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India Opens Universities to More Underprivileged Students

Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1291a
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1291a
Quota quarrels.

A plan to boost university enrollment of underprivileged students has sparked weeks of protests.


NEW DELHI—Defying countrywide protests, India's government last week approved a radical expansion of affirmative action programs for helping millions of disadvantaged citizens attend university. The changes will spur a “massive expansion” of India's higher education system, promises Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Experts concur that India's higher education system, with 9.2 million students, includes far too few of the socially disadvantaged. “Many Indian geniuses are still hidden in the dust, and if we can't find them, as a country we won't go really far in our development,” says astronomer Yash Pal, former chair of the University Grants Commission in New Delhi.

But that's where the consensus ends. “We can either move forward and create centers of academic excellence, or go along with the demands of identity politics based on caste and community, but we cannot do both,” says Andre Béteille, a sociologist at the University of Delhi, who earlier this week resigned in protest from a panel advising Singh on how to transform India into a knowledge economy. Even Singh's chief science adviser, C.N.R. Rao, claims he was not consulted before the government announced the reforms. It's a “stupendous task,” Rao says, that is “being presented in a highly oversimplified fashion.”

Despite its emergence as a regional power, India is still divided along caste lines, with several groups by tradition performing menial jobs and manual labor. To erode this social stratification, India has long set promotion quotas for “scheduled” castes and tribes, including the untouchables, which guarantee them 22.5% of places in higher education and jobs in the public sector. The new amendment to the Indian constitution, approved unanimously by Parliament, will reserve another 27% of placements for the Dalits, or “other backward castes.”

The prospect of nearly half of all current university places being set aside for disadvantaged castes has sparked furious protests among young people of privileged castes, who argue that merit will be overlooked to make amends for historical social injustices. Over the past 3 weeks, medical and engineering students have staged strikes across the country, crippling the public health system and sparking several brutal clashes with police. As Science went to press, student leaders were weighing whether to continue the protests.

To take the sting out of the quota increase, the government has promised to dramatically expand enrollment at public higher education institutions. Among those included under the new policy, to take effect next year, are the seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), which together enrolled 5444 students in 2006; the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and its 2000 students; and 18 federally funded universities with an annual enrollment of about 180,000 students. The University of Delhi alone would need to increase from 40,000 students in 2006 to 60,000 next year. To further boost capacity, two new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, at a cost of $250 million, are expected to open in Pune and Kolkata by year's end.

The government plans to support the expansion by injecting $2 billion this year into the higher education system—almost double the annual expenditure. Some worry whether the money will be well spent. Rao, a former IISc director, says the technology institutes are a case in point. A rapid doubling of enrollment will be “very difficult,” he says. “Where will you get the trained faculty to teach these additional students?” Even today, a quarter of IIT faculty slots are vacant. Staffing decisions, Rao says, require “very careful selection, which can't be done overnight.” There's still time to devise a workable strategy, he says—if cooler heads prevail.

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