The Indian Supreme Court has suspended the implementation of the 27% quota for 'other backward classes' (OBC) students for the coming academic session. The Indian parliament had passed the law unanimously last December, upping the OBC quota from 22.5% to 27%, and seeking to extend these quotas into India’s most prized institutions: the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). (In addtion, there is a 15% quota for 'backward' scheduled castes , and a 7% quota for 'scheduled' Tribes. Previously, the Court had ruled that quotas could not be used to fill more than 50% of available seats. The 27+15+7% numbers were designed to fit under that limit.)
The court criticized the government for basing its quota system on a 1931 caste-based census data, saying what may have been valid data then could never be a determinative factor now to accord reservation. Some see the Court as a desperate rearguard of Brahminical privilege. Others more cynically see in the ruling an attempt by the Congress+Communist government of the day to get some leverage on the OBC electorate, who have been abandoning them for regional political parties; a convenient court ruling shows promise in making them come to Papa.
Since polls are coming up in several states, talk has now turned towards a constitutional amendment to get around judicial activism. The 'upper' castes are predicting the quality of India's education institutions will drop; those who can are in flight, not only the US but Australia, Canada, even China are witnessing a boom in Indian students. In Beijing I talked to two customary tired, over-sized-satchel-hauling 19-year-olds from Ludhiana enrolled in a Chinese language course in the hope they'd make it to a professional course of study later.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Center For Policy Research had a more charitable take than most, some months ago in Yale Global:
India has become a net consumer of foreign education – spending to the tune of $3 billion a year to train students abroad ... However, the Indian education system is not able to mobilize funds from its students at home. By some accounts, Indian students, whose fees are paid by their parents, have become a net subsidizer of British higher education; the largest number of foreign students in the US come from India, some 80,000; and there are even an estimated 5,000 Indian medical students in China. Many of the best students go abroad ... Devesh Kapur of the University of Texas has calculated that for every patent held by an Indian, Indians abroad hold 28,000 patents ... Only three Indian institutions rank among the top 500 in the world, and significantly none of them are full-fledged universities. Beyond a small group of elite institutions, few Indian institutions are globally accredited or recognized. Thus, the competition for a handful of elite institutions is severe.
The cost to business is increased by the fact that firms must do much of their training in-house, since they cannot count on the supply of talent. The mismatch of education to the economy is also evidenced in this paradox: While there is a severe shortage of skilled manpower, a third of unemployed youth are science graduates... Ironically, India met some demands of the IT sector, because a large number of private institutions managed to dodge the regulatory system by offering diplomas rather than degrees – which can only be conferred by government-regulated institutions.
The Indian education system is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. The government regulates who you can teach, what you can teach them and what you can charge them. It also has huge regulatory bottlenecks. Over-regulation has produced the crisis of higher education that is the context of the current agitation. The shortage of quality institutions is a product of India’s regulatory structures. Increased public investment that the government has promised is absolutely necessary to increase access. But this investment will not yield much if India’s regulatory regime remains rigid. There was agitation over quotas not because the students oppose increased access or even affirmative action. Quotas became a symbol of the state’s power over Indian education: its propensity to hoist its own purposes upon academic institutions regardless of their impact on the quality of these institutions. Globalization requires two contradictory transformations in the state: On the one hand, successful globalization requires that the state invest heavily in increasing access to education. But in higher education, globalization also requires the state to respect the autonomy of institutions so that a diversity of experiments can find expression, so that institutions have the flexibility to do what it takes to retain talent in a globalized world and, above all, respond quickly to growing demand. Globalization demands a paradigm shift in the regulation of higher education. In India the debate has only just begun.
If this court judgement cannot deliver the OBCs of UP to the Congress+Communist alliance, the next stop is sure to be quotas for jobs in the private sector. A friend who heads up HR for an IT firm in Bangalore reports being quietly told to start lowering the hiring bars for 'locals' and OBCs. In urban Bihar, that state unfailingly at the forefront of social change, there is a great preponderence of 'quota-pass doctors', usually identified by their caste-based last names. No patient who has a choice likes to go to one; the 'upper' caste Dr. X, who presumably made it through his medical education on merit, has his chambers overflowing with patients of all castes, while 'quota-pass' Dr. Y sits twiddling his thumbs, gnashing his teeth, and no doubt dreaming up a constitutional amendment to guarantee him 27% of the ill.