When Delhi University’s Mathematics Department declared its cut-offs for PhD interviews recently, it created a furore on social media. While the minimum marks required from the qualifying examination was 94 for candidates applying under the unreserved category and 84 for Other Backward Class (OBC) applicants, there was no minimum prescribedfor Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) candidates.

As headlines announced that cut-offs had been reduced to zero for certain quotas, there was predictable outrage. The usual tropes about unmeritorious reserved category students were trotted out and angry tweets decried the injustice being meted out to the forward caste applicants.

The gap in cutoffs is representative of the gap in access to social, cultural and economic capital.

Unfortunately, nobody has bothered to ask why out of 223 applicants to the program, less than 15% were from the SC/ST category; effectively forcing the department to invite every SC/ST candidate who had taken the entrance exam to attend the interview.

Forward castes have always used the lower cut-offs for reserved seats vis-à-vis unreserved seats to argue that affirmative action is immensely unjust. But if one were to think logically, this gap in marks is exactly why we need reservations.

Many backward caste students are first generation learners from poor economic backgrounds, who can only afford sub-standard education at the school level. They lack the cultural and social capital and the command over the English language that forward caste students inherit from their parents. It is well-documented that in Indian academia, Dalit students are routinely discriminated against and Adivasi students feel marginalised due to their geographical isolation, distinctive culture, language and religion.

Pierre Bourdieu, described by the New York Times as France’s most influential intellectual, has done extensive research into the question of why upper class students tend to perform better than those from the working class. Although his work was focused on the French context, many of his conclusions make just as much sense in India. Bourdieu studied the exam that determines entrance into France’s elite “grandest ecoles” and “found that children of the upper classes were both more likely to take the exam in the first place and to use the kind of cultivated language and analytic reasoning apt to be judged favorably by examiners.”

Factors such as geographical location, fluency in the language in which textbooks are available, educational level of parents, economic and social class, the position of one’s caste group in the traditional hierarchy, and gender all play an important role in shaping a student’s academic performance and determining the opportunities available to them.

According to a report in The Hindu based on 2011 Census data, “The proportion of graduates among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is far lower than the national average; just over four per cent of the SCs are graduates or above, while for the STs, it is below three per cent, and lower still for women.”

We need to question the educational system which creates a hierarchy of premier and non-premier institutions.

In premier institutions of learning, the number of applicants for unreserved seats is fargreater than the seats available, and this competition pushes the cut-offs higher. The pool of applicants for reserved seats remains small and hence the cut-offs low. If inequality at lower levels of education suddenly disappears, the pool for reserved seats will naturally increase and so will the cut-offs. Simply put, the gap in cutoffs is representative of the gap in access to social, cultural and economic capital.

If there was no affirmative action policy, the composition of our educational institutions would have looked homogeneous, with only forward caste students populating the campuses. It is a lie that marginalised students eat up seats of the so called “meritorious” students. According to the 2011 Census, SCs and the STs comprise about 16.6% and 8.6%, respectively, of India’s population. In central-government funded higher educational institutions, SCs and STs have 15% and 7.5% reserved quotas, respectively, which is more or less proportional to their population.

While there is an annual hue and cry over how these reserved seats get filled in premier institutions like DU, JNU and the IITs and IIMs, nobody talks about the thousands of seats that go vacant every year in smaller, lesser known colleges and universities. We need to question the educational system which creates this hierarchy of premier and non-premier educational institutions — where the quality of education and the resources available differ by so much. Our goal should be to strive for an egalitarian educational system where anyone who knocks on the doors of the universities is given entry and is imparted quality education.