The reality of limited seats in higher education has little to do with reservations

In an increasingly polarised country, irrational blame on reservations often overlooks simple facts and takes the form of bigotry.
Students inside Ramjas College after DU colleges reopened for final-year students
Students inside Ramjas College after DU colleges reopened for final-year students
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In 2014, the acceptance rate at Harvard Medical School was reportedly 3.5%. For Vellore's Christian Medical College, it was 0.25%. Ranked best in the country, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi accepts a trifling 50 students for its undergraduate courses out of the approximately 90,000 students who apply. That’s a 0.05% rate of acceptance. What’s even more alarming is that a population of 1.2 billion has access to a meagre 542 medical colleges. Small graduating classes of 100 prove inadequate for a densely populated nation. It is imperative to ask: why are we unable to house our students into quality education institutes?

Four years after its creation, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman nearly ended funding to The Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA), a central outfit meant to grant interest-free loans to higher education institutions and raise money from the market agency, with allocations down 99.9% than last fiscal. This move followed a cut to the Department of Higher Education. Moreover, between 2015-2020, there has been an approximately 97% cut in funds by the Union government to the University Grants Commission for their Major Research Project (MRP) forcing them to cease all higher education regulator research. Lack of funds from the Union government has also compelled schemes like the National Fellowship for Scheduled Castes Students to close. 

As per a Brookings India report, the Union government’s expenditure on higher education has seen a five-fold increase between 1980-1981 and 2010-2011. However, the annual growth rate of enrolment has increased ten times in the same period. This trend continues in 2001-2011, where the increase in annual college enrolment was twice the government expenditure. This means that the Union government’s funding for higher education has invariably fallen short of the demand. As of June 2021, approximately 34 million Indian students are enrolled in higher education, and 74% of these universities are privately managed, meaning that almost 13 million students depend on public higher education in India. However, a funding deficit translates to insufficient resources, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of research focus which repeatedly fail our students.

Belgian-Indian economist Jean Drèze says, “The main problem is not just low expenditure but also poor utilisation of funds due to dismal work culture and low education standards.” He explicates, “The main victims of this state of affairs are students who emerge from this system with indifferent degrees and little exposure to the intellectual, social, cultural and political environment that universities should ideally provide. Students from underprivileged groups, especially, are deprived of these vital springboards of personal and social development.”

Last year, 1.5 million students took the JEE to qualify for 13,000 seats in 23 IITs across the country. The prestigious group of the Indian Institute(s) of Technology boasts of pioneering in engineering education and research. Simple math tells you that for every 1 seat, there were 115 aspirants. This situation is not too different in other premiere institutes — the Lady Shri Ram College under Delhi University has a paltry intake of 29 students for its journalism course. If LSR claims to deliver quality education, why does it not allow more students to access it?

Beena Pallical, General Secretary at National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights said, “Unless we have increased public funding for quality education at standard public institutes, we’ll never be able to give students access. Last year, the government, in support of the Post Matric Scholarship Scheme announced a Rs 7,000-crore fund before the budget. When the budget came, it was further reduced to Rs 3,866 crore and Rs 2,146 crore for SCs and STs respectively. The expenditure was Rs 1,000 crore until December, meaning that an additional Rs 2,000 crore had to be spent in the forthcoming three months. Here we see, the utilisation of funds in higher education is extremely poor.”

The fallibility in fund allocation and the poor administration of public expenditure is perilously affecting our higher education system. But in an ever-divided nation, how does irrationality overlook simple facts and take the form of bigotry?

Student-Activist Sankul Sonawane says, “There has always been a hue and cry about reservations and scholarships meant for Dalit Adivasi students, but the harsh reality is that neither of those is implemented. From refusing reserved seats to scholarships, there is a huge problem of funding in education, which is another way of denying education to those who have been historically deprived of it.”

Ashwani, a third-year Dalit student of Delhi University and native of Ghazipur, UP, shares his experiences with casteism. He says, “During the DU counselling round, my application was rejected. The officer handling admissions told me that I had a higher mark than the cutoff, and per the DU policy, refused to do my admission. Upon talking to a teacher I found out they had deliberately been rejecting admissions of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students. I was distraught. The college had only filled six out of the 22 reserved seats. I confronted the Admissions Officer, who bluntly said, Yaha tum rajneeti karne aaye ho ya padhne aaye ho? (Have you come here to study or to do politics?) I felt humiliated. This went on for three days. Ultimately I had to approach the principal to secure my admission.”

In an insensitive, uninformed, and casteist Twitter storm that began in October 2021, hundreds of NEET-PG candidates have been taking to social media, blaming reservations for their admissions. They claimed that reserved category students don’t possess the same merit as general category students, even though both clear the same entrance exam. A panel set up by the Tamil Nadu government in June 2021 to analyse NEET has found that students securing admissions to medical colleges are primarily from urban and affluent backgrounds: which speaks of their caste privilege. Despite diminishing the effects of socio-economic deprivation through law in the 21st century, the education sector remains deeply entrenched with casteism.

An Ambedkarite activist who goes by the name of Buffalo Intellectual on social media insists on flipping the merit debate. He calls Savarna culture an “anthropology of exclusion”. He says, “In education, this pattern of exclusion replicates. Along with SC, ST reservations, the Mandal Commission changed the classroom composition for the first time. That’s when we saw [the savarna classes] running away from public universities; and the rise of the privates. In their retreat, keeping us fixated on the public education debate, UC (upper caste) individuals have quietly built 230 private universities in the last 10 years.”

“If we take away English proficiency and caste privilege, what is it about a student of an elite liberal university that makes them inherently more ‘meritorious’? An intake of 30 students per year increased to 300 easily solves the problem of limited seats. Where is the pedagogical proof of the efforts taken by non-diverse, self-proclaimed “excellent” universities to make their education accessible to marginalised students?” he questioned.

Oppressed caste communities have experienced a consistent historical denial of access to education. Logic tragically drowns in a sea of bigotry as privileged dominant castes make reservation the enemy when they should be asking for better educational infrastructure.

Shreeja Rao is a 17-year-old law student and activist based in Pune. She writes on gender, culture, health, and politics from a Dalit feminist lens.

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