As the heated political debate following the Supreme Court judgment upholding the 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) has almost settled now, we look at the empirical basis of the quota. The simple question that we examine here is whether the EWS quota is backed by evidence. To answer this, we look at the principal justification for the EWS quota and whether the available evidence justifies it.
The Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill claims that the EWS from the general category have largely remained excluded in higher education institutions due to their financial incapacity. Thus, exclusion or under-representation in higher education is the primary justification for the EWS quota. And so, we examine the available evidence to ascertain the extent of representation of EWS from the general category in higher education institutions.
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To do this, we developed a novel data base of higher education institutions which were ranked under the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). We compare the representation of EWS students in 457 higher education institutions in 2019, just before the EWS quota was introduced, and in 528 institutions ranked in 2022, the latest year for which data are available. We arrived at these numbers after removing the duplications, as some institutions are ranked in several categories. For example, if an institution was ranked in both the ‘engineering’ and ‘universities’ categories, we included it only in the latter category as the former is a subset of the latter.
Do the NIRF data provide the proportion of EWS students studying in these premier higher educational intuitions? Not directly. Instead, the data enable us to estimate the share indirectly. In its data submission format, the NIRF asked the participating education institutions to provide details of the number of currently enrolled ‘economically backward students’ defined as “students whose parental income is less than taxable slab”. To avoid duplication, the format specifies that the economically backward students should be treated as a separate category and not be counted in the socially backward categories, and vice versa.
The taxable slab of parental incomes corresponds closer to ₹8 lakh, the income cut-off to avail of the EWS quota. The Ajay Bhushan Pandey Committee, appointed to examine the EWS income criteria, argues that “considering that the currently effective income tax exemption limit is around ₹8 lakh for individuals, the committee is of the view that the gross annual income limit of ₹8 lakh for the entire family would be reasonable for inclusion into EWS”. Hence, these economically backward students can be considered the reasonable proxy for the EWS students from the general category.
The curious case of EWS
The NIRF 2019 data suggest that EWS students constituted 19% in the NIRF-ranked higher education institutions, whereas students from socially backward groups (Scheduled Castes/Tribes/Other Backward Classes) formed 39%. The proportion of EWS students was higher in colleges (28%) and lower in medical institutes (2%). This variation was equally applicable for socially backward students: 47% in colleges and just 3% in management institutions. Surprisingly, the proportion of EWS students declined from 19% in 2019 to 15% in 2022, three years after the implementation of the EWS quota, but it remains well above the 10% quota.
These higher education institutions comprise both private and government-funded public institutions and therefore require a disaggregated analysis. The share of EWS students in 218 public higher education institutions and 239 private institutions stood at 19% and 20%, respectively, in 2019. The corresponding share in 2022 is 17% and 13%. Thus, despite being outside the purview of the EWS reservation policy, the share of EWS students is more than 10% in the private NIRF-ranked higher education institutes. The share of socially backward students in private institutions stood at 36% in 2019; it remains unchanged in 2022. Within public institutions, the share of EWS students in centrally funded elite institutions such as the IITs and IIMs was 21%; in 2019; it has dropped to 16% in 2022.
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Well above the quota
This shows that EWS students are not excluded or under-represented in premier higher education institutes. An analysis of the Periodic Labour Force Survey data of 2019 also confirms the above pattern. Employing the insight offered by the Palma ratio, a policy-relevant inequality measure, we have trifurcated households into bottom 40% (the poor); middle 50% (middle class); and top 10% (the rich). We consider here only the poor households, as the EWS quota is meant for the poor among the general category. In the bottom 40% households, the proportion of general category, defined as ‘non-SC/ST/OBCs’, is 18%. About 20% of 18-25-year-olds from the general category from the poor 40% households have enrolled in higher education institutions. To put this differently, they constitute about 24% of all students enrolled from the bottom 40. Similarly, close to 20% of 22-29-year-olds from the general category from the bottom 40 have completed graduation or above. Here too, their share constitutes more than their population share in the bottom 40.
It is thus clear that the share of EWS from the general category in higher education institutions is well above 10%. The available evidence goes against both the justification and the objective of the EWS reservation policy.
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