The writer’s article last week on fundamental rights issues in Grade 1 admissions provoked some discussion. A senior lawyer who appears in fundamental rights cases offered to appear pro bono if the circular is challenged. There may be more such lawyers.
Over the weekend, the University Grants Commission (UGC) called for applications for university admissions. The UGC handbook on admissions lays down the applicable criteria. University admissions also give rise to fundamental rights cases every year. The Z score system, clubbing together of students who sat for different syllabi and who sat for three and four subjects, have been challenged.
This piece is on the district quota. Before 1970, all university admissions were on merit alone. The admission of more Tamil medium students—compared to the percentage of Tamils in the total population—to the science-based streams evoked calls for changes in the policy. The authorities hastily introduced language-wise standardisation. For example, the cut-off mark for Sinhala-medium students entering the Medical Faculties in 1971 was 229, while it was 250 for Tamil-medium students. It is known that standardisation led to frustration among students and was one of the reasons that led to the radicalisation of Tamil youth, as much as unemployment among Sinhala youth was a major factor that led to the Southern insurrection of 1971.
Standardisation was replaced by a mix of merit-based admission and district quotas in 1974. Under a scheme introduced for the 1980 admissions by the UGC, 30% of the available places were filled on the basis of island-wide merit. 55% were allocated to the twenty-four administrative districts that existed at that time in proportion to the total population of each district, that is on the ratio of the population of the district concerned to the total population of the country. The remaining 15% of the total available seats were distributed amongst students of thirteen districts recognised as educationally disadvantaged districts. This too was allocated on the ratio of the population of each such district to the total population of the districts so recognised.
Later, admissions to the Arts stream came to be made purely on island-wide merit. The percentage taken in for all other streams based on island-wide merit was increased to 40, and the percentage reserved for disadvantaged districts reduced to 5. The total number of administrative districts is twenty-five now, of which sixteen are considered disadvantaged. They are: Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala and Ratnapura. Jaffna was added to the list after it was ravaged during the war.
In Seneviratne vs. U. G. C., the decision to fill fifty-five per cent of the vacancies in the universities for the year 1980 on the ratio of population figures in the twenty-four administrative districts was challenged. The UGC contended that it had to conform to national policy and relied on the directive principles of state policy, especially those contained in Article 27(2)(b) and (h) of the Constitution relating to ‘the promotion of the welfare of the People by securing and protecting effectively as it may, a social order in which justice (social, economic and political) shall guide all institutions of the national life’ and ‘the complete eradication of illiteracy and the assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels.’
The petitioner did not challenge the allocation of 15% of the places to disadvantaged districts. He stated in his petition as follows: “The petitioner, while accepting in principle the apportionment of 15% of available vacancies among areas with inadequate educational facilities as it does recognise merit, states that he is entitled to be considered on the basis of the aggregate marks received by him to fill 340 places (that is to say the balance places available after accounting for the 60 places reserved for educationally backward areas) without any other restriction.” The Supreme Court considered this to mean that merit cannot constitute the sole criterion for admission.
The UGC averred that the 55% reservation was imposed “to make available the limited number of places to as wide a number of qualifying candidates as possible from various parts of the country, so that access to high education provided by the State will be equitably distributed and also subserve the objectives of the national interest and policies.” It had also taken account of the fact that the application of the merit principle as the sole criterion would “confer an unfair advantage on students in the cities and towns who, by reason of their mere residence, have the advantage of better secondary educational facilities at the hands of the State.”
Delivering the opinion of the Supreme Court, Justice Wanasundera stated that the departure from the merit principle, though unfortunate, was inevitable. “The University Grants Commission has tried to act as fairly as possible in this matter and had endeavoured to distribute, on a rational basis, a percentage of seats among the great mass of residents who are handicapped—through no fault of their own—by being denied adequate teachers, laboratories and other facilities in the schools they attend.” The intention of the UGC to implement the relevant directive principles was accepted as a reasonable basis of classification.
The writer submits that the policy of distributing fifty-five per cent of the places among the various districts on the basis of their population and another five per cent among specified under-privileged districts must be done away with and a more equitable scheme adopted. While filling all places in all streams on the basis of merit is an ideal goal, disparities in opportunities in education need to be recognised. As Laski emphasised in A Grammar of Politics, the provision of adequate opportunity is one of the basic conditions of equality. “The power that ultimately counts in society is the power to utilise knowledge, and disparities of education result, above all, in disparities in the ability to use that power.”
Given the wide disparity in educational facilities even within a given district, it is against the concept of equal protection of the law for students in all schools in a district to be treated equally for the purpose of university admissions. The large majority of places allocated for a particular district would naturally go to students from the best schools. For example, schools in Puttalam district such as Zahira College and Fathima Muslim Girls School in Puttalam, St, Mary’s College, Chilaw and Holy Family Girls School and Joseph Vaz College, Wennappuwa have much better facilities compared to schools, say, in Anamaduwa and students from such schools would grab the majority of places allocated to the district. In the Matale district, most places would go to schools such as Science College, St. Thomas’ and Sanghamitta Balika. In Colombo, there are schools whose facilities are no better than schools in the remote areas of Anamaduwa and Mullaitivu. Students attending such disadvantaged schools are, to use Justice Wanasundera’s words in Seneviratne vs U. G. C., “handicapped—through no fault of their own—by being denied adequate teachers, laboratories and other facilities in the schools they attend” and should not be treated at par with students of schools having the best facilities.
In Seneviratne vs U. G. C., the petitioner admitted that there were candidates “who have been handicapped by attendance at educationally backward institutions”. Justice Wanasundera, while agreeing that the petitioner’s statement had been established beyond doubt, pointed out that it does not seem to be confined only to the disadvantaged districts. The learned Judge stated: “The statistics before us relating to staffing and facilities between the schools in the cities and towns and the schools in rural areas show such a gross discrepancy as to be distressing and disturbing.”
It is submitted that the Supreme Court should have struck down the scheme in so far as it treated all students in a particular district equally, irrespective of the staffing and facilities of schools they had attended. Once the Court had concluded that there was such gross discrepancy between schools which it found to be “distressing and disturbing”, it should not have permitted the clubbing of all schools in a given district together and treating them as equals as that is violative of equal protection guaranteed by Article 12(1) of the Constitution. The Court’s conclusion should have been followed by an order striking down the 55% rule to the extent that it treats unequals as equals and a direction to the UGC to formulate an equitable scheme that takes into account the discrepancy between the various schools. Notwithstanding that the petitioner did not challenge the 15% rule, the discrepancy that the Court found would be equally applicable to schools in the disadvantaged districts.
Equality, as Laski stated in A Grammar of Politics, does not mean identity of treatment. ‘There can be no ultimate identity of treatment so long as men are different in want and capacity and need’. Humans are unequal in strength, talent and other attributes. While some of these are natural, others are referable to the society in which they live. Some are born with advantages. Other factors and combinations of factors may favour some people and place others at a disadvantage.
As far back as the 1970s, Professor Osmund Jayaratne, renowned physicist and educationist, proposed the grading of schools and an affirmative action scheme that takes disparities among schools into account in preference to standardisation. This was at a time when district quotas had not even been thought of. True to his leftist political views, Professor Jayaratne recognised the need to treat students who attend schools lacking teachers and facilities differently from those attending popular schools. But he insisted that such measures should be limited in time and reviewed periodically.
The writer suggests that schools be categorised for the purpose of university admissions taking into account the availability of qualified teachers and facilities and other relevant criteria. Whatever percentage of places to be filled outside the merit principle must be allocated among the various categories according to an equitable proportion, after consultation with experts and obtaining the views of the public. Re-assessment of the gradings, as well as an overall assessment of the system of admissions, must be made periodically until someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when it would be equitable to decide on all admissions on the basis of merit alone.