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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

Goolam Mohamedbhai: Affirmative Action-Is it Fair?
January 22, 2012 - 7:03pm

I recently watched a very interesting Hindi movie named Aarakshan, meaning ‘Reservation’. Released in 2011 with the famous Indian actor Amitabh Bacchan in the lead role, the film deals with the controversial issue of caste-based reservations in a higher educational institution in India.

Hindus of India have a rigid, hierarchical caste system. Those from the lower or scheduled castes (including the ‘untouchables’) are the ones that are the most socially disadvantaged and are grossly under-represented in educational institutions. This is what led the government to introduce affirmative action by reserving seats in public-funded institutions for lower castes through a complex quota system.  This decision in fact emanates from India’s Constitution. The quota can vary from one state to another and is generally of the order of 25%, but it cannot exceed 50%. Reservation in higher education institutions, especially in the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, has been legally contested several times but the Supreme Court of India has each time upheld its constitutionality.

The movie raises several fundamental issues. Is reservation fair? Yes, say the pro-reservationists, as that is the only way to redress social inequity. No, say the anti-reservationists, as it goes against meritocracy since well-qualified candidates are debarred at the expense of less-qualified ones. But, retort the pro-reservationists, it is precisely because lower caste candidates have not had the opportunity to attend the best schools that they need to have reserved seats and, in any case, caste in Hinduism is something that cannot be changed in one’s lifetime. The film also illustrates the social tension that exists on campus among students of different castes, especially the animosity towards those who are openly identified as being of lower caste and who have benefitted from the reservation quota.

The application of reservation can lead to unethical practices, such as political interference and corruption. This is brought out in the movie Aarakshan. A State Minister goes to great lengths to have his nephew admitted to the institution, on grounds that he is better qualified than others being admitted using the reservation quota. This eventually leads to the honest head of the institution having to resign from his post. Just to illustrate how emotional and controversial the issues surrounding caste and reservations are in India, the movie Aarakshan was banned in several Indian States before its release and, in one location, the film was stopped half-way during projection on the night of its release.

Affirmative action in higher education has been practised in several other countries.  Malaysia is one example. In early 1970s the socially-disadvantaged Bumiputeras (Malays) were 66% of the population, yet only 40% were in higher education; on the other hand the economically-strong Chinese represented 25% of the population but 49% in higher education. This led the government to control admission to public universities, even to individual subjects, so as to be proportional to the country’s racial composition. However, affirmative action did lead to many Chinese students to study abroad (and in many cases not to return) and also to a proliferation of private and cross-border higher education institutions.

In Sub-Saharan African countries, where females were found to be grossly under-represented in higher education, especially in science and technology fields, affirmative action to redress gender inequity has not been controversial – indeed, it has been praised and supported. In Kenya, for example, the Joint Admissions Board, which admits students in all public universities, allows for slightly lower qualifications at entry for female candidates. This has eventually led to parity in male/female enrolment in most public universities.

Social inequities exist in any society. Even in the developed world where access to higher education has always favoured the elite and where affirmative action has been introduced, students from disadvantaged strata often still avoid higher education or enrol in less prestigious institutions.  Affirmative action, therefore, can assist in addressing inequity in access to higher education, but it needs to be applied with caution. Social dynamics result in continuous changes in people’s ethnicity, religion or social standing. As a result affirmative action programs need to be constantly monitored and, if necessary, adjusted. Otherwise it can perpetuate the very condition it tries to redress, as in the case of the caste system in India. In an age of global competition, excellence is a product of meritocracy. Affirmative action should not be allowed to affect the quality of higher education,  leaving individuals or nations in a weaker competitive position as a result.  Finally, affirmative action should be specially applied at lower levels of education where the roots of inequity lie, rather than focusing on higher  education where  inequities are so much harder to address


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