Saturday, December 6, 2008

Education reform - a better bet than quotas

By Sumit K. Majumdar

The question of reserving, by mandate or decree, a number of places so that educational and employment opportunities may be made available to members of historically backward or depressed classes is exceedingly emotive for members on either side of the divide.

The opponents, often numerically far smaller than proponents, feel that imposition of quotas shrinks their opportunity set and exacerbates the intensity of competition for what is available.

Mancur Olson, in a path-breaking book The Logic of Collective Action, written over 40 years ago, described the tendency of a small group to acquire dominance over a much larger group, because the benefits of activities undertaken by members of the larger group would be dissipated over a much larger base. This would reduce incentives for action, even for self-protection, by members of that larger group.

The cost-benefit calculus does not operate in favour of activities undertaken by a large group. Consequently, a much smaller group would be able to establish its position and thereafter dominance.

This process also underlies the rent-seeking phenomenon that liberal Public Choice theorists study and is exactly the same process of interest-group formation that radical Marxists describe.

Negative effect

The evidence on the economic consequences of such affirmative action policies, by whatever name called, in countries as disparate as India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the US, is mixed.

As documented by Mr Thomas Sowell, an African-American academic, in a 2004 book, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study, the evidence on the benefits of affirmative action is sharply negative. Affirmative action plans do not work. He finds that in Tamil Nadu, just over 10 per cent of the backward classes category has received over half the admissions and jobs reserved for backward classes.

In Malaysia, the richest 17 per cent of the bhumiputras have received over half the admissions reserved for Malays, and in Sri Lanka, a tiny minority of the Sinhalese elite has received the maximum benefits. In the US, a small minority of Blacks, particularly in the Washington, D.C. area and the Eastern Corridor, are firmly in the middle-class while the majority live in urban ghettos that would put many developing country ghettos to shame for their egregiousness.

The US, as a result, is in critical danger of becoming two nations — one very rich and the other very poor, in which abject poverty, crime and violence are day-to-day features of life.

It is the ruling elite among the disadvantaged classes that has skimmed the cream of opportunities available, leaving the vast majority of the truly disadvantaged still in the slough of despond from which they have been unable to extricate themselves. The vast majority, thus, will always be held at ransom by a minority and it is only a matter of time before the minority consists of members of both the forward as well as the backward classes, as the emerging global evidence shows.

Only a palliative

For a start, there is absolutely no denying that affirmative actions were required to redress the inequalities that society had inflicted on certain groups over centuries.

Affirmative action was a correction for the past, and in that sense was to act a palliative, but was not meant to be a permanent institution for the future.

Affirmative action was not meant to be a continuous mea culpa for the sins of the fathers and grandfathers. After some time, such an approach would wear rather thin with both the oppressed and the oppressors. It is an inescapable conclusion that affirmative actions are only temporary until the playing field is levelled.

A level-playing field would only become possible when the quality of primary and secondary school education is of a consistently high quality and equally available to all, irrespective of colour and race.

The real problem is not affirmative action, or fixing of quotas for admission to institutions of higher learning, but a lack of nerve on the part of politicians to implement the basic and fundamental changes required, in areas such as primary and secondary education.

Truly critical social changes, such as land reform in India, only undertaken competently in West Bengal, as a result of which the ruling party has been returned to power in seven consecutive elections, which is a world record, or reforms in primary and secondary education, have tended to be topics that are just not glamorous enough for politicians to bother about.

Education, the key

Therein lies the source of the problem. If the Union Education Minister, and his predecessors over the years, were not bothered about scoring political points, and instead concentrated on the mandate of actually improving the primary and secondary school systems across the country, there would be no need for quotas at all.

Irrespective of the community, caste, colour or creed, students seeking admission to institutions of higher learning would find that they are able to get in on their own merit. Schools everywhere should be good, so that all children grow up equally advantaged.

If indeed any assistance was required, tests could establish whether these eligible candidates need to be given scholarships that cover their period of study.

The philosophy driving such a program would be that it is better to teach a man to fish, and be self-reliant, so that he can eat for life rather than give him a fish that he can eat for just a day. It is far easier, as a reforms measure, to simply mandate a quota and get populist approval than to implement root and branch education reforms in a country the size of India with its myriad complexities.

Successive governments have taken this simplistic approach to reforms over the years. It is easier to ignore the micro-details and hope things will eventually get sorted out.

While the concept of India being the knowledge economy of the future is a wonderfully seductive thought, it merely anaesthetises us from the reality of hard work that serious root and branch reforms require in the education sector for India to be taken seriously as a global player in the knowledge economy.

If the politicians actually work to improve the schooling systems instead of scoring political points, there would be no need for quotas at all.
— Ashoke Chakrabarty

[About the author] Sumit K. Majumdar is Professor of Technology Strategy, University of Texas at Dallas.


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