It’s not often the Executive pushes a scheme at the speed of a bullet train without adequate preparation, but these are not normal times, as Lok Sabha elections are barely a few months away.
So, when the Union Human Resource Development Ministry issued a fiat to all Central educational institutions last week to enforce the freshly-minted 10 per cent quota in higher education for the upper caste poor — a euphemism for the economically weaker sections (EWS) — across the board within two years and announce their respective rollout plans by March 31, it took the administrators by surprise.
According to the ministry’s own calculations, seats in all institutions need to be increased by 25 per cent to facilitate the EWS quota so as not to disturb the existing SC/ST/OBC reservations. The ministry assured it got its math right, but how they got to the 25 per cent figure is still not fully understood beyond its four walls.
Adding that many seats is easier said than done, as creating more infrastructure — from classrooms to faculty to labs — and mobilising resources cannot be done in a flash. Administrators across India scrambling to meet the stiff March 31 deadline called it a mammoth exercise that ought to be done with due deliberation.
“From last year, we introduced 14 per cent supernumerary seats for girls, which in itself put a lot of burden on our infrastructure. The new policy will strain our resources further,” a senior IIT-Delhi official griped. In all, IITs have about 12,000 seats. The new quota will necessitate adding 3,000 more seats by 2020.
Delhi University, with about 55,000 undergraduate seats, will have to add about 14,000 to fulfil the quota stipulation. “Where are the classrooms and teachers to manage the additional load?” a senior university executive wondered.
However, for students trying to get admission into well-funded Central government institutions, the competition will ease up a bit as around 700 seats are likely to be added to accommodate economically weaker section students from 2019-2020 academic year to the total seats in IIT Hyderabad, NIT Warangal and Central Universities.
Infrastructure apart, money is a big concern. Both government-run and private institutions want to know who will pay the fee for EWS students. As Dr M K Panduranga Setty, secretary of Karnataka Unaided Private Engineering Colleges Association, put it bluntly: “We have no issues in implementing the quota. But we want clarity on the fee part. We need to know whether the candidates themselves will pay the fee or if we will get the money reimbursed by the government.”
Reimbursement appears ambitious, as the ministry does not seem to have any intention to bankroll private institutions. It expects them to make adjustments from their own resources, but there is nothing official about it as of now.
Stakeholder Ajeet Kumar Lal Mohan, president of the Association of Self Financing Arts, Science and Management Colleges of Tamil Nadu, said it was not fair. “The government cannot pass on the burden to private institutions. We have to invest in infrastructure, laboratory, chemicals etc. So, the government has to give EWS candidates some kind of scholarship like it does in the case of SC/ST quota,” he suggested.
Gauri Satish, advisor to the Telangana Private Degree and PG College Managements Association said, “There is no clarity yet. Also, there are some organisations that are approaching the Supreme Court against the reservation.”
To clear the cobwebs and create a legislative framework for the EWS quota in private institutes, the ministry is in the process of drafting a separate bill. The bill is expected to be piloted in budget session of Parliament that is slated to begin on January 31. It’s work in progress.
However, for Central government-run institutions that need to ramp up their game, funding will not be a constraint, assured higher education secretary R Subrahmanyam.
For Sachidananda Mohanty, Vice-Chancellor of the 11-year-old Central University of Odisha, that was welcome assurance.
The university had not received any funds from the ministry for infrastructure development in the last three years.
Just last week, the MHRD opened the tap, approving Rs 319 crore for implementing 14 new infrastructure projects on the campus.
Medical over engineering
The general consensus among stakeholders is the upper caste quota will benefit premier and popular institutes alone.
According to the dean of a deemed to be university in Tamil Nadu, who spoke on condition of anonymity, colleges that don’t enjoy a good reputation would find it difficult to fill up seats. “The challenge to recruit and retain quality faculty will multiply.”
Another opinion shared across the spectrum is the EWS quota would find more traction in the medical stream rather that the engineering one because of the demand and supply skew. As Cyriac Thomas, former vice-chancellor of MG University and member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, put it: “The impact would be seen most in courses like medicine, which is in high demand. For engineering, a seat increase won’t be required as over 50 per cent of seats are already vacant.”
T D Eswaramoorthy, secretary of the All India Federation of Self Financing Technical Institutions, echoed Thomas, adding, “Increasing the seats will only benefit 5-10 per cent of colleges. The rest are struggling to get admissions for the existing intake itself. In the case of Tamil Nadu, barely 20-25 colleges will benefit. For the remaining 475 colleges, increasing the intake will not be necessary.”
Then there are states like Kerala, where a similar quota experiment was tried out way back in 2008 by the then LDF government. It had provided 10 per cent reservation for the economically weak within the general classes for admission to arts and science colleges. The reservation continues to exist, but only in government colleges, as private institutions aided by the government, too, chose to opt out. In universities, the EWS quota was fixed at 7.5 per cent.
Higher Education Minister K T Jaleel said the government will consider extending the facility to professional colleges after further discussions.
Wait and watch
Another area where the policy is cooking is the documents that would be considered valid proof to claim the EWS quota.
“Within the existing system itself, we are receiving fake income certificates during admissions to professional courses under the Common Entrance Test. This time we need to have some robust mechanism to tackle it as there are chances of more people trying to benefit out of the scheme illegally,” said a senior official of the Karnataka Examination Authority.
The modalities are in the works. Barring Gujarat, UP, Assam and Andhra Pradesh, no other state government has so far decided to replicate the EWS quota. Not just that, they haven’t even discussed it formally within their respective cabinets. Perhaps they are waiting and watching the Central rollout and the outcome of the legal challenges in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court before dipping their toes and customising the quota.
As S Varadarajan, Secretary, Andhra Pradesh State Council of Higher Education, explained: “The Central government’s income cap to qualify for the scheme is too high - Rs 2 lakh per annum for SCs/STs, Rs 1 lakh per annum for OBCs and EBCs and Rs 8 lakh per annum for EWS. We have to make a few modifications, else there will be a huge impact on the state financially.”
Former Delhi University vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh sought to look at it differently. “Managing a massive institution like the Delhi University that has tens of thousands of students and around 10,000 teachers could be a nightmare. The government should start new, good-quality universities instead of adding burden on the existing ones,” he suggested.