Thursday, April 13, 2006

Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke

Ok, ok, I know I said I was going to move on, but I've been doing some reading on affirmative action in higher education in the last few days (discussion on my last few posts made me realise how little of the literature I actually know) and I couldn't resist sharing this with you [1].

In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in the case of Regents of the University of California (Davis) vs. Bakke (henceforth called Bakke) - Bakke had essentially sued UCD (which at the time had quotas set aside for minority students) for denying him admission despite the fact that his grades were better, etc.

The Supreme Court ruled that such a quota system, where 16% of the seats were set aside for minority students, was unlawful. In delivering that judgement Justice Powell argued that "racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect and thus call for the most exacting judicial examination".

But that's not what makes the case interesting to me (before you jump up and start arguing that this is India, not the US and we can have our own judgements) - though I think it's interesting to think about whether the policy proposal we've been debating has been subjected to the most exacting examination. What I found more interesting was the argument for why the policy was unlawful and what role the court saw for affirmative action in higher education admissions.

The Supreme Court essentially based its conclusion on the following judgement in an earlier case (Sweezy vs. New Hampshire): "It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which their prevail the "four essential freedoms" of a university - to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study"

The key words are - on academic grounds. Preferential admissions to minority students can be justified on the basis of superior educational outcomes - if the university believes, for instance, that diversity of perspective may actually enhance the educational outcomes for students per se. Arguments for social justice or inequality reduction are irrelevant here - in order to be using race and minority status as a basis of discrimination in admissions, universities had to show that it was academically optimal. In particular, the Bakke ruling made a distinction between the UCD policy of setting aside quotas for minority students and the Harvard policy (at the time) of giving minority status weightage in the admissions process. Minority status, the court argued, could be used to tip the balance in a candidate's favour, just as a candidate's participation in sports, musical talents, etc. could be used. But it should not block off access to seats for non-minority students. Justice Powell writes: "race or ethnic background may demand a 'plus' in a particular applicant's file, yet it does not insulate the candidate from comparison with all other candidates for the available seat".

What does all this mean for reservations in the IITs / IIMs. Obviously, the US and India have different laws, so legal precedents do not strictly apply, but I think the following points are worth highlighting:

First, that the decision to adopt an affirmative actions admission policy should be the university's, not the state's. The state may intervene if it sees discrimination against minorities (as it famously did in the desegregation of public schools in the South in the 60s), but universities should have the right to decide on their own admission policies.

Second, giving special weightage to a candidates socio-economic status is not the same as protecting him from competition by reserving seats, and the former is preferable to the latter because it is fairer to all concerned, and effectively limits the extent to which quality standards have to be compromised.

Third, the only valid rationale for allowing minority candidates to enter into universities is educational. To the extent that diversity of perspectives aids creativity, enables the exchange of ideas and helps prepare students for success in a diverse society, minority candidates may be preferred over others. Because of what they can contribute to the university, not because of what the university can contribute to them.

Fourth, that these affirmative action policies must be designed with careful thought and close scrutiny, and drawing heavily on existing research on affirmative action's effects on outcomes.

Personally, I'm still unconvinced that taking candidates who have lower scores on entrance tests, etc. but come from a different socio-economic strata is going to improve the performance of students in the IITs / IIMs. But I may be wrong. There's a lot of research out there (now that I'm really paying attention) on the positive effects of affirmative action on overall educational outcomes (though, of course, in very different contexts) so maybe it's worth looking into / trying.

That doesn't mean that there's any case for reservations in IIT / IIMs. What it does suggest is that faculty in the Institutes may want to sit down and spend more time thinking about what metrics they use for admission and whether there are criteria they want to add / emphasise. It's not just a question of the University's independence. It's also that, if it's a question of studying the relevant literature and coming to rational, responsible conclusions, I'd trust the faculty of an IIT / IIM over some random politician any day.

[1] Two things: First, I'm not a lawyer (thank God!) so I'm basing this more on academic articles I've read on the ruling as well as my own reading of it, but I may be missing much of the nuance in the discussion. Second, while the Bakke case is fairly old, the US Supreme Court has apparently continued to stand by its point of view in recent cases involving the University of Michigan the University of Texas.



Veena said...

Thanks for this. Great stuff.

Huge differences from how we look at things back home. We do not seem to believe in the university's autonomy to decide on a course of action(can see arguments on both sides), we are more concerned with the idea of passive discrimination(where being born into a strata of society is discrimination and that's what we want to correct), and we do not believe that the only valid rationale is purely educational(I'd agree that it is not).

Anyways, now that I seem to have found one issue where no one in the blogosphere seem to share my exact views, must write a post sometime instead of making random comments everywhere :)

Falstaff said...

Veena: The second difference isn't really true. The US system is hugely concerned with affirmative action to correct what you call passive discrimination. The difference is that a) they don't think the state should be mandating it, they believe that responsible educational institutions can make responsible choices and b) they're more concerned with reverse discrimination (i.e. discriminating against non-minorities in the name of helping minorities) which we're really not. Which, incidentally, is where the purely educational rationale comes from - if educational outcomes go down, then you're effectively discriminating against non-minority students.

Looking forward to your post.

camelpost said...

Okay there is talk of Reservation of seats for students in elite institutions such as IIT IIM etc. They must also bring about equal reservation for teachers in these so called IITs. Why does not the government start one new IIT called RIIT (you know what R stands for) and IIM called RIIM to cater to reservation for students as well as teachers. Come what may, we must maintain standards (AICTE ???) in teaching and learning.

MockTurtle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MockTurtle said...

I'm glad you've decided to open your mind to both sides of the argument. I was wondering if I should point out that you (and your disciples) were laboring under a misconception when you stated that affirmative action programs in the US did not extend to higher education. They do and I’m happy to see that you have stumbled upon that fact for yourself.
Now, to attempt to put the matter to rest:
As I have expressly stated in the past, I have absolutely nothing against the IITs or the IIMs or their assorted alumni (I would have to look askance at a good number of close friends and immediate family if that were the case). I do however have a problem with the structure of admissions and education at Indian educational institutions, including the top institutes.
It is possible for the impoverished son of a black share cropper in Alabama to get into Harvard, if he has worked hard, overcome challenges and has an interesting story to tell that displays a well-rounded personality. His inclusion into a top US institute will be due to that fact that despite having lower scores than some of his peers, his presence will add to the diversity of the class and that his potential for success was evaluated not simply on the basis of past test results but by a reckoning that someone who has struggled successfully through his hardships certainly has what it takes to be a leader.
In India, a rural dalit with a keen mind usually lacks the resources to buy four years worth of Agarwal’s or Brilliant’s tutorials and the time to devote to mug up every possible problem that could appear in this year’s entrance exam. Does that mean that his presence in the class will not add to its richness? No. I think it will benefit both him and his peers who can use him as a conduit to a side of India that they have not been exposed to. But will he be admitted without some sort of quota system? I don’t see that happening in India.
Another problem I have with the Indian educational system is that it gives rise to an environment of non-confrontationism, as is evident on the desi section of the blogosphere. We are so used to having our professors and elders proselytize at us while we all sit around and say “Wah Ustad Wah!” or the equivalent that we are uncomfortable with any dissenting voice. We equate discussion with disrespect and argument with confrontation and that makes us a nation of lemmings (see the response to my last set of comments). I believe that this is a significant drawback to the Indian B-school student and I’m not the only one who thinks so. I was surprised when the UK government recently came out with its list of the top 50 business programs in the world, based on the “the potential economic productive contribution of graduates” and no IIM made the cut (Though I have to add that my own humble business school was listed).
Finally let’s look at the root cause of the issue. I’m not going to wax eloquent on why we have to do more for the downtrodden or quote statistics on the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in India, since I’m sure we’ve heard it al before and that we’re all basically on the same page there. Also, I’m not some JNU liberal who tears his hair at society’s apathy towards the poor. But let me just say this – If we were not by nature a relatively peaceful people, we would have had a communist revolution in India a long time ago. Naxalism is steadily on the rise in rural areas and if you ask me the country is a ticking time bomb. If we don’t all start making radical sacrifices to help bring up the underprivileged, they may decide to do it for themselves at the working end of a gun.

Veena said...

Falstaff: Yeah, I guess. That we are not so concerned about reverse discrimination might be something to do with this misguided notion of correcting historical inequities come what may attitude that many of us carry around in our heads. Or maybe it ain't so misguided also, maybe that's just how the world is. Whatever.

MT: The funny thing is I actually agree with you on many things. But then you go on about how we will have naxals shooting at us if we don't introduce reservation in IIT/IIMs and I am speechless!

manasi said...

first time commenting on any blog.

@MT: your anectode about the poor black guy being selected in the US, only makes a case for a revised admissions system, where central exams like CAT are not the only criteria, weightage is provided to other issues (incl extracurriculars etc). It doesn't really support quota system.

Falstaff and everyone else against reservations in IIT/IIM: as you can see this isn't making any headway, you're just wasting your time on this.... now can we get back to the usual posts...:) how about having jazz week?

MockTurtle said...

..and well you should be.

mock turtle is a twit said...

If you think I am mocking and heckling you, I am. Here's the why.

1. Use of untruths:
I was wondering if I should point out that you (and your disciples) were laboring under a misconception when you stated that affirmative action programs in the US did not extend to higher education.
This was never disputed. There is, of course, a huge difference between affirmative action and reservations, a nuance that you are incapable of understanding.

2. Ad-hominens
you and your snotty professors. If you can call someone "elitist" and "snotty" for having gone to an IIT/IIM, you can also be referred to as a dweeb for having paid your way through a degree at Manipal (and from what i understand, back in the late 80s, the time of exhorbitant fees)

3. Lack of credibility. Why do i listen to someone who has been out of india for most of the post liberalization period and has no experience about the issue at hand? Not that you need credentials to talk about something, but the way you pontificate is almost misleading.

4. Your holier than thou attitude. Just because you are older does not make you any more qualified on anything and everything under the sun.

5. Trying to provoke for the sake of provoking: Little young to be quoting Lennon at people, no? Couldn't find a Moby lyric to match your sentiment? From an earlier comment, but the same tone shines through.

Trust me, people around here are better human beings than you are. And you, my dear mock turtle, are a twit.

MockTurtle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mock turtle is a twit said...

..and whoops! Where did I leave my balls? I'm still afraid to use my real name.

Falstaff said...

MT: a) I've always been open on the issue. You've just never made a good argument for it. If you knew about this Bakke case, why were you hiding it from us, and using ridiculous arguments about bussing and prejudice?

b) I'm with you till the point where you're saying the village blacksmith son may not be able to get in with the current system. First, I'm not convinced that it's only the coaching classes that are keeping him out - the problem starts much, much before that - in the quality of teaching in Class I. Which is why I've been saying all along that primary education is the problem to tackle. Second, I totally fail to see how you arrived at the conclusion that reservation is the only way to fix this. Since you're so fond of the US system, notice that they've got plenty of other ways to do it. I've argued on this blog for programs that provide preparatory support for less priviliged kids looking to get into top institutes (I've even provided examples of currently running programs). I've also argued that if diversity is really an issue, we should have the debate with the IIT / IIM admission offices to incorporate that into admission criteria (incidentally, I don't know that that's not already true). All of those options, are, in my opinion (and in the opinion of the US system you're so fond of) superior to quotas. So why not use those? Why do you think they won't work, while quotas will?

My overall suggestion: first take the massive chip you clearly have on your shoulders against the IITs / IIMs off, lay your prejudices against B-school students aside (just out of curiosity, if IITs / IIMs are as horrible as you make them out to be full of utterly conformist non-confrontationist snobs, why do you want all these wonderful Dalit kids to go there, only to have the spark of their vitality extinguished?) and ask yourself the following question: what is the most efficient and effective way for us to ensure that all these bright-eyed Dalit boys and girls in villages all over the country get a fair shot at getting into an IIT / IIM.

Re: the root causes argument, while I agree with Veena's speechlessness in general - do you really think getting 200 people into these non-value adding institutes is going to defuse the time-bomb. Come the revolution surely all consultants blood will be flowing in the street, Dalit or otherwise. Don't you think solving primary education might, just might, be more useful in solving social unrest.

P.S. That has to be the first time in history that anyone has described as non-confrontationist. Thank you, thank you. My mother will be so proud.

manasi: thanks. Not up to Jazz week, but I promise I'm giving this up. It's just that every now and then I have withdrawal pangs. Plus, somebody has to share the real research on this stuff.

veena: agree. and it's the no matter what bit that I object to. That kind of blind haste helps no one - it just creates more conflict, more negativity.

MockTurtle said...

While I usually ignore anonymous lemmings, I think I just have to say that..
1) I did not study at Manipal - although I sometimes visited friends there.
2) I graduated in the late 90's so do not really need your deference.
3) I have been actively recruiting Indian engineers and managers for the offshore office of my company over the past 3 years, so have some idea of what I'm talking about.
4) Falstaff said the following in his last coment "What they're not an outcome of is reservations in top colleges in the country, because the US (sensibly) has never done that." My point is that the US has certainly done that through affirmative action.
5) Finally, anonymous coward, I have to grant you that it is a spectacular gymnastic feat to simultaneously have your head up your own ass and your lips on someone else's. If you think I provoke now, you should meet me in person.

Falstaff said...

mock-turtle is a twit: You realise you're being just as much of a twit, don't you? You can't criticise someone for using an 'ad-hominens' argument, and then in the very next line turn around and accuse him of paying his way through Manipal. Oh, and question his credentials to be talking about this. Plus you criticise him for being needlessly provoking, when you just acknowledged that you were heckling him too.

Here's my suggestion - do what I do. The next time you feel the urge to attack MT in this comments section, write out your comment and ask yourself - "Is this the kind of thing MT would say?" If the answer to that question is yes, don't post it. Instead, ask yourself if somewhere, underneath all that bitter incoherence, there isn't some kernel of truth, and go research it a bit more. And just ignore everything else.

Falstaff said...

MT: Errr..though notice that the US hasn't done quotas in higher education since 1978. And never quotas that were dictated by the state. So my point that any gains from affirmative action didn't come through reservations is still true. Affirmative action works. But I've been saying that all along. The fact that you can't see the difference between the two (which the US SC can) is the whole problem

MockTurtle said...

@falstaff: You disappoint me. Do you seriously believe that someone who disagrees with your political position is neccessarily against you personally, or against your institution or against MBAs in general? (BTW - I thought I mentioned earlier that I have an MBA too). When I said that your post was anti-confrontational I meant that you seem to be fine with confronting others on their blogs (need I quote examples?), but some people can't stomach it when you are confronted on yours.
WRT reservations, I agree that the changes have to start from further down and that reservations are not the ONLY solution, but they could be PART of the solution and the IITs/IIMs should not feel that they are insulated.
The institutes have not done anything to make their admission system more friendly to the poor since inception, why should anyone think that they will do so now without external intervention?

MockTurtle said...

..oh, and by the way, affirmative action in the US means increasing the representation of minorities in the workplace and educational institutions. While some US colleges may have abandoned hard and published reservation quotas, their new policies of classroom diversity enforces the same thing even today. It is easier to get into a top college if you belong to a historically oppressed race, even if your grades don't cut it. Have you seen the movie "Soul Man"? Also, read the annual 'college admissions' issue of US News with students complaining of the difficulty in being gaining a college admission if you're a white guy.
You say, leave it to the Universities. Do you honestly see the IIMs or the IITs willingly changing their admission policies to admit more dalits?
Also, I know may often seem rude when I write because you can't see me grin, but I don't mean to be. I just love the old back and forth...

Crp said...

Falstaff: maybe you can consider turning off anonymous comments.

Mock and twit: just cut it out please. Blog etiquette demands that commenters flame the blogger, not each other :)

i love mockturtle soup said...

I graduated in the late 90's so do not really need your deference.


I went to college in India during the first bout of this fight - the Mandal commission.

The last i knew, the Mandal commission recommendations were implemented by the VP singh government in 1989. So unless you took six-plus years to graduate, one of those statements is a falsehoods. More reasons to question your credibility, no?

And puleez, can we stop the "Himmat hai to saamne aa" statements. They are quite tiresome.

Falstaff: Yeah, I know. So? Two can play the same stupid game. Believe me, I'm really enjoying this.

Falstaff said...

mockturtle: It has nothing to do with you being against my political position; but just go back and read all your comments. You've consistently attacked the IITs / IIMs, accusing them of being elitist and trying to denigrate them even while you're arguing for more people being included in them. Every time I've tried to focus the discussion on the less priviliged, you've come back whining against the IITs / IIMs. The only conclusion I can reasonably come to (though it's an accusation I'm truly reluctant to make - because I don't approve of personal attacks) is that you have something against them that has nothing to do with this policy. Take this whole non-confrontationist attitude you speak of. It's the first I've ever heard anyone accuse IIM students of being conformist or non-confrontational. Compared to whom? students who did their Masters in Eco? You're kidding me. It's probably true that Indian b-school graduates are less confrontational than those from US b-schools, but (to the extent that that's not a stereotype) that's a larger cultural thing, hardly something that the b-schools are driving into their students.

At any rate, I hope you're not suggesting that I've ever had trouble being non-confrontational. I've tried (very hard and with mixed success) not to be my usual acerbic self in these comments, I've tried to be as reasonable and as open-minded as I can, but I've never avoided an argument because i didn't have the stomach for it.

Oh, and your rudeness doesn't bother me - it's when you make arguments that don't make sense or when I feel you're not paying enough attention to what i've been saying all along (this whole affirmative action thing, for instance). That I get annoyed. One suggestion. If you're posting on this blog and addressing a point someone else has raised - say so. I'm never sure if you're applying what you're saying to me or to other people who've put comments.

Right, on reservations. First, if you read my post from three (four?) days ago, one of the points I made there (and have made consistently) is that there is a trade-off between reservations in the IITs vs. fixing primary schools. If you let the govt. get away with reservations in IIT / IIMs as a sop to public opinion, you're unlikely to be able to get them to commit to the hard action they should be taking on primary education. So at some level it's a question of priorities. Second, without the primary education set up in place reservations in IITs / IIMs are meaningless because the candidates who'll get in will not be the poor dalit village kids of your dreams but perfectly priviliged kids who only need the quota because they're not smart enough. That's why you need to fix primary education first. And that's why making less priviliged status a factor rather than a blind quota is a better policy, because it'll allow you to make absolute, not relative trade-offs.

As far as getting the IIMs to accept dalit kids goes - I don't see why not. Provided we can find convincing evidence of the fact that the diversity really will be valuable. Assuming we can build a convincing case for that, I don't see why the IIT / IIM faculty, who are (mostly) intelligent, responsible people with a strong social conscience (I can't begin to list the number of non-profit initiatives profs at WIMWI are involved with; and i don't even want to start on how socialistic IIM faculty is) wouldn't agree. If it hasn't happened so far, it's because the fear has always been that it will cause academic standards to be lowered. Whether or not that's true is something we can only decide through discussion with the IIT / IIM faculty. You seem to assume that IIT / IIM profs are a bunch of caste-ists snobs who've either never heard of diversity no good reason to keep poor kids out of the IIMs than their own preferences; and who will not listen to reason now. Which is why we need to slap them with reservation quotas. I've seen no evidence to suggest that. Which is why I think the rational, civilised response to this whole thing is to gather the evidence for the benefits of diversity and enter into a discussion with the IIM profs on their perspective on this (I suspect you may find, btw, that the drop-off in candidate quality is extremely stark - given what I know of the primary school system in the country, I'd be amazed if there were more than two or three students from genuinely poor homes in the top 1000 / 2000). And do that as a minor side conversation while continuing to focus the bulk of our political energies on achieving change in primary education.

Falstaff said...

crp: no, I'm not going to do that. It's painful, I know, but there's a freedom of speech issue involved. Besides, I think it's better to let these idiots have their say - it only shows them up more.

mock-turtle soup: that said, I'm with crp - cut it out. It's not a question of two playing at the game. Mock Turtle, is at least trying to contribute to the discussion - the rudeness is unattractive, but it's incidental. Your only point seems to be to bait him. You're just being rude for the sake of being rude. As far as I (and therefore this blog) are concerned - MT's background and life are irrelevant to this discussion. If you want to attack his arguments, be my guest. But any further attacks against him personally I will delete.

Megha said...

*settles down with a big tub of popcorn and waits for the dog-blood sipping dialogues to commence*

Falstaff: Apologies for the unrelated comment. Couldn't help it.

Falstaff said...

megha: no apologies necessary. The cornier the better, I say. Preferably with butter.

MockTurtle said...

@falstaff (Note this whole comment is directed at you) Now let's try to find a compromise.
From what I can see our differences are as follows. (And please correct me if I am wrong)
1) The problem: I feel that there is a genuine problem in the country with a small segment of the population having access to a majority of its resources. I think that this is an increasing trend and will eventually give rise to a permanently under-privileged class.
While I do not think of this as a social evil (I am a staunch free market capitalist), I do think that without urgent measures it could lead to severe social unrest or even revolution. If you think I'm exaggerating about the threat of an impending Naxal uprising, then check the PM's speech from earlier today. Naxal groups have been consolidating over the past few years and their numbers are growing due to the increased feeling among the poor that the government is doing nothing for them. While reservation may not be an immediate panacea to this, some form of it may possibly be part of an overall solution.
So far I think we’re both in agreement.
2) The solution: Since we both agree that there is a problem, I suppose that we can also agree that there should be an active search for a solution. I believe, as you do, that a solution needs to begin at the grassroots and should be manifold. I gather that your take is that quotas in premier colleges cannot be a part of any solution, at least not until proof of their effectiveness is guaranteed. I argue that an essential part of the solution would be to provide members of the backward classes with access to colleges and jobs as this will eventually grant them some degree of social mobility. There is no way to meet your requirements for prior proof as large scale social experiments of this nature have few comparisons, but I cannot see reservations taking us down the same slippery slope that you do.
You seem to agree that some form of reservation, possibly in the mode of US Universities’ attempts to create greater classroom diversity during admission, maybe an alternative? I’m all for it. But I have serious doubts about the Indian Institutes making the change completely on their own and without an external nudge.
3) My attitude towards IITs and IIMs: For the record (and for the last time) I have nothing personal against the Indian Institutes. That being said; can you honestly say that there isn’t an elitist undertone to some of the anti-reservation commentary on the blogosphere? I know you dislike my comparison with the racist reaction to affirmative action in the US, but there are similarities. The whole argument that impoverished SC/ST students are not as smart and that they will bring down the standard of education is too reminiscent of the Ivy League’s struggle against admitting Jews in the 20’s and the arguments against desegregation in the 50’s to ignore. I know you will say that there are no active steps being taken to keep any qualified person out of the Indian Institutes, but again I remind you that some of our downtrodden lack the resources to enter, but not the potential to succeed. In my mind that is a passive form of discrimination.
Regarding my comments on Indians who are brought up to hate confrontation, if you read carefully you will see that I identified that as a malaise of our educational system as a whole and not as a particular problem of the IIMs – and that was not directed at you, but at your faithful readers who seemed apoplectic that your opinions were being challenged.
- With that I bid you all adieu as I take off to enjoy the long weekend. Happy Easter to all!

MockTurtle said...

..oh, and 'turtle soup', I was in college from '92 to '96. Early enough to feel the impact of Mandal and late enough for you to not have to worry that I may be your absconding father.

Falstaff said...

MT: I agree that there's a need for action, and believe that no action will be meaningful unless we fix the issues at the primary stage, so that all this higher education stuff is a waste of energy that could be more effectively deployed elsewhere. I also believe that the IIM faculty could be convinced about the merits of diversity (and therefore of marginally lowering their standards) if we could show that there are a reasonable number of kids from genuinely poor backgrounds in the top 2000 / 3000 of candidates applying to these schools. I seriously doubt that's true today, or that it will be unless we can fix the almost insurmountable barriers facing smart kids from poor families earlier in the system. I certainly don't think the IIMs should lower their standards any further than that - because then the the gains from diversity will be swamped by the losses from student's incompetence and their inability to cope. And I remain convinced that quotas (especially quotas as high as 50% forced on the institute) are a fundamentally flawed design and will serve only to create unwarranted protection for priviliged members of the 'backward class' who don't really need such sops.

As for elitism - of course the IITs / IIMs are elitist. But they're elitist on intelligence, not on race or caste or economic status. That culture of intellectual one up-manship is critical to the success of the IITs / IIMs - it's because their students are driven to be competitive on analytics, on performance, on capabilities, that they end up doing as well as they do. We need them to have that drive. That's why they (we) take pride in being purely meritocratic, that's why we need to believe that we're the best of the best. And that's why the analogy to racism doesn't work - we don't care what your parents do or what colour your skin is or what your last name is - as long as you can challenge us when it comes to grades we're happy being in the same institute as you. Think about it this way - even given how wildly inaccurate board marks often are, what proportion of kids in the top 5% in the Class XII exams come from households that are near or below the poverty line? Do you really think that's close to 50%? The point is that kids from really poor families who could effectively compete with us simply don't exist today - that's huguely unfortunate, of course - they should, and would if the primary education system worked. But they don't now.

And that, I think is as small a disagreement as we're ever going to get to, so let's leave it at that, shall we?

dazedandconfused said...

Whew! what an appetite for debate! Will all the bengalis in this section please stand up?!:)

Abi said...

You have some strong arguments against reservation. Correct me if I am wrong, much of it rests on painting students under reserved category as academically poor. I would disagree with that assessment. Sure, there is a difference between students in general and reserved categories, but it's not a chasm that you portray it as. We should keep in mind that this (small) difference is at the entry point; how much of it persists as the students wind their way through college is not clear. There are laggards even among general category students, too!

Some thoughts, and some links for your consideration:

1. IIT's JEE is only one of umpteen ways to assess the 'academic merit' of incoming students. It's a filter, and giving it a mythical status is not warranted. Our States have been using their own methods (under the name of Common Entrance Test, or some variation thereof). They seem to do a good job of allowing students from SC/ST, MBC/BC/OBC and rural backgrounds to make it to their colleges -- not just through the reserved category, but also in the general category itself. Think Tamil Nadu (Link thanks to Aswin, who commented on -- sorry for the plug -- my post here).

To the extent that JEE needs intensive (and fairly expensive) coaching, it has a systemic bias against the poor. I don't think anyone would argue that bright angels cannot arise from a group of poor people, and particularly from a group of poor and oppressed people. To the extent that JEE's pattern excludes them, it's open to the 'elitist' charge.

Bottomline: JEE may not be the 'fairest' of exams, and the taint of 'elitism' cannot be brushed away easily. Other exams may be better at 'discovering' merit in people with poorer backgrounds.

2. You have expressed a lot of concern about 'academic performance' once a person enters college. IITs are the best judge of how well the JEE ranks correlate with the students' performance during their IIT years. I am sure they are sitting on five decades worth of data, except that they haven't done much with it. The only study (and this one is not a comprehensive one) that I know of found a good -- in fact, very good -- correlation between academic performance in college with that in board exams; more importantly, there was very little correlation with JEE rank. I don't know if IIMs have done such studies.

3. Consider a state like Tamil Nadu. For its engineering admissions, it considers both board exam marks and the entrance exam marks (with equal weight, I believe; I am not sure though), to arrive at a composite score for each student. Right now, there is 50 % reservation for BC/MBC students.

If one takes the 'Affirmative Action' route (and dumps the reservation route), let's say we add some 'marks' to the students's score based on several 'pluses' (using Justice Powell's terminology) for the following: rural background, BC/MBC, SC/ST, poor educational background of parents, first rank in school, etc. What one ends up doing is not particularly different from having a separate reserved category for each of these 'qualities'!

For example, the difference in cut-off marks between BC category and general category in TN engineering admissions is just one or two percent. Say, 98% for GC and 96% for BC. In the AA route, if the BC students' score is jacked up by 2%, the result is largely (but not 100%) the same. So, I wouldn't go too far with 'AA is better than reservation' argument.

4. Finally, here is an argument against our process of implementing the policy of reservation (but not against reservation itself): the Hindu article (linked to in the first paragraph) is about medical college admissions. Its contents could provide an excellent argument for scaling down (or, even removing) the quota for the BC category! Why no one is raising a hue and cry is a mystery to me. Surely, our laws on reservation do have review -- and, gulp, sunset -- clauses built into them? I am no lawyer, though.

Falstaff said...


Okay, so if there are a bunch of really competent students from genuinely poor households (not SC / ST households - that, to me, is irrelevant) who are just marginally below everyone else in aptitude coming out of high school, I'm happy for them to be the recipient of voluntary affirmative action by IITs / IIMs. I don't believe these students exist, simply because I've seen too many truly bright kids from Bombay slums who haven't a chance of being anywhere close to being ready for IITs / IIMs. It's not that they aren't bright enough - it's that they haven't received enough of a decent education to have even their fundamentals clear, and it's now impossible for them to catch up. Still, that's an empirical question and one that should be explored.

This whole 'bright students can't get into IITs because they can't afford coaching' seems ridiculously simplistic to me. As though whether or not you learnt anything in school didn't matter at all. But if you want to believe that's true - then why not do what I've suggested elsewhere (see my discussion of the Prep for Prep program) and provide low-cost options for kids from less priviliged backgrounds to attend / receive coaching? If you're right, that should be enough to get a whole bunch of kids of poor households into the IITs. I personally don't think it'll make much of a difference, but it's still the logical step, rather than reservations in IIT seats. INcidentally, notice that the intensive coaching argument is probably much less true of the IIMs. A large number of my batchmates did minimal or no coaching for the CAT, so I hardly think that's an entry barrier.

Notice also that correlation between JEE and board results is hardly surprising. The real question is a) which is the noisier measure and therefore b) what does the section of the population that does well in boards but poorly in JEE represent - kids who the JEE is discriminating against, or kids who ended up with inflated board marks. Also, do I take it that you would answer the question in my last comment: is the proportion of kids from households near or below the poverty line in the top 5% in class XII boards close to 50% in the affirmative? I'm pretty sure you're wrong about that - but that should be easy to check. Oh, and I fail to see how the state colleges are relevant - either there's no difference in the academic standards required by these colleges and the IITs, in which case there's no reason to get fussed about IIT reservations - there's plenty of equivalent seats in these colleges already reserved - or the IITs have significantly higher standards, in which case what works for these regional colleges may not work for IITs.

Finally, reservations vs. affirmative action. The point is that AA is always an efficient way of doing this, while quotas will tend to be protectionist and will work only if you happen to have the right distribution of students and set the right cut-offs. Let's say you're right and even when you take out the noise in the board results, there are still a fair number of kids from poor households who are in the top 1000 on an IIM admission. Then both systems will give you equivalent results, so there's no reason to choose quotas over AA. Let's say that's not true, though, and you can only find 100 kids by going to the top 10,000 of applicants. AA will stop that from happening, thus preserving quality. Quotas will force it to happen and destroy value. If you had to choose between a system that worked no matter what the circumstances and one that at best did as well as the first system and at worst did much, much worse, which would you pick?

Veena said...

Couldn't resist this one. I am back.

Some thoughts:

I actually do believe that there are a bunch of students from genuinely poor households(as much as I find this difficult to believe there are certain govt schools which do work) who are just marginally below everyone else in aptitude coming out of school. While it is definitely nowhere as high as 50%, there is a reasonable number that do make the cut. Heavy anecdotal evidence though. As you said, it is an empirical question which should def be looked into.

I agree with Abi on the IIT coaching part. IIM might be a different ballgame but I am yet to see an above average student who slogged for two years straight and did not get into an IIT. As someone said, the real reservations should be for Kota classes, not the IITs! (Though there are reasons why these poor students might not attend coaching classes even if you pay for it - in a state like TN, for example, if you decide to study for the IITs, there is really a very little chance you will make it through the state entrance/board exams and for a poor student, he just has too much to lose in case he does not get into an IIT.)

As for the point about the OC and BC cutoff being really close, it is def true in Tamland. But I am not sure it started that way and it would be interesting to see how this gap closed over time which might be actually end up being a valid argument for quotas in general(if we control for every other factor).

On the question of merit and the IITs having significantly higher standards, the boy asks(and I am his typist) why are we thinking about this in the binary sense. It is not a 1 or a 0 between the people who have the aptitude and people who don't. Isn't it more of a continuum from a JEE 1 down to JEE 4000? Where you would have to ask what is the incremental difference between a JEE 2000 and a JEE 2500? And then it is not like there are the IITs and then there's everyone else. After all, the JEE is just one exam which measures just one dimension.

As for AA vs quotas, AA def seem more fair. But again, in a country like India unless we make the AA system highly objective(point based maybe) and transparent(which I am not sure is the case here in the US), it is open to bias and more importantly, it is open to allegations of bias. Must also say here that that it has taken us 60 years and a quota annoucement like this current one before we could talk about AA in the IITs is a testament to our commitment(as a country) to bring up the downtrodden. :)

The argument for quotas, imo, has o be based on more than just merit. One would have to prove that the value created by taking in these students(who might or might not be just marginally lower in merit) over the long run should in some way be above the value destroyed. I am not entirely sure this argument cannot be tested - one can take specific communities which have benefitted from the system and measure their success over a period of a time. If someone could show me, for example, that a majority of the kids whose parents' got in through quotas are getting in through the open category now again controlling for other factors, I would consider that a valid argument.

Falstaff said...

Veena: I thought you were putting a post on this at some point?

I agree with much / most of what you say. Three things though:

a) On the Tam land cut-offs, I think we need to be careful that we're looking at averages for genuinely poor students vs. general category, not averages for students from rich 'backward classes'. Another empirical question that can't be answered as of now.

b) On the IIT coaching bit - remember that you're not just arguing that coaching is necessary, you're also arguing that coaching is necessary but adds no value to subsequent performance. Frankly I have no idea (and I've never understood why anyone would WANT to be an engineer anyway :-)), but I still think the solution should be a combination of providing access to quality coaching and affirmative action in admissions, not reservations.

c) I've been trying not to get into this, but: without fixing the primary school system overall, you still have a serious discrimination problem, because you're now creating sub-sections of the poor who are being unfairly discriminated against in favour of other sections of the poor. I don't have a problem with that per se, but I think it would be legitimate to ask the following question: if high quality government schools exist, shouldn't we be providing merit-based access to those schools to all sections of the poor. As opposed to only those who happen to live next door? so logically, you could end up with quotas in good primary schools for poor kids from neighbourhoods that don't have good primary schools and / or can't afford to send their kids to the good ones. It's an infinite loop, and exactly the same arguments apply. I know it may sound trivial now, but it's a good illustration why trying to hijack existing institutions without building new ones is a poor strategy.

Also, wait, the boy gets you to type up his comments? Hmm..maybe there is something in this marriage thing after all.

meditativerose said...

a. For people giving the the 96% vs. 94% TN example (or was it 94 vs. 92), please note that cut is on caste, not economic status. Since the vast majority of TN population belongs to lower castes (13% Brahmins and other upper castes, 67% backward castes, 20% SC/ST), I find it easier to believe that students from BCs who end up in top engg colleges are from higher income sections of those castes (someone said he finds it tough to believe there aren't 2-400 people from lower casted who can almost make the cut - given this population distribution, I find it even tougher to believe there aren't 2-400 people from economically well-off lower caste families who almost make the cut, thus crowding out low income, lower caste students). Also, remember each time you offer admission to a BC student who scores 94%, you are pushing out an upper caste student who has scored 95.9% - it is interesting and intriguing that this doesn't factor in to any significant extent in all this discussion - esp unjust if economic status is similar.
b. If you don't think institutions can be trusted to do AA, or it's too difficult to implement (which I buy, if we have solely exam score based admissions), other mandated solutions can be put in place, which aid diversity while limiting the erosion of standards. Several people have talked about adding, say 2% points to a candidate's score - that's infinitely better, and simple enough to do, and does hold the beneficiaries to some absolute academic standards. If this hasn't been implemented in the past, is forcing reservations a way to 'punish' these institutions, their alumni, and current students? If a better solution exists, how on earth is it better to devote resources to push through an inferior one? Note I am not comparing investment in primary education here - that is clearly essential, but needs tons more time and investment. I am comparing a worse stopgap measure to a less worse one.

Veena said...

Falstaff: In Tamil, there's a saying about the stupidity of grinding flour thats already been finely grounded. I decided against making a post since thats all it will be. Plus I will have to fight with some hazaar people. Lost all enthu :)

MR: On the unjustness of pushing out an upper caste student who scored 95% - I am not sure that this is a cost that people don't necessarily take into consideration. It is unfair is a given. The boy and I were just discussing this today morning - however unfair it is, both of us agreed that a poor black student is somehow more eligible than a poor white student if there's only a marginal diff in their scores. It is unfair but it is a cost I am willing to live with. I do understand however that not everyone thinks this way and while I see their point, it is clear which side I am on.

Falstaff said...

MR: And then you wonder why people think you're all analytical and cold and heartless :-).

Veena: "Finely grounded". Nice.

Two quick comments / clarifications - first, on the valid test that you were talking about in your earlier post - just so we're clear, the right test is to see whether the probability of getting into a top engineering school through the unreserved category for children who's parents benefited from reservation / affirmative action is significantly (in a statistical sense) higher than the equivalent probability for children of comparable parents who didn't benefit from the reservation. Just the fact that majority of kids of people who got reservation are getting in unreserved isn't enough.

Second, it's important to keep in mind that when we (or at least I) talk about 2% / 5% differences I mean that in percentile terms; not in marks. Actually, to be perfectly clear I mean that in % of the percentile of unreserved admissions. So, if the top 1% of all students get into an institute, I'd be okay if students in the 98.9 - 99th percentile who were from backward classes got in. I have no idea how that maps into % of board marks - for all I know a difference between 92 and 94% could be equivalent to a 5% gap on a percentile basis. And if we're talking about schools that take the top 0.1% of all candidates, then a 5 percentile gap is HUGE.

Veena said...

Falstaff: Agree on first point. Thats what I meant though I guess I never put it that way.

On 2). Am not so sure. Say, in the board exams you score 96 and I score 94, all it means is that I got two questions wrong than you. As long as we are only measuring the loss in merit/aptitude/whatever, it is always 2 regardless of whether there were 5 people between you and me or 500. However, if you are talking about the cost of being unfair to these other 500 people, then you are right - we should consider percentile.

MR: Since you are all so analytical and stuff, I feel like I need to explain this in your language. :) To clarify, when I said that a poor black student is more eligible than a poor white student, all I was doing was to give him extra points for:
1) diversity he is going to introduce in the campus and
2) fighting against more odds(racial discrimation that he would have faced, would have to face) than the ones that the other guy was up against

meditativerose said...

Veena - I have issue with the rich (or middle class) BC kid getting in with a 94%, not a poor one. I think the poor one doesn't stand a chance because he hasn't had a decent primary education. I couldn't find data on income distributions for BCs in TN, but anecdotal evidence as well as the population distribution seems to indicate to me that there are probably a sustantial number of higher income BCs around - and they would soak up most reserved seats.
Re the 'getting two questions wrong issue' - that means that the evaluation system is faulty. Fixing that is a separate issue, but for now, if we've accepted that that's the rule that's going to be applied, it doesn't change any of the other arguments.
And I said unjust, not unfair. Unfair is someone cutting in line in front of me at the airport. Unjust is my being denied opportunities because of the family I was born into.

Veena said...

MR: Okay, unjust :)

Agree. Based on anecdotal evidence, very true that in Tamland, a good % of BC kids (atleast in my class) who came in under the reserved category were def quite well off. While I could see why their parents might have needed reservations, I couldn't see why they did. Even the people who are staunchly pro-reservations(as long as they are sane) do seem to acknowledge that the system which puts the rich BC over the poor OC is unjust. The whole talk of creamy layer exclusion if implemented properly is their answer to that.

meditativerose said...

Fair enough. Will you still talk to me now?

Veena said...

We bleeding heart liberals can't bear the thought of not speaking to anyone - even if they happen to be cold, analytical WSJ-reading freemarket evangelists :)

camelpost said...

It will be wiser for the government to offer the best of education from primary education and make them face the world rather than give them feel of artificial security by reservation.

Naam Arjun Raknewala sab Yudh nahi jeeet saktein
aur IIT IIM koi Kurushetra bi nahi hein
Na is Arjun ke paas koi Krishn bhi hai
Paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya Sathuskratham
Dharma samsdha banarthaya sambavami yuge yuge
Tora Tora Tora

Abi said...

Just wanted to post a link to the entry on Affirmative Action over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It's reasonably comprehensive.

In particular, the stuff about university education (in sections 5 - 9) is great.

Falstaff said...

abi: Thanks. Great stuff.

Incidentally, if you're interested in this stuff - have you seen the Education Resources Information Centre (ERIC) website ( They have some good stuff on this - see Melvina Noel's 1997 piece on Three Approaches to Affirmative Action in Higher Education (ED 414780), as well as a long report from the Harvard Civil Rights project edited by G. Orfield (ED 456190)

camelpost said...

The Choice is Clear:

The terminology to refer handicapped persons have been changed to Physically challenged persons. Why cannot the SC ST BC OBC XYZ be called Economically challenged persons. That will atleast give an apparent feeling of casteless society. The other suggestion is categorize society into BPL and APL meaning Below Poverty Line and Above Poverty Line and tax the APL to pay for BPL. There are thousand intelligent ways of addressing the problem and one idiotic way i.e reservation based on caste lines.

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