The Odisha government has recently notified 15 per cent reservation of seats for government school students in medical and technical courses. This move was based on the recommendations of the Justice AK Mishra committee, and was intended to resolve the inequity that is being seen between government and private school students in terms of enrolment to professional courses.
According to the committee report, 87 per cent of all students enrolled in government schools manage to get less than 25 per cent of the seats in medical and engineering colleges. In contrast, only 11 per cent of all students enrolled in private schools manage to get between 57-63 per cent of the seats in these courses. This indeed is a major disparity, and the government has been right to identify the problem and call it out. But, while the problem identification has been on point, the solution through reservations defeats all logic. And more preposterous is the very tenuous and ham-handed attempt to establish the causal link between the problem and the solution.
Let us try to unpack some of the concerns here. Why is it that government school students are not able to qualify for these competitive examinations? If we go by the understanding of the task force and the government, it is because of the lack of coaching facilities which is in most cases a consequence of financial duress. ‘Physical and financial’ access barriers identified by the task force is a valid reason again, but the association of these barriers just to government schools proves to be a concern. In such a case it is not the type of school, but the income or asset stability of the family of the student which should come into question. A poor but brilliant student who manages to pay the fees in a private school but does not manage additional coaching, should also be eligible for such concessions and the large heartedness of the state. Secondly, physical access barriers will continue to exist for government school students based on their location. Students from government schools located in cities will still have it better than their counterparts in district and block headquarters who will have it better than those in villages.
So, there is enough reason to speculate that the quota will not address physical barriers to coaching and will be very selectively looking at financial barriers.
Let us go one layer deeper. If economically poor private school students are not being counted as the most disadvantaged by the government, it points to the acknowledgement that the pedagogy and nature of instruction is much better in private schools as compared to government schools. And that gives an edge to the students in the former. If this is the case, then the blame squarely lies on the service providers, the business owners who are not able to provide competitive instruction to their students, despite decades of running the business. The business owner in this case is the government. The difference in the quality of instruction in government-run CBSE schools and the performance of students from the board in competitive examinations, is another clear indication of the extreme importance of the quality of instruction in this issue.
But instead of pondering on why the quality of education has deteriorated in government schools, the government has taken the easy way out and used its power to skew the market through the introduction of a quota. While the problem clearly is one of a teaching crisis in government schools, the solution is one which is in no way going to even examine the problem identified.
The shortage of teachers along with the quality of instruction in government schools has been a cause of concern across the country and not just in Odisha. The increasing number of private school enrolments also indicate a major trust deficit in parents due to the deteriorating standards of government school teachers. The lack of competition in government schools, the involvement of teachers in clerical work and the lack of adequate training for teachers are some of the key reasons behind it. The learning outcomes at lower grades show the stark difference between the quality of education being provided in government and private schools.
The Odisha government is not the first state to implement such a quota. Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Karnataka have versions of such a quota and they have been politically sound decisions to make.
Quotas as a populist measure work well to camouflage and sometimes even hide the absolute inefficacy of the government in running a business, which anyway ideally, it should not be running.
The government now can claim that this move will not only address the disparity it had identified but will also prove to be a way to increase enrolment in government schools. And all without putting in the actual effort of overhauling the quality of instruction in schools. There could be a number of things which could have been attempted, even in the short run. Scholarships, targeted coaching facilities, tailored support from earlier grades but that would require effort and commitment which is long term in nature. So reservations, are the easiest way out.
Morally, it is a dubious stand as it is not a solution, not even a temporary one. The government in this case has the unique ability to shirk responsibility and accountability, while running a business and at the same time skew the market to gain favourable outcomes. No private player has this luxury. It is due to these very reasons, that the root of the problem will continue to remain unaddressed. Treating public education as akin to discrimination and proposing affirmative action for it, does not at any level inspire confidence in the quality of the service being provided by the state.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)