It’s not about representation. Systemic changes that allow students and faculty to realise their highest potential need to happen continuously, says Ajay Gudavarthy.
India has one of the most extensive protective discrimination policy frames in the world. The policy of reservations has greatly contributed in providing job and educational opportunities to some of the most deprived and socially marginalised castes.
Yet, rather surprisingly, there is very little debate on reservations in institutions of higher learning. It begs three important questions: What type of prejudices does it create? What type of institutional dilemmas does it lead to? What are the changes that are necessary to allow those who get into institutions of higher learning, both as students and faculty, to realise their highest potential?
Individuals entering institutions have had to carry the cross of prejudice on their backs ever since the policy was introduced. Some of the forms it has taken have been to often leave the reserved posts vacant, declare that they have not found suitable candidates, even as recruitment to the open/general posts has often been severely compromised on in terms of merit. It has never been the case that interview boards ever failed to find a suitable candidate for the open posts. Similarly, there is tremendous resistance in appointing candidates from SC, ST and OBC backgrounds to the open posts; if they are found to be meritorious then they are generously accommodated within their respective quotas.
With regard to admission of students, wherever there is provision for viva, then it is seen to that students fill in their respective quotas. Caste of the student, wherever information is not available, is gathered through the surname, body language, colour of the skin, dress sense, rural-urban differentiation, and proficiency in English. It is this underlying bias that has led students union in Jawaharlal Nehru University to demand the reduction of viva voce marks from its current 30 marks to 15. It has been found in a recent RTI filed by the students’ union that there is a clear discrepancy between written and viva marks in various centres. Similar has been the case with other apex bodies such as the UPSC.
Prejudice is not the only stumbling block; there are genuine institutional dilemmas that a policy of reservation creates. For instance, once the candidates from these backgrounds enter institutions of higher learning, then there are no protective measures available and are assessed by the general standards. Often it is a dilemma as to how we evaluate the performance of such students. It is found that students might not cross the minimum threshold. This either leads to ad-hocism in somehow pushing through the students or it results in high dropout rates and difficulties in coping with the academic rigours. There is an impending need to devise new methods of evaluation. For instance, each student could be evaluated from her or his own background performance. If they have scored a certain percentage at undergraduate level, then it can be progressively compared with their current performance. The difference could be the mark of their performance rather than an absolute standard that current system of evaluation imposes on them. This can institutionalise a method of accounting for diversity and difference, while maintaining uniformity and standardisation (and might also actually offer us an opportunity to realise “unity in diversity”).
Finally, institutional and systemic changes are necessary to allow faculty and students to realise their highest potential, which is what drives the philosophy behind the policy of reservations, and not merely provide representation in proportion to their percentage in population. We need to assess the specific challenges they face that could include remedial courses in teaching English, debate on nature of syllabus, cultural difficulties faced in transition from rural to urban settings, access to library facilities, among other such factors.
With regard to the recruitment of faculty members, recently the government has approved of reservations in promotion and recruitment at higher posts rather than merely to entry level posts. While this is a welcome move, this should however be accompanied by certain qualifications, such as publications, and teaching experience for those wishing to be promoted through reserved posts. What kind of minimum qualifying markers ought to be put in place need to be seriously debated, including if the same method of “background performance” kind of evaluation mode can be used for members of the faculty too. Unfortunately, these have either not been the concern of those championing reservations or they have summarily resisted these changes out of fear of prejudice. It should be now important to realise that a sense of achievement is imperative for both allowing the realisation of their highest potential and to avoid empowerment translating into patronage.
The vocal voices among the dalits and the OBCs need to move beyond merely looking for prejudice in the system at the level of intention, and appreciate the genuine institutional dilemmas that a policy of reservations creates. Without this, dalits and OBCs might gain entry into institutions of higher learning but fail to identify and appropriate them, as much as enable themselves in realising their highest potential.