ‘[r]each out and include those from groups that have been underrepresented... [including those from]... semi-skilled or unskilled family backgrounds and certain ethnic minorities.’ [9] In the UK, the hundreds of millions of pounds were distributed to the HE institutions ‘to recruit and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds’ in the 2000s under several initiatives variously named as ‘Excellence Challenge’ and ‘Widening Participation’. With the widening of participation in HE, driven by the stated aims of ‘social inclusion’ and ‘economic relevance’, a lot of public funds has been spent for the avowed cause of ‘diversity of higher education institutions at the expense of traditional centres of learning which have experienced an annual decline in the unit of resource’. [10] However there is a genuine concern that an intermingling between students of diverse academic aptitudes and talents, when subjected to the same academic standard of teaching and learning in HE, could stifle the development of talents amongst the innately best academic minds, irrespective of race or caste, or class. For example, in a hugely perceptive note, Dominic Cummings, a special adviser on policy to the then Education Secretary in UK writes in 2013 on this deeper concern as follows: [11]

Almost everybody the DfE [Department of Education] consulted 2011-13 about curriculum and exam reform was much more concerned about accusations of elitism than about the lack of ambition for the top 20%. Although they would not put it like this, most prominent people in the education world tacitly accept that failing to develop the talents of the most able is a price worth paying to be able to pose as defenders of ‘equality’. (emphasis added).

 What stands out to be most common fall-out of affirmative action policy and practice in HE across the world is the transition of admission policy-making from being an internal academic decision to becoming an increasingly external and politically driven process, which is almost inextricably linked to the drive to boost mass systems or ‘massification’ of HE. For example, when in the USA the pace of expansion of HE slowed down by mid-1990s, the social inclusion policy in HE, while its voice was not new with its long social history of ethnic and anti-racial movements, gathered added official/government attention and initiatives. The ethnic/racial mix of its diverse population has thus led to shifting trends in the composition of HE participants from the 1990s onwards. For example, according to a projection exercise with 1995 as a base year, ‘African-American, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students will account for 80% of the increase in undergraduates by 2015, or 2 million of the 2.6 million new students.’ [12] In an US official population estimates based on the Census of 2010, almost half of children under 18 years turned people of colour in 2014, whereas among residents aged between 18 and 24 years, whites, blacks and Hispanic people constitute 55, 15 and 21 percent respectively. [13] Indeed, the Census Bureau projections conclude that ‘the majority of Americans will be people of color by 2050’. [14] The undergraduate college enrolment trends between 1980 and 2014 in USA evince a steady increase in the share of non-white undergraduate students, and the percentage of students enrolled at for-profit institutions was highest among the black students. This conforms to the US Department of Education’s vision that promotion of diversity and inclusiveness across all levels of an institution is an effective way to achieve ‘a diverse and inclusive campus climate’. [15] Even earlier in 2011 the US Department Education and US Department of Justice jointly issued a Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Postsecondary Education to provide ‘checklists’ of the key steps to this end for colleges and universities. Although this official document had been challenged in the Supreme Court, the latter gave its ruling in mid-2013 in favour of the government’s stance inter alias: ‘The Departments of Education and Justice strongly support diversity in higher education. Racially diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our increasingly diverse nation.’ [16] It is generally held that ‘diversity’ per se is a goal in itself, [17] which is believed to have much potential for raising quality/standard of learning in HE institutions. However, the relevant evidence as well as precise reasons or mechanisms through which a greater diversity per se is envisaged to produce independent beneficial effects on academic standard is rather weak or shaky or even largely rhetorical. What seems clear, though, from the relevant literature is that ‘diversity’ by itself distinctly contributes to enriching what is perceived as ‘educational or campus experience’, which has more to do with quality of campus life than with the levels of cognitive or academic standard/quality/scholarship.

As suggested by the foregoing analysis, a persistent motive for sustaining pace of demand/expansion of HE as a marketable commodity is being served for sure by recent official emphasis/affirmative actions on admission programmes in HE/university particularly in face of changing social demographics in favour of historically ‘underserved’ minorities. While diversity in HE (via e.g. race or caste-based relaxations/preference in procedure of admissions to higher studies/research) is being often invoked as an averred educational goal itself, the question of whether it could adversely affect universal uniform goal of cultivating superior intellectual faculties and creative powers of mind in pursuance of continuous generation of new knowledge and inventions (may not necessarily be ‘useful’ immediately) is rarely raised and probed or seems to become increasingly inobtrusive in the arena of HE/university.

Initially (1960s and 1970s) affirmative action policies/initiatives in the HE sector of the USA were designed (through social campaigns and coaching among potential entrants from the disadvantaged communities) without making compromises on candidates’ merit or academic ability in the process of selection/admission. But later the race-based preferences or concessions (in varying forms and criteria) in the selection of new entrants became increasingly common even in the best-known universities of USA on various grounds, many of which have been challenged in judicial courts. Moreover, there are a few studies conducted so far on the nature of impact of affirmative action/concessions in admission policy in HE institutions in USA and outside. The existing studies concern themselves mostly with the perceived benefits (and/or their absence) of race-based preferences given to minority community students in select prominent universities. But there has been relatively little express concern or systematic exploration into hard (relevant) evidence as to whether overall quality or standard of HE does benefit or not from preferential admission policies under ‘social inclusion’ rubric. [18] Although some recent analyses have reported diversity per se to have an independent positive effect on the level of cognitive complexity, especially in group discussions among college undergraduates, they mostly pertain to very limited issues or subjects which are inherently entangled with diverse racial viewpoints or reflections. [19] Such loosening of standard/requirements for entry to HE for social minorities or socially/racially disadvantaged groups has become a prominent recent trend of HE/university across the world. Given a thick haziness surrounding the precise role of enhanced racial/social diversity per se in shaping academic/educational standard in HE/university, together with very limited research findings on this, the real (potential and actual) contribution of affirmative action, apart from its boosting up of demand and scope for expansion of market of HE services, is certainly very complex and even uncertain, as the whole issue entails sociology, politics, business, economics, and educational standard among others. And the complexity, dilemmas, and conflicts of interests entailed by the affirmative action in HE is nowhere better illustrated than in the Indian experiences and challenges, to which we now turn.

‘Reservations’ or ‘Quotas’ in India’s Higher Education and Its Ramifications 

On the question of affirmative action, India has a distinction both because of its long history as well as its extreme form represented typically by legislatively stipulated proportions of ‘reservation’ or ‘quota’ in government employment and admission to higher education institutions of the officially earmarked (historically) disadvantaged social groups or castes. While the core original argument for affirmative action, namely compensating for the past historical disadvantage, derives strength substantially from the universal human rights concerns, the Indian reservation policy as a form of affirmative action is intrinsically different from a more fuzzy or flexible form practiced elsewhere say USA or UK. For example, while the promotion of diversity in the campus could be easily seen to be a goal of affirmative action in the West, this cannot fit in well as the basis of Indian reservation policy, because reservation rules are made for those who are sociallyhierarchically - not racially nor skin-colour wise — placed or enumerated vis-à-vis the non-reserved categories. As reservation policy and its rules involve groups or communities who are intrinsically competitive with each other (aptly termed ‘competing inequalities’), the former is worth withering away towards a casteless society.

Thus, an in-built dilemma of simultaneously empowering historically discriminated (lower) social castes as well as sustaining their identity and status has been a distinct source of added complexities of Indian affirmative action policy. What seems to remain frequently suspended in the existing literature and discourse on the Indian reservation policy and its underlying philosophy is that the foundational goal of India’s reservation policy has not just been the promotion of socio-economic equality between the two or three competing or conflicting or hierarchical groups of castes, but the abolition of caste division itself. And the latter objective is innately antithetical to identifying, earmarking, sustaining, or enumerating diverse hierarchical castes. For one thing, the Indian experience of caste-based reservation amply suggests that ‘desire to be included in the list of beneficiaries and equally compelling need to hold on to these benefits has reaffirmed caste identities’. [20] Simultaneously, the political parties, concerned overwhelmingly with votes, have been extending the promise of reservations to diverse communities, further strengthening the caste consciousness and ultimately culminating into, in Gurpreet Mahajan’s succinct words, ‘on the one hand, a steady fragmentation of Indian society and, on the other, the formation of a context in which religious majoritarianism has flourished as an alternative to caste-based politics’. [21]

Unlike the USA, the Indian constitution, which came into force in 1950, stipulates for a temporary period of ten years — in consonance with the shares of respective groups in the national population - up to 15% reservation for the Scheduled Castes (SC), a bunch of officially earmarked lower castes, and 7.5% reservation or ‘quota’ for the Scheduled Tribes (ST), a bunch of officially scheduled tribes, both in government recruitment and HE admissions. In its first constitutional Amendment in 1951, the state in India is empowered to make any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward communities, namely SCs or STs. This, in turn, paved the way for the formation of the first Backward Classes Commission meant for identifying, protecting or advancing the interests of people under OBC, a bunch of large number of castes or sub-castes officially identified as socially and educationally ‘backward’. Subsequently (e.g. since 2006), another 27 per cent reservation was legislatively introduced exclusively for OBCs, making the total reservation up to 50 per cent of all seats or vacancies under virtually all publicly-funded enterprises and HE institutions (with a few exceptions such as military or judiciary spheres). As its inevitable corollary practice, there have generally been some statutory concessions or relaxations in the minimum cut-off scores required for these reserved groups in comparison with those for the unreserved or general categories. While scores in the entrance-qualifying-exam can hardly be considered as a good predictor of individual performance or achievement in HE, ‘the lower scores characteristic of most SC and ST students - especially at elite institutions - do reflect less adequate academic preparation for the demands of a university-level education’. These, initial deficiencies, intricately linked with long-standing socio-economic disadvantage, put the typical SC or ST student into a heightened challenge in respect of her subsequent educational experience.

Thus, the Indian reservation policy not only protects a stipulated number of seats of the reserved category of social groups from the vagaries of open competition with the general category counterparts, but it also decidedly allows a chunk of lesser ability students to enter the HE arena. Even so, SC and ST reserved seats often go unfilled - especially at the more selective educational institutions — since the number of applicants from these groups who have completed secondary education and otherwise met the requirements for admission seldom matches with the total number of available seats. Now there is a couple of major issues that seem relevant to an assessment of the multi-faceted impact or ramifications of reservation policies in India’s HE sector. First, whether reservation policy per se contributes to an expansion of HE provisions/facilities (supplies) in the country. The answer to this question can be in the affirmative if the increased participation of the underrepresented through reservation policy accompanies the creation of new seats for them, without replacing the seats for the qualified applicants from non-reserved groups. If expansion of demand for HE among the underrepresented is met up by additional supplies of educational provisions, it should not greatly affect the composition of participants in HE between reserved and non-reserved groups.

Indeed, there has been a substantial contribution of reservation policy to the expansion of SC and ST enrolments, with the growth of rates of enrolment being 47 and 63 per cent for SC and ST during 2012-2020 vis-à-vis about 28 per cent for all categories combined. (This is based on the estimated annual enrolment data provided by the All-India Survey on Higher Education, Ministry of Education, Govt of India). This is also corroborated by a higher percentage point increase in the gross enrolment ratio for SC (3.9) and ST (3.1) than for total population (3.0). And this expansion of SC/ST enrolment has produced very limited, if not negligible, ‘displacement effects’ (e.g. the number of general category candidates displaced by reservation of seats for SC and ST) in India’s overall HE sector, as the proportionate representations of SC and ST students in total higher educational enrolment have risen very slowly. For instance, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s, the SC proportion rose from 7 per cent to 7.8 per cent and the ST proportion rose from 1.6 per cent to 2.7 per cent. These percentage figures should be placed against the corresponding SC and ST shares of the total population of India: roughly 16 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. Thus, by the end of the twentieth century (i.e. over about 50 years), the SC and ST student representations in HE institutions have reached roughly one-half and one-third of their respective overall representations in aggregate population. [22] Again, SC and ST students are distributed much unevenly across various degree programmes at colleges and universities of India. For example, the percentages of SC and ST students enrolled in the most prestigious programmes - engineering, law and medicine - are much lower than for the students from general category population. Unsurprisingly, SC and ST students are even more underrepresented in the master’s and PhD programmes than at the bachelor’s degree level.

It is reasonably evident that most SC and ST students at the elite Indian universities and institutions (which are mostly centrally-funded) would not have been admitted in the absence of reservation policy or quotas, as very few SC and ST students succeed in open competition for general seats. This is partly because they scarcely have access to high-quality secondary education, or to privately-funded preparatory workshops and tutorials, all of which contribute substantially to the competitive edge possessed by students from relatively well-to-do families. Even with lower cut-off points for admission, SC and ST students typically do not come close to filling the available reserved seats in these prestigious institutions. In terms of some rough rudimentary calculations by Thomas Weisskopf, only about a third of the SC and ST students enrolled in Indian HE institutions in the late 1990s were found pursuing HE in a ‘relatively desirable programme’ owing to the existence of reservation policies in admission. Given that a significant number of SC and ST students are generally encouraged by reservation policies to pursue HE in less desirable programmes, ‘these policies have made a difference in the case of about half of the roughly 7,00,000 SC and ST students enrolled in higher education in the late 1990s’. [23] However, it is notable that more than 50 years after independence, at least half of the seats reserved in Indian HE institutions for SC students, and at least two thirds of the seats reserved for ST students, have remained unfilled, pointing to the long span ahead that may be required for these policies to reach its intended destiny.

The number of studies on the evaluation of comparative academic performance of reserved and un-reserved categories of students is very limited, and they are mostly confined only to the prestigious institutions. One common conclusion, however, is that the students admitted through reservation policy who fare relatively well in terms of scores secured — both in entry tests and subsequent exams - generally come of families which belong to relatively well-to-do socio-economic groups. This has prompted critics of Indian reservation policies to brand the policies as ‘inequitable’, as valuable educational opportunities are grabbed mainly by well-to-do candidates of the disadvantaged groups - the so-called ‘creamy layer’ - rather than by more needy or deserving counterparts of these social categories. Thus, it has often been argued that reservations for SC and ST applicants aggravate inequalities within these groups and reduce educational opportunities for general-entry applicants from other groups who may be worse off than the SC and ST beneficiaries. However, direct credible evidence to settle whether reservation policies in HE admissions have increased overall inequalities by benefiting well-off SC and ST applicants at the expense of less-well-off applicants from non-reserved category students is almost non-existent. However, the indisputable fact that among all the admitted students, those belonging to SC and ST categories generally come from significantly more disadvantaged or less well-off socio-economic backgrounds than the overall non-SC-ST students makes it quite unlikely that the applicants of unreserved category who get displaced by the reservation practice are generally less well-off than the SC and ST students who happen to benefit from it.

Indeed, evidence is pretty clear on the redistributive effects of reservation policies within SC and ST groups; and there cannot be any doubt that it is indeed a creamy layer of SC and ST and OBC who constitute the vast majority of beneficiaries of India’s reservation policies in HE admissions. In 2006 the ‘creamy layer criterion’ — a ceiling of annual household income level beyond which the household is considered belonging to the creamy layer category - was legislatively introduced by the union government only for OBC (later extended to SC and ST groups as well from the late 2018) to ascertain whether an applicant from a reserved social category is, indeed, eligible for enjoying the stipulated benefits/relaxations of the reservation policy. With few exceptions, it is generally found that only children from the better-off SC and ST families are able to stay in school through a full secondary education and thus even be in a position to apply to a HE institution. For example, a careful case study of wastage and stagnation in Maharashtrian primary and middle schools by J. Henriques and J. J. Wankhede reveals not only that the boys from the SC and ST households are more likely to finish secondary schools, but they are most likely to come from the uppermost socio-economic strata of SC and ST population. [24] As HE entails not only an opportunity cost at the household-level [potential earning foregone due to the concerned member attending HE institution] and hence calls for expenditures on school supplies, housing and often transportation, which are rarely covered in full by government aid programmes, it is the economically best-off students who can afford to spend several non-earning post-secondary years in an educational institution. At the turn of the new millennium this process of ‘buttering the better-off’ through reservation policy is succinctly captured in an author’s following words:

"...the schemes of reservation tend to reproduce within the beneficiary class the same kind of clustering the reservation is meant to remedy...those among the beneficiaries who already enjoy the greatest advantages obtain disproportionately large shares of the benefits". [25]

Although reservation policies in HE admissions have, at least in their direct effect, increased inequalities among SC and ST by providing advantages to the best-off households of the groups, they should have indirectly benefited less well-off members, ‘insofar as the direct beneficiaries are thereby enabled more effectively and more extensively to hire, support and otherwise come to the aid of their less well-off kinsfolk and community members’.

There are quite a few empirical studies that have investigated the experience or performance of SC and ST students in HE during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. [26] Although there are wide variations in the reported rates of graduation, depending on the institution, circumstances and time period, one finds almost complete unanimity in the conclusion that, on average, the academic performance of SC and ST students is well below that of their general category peers: ‘SC and ST students typically attend less prestigious universities, tend to concentrate in less promising fields of study, take longer to complete their degree, drop out at higher rates, and score lower in their exams.’ A more recent study, based on detailed data for 2008 from select elite engineering colleges in India, has also confirmed that while the performance of reservation policy in terms of targeting of poor students of SC and ST households is fairly satisfactory, the data on college performance of minority and non-minority students as they progress through the college course show no evidence of ‘catch up’: ‘SC and ST students, especially those in more selective majors, actually seem to fall behind their same-major peers’. [27] The plausible explanations for the relatively poor performance of reserved category students include the relatively poor socio-economic and ‘socio-cultural’ backgrounds of SC and ST students vis-à-vis their peers.

The relative deficit of what is called ‘cultural capital’ among SC students vis-a-vis general-entry students stands out to be one of the most significant factors behind their relatively poor academic performance at HE level. The cultural capital deprivation of SC/ST students results, inter alias, from the lower levels of education among family members, ‘lower levels of participation in edifying cultural activities’, and also the home environment being less conducive to learning. SC students typically lack an important source of cultural capital in modem India - good command over the English language. General-entry students who are at the same socio-economic level as SC students are more likely to have greater cultural capital, including better English language capabilities. All this brings us to face the significant question of the net impact on overall level and academic standard of the learning/education at the HE institutions. This question arises particularly because the reservation policy holds out the promise of levelling the ‘playing field’ among students of diverse initial ability. This labelling of the ‘playing field’ may result either from raising of the ability of the initially weak to the level of academically (and intellectually) stronger peers — so-called catching up effect or from the lowering of the initially stronger to the level of the weaker through inter alias diluting the overall standard and rigour of teaching and curriculum. In statistical parlance, admitting a reserved proportion of lower ability students to an HE-programme represents both the lowering of the mean (initial) ability as well as increasing its variance. This has often been seen as a social cost of reservation policy. The cost would be particularly large when the size of the quota is large and the difference in academic abilities across caste groups is vast at the elementary and secondary levels. For example, data on test results for 14,696 students who took the 2007 engineering entrance examination (the CET exam) in Maharashtra show that 85 per cent of students in the top decile of CET scores come from non-reserved category, with only 2 per cent being drawn from SC and ST reserved category students. In contrast the reserved category students account for 41 per cent of those whose scores belong to the lowest decile of the CET distribution. [28]

The magnitude of social cost of reservation policy in any given programme depends on the details of its design, apart, of course, from the size of the quota. One aspect of the policy design relates to the question of whether there is a minimum score requirement in the entrance examination. If there is no such requirement imposed for the reserved category students other than the requirement that applicants must have achieved at least 50 per cent marks in the secondary school-leaving examination, it could easily entail a wide variance of the initial ability among the admitted students, besides its negative effect on the mean ability.

The effect of reservation or quota on overall level of academic learning, performance and its standard has been relatively rarely investigated systematically. One exception, just referred to above, is a recent sophisticated study in the context of one top engineering college in the Indian state of Maharashtra. A detailed analysis of student achievement is made on the basis of data on the cumulative grade point average scores of all students enrolled. It is found that a higher mean ability of students improves learning for (non-reserved) general entry students, but not for those who got admission through quota policy. Conversely, the affirmative action policies reduce learning for students of all groups, resulting admittedly from the large discrepancy in ability between general caste and scheduled caste students at the onset of the HE-experience. When all programs provide admission to the same fixed percentage of SC and ST students, without regard to their level of learning, it enhances the variance in ability levels in the programmes and thereby damages students’ learning particularly at the top end of academic distribution. Students at the top and bottom end of the academic/ability distribution are also found to be hurt by changes in the mean student ability which the reservation policy entails. When the results from the present system are compared with the outcomes in a benchmark case popularly called pure ‘meritocracy’, the system without any reservation policy and with students being admitted in colleges solely on the basis of their scores in entrance examinations, irrespective of castes or tribes, the study shows that the reservation policy generates a loweroverall level of cognitive skills. This result obtains particularly when the difference between variance in ability in the present system and in a meritocracy is large. [29] The results of the study suggest that the negative effects of the current policy on learning, measured by the difference in cumulative grade point average achieved under the reservation policy relative to pure meritocracy, could be eliminated if caste-based gaps in cognitive skills at the level of schooling could be reduced. ‘A more effective affirmative action policy should thus target learning gaps at elementary and secondary schooling levels.’ [30] There can be no doubt that similar systematic studies on the learning outcomes in other HE institutions and other locations are an imperative need for throwing more light towards resolving this important issue and particularly for choosing more effective and socially less costly forms of affirmative action programme in educational institutions. However, it is important to note that the bearings of the findings of this significant study are not confined to the affirmative action or reservation policy alone but are extendable to the general question of whether a liberal admission policy of admitting students of both high and low ability just for the sake of expansion of enrolment and hence an increased revenues or market of an HE institution is socially counterproductive especially from the standpoint of a highly plausible damage to the learning, potentialities, and aspirations of the academically superior students.

Concluding Remarks

It emerges rather clearly from the foregoing analysis and discussion that the affirmative action in HE has been a highly prioritised and perhaps much propagandised policy particularly in UK and USA mainly in the form of showing a positive preference, in the matter of admissions, for the students from historically underrepresented social or racial groups under the broader rubrics of social inclusion as well as lately cherished goal of ‘diversity’ in HE institutions. However, there are distinct indications that a persistent pressure for rapid expansion of enrolment or market or revenues particularly in case of lately growing private HE institutions has fuelled and contributed to the rising spread, popularity, and reach of affirmative action in HE generally in the developed countries. But it is not very certain whether or how far the envisaged fruits of affirmative action in HE and of increased diversity in educational campuses are indeed profiting and improving the position of the targeted disadvantaged groups towards a greater social or racial equality and integration. On the contrary, there is a lingering concern about the affirmative action’s highly plausible effects in lowering the overall academic standard and quality in HE.

In India too, while affirmative action in the form of reservation or quota has been instrumental to a massive expansion both of overall HE enrolment and of diverse educational courses over the recent past, its effects on the academic catching-up by the disadvantaged categories and on the overall learning outcomes and its standard are, on the whole, far from encouraging, or indeed worrisome particularly from the standpoint of the amply plausible declines in the overall academic quality and standard for all groups.

* (Author: Arup Maharatna, Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor in Contemporary Studies, Central University of Allahabad. Email: arupmaha[at]yahoo.com )


[1According to the definition of affirmative action as given by the Britannica: ‘Affirmative action began as a government remedy to the effects of long-standing discrimination against such groups and has consisted of policies, programs, and procedures that give limited preferences to minorities and women in job hiring, admission to institutions of higher education, the awarding of government contracts, and other social benefits. The typical criteria for affirmative action are race, disability, gender, ethnic origin, and age; accessed from https://www.britannica.com/topic/affirmative-action on 6 June 2022.

The coinage of the term ‘social inclusion’ is of more recent origin. As defined by the World Bank, ‘social inclusion is the process of improving the terms on which individuals and groups take part in society—improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of those disadvantaged on the basis of their identity’. The UN defines social inclusion as ‘the process by which efforts are made to ensure equal opportunities — that everyone, regardless of their background, can achieve their full potential in life. Such efforts include policies and actions that promote equal access to (public) services as well as enable citizen’s participation in the decision-making processes that affect their lives’ (accessed on 28 May 2022 from https://www.un.org/development/desa/socialperspectiveondevelopment/issues/social-integration.html).

[2Gardner, John W. (1961), Excellence: Can We Be Equal And Excellent Too? New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

[3Gupta, Asha (2006), ‘Affirmative Action in Higher Education in India and the US: A Study in Contrasts’, Research & Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.10.06, University of California, Berkeley http://cshe.berkeley.edu/ June 2006, p. 8.

[4William G Bowen and Derek Bok (1998), The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions: Princeton: Princeton University Press; quoted in Thomas E. Weisskopf (2001), ‘Consequences of Affirmative Action in US Higher Education: A Review of Recent Empirical Studies’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 51, pp. 4723-4724.

[5Richard O Lempert, David L Chambers and Terry K Adams (2000), ’Michigan’s Minority Graduates in Practice: The River Runs through Law School’, Law and Social Inquiry, Vol 25, No 2, Spring; quoted in Thomas E Weisskopf (2001), Ibid.

[6Thomas E Weisskopf (2001), op. cit., pp. 4729 and relevant references cited.

[7P. Woodward (2019), ‘Higher Education and Social Inclusion: Continuing Inequalities in Access to Higher Education in England’, In: R. Papa (eds) Handbook on Promoting Social Justice in Education. Springer, Cham., Switzerland Accessed on 2 August 2020 from https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74078-2_9-1, No page number found. The Secretaries of State for Education and Employment, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland on 10 May 1996 appointed the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education under the Chairmanship of Sir Ron Dearing ‘to make recommendations on how the purposes, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop to meet the needs of the United Kingdom over the next 20 years, recognising that higher education embraces teaching, learning, scholarship and research’. The Dearing Report titled Higher Education in the learning society was submitted to the UK Govt. in 1997 (Accessed online on 3 October 2020 from http: // www. educationengland.org.uk/documents/dearing1997/dearing1997.html).

 Department for Education and Employment, UK Govt (1998), The learning age: A Renaissance for a New Britain. London, England: The Stationary Office.

[8Department for Education and Employment, UK Govt (1998), The learning age: A Renaissance for a New Britain. London, England: The Stationary Office.

[9V. Gayle, B. Damon, and R. Davies (2002), ‘Young people’s entry into higher education: Quantifying influential factors’, Oxford Review of Education, 28(1), p.5; Quoted in P. Woodward (2019) op. cit. No page number found. 

[10Richard Pring (2005), op. cit., p. 7.

[11Dominic Cummings (2013), ‘Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’, The Guardian 11 October (Accessed online on 15 September 2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/interactive/2013/oct/11/dominic-cummings-michael-gove-thoughts-education-pdf, fn. 124, p. 64.

[12Quoted in Yolanda T. Moses (2012) ‘From minority to majority: educating diverse students in the United States’, p. 111, In: Tehmina Basit & Sally Tomlinson (Eds.) (2012) Social inclusion and higher education, Bristol: Bristol University Press. Accessed online on August 4, 2020 from doi:10.2307/j.ctt1t891n1.

[13U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (2016), Advancing Diversity and Inclusion In Higher Education: Key Data Highlights Focusing on Race and Ethnicity and Promising Practices, Washington D.C.

[14Ibid, p. 11.

[15Ibid., p. 36.

[16USA Department of Education and Department of Justice (2013), ‘Joint "Dear Colleague" Letter’ To College or University President, dated 27 September 2013’ (Accessed online on 12 September 2020 from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201309.html).

[17That the diversity of late has been a cherished goal by itself (globally) is not entirely sacrosanct and has several major adverse effects from a longer-term standpoint has been elegantly analysed in the USA context in Peter Wood, (2004), Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Encounter Books.

[18Thomas E Weisskopf (2001), ‘Consequences of Affirmative Action in US Higher Education A Review of Recent Empirical Studies’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 51.

[19Mitchell J. Chang (2005), ‘Reconsidering the Diversity Rationale’, Liberal Education, vol. 91, no. 1, and the relevant references cited therein.

[20See Gurpreet Mahajan (2008), Higher Education Reservations and India’s Economic Growth: An Examination,Working Paper No. 36, The Centre For International Governance Innovation, p. 10, and the references cited therein.

[21Ibid, p.10.

[22Thomas E Weisskopf (2004), ‘Impact of Reservation on Admissions to Higher Education in India’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 39, pp.4339.

[23Ibid, pp. 4341.

[24J. Henriques and J. J. Wankhede (1985), One Step Forward. Yet Two Steps Behind: A Study of Wastage and Stagnation in Education of SC-ST in Maharashtra, Report submitted to Ministry of Education. Government of India, New Delhi.

[25Quoted in Thomas Weisskopf (2004), op. cit., pp. 4342.

[26For a concise review of these studies, see Ibid.

[27Verónica C. Frisancho Robles and Kala Krishna (2012), ‘Affirmative Action In Higher Education In India: Targeting, Catch Up, And Mismatch’, Working Paper 17727, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge MA.

[28Anjini Kochar (2009), ‘Affirmative Action Through Quotas: The Effect on Higher Education in India’, SIEPR (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research) Policy Brief, Stanford University. Accessed from http://siepr.stanford.edu on 7 December 2021.

[29Anjini Kochar (2010), Affirmative Action through Quotas: The Effect on Learning In India, Working Paper No. 426, Stanford Center for International Development, Stanford University, pp.30.

[30Ibid, p. 30.

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