Originally Published 2010-12-14 00:00:00 Published on Dec 14, 2010
Access to higher education has been a long-standing policy concern in India. Reservation for different social groups at the central and the state levels has been a typical policy response.
In search of fair grades
Access to higher education has been a long-standing policy concern in India. Reservation for different social groups at the central and the state levels has been a typical policy response. Among other things, the policy of reservation in higher education is based on the premise that participation of persons from the reserved category is uniformly low and reservation would result in significantly higher participation. The discussion on issues relating to the measurement of participation in higher education and the ‘deficits’ experienced by different groups has, however, been inadequate. An appropriate measure of ‘deficits’ should inform affirmative action. Such an effort may also make the policy initiative more acceptable across various population segments. An empirical analysis of NSSO’s 61st Round data suggests that if we use more appropriate measures, deficits for some groups that benefit currently from reservation policies may be inadequate to justify the affirmative action for these groups.

The first issue to be resolved is whether to focus on attainment or enrolment. While the former captures the segment that has completed graduate and higher level of education, the latter focuses on the segment that is currently studying for graduation or higher courses. While attainment is a stock measure and carries the ‘burden of history’, enrolment is a flow measure that captures the current situation and provides indications for the future.

As expected, the participation rates are lower than the average for the marginalised groups (SC, ST, OBC and Muslims) in all measures of full sample. But for the eligible population, a flow measure of some marginalised groups shows higher participation than average, and more than Hindu UC and Other minorities. So, the probability of an eligible candidate going to college today is the same or even higher for a marginalised student than for others. This may be indicative of the fact that being qualified probably has a larger impact on marginalised groups in their decision for enrolment in higher education. But there is visible improvement in participation among all groups when one compares all generation stocks with current generation stock measures and suggests some convergence across groups in recent years.

The accompanying table brings out ‘deficits’ across socio-religious categories (SRCs) sharply. There are deficits in all measures for all SRCs, except upper caste Hindus and Other minorities. Differences in participation in higher education (HE) across SRCs are much higher when we compare the measures based on total population; the differences decline when we compare eligible population based measures. This again substantiates that once the hurdle of eligibility is crossed, the difference among SRCs in further education declines steadily. Deficits in participation are less for all SRCs in the flow measure of population than any stock measures.

Preliminary analysis by the Sachar Committee suggests the role of socio-religious factors declines dramatically once locational and economic factors are controlled for. Everything else being the same, the probability of current enrolment in higher education increases significantly with per capita expenditure of households; in general, men have a higher probability of being currently enrolled in higher education than women, and the difference is more when we consider only the eligible population.

There is no significant difference in probability of participation among any of the SRCs (vis-à-vis SCs) for the urban people. For rural people too, the story looks same except for a 12% higher chance for Hindu ST and a 6% lower probability for Hindu UC over Hindu SC. Finally, none of the Muslim groups in any specification seem to have higher probability of enrolment as compared to Hindu SC, which supports the Sachar Committee report on conditions of Muslim community.

Differences among SRCs seem to wither away over generations in both rural and urban areas, especially in the latter. Controlling for other effects, unlike in urban areas, the differences attributable to affiliation with SRCs were not high to begin with in rural areas and therefore the transition is more dramatic in urban areas. Hindu ST seems to have picked up in enrolment when we look at more current generation of 17 to 29 years old students as compared to the stock of 22 to 35 years old graduates. It ranks at the top, having higher probability of current enrolment among eligible population in both rural and urban areas by replacing Hindu UC. And the difference is statistically significant in rural areas, if not in urban areas.

In urban areas, the statistical significance of pairs Hindu OBC-Other minorities, Hindu OBC-Hindu SC, and Hindu ST-Other minorities disappear too, signifying reduction in inter-group differences in current enrolment of urban marginal groups. In rural areas, the statistical significance of pairs Hindu OBC-Muslim general and Hindu SC-Muslim general seem to go away when we look at current enrolment. The most interesting finding is that Muslim groups improve ranking drastically, being just below the Hindu ST in current enrolment of eligible rural population. It means that one way to improve enrolment of Muslim population in higher education is to help them cross the threshold.

Broadly, three issues emerge from this analysis of the NSS (2004-05) data. One relates to the linkage between affirmative action as practised by policies of reservation in India and the levels of participation in HE. Should it be linked to deficits of respective groups? If yes, what type of deficits should one go by? According to the preliminary statistics, the deficits for Hindu OBC and to some extent Hindu ST are not very high, particularly when one looks at the currently studying or eligible population (see table). The share of Hindu OBC is 25.6% among the total graduates in the age group 22-35 years; their share is even higher (28.2%) among the currently studying persons. For Hindu ST, the share of current generation stock of graduates is 1.9% as against their total share of the same age group of 7.2%. However, their share increases to 4% among currently studying population; whereas, their share in the total population of the same age group is 7.1%.

Moreover, econometric analysis of the data shows that once other factors are controlled for, while inter-SRC differences in many cases decline, interestingly some kind of reversal also takes place as the probability of Hindu ST and Hindu-OBC participation in higher education becomes higher than other marginalised groups in most specifications. The current participation of Hindu ST shows even a brighter story of probability of their participation being significantly higher than all SRCs, including the Hindu UC. We cannot certainly conclude from here that this is a result of the more recent affirmative action in higher education for OBCs, but we can surely argue that a better understanding of this ‘hierarchy of deprivation’ may be critical to a more nuanced policy of affirmative action, including reservation.

Two, in the discussion on higher education, how should one deal with the issue of eligibility? Deficits for the under-privileged are significantly lower among the eligible population, even

after we control for a variety of other factors. Thus, once persons from under-privileged groups cross the school threshold, the chances of their going to college are quite high. Clearly, a better understanding of the constraints on school education is critical if participation in higher education is to be enhanced. Therefore, should the higher education policy also focus on ensuring that the threshold is crossed, even when one is thinking about participation in higher education? Arguably, reservation in higher education is an incentive to cross the threshold. Similarly, one can argue that job reservation can enhance the incentives to participate in higher education. Are these adequate? To what extent have these worked? Do we have better options for affirmative action? Do the reservation policies need to be revised frequently along with being more dynamic to reflect the change in participation among eligible underprivileged?

Three, to what extent should socio-religious affiliation be a focus of affirmative action? Since many other factors also influence participation in higher education in a significant manner, an exclusive focus on such affiliation for affirmative action seems inappropriate. The importance of economic background as well as that of location highlights the role of the supply side factors in affecting the participation of various groups in higher education. It may be useful in subsequent analysis to explore the interaction effects between socio-religious affiliation and other explanatory factors.

Recent discussions on higher education in India have a raised a variety of very interesting policy related and other issues. Unfortunately, the empirical underpinnings of this discussion have been rather weak. This is not to argue that issues of higher education can only be resolved through empirical analysis but to suggest that a better understanding of empirical reality would facilitate a more informed debate on the relevant issues.

Rakesh Basant is professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and is associated with ORF as a Senior Fellow. Gitanjali Sen is a Fellow with ORF .

Courtesy: Financial Express

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