How will the new 10% reservation for the economically backward among the upper castes have an impact on educational institutions?

On Wednesday, Parliament passed the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, which paves the way for the new quota, but the actual implementation details are still to be worked out.

Here is a quick look at some of the questions that have come up.

Who is eligible for the 10% quota?

The economically backward among general category students, or those not included in the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes – the social groups currently covered by reservations.

But economic backwardness is yet to be defined: a benchmark of family income less than Rs 8 lakh per year and ownership of land less than five acres has been widely reported in the media but this does not have official seal yet.

According to the bill, states will have to define backwardness and frame a mechanism for the quota’s implementation.

Does this affect private institutions?

While the bill allows the government to introduce 10% reservation in both public and private educational institutions, it is unlikely this will be extended to private institutions.

A similar legal provision enabling reservations for Other Backward Classes has existed since 2006 but has not been implemented in private schools and colleges.

If the government extends the 10% quota to private colleges, it is likely to face pressure from Other Backward Classes groups to implement quotas for them as well.

It is also likely to face resistance from private universities. “A quota for poor students makes no sense without a fee waiver,” said a faculty member from a private university in Gujarat. He wondered if the government would offer financial support to private institutions to enable them to extend such fee waivers.

What about admissions to public institutions?

All central universities currently follow the same reservation policy – 15% seats for Scheduled Castes, 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes and 27% for those among the Other Backward Classes with annual family income under Rs 8 lakh or what is described as the “non-creamy layer”.

If the new 10% quota is implemented at all, admission into public institutions will likely be through the same mechanism used for the Other Backward Classes.

For Other Backward Classes admissions, colleges require caste and income certificates and a separate merit list is drawn up with lower minimum scores for admission than for general category students.

How will the 10% quota change student composition?

The changes might not be dramatic since the 50% of general category seats in public universities are mostly occupied by upper caste students who come from economically diverse backgrounds.

“Majority are from the unreserved categories but they include many from families with low income because the general cost of education in public institutions is low,” said Sony Kunjappan, president, Central University of Gujarat Teachers’ Association.

Satish Deshpande, professor of sociology at Delhi School of Economics, said the “affluent upper-castes” continue to dominate the general category but increasingly students eligible for the reserved categories are picking up the more competitive general category seats. The changing composition of the general category so that it resembles society is a “good sign”, he said.

The 10% quota could come at the cost of such students.

Do private institutions have quotas in any form?

Depending on the state laws under which they were established, some private colleges are already required to implement some form of reservation.

In Haryana, for example, private universities are required to reserve 10% of their seats for students domiciled in the state and offer varying degrees of fee-concessions. The vice-chancellor of a private university in Sonipat said that income is a factor while determining the extent of scholarship.

Karnataka’s private colleges offering professional education such as medicine are required to fill 55% of their seats through a central admission system managed by the government. As opposed to the 45% seats for which college managements typically charge Rs 1.6 lakh per year, these government quota seats come at a lower fee: Rs 10,000 for 5% seats and Rs 55,000 for the remaining 50%.

“We just about break even,” said the owner of a number of private institutions offering professional education. On the possibility of 10% reservation for low-income students, he said “the government must compensate us for it otherwise it won’t be possible”.

What are other ways of supporting students from low-income families?

Both public and private institutions support students from low income families through fee waivers and scholarships.

While Maharashtra colleges do not have income-based reservation, economically backward class students can get tuition concessions and waivers through a state scholarship scheme.

“These students would take admission through open competition and then apply for scholarship,” said Madhu Paranjape from the Maharashtra Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisation. “I taught at Kirti [M Dongursee College of Arts, Commerce and Sciences] all my life and we used to have a very large number of EBC [economically backward class] students.”

But such enabling financial support has shrunk in several universities. A faculty-member from the Central University of Kerala said that a merit-cum-means scholarship offered by the university had gone a long way to help students. “The central universities are in rural areas so all categories of students are from economically weak backgrounds,” said the faculty member. “But the scholarship was discontinued due to shortage of funds about two years ago.”

Where a system akin to quotas for poor students has helped is in professional education in private institutions. Another Mumbai University teacher pointed to the All India Council for Technical Education’s scheme, launched in 2007, offering fee-waivers to students from families with an annual income under Rs 6 lakh (originally Rs 2.5 lakh). The total number of such students is fixed to 5% of the sanctioned seats and the institution is permitted to admit an equal number of full-fee paying students.

Why are many academics opposed to the 10% quota?

The implication of the proposed quota, said Satish Deshpande, is that “it takes forward the process of disowning and denying caste discrimination”.

“Reservation was unique in being practically the only policy designed to address the historical inequality between caste groups,” he said.

Madhu Paranjape said that the quota essentially represents a “failure to expand access to higher education”.