Distinguishing causes and symptoms is an useful thing to do when attempting to solve a problem. While it may appear expeditious to address symptoms, ultimately it is doomed to failure. Band-aids and pain killers could delay diagnosis of the deeper cause and the introduced delay may indeed make the system worse off.
Reservation for candidates from specific segments of the population at institutes of higher education does not help anyone, least of all the students. If the quota students are unable to gain admission by competing fairly with the non-quota students, then they will also be unable to compete in the course of study. Clearly the solution is to prepare the quota students so that they can gain admission on their own merits. This means that they should be helped at the school level, because it is there they are disadvantaged. The logical conclusion is that those segments of the population which are not represented in the higher education system need to be helped in the primary, middle, and high-school level. The objective should be to level the playing field for them at the earlier stages of the game, and if that is done, there will be no need to engage in the futile exercise of pushing them unprepared into the later stages of the game.
The basic principle which needs to be kept in the forefront is this: that society can and must ensure equality of opportunity for individuals, irrespective of the random draw of their birth, but it cannot ensure equality of outcome, and indeed attempting to ensure equality of outcome is perverse and harmful.
All reservations are not created equal. I am all in favor of reservations, say, of the sort that exist for elderly and disabled people in buses. Such people dont have to do something, they just have to be. As passengers, the elderly and disabled are perfectly entitled to reservation, but the same cannot be said about their entitlement as bus drivers. Bus drivers have to do something, not just be. Students in higher education dont just have to be something, they have to do something. If they are unprepared to do what students do, then there is little point in putting them there. What they require is help before they arrive at the admissions stage of higher education.
Aside from the high cost that society bears as a consequence of denying a better qualified student a seat to admit a reserved category student, there is often a private cost that the reserved student bears. Merely because the student is ill-prepared, and not because of any innate inferiority, the student judges himself (or herself) unfavorably compared to the others. Not only his (or her) self-esteem suffer, but it confirms for others their prejudice that the reserved student is intrinsically inferior. Reservation is very costly for all concerned, except for the politicians who gain from appearing to favor segment of society over another.
The problem of under-representation of students from traditionally disadvantaged groups is a symptom of a deeper cause which needs to be addressed at the stages preceding higher education. Besides that, the problem of supply capacity constraint for the population in general is a more insidious consequence of the systemic problem with the entire education system. This we need to examine at some length.
Tomorrow: Atanu Deys Primer (continued)