The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Politicians have made caste their plaything

In the course of the 20th century, universities throughout the world have become socially more and more inclusive. This is in marked contrast to what they were like till the middle of the 19th century. In India today the universities and other centres of higher study such as the IITs and the IIMs are in principle open to both men and women, and to members of all castes and communities. Yet the actual social composition of these institutions shows a marked preponderance of some castes and communities over others.

It is not that there has been no change in their social composition in the course of the last 50 years, but the progress has been slow and uneven. There are now many more women in higher education than there were before, although the universities, and particularly the better ones, have had less success in incorporating members of the disadvantaged castes and communities. At the same time, the need to make the universities, the IITs and the IIMs more socially inclusive in practice and not just in principle is now widely recognized and acknowledged within these institutions. If there is widespread and growing concern within them about the need to become socially more inclusive, why have they, and particularly the better ones among them, shown such modest success in meeting this important need'

If a university is to remain a university in any meaningful sense, it has to aim to be academically discriminating and not just socially inclusive. In a world in which knowledge is growing at an exponential rate, a university that does not exercise academic discrimination in the admission of students and the appointment of teachers will sooner or later fall by the wayside. That this is happening in many parts of the country can scarcely be denied. One way to make the universities socially inclusive is to increase the number of students and teachers by opening new colleges and universities and expanding existing ones. In the past 50 years, colleges and universities in many states have in fact been expanded under pressure to include persons from disadvantaged sections of society.

The increase in numbers has not generally been matched by an expansion of the material and intellectual resources required to maintain basic academic standards, not to speak of keeping pace with the rapid expansion of knowledge. In many undergraduate colleges and not a few post-graduate departments, libraries and laboratories have been allowed to run down even while the enrolment of students and the appointment of teachers have increased. The price for becoming socially inclusive has often been paid by a serious sacrifice of academic standards.

The IITs, IIMs and a handful of universities have been more mindful of academic standards and more discriminating in the selection of students and teachers. They have therefore failed to bring about a radical change in the social composition of their student body and their faculty. It is true that they have incorporated increasing numbers of women, but, again, these women come predominantly from upper-caste, middle-class families. Ironically, those institutions that are most mindful of the need of being socially inclusive have been the least successful in achieving that objective.

Is it then impossible for universities to become socially inclusive in both practice and principle and, at the same time, maintain strict standards of academic discrimination in admissions and appointments' This is far from the case. On the contrary, universities have, in the long run, benefited academically by becoming socially more inclusive. But a very great deal depends upon the process by which they become socially inclusive and the forces by which that process is driven.

It is easily forgotten that until the middle of the 19th century, the universities in Europe were small and socially exclusive. It was only in the second half of that century that they began to become socially inclusive by admitting women as well as members of religious minorities and disadvantaged classes and strata. The change from being socially exclusive to becoming socially inclusive was slow and gradual but it was attended by far greater success than in India. What is more important is that this change was accompanied not by a decline but by a steady advance in academic standards. The universities of Europe (and the United States of America) changed themselves from within, in response to diffuse changes in social values and economic opportunities and not as a result of orders from the government.

In England, France and Germany, the opening up of the universities to their own long-term advantage was accompanied by steady and all-round advances in elementary and secondary education. With the advantage of hindsight we can say that the social as well as the academic transformation of the European universities would not have been possible without the improvement and expansion of schooling. The schools were producing more and more students who were ready to meet the most exacting standards set by the universities. The raw materials amply supplied by the schools provided the preconditions for the success of the universities.

India took a somewhat different path after independence. The universities and colleges did expand, and successive governments applied pressure on them from time to time to become socially more inclusive. As I have already indicated, the expansion was often haphazard and unplanned, and without adequate provision of the material requirements of advanced teaching and research. What is more important is that very little was done to expand secondary education of a reasonably good quality. The pool of talent from which colleges and universities mindful of academic standards could recruit suitable students remained relatively small. Most of the students who knocked at the doors of the colleges and universities simply lacked the preparation needed for higher education.

It is not that there are no good schools in India. High quality secondary education has been available for a long time, but at a price affordable by only a small number of persons. These schools are not only very expensive, they are also very exclusive. Admission to a top school is much more difficult than admission to most colleges or universities in the country. Those who do well in such schools become sufficiently well-equipped to gain admission to any university in the world. These schools are usually the preserves of children of well-to-do parents belonging mainly to the upper castes. But those who have acquired wealth or political power are also able to squeeze their children into them, whatever their caste.

It is a slander to say that our universities are steeped in caste prejudice and gender prejudice and that is why they have shown such little success in becoming socially inclusive. The root of the problem lies in the woeful public neglect of elementary and secondary schools and the consequent uneven development of education in the country. This is not to say that Indian academics are free from caste prejudice or other forms of social prejudice. But they are neither the creators of caste prejudice nor its main promoters. It is not the academics but the politicians who have made caste prejudice their plaything, using it in a myriad ways, some blatant and others devious, in order to remain in power and gather the benefits of office.

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