Grades and Politics; Critics Worry That a New Quota Law Could Derail Some of the Country's Best-Run Educational Institutions

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Byline: Sudip Mazumdar

India's rise has been built in large part on the quality of its education. Some of the best brains in the world--in the fields of science, information technology, medicine and engineering--emerge from the country's private institutions, along with the state-run Indian Institutes of Technology and Regional Engineering Colleges. While many of India's other public colleges are a mess--suffering from serious budget shortages, a lack of faculty talent and poor facilities--private institutions have been thriving. They've grown rapidly since the early 1990s, when India began to pay more attention to the market and parents began to realize the importance of a good technical education. Four of five engineering students now attend private colleges.

Now a new academic quota law has the private educational sector in an uproar and could, say some analysts, threaten the financial viability and academic integrity of many schools. Late last year, the Congress-led coalition government passed a bill that would make it mandatory for private educational institutions to reserve at least 22.5 percent of their seats for poor, minority students--including Dalits (untouchables), tribals and other lower castes.

Private schools have always made admission decisions based on academic merit, and they charge at least five to 10 times the fees at government colleges. Critics of the bill say most of the underprivileged students who will be admitted under the law probably won't meet the rigorous academic standards of the private colleges, and they will get a major discount on tuition fees. "The bill seeks to kill higher education in India," says Syed Iqbal Hasnain, vice chancellor of state-funded Calicut University in Kerala. "It will not only make the private colleges economically unviable but make their product substandard." Hasnain notes that private colleges buy land at market prices, invest large sums in facilities and hire talented faculty. "All this simply can't be [continued] if they have to set aside a chunk of their seats for poor students."

Quotas for the underprivileged and minorities were introduced into the Indian Constitution by its founding fathers to bring about social equity. (Muslims, Christians and Sikhs enjoy a different set of rights.) Political parties have since dangled the carrot of quotas to win political support. Determined to regain its prominence among groups that had defected to smaller, identity-based parties in recent years, Congress introduced a bill that no political party could possibly oppose, since it aims to benefit nearly 70 percent of India's 1. …