Reservations in higher education: One step forward, three steps backwards

The UGC order of “keeping the department/subject as a unit for all levels of teachers” while advertising for teaching positions in central universities, the use of high cut-off marks in university entrance exams, and the move to grant autonomy to select institutions are all retrograde measures, writes Hany Babu M.T.

If the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006 was a progressive step to make higher education institutions more inclusive, the very root of inclusive education has now been struck at through a series of steps that can jeopardize the entry of the socially underprivileged both in admission and in the faculty positions. Three such steps are related to preparation of reservation rosters for recruitment, admission to MPhil/PhD and adherence to government policy of reservation.

JNU students register their protest by hanging placards on the gate of the UGC office in New Delhi

Currently, an agitation is going on in several universities against an order dated 5 March 2018 from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to the higher educational institutions regarding the implementation of reservation in teaching posts. The said letter requires universities and colleges to prepare their reservation roster “keeping the department/subject as a unit for all levels of teachers”, which is in contravention to the previous circular from UGC dated 2006. The 2006 circular (which is called “UGC Guidelines for Strict Implementation of Reservation Policy”) clearly states, “The practice of creating department-wise cadres, which tends to create single posts or cadres with artificially reduced number of posts in order to avoid reservation, is strictly forbidden.”

The basic difference between the two methods of preparing the roster is as follows: If we take the college/university as a unit, all the faculty members of the same rank are taken together and a 200-point roster is applied, so that the percentage of reservation earmarked for each category is fulfilled, ie 27 per cent for the Other Backward Classes (OBC), 15 per cent for the Scheduled Castes (SC), and 7.5 per cent for the Scheduled Tribes (ST). But if department/subject is taken as a unit, the 200-point roster will apply only to those departments that have a strength of 14 or more faculty members. A 13-point roster is to be applied to the departments or subjects with less strength. A cursory study shows that the above method recasting the roster reduces posts for SC, ST, and OBC almost by half. Moreover, all the departments that have a single member (as is the case at the professor cadre in many departments) will have no reservation at all.

The JNU Teachers Association protests against an admissions policy that seeks to drastically reduce intake of students

There are two concrete examples right in front of us to illustrate the shrinkage of reserved posts. The Indira Gandhi National Tribal University issued an advertisement for faculty positions on 8 April 2018. Out of the 52 posts, 51 posts were unreserved. The lone reserved post was for OBC. The irony of it is that there was not even a single post reserved for Tribals in a Tribal University. The picture is even murkier if we consider that the very same university had issued an advertisement on 27 October 2017 – ie much prior to the controversial UGC order. This advertisement was for 37 vacant posts, out of which 15 were reserved and 22 unreserved. That is to say, if above 40 per cent of the total posts advertised were reserved prior to the UGC order, only less than 2 per cent of posts now stand reserved based on the roster system revised in accordance with the UGC order. The advertisement issued by Central University of Tamil Nadu offers a better study in contrasts, as almost the same number of posts was advertised before and after the UGC order. The table below illustrates this. The first advertisement was issued on 22 December 2017 and the second one on 11 April 2018.

Comparing two advertisements issued by the Central University of Tamil Nadu

 Assistant ProfessorUR
Associate Professor UR2030
Total posts6665
Total number of reserved posts28 (42%)4 (6%)

As we see, the percentage of reserved posts has shrunk from 42 to 6. At the level of the Assistant Professor the posts for the unreserved category has doubled in the recent advertisement, while all the reserved categories (excluding PwD) have lost as many as 10 posts. Note that 81 per cent of posts (ie 18 out of a total of 22 posts) are unreserved at the level of the Assistant Professor according to the recent advertisement. (The PwD category is unaffected because there is no change in its roster system.) Similarly at the level of Professor and Associate Professor, there is absolutely no reservation based on the new advertisement. It is evident why the UGC in 2006 thought that department-wise or subject-wise rosters would artificially reduce the number of posts. It is true that the 13-point roster, if it is allowed to run through its entire cycle, which requires more than 10 cycles, will attain the requisite percentage. But it will take 10 generations to achieve that.

The Allahabad High Court, on the basis of whose judgment the UGC reformulated its policy, has taken “interchangeability” as the main criterion for treating each subject/department as a separate cadre. However, this makes no sense either academically or administratively. Academically, disciplines at the postgraduate level are so specialized that quite often interchangeability is not applicable to professors even within the same subject/department. Conversely, it may often be possible to interchange professors across departments as the same subject specialization may be required in more than one department. Administratively, posts are not sanctioned subject-wise. UGC sanctions a number of posts to the colleges and it is left to the authorities of the colleges to distribute the posts to the subjects depending on various factors, such as the number of students. There is a lot of flexibility in the distribution of posts across subjects and they are quite often shifted from one subject to another according to the needs of a given year or semester. If rosters are to be maintained subject-wise, it is not clear whether and how colleges can exercise this freedom. Moreover, administrative duties are distributed by keeping a common seniority roster, including all members of the same rank. Thus it is the nature of the substantive post (Assistant, Associate, etc) that should be the relevant criterion for the drawing up of a cadre and not the narrow specialization as scale of pay – service conditions are dependent on the former and not on the latter.

RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, and former and current union HRD ministers, Smriti Irani and Prakash Javadekar, respectively, at a book launch

In fact, this is not the first time that the UGC has abandoned a strong position that it had earlier taken in support of the socially disadvantaged sections of society. In a notification in May 2016, on maintaining minimum standards and procedure of award of MPhil/PhD, the UGC stipulated that admission to the research programmes would be through a two-stage process involving an admission test and an interview, and that the admission test would be qualifying (with 50 per cent as the qualifying marks). This notification has led to another series of protests and court cases, especially with regard to its implementation in universities like JNU, because the university refused to give even the customary relaxation of marks for SC, ST, and OBC. The 2016 notification was a marked departure from the position taken by the UGC as expressly mentioned in a circular dated 1989:

“8. Some Universities have the procedure of holding entrance tests for certain courses. This has been misunderstood or misused in certain cases to filter out Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates … The Entrance test is not a qualifying test. The qualifying examination is the examination which a candidate has passed at the lower level of the education has already qualified in a duly conducted qualifying examination. The purpose of the Entrance test is only to arrange the candidates in inter-se merit especially in the context that candidates come from different sources and from different streams, often from different part of the State or different parts of the country with different standards or evaluation [sic].”

In fact, the 1989 order even militates against fixing a higher cut-off in the minimum eligibility criterion:

“2(e) Considering the ground reality that in many courses and faculties/departments, particularly the ones which are important for career advancement and social status, the numbers admitted are less than the reserved percentages in most universities, and considering that the availability of Scheduled caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates is relatively less, it is irrational to apply to them criteria like minimum eligibility marks and cut off point marks, which are much higher than the pass marks in the relevant qualifying examination, while these criteria may be justified in the case of general candidates because of a very large number of students available from that category, in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, these steps are at present irrelevant.

Has the ground reality changed in our universities to the extent that we have plenty of candidates belonging to the reserved categories for admission to MPhil and PhD? A look at the recent round of admission in JNU shows that we haven’t. According to a letter written by P.S. Krishnan, former secretary, ministry of welfare and former advisor, Ministry of Human Resources Development, SCs granted admission was only 1.3 per cent (against the requisite 15 per cent), STs only 0.6 per cent (against required 7.5 per cent) and OBCs 8.2 per cent (against the required 27 per cent).

The third, and perhaps, the one with the most far-reaching consequences of all is the move to grant graded autonomy to select institutions, as it affects student intake as well as faculty recruitments. It is no secret that what is couched in a positive term like “autonomy” is nothing but a licence to the educational institutions to generate their own resources and be free from the obligation to follow government policies like reservation in recruitment and admission. The corollary of assigning the responsibility of fund generation is also that education becomes unaffordable for the economically weak categories. The universities that have been granted this freedom will be free to develop new programmes in which they are not bound to follow reservation at all. Thus, a new class of students and teachers will emerge in these self-financed programmes in these universities and the conventional streams will soon be relegated to the status of second-class citizens who are supported by public money.

These three steps taken by the UGC and the government will definitely make education the privilege of the dominant castes and communities. If we are committed to the attainment of social justice, a total roll-back of these policies is only option left to us.

This is a revised version of an article that appeared on Round Table India.


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