Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik. Photo: Twitter/@Naveen_Odisha.
Last week the Odisha government passed a resolution in the state assembly to reserve 15% of seats in favour of students from government high schools for admission to state-run medical and engineering colleges. As Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said while moving the resolution, this move is based on government school students lacking “physical and economic access” to coaching facilities, resulting in their poor representation in MBBS and engineering courses.
The Odisha government may have diagnosed the problem right but its medicine is wrong.
The resolution was moved after accepting the recommendations of a committee set up in January this year, headed by Justice A.K. Mishra, a retired judge of the Orissa high court. One recommendation was for the 15% reservation to be “horizontal” in nature – i.e. not over and above existing reservations but to be applied through the existing “vertical” caste-based reservations.
However, the committee appears to have based its recommendations on inadequate data. Its report says that it couldn’t obtain data from the National Testing Agency pertaining to students who had graduated from class X in government schools. It also couldn’t get its hands on data, from the relevant departmental authorities, of the number of students who had cleared the IITs’ Joint Entrance Examinations and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) after passing out from private and public schools.
So the committee instead used high school data from the mass education ministry, student data from government-run engineering and medical colleges, and CBSE and ICSE data as proxies.
The committee also seems to have cherry-picked from the data. Some 87% of all school students in Odisha are enrolled in government schools but go on to take only 23% of seats in government medical colleges and 21% of seats in government engineering colleges. Private school students, on the other hand, make up only 11% of all school students but grab 57% of seats in medical colleges and 63% of seats in engineering colleges.
The remaining 20% of seats in government medical colleges are taken up by Central and state-government run CBSE schools, where 2% of the state’s school students are enrolled. This final point runs contrary to the committee’s inference that the graduates of state-run schools are poorly represented at government medical colleges, even if the narrative is flipped at engineering colleges.
A reservation policy that arises from this foundation can’t solve the disproportionate representation problem because it is too broad. For example, a government school student in Cuttack or Bhubaneswar will still continue to have access to better coaching facilities versus her counterparts in Kalahandi and Sonepur, and will still have a better shot at being admitted to a government medical or engineering college under the new reservation scheme.
Aside from this foreseeable unintended consequence, this reservation policy will also be disadvantageous to students from economically weaker sections of society who have enrolled in private schools under the Right to Education (RTE) scheme. Currently, 25% of seats at private schools are reserved under the RTE, of which 10% are for SC/ST and SEBC categories.
According to the Unified District Information System for Education portal, there were 10,019 high schools in Odisha in 2019. Of these, 5,296 were government-run, 3,321 were government-aided, 1,080 were private, and 322 were Central and state government managed.
And according to the 2018 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report, which covered 30 districts of Odisha, there is a stark difference between government and private schools. Only 35% of students in class III in government schools were able to read class II level texts, compared to 64.5% in private schools. Similarly, 23.8% of students of class V in government schools could successfully solve an arithmetic problem meant for class II students, compared to 43.2% in private schools.
In a study published in November 2019, researchers examined the feasibility of teaching science at 300 high schools in west Odisha. They reported that only 32.2% schools had science halls and that 34% of them were non-functional. Science textbooks were either unavailable to students at the start of an academic session, carried only black and white diagrams, and were often unclear.
So it is not surprising that private school enrolment grew 17% between 2015 and 2018. (Government schools enrolled fewer students in the same period but this shrinkage also accounts for mergers of schools, which is desirable.)
A long haul
It’s important to understand and respond to these deeper issues instead of rolling out populist measures. The Constitution of India includes medical education in its seventh schedule, so its administration must consider both state and Centre powers and policies. Earlier this year, in a reply to the Madras high court, which was considering a challenge to the 7.5% reservation for government school students in medical college seats, the Centre said it didn’t deem reservation for government school students to be desirable.
Reservation for marginalised sections of society – which have lived through a long history of oppression, discrimination and denial of opportunities – is desirable in India. However, poorly functioning government schools represent a problem of the government’s making, and as such shouldn’t become the ground for new reservation policies in higher education.
Instead, the policy should focus on enabling students and their families to access and retain a good-quality education. The Odisha government has already shown some good intent in this direction, for example by setting up the ‘Adarsha Vidyalayas’ that impart English-medium lessons in semi-urban and rural areas.
If this policy is implemented as-is, we will need more granular data to evaluate its consequences – both intended and unintended.
Sambit Dash teaches in Melaka Manipal Medical College, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He comments on public policy, healthcare, science and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash.