A Review of Quotas in University Admissions

Photo courtesy Vikalpa

My good friend Somapala Gunadheera has made some thoughtful observations (The Island, 10 Sept 2012) on the problems of University admissions, and noted that in my “ Tamil Language Rights in Sri Lanka”( CPA, April 2012) I had not suggested ways and means of solving them. My analysis and suggestions were expressed in some publications way back in the 90s, and that is why I chose not to repeat them. But since my friend has raised the question, I will( belatedly) retrace some of what I had written then, supplemented with an outline of the historical back ground.

Jaffna youth have traditionally depended on education for employment since other avenues have been lacking in comparison with other districts. Since Sinhala Only in 1956, Tamil speakers have had even more problems than previously in finding employment. They have responded with even greater focus on education and on acquiring superior academic and professional qualifications, especially in fields such as Medicine and Engineering in which such qualifications virtually guarantee employment. Thus the proportions of Tamil youth entering the Medical and Engineering university faculties progressively increased, posing political problems for the Government. In particular the intake from Jaffna, which has long had a disproportionate number of very good secondary schools was very high. The political problem came to a head in 1970 -71, in the first year of the newly elected Srimavo Bandaranaike administration.

A hasty (and shortsighted and irrational) decision was taken by the Cabinet of Ministers to fix different pass marks to students of different ethnic groups so as to achieve an acceptable ethnic mix in University admissions in 1971. This was blatantly racist.  Predictably, the impact on Sri Lankan Tamils was traumatic, and a small section of Tamil youth took to armed rebellion. This “solution” was also widely critisised by educationists at home and abroad. Modifications were therefore introduced in subsequent years, for intakes in those years, but those schemes were also defective and, in any case, the damage done could not be undone. It was first sought to give a veneer of pseudo respectability by introducing what was called “linguistic standardization” which was again ethnic discrimination but in disguise. No educational or egalitarian or affirmative action / reverse discrimination principle was served. What it did serve was to instigate a serious of anti-Tamil pogroms culminating in a very bloody civil war which, with interruption, extended to 24 years (1985-2009), with a death toll of many tens of thousands, mostly of non-combatants.

Under “linguistic standardization”, Sinhalese ( Sinhala medium) students of all socio economic classes and in all schools gained privileged admissions to Medical, Engineering and some other faculties at the expense of Tamil and Muslim (Tamil medium) students of all socio economic classes and in all schools. This scheme was just as racist as the  1971 scheme. It would be an obscene travesty to describe as affirmative action / reverse discrimination a scheme that gives a step up to the child of senior Sinhalese professionals in the Sinhalese stream at Royal or Visakha or Trinity over a Tamil or Muslim child of estate laborers or slum dwellers purely on the basis of language medium.  Whereas under affirmative action / reverse discrimination the under privileged would get a step up over the privileged, under linguistic standardization, as in the  above example the reverse may take place.

What is affirmative action / reverse discrimination? Its objective is to give a step up to the under privileged and /or  the victims of discrimination with a view to compensate for the deprivation and/or discrimination. In India quota reservations are constitutionally prescribed for Untouchables/ Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. For lack of space I will not spell out here the relevant sections of the Indian Constitution. In the USA preferences are mandated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, however, does not expressly prescribe quotas nor identify the beneficiaries. In a land mark ruling the then Indian Chief Justice A. N. Ray affirmed that “Equality of opportunity for unequals can only mean aggravation of inequality. Equality of opportunity admits discrimination with reason” (State of Kerala v N.M.Thomas, 1976). In the USA, in a landmark judgment, Supreme Court Justice Harry A.Blackmun claimed that “ … in order to treat some person equally we must treat them differently”(Bakke v Regents of California, 1978). These quotations, approvingly cited in my book “Discrimination with Reason? The Policy of Reservations in the United States, India and Malaysia”, Oxford University Press, 1997, set out the essence of affirmative action / reverse discrimination.

What Sri Lanka now has is District Quotas, also unsatisfactory in that it has no rational basis and is divisive on several counts, but an improvement on “linguistics standardization” in that it is not overtly racist. What has not been tried out is any solution based on affirmative action/ reverse discrimination. Those of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes and Schedule Tribes in India , and Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and few other categories  in the USA have claims to affirmative action /reverse discrimination to compensate for current discrimination as well as the cumulative impact of centuries of past discrimination. In Sri Lanka the major ethnic categories, with the possible exception of “Plantation Tamils”, cannot claim such benefits. Numerically smaller categories such as Veddahs,Rodiyas and a few “Untouchable” castes among Tamils may claim such benefits but these claims are not as compelling as those in India. There could be a case for reserving small numbers of places in Sri Lankan Universities for children of such categories.  But in any case being located in “backward areas” cannot generate such claims unless such privileges are tied to agreements to return to those areas after graduation to teach in under privileged schools with the view to progressively erasing such backwardness. In effect, since there are privileged schools in every district and the elite of those districts send their children to those or other privileged schools elsewhere, it is they who benefit from quotas outside Colombo and Jaffna rather than the most backward in those districts. Thus District Quotas help the rural elite at the expense of the urban underclass. Moreover, the markup for some Districts is  so high that within each class in the Universities the disparity between students is unduly large.

In India and the USA, a disproportionate share of affirmative action/ reverse discrimination benefits are appropriated by the elite of the disadvantaged communities. In fact those countries have attempted to exclude benefits from such elite by prescribing socio economic cut off criteria, but this proved to be cumbersome and unworkable. In India since the caste system continues to operate even among those converted to Christianity, they too enjoy quota benefits. But among Tribals, since converts to Christianity gain privileged access to good Christian schools, Christian Tribals were appropriating a disproportionate share of the Tribal quota benefits. For this and other reasons the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Tribals who convert to Christianity cease to be eligible for quota benefits.

Under the currently prevailing district quotas scheme, the under privileged everywhere in Sri Lanka suffer multiple  disadvantages of socio economics backwardness, poor schooling as well as the bulk of the district quotas being appropriated by the privileged of those districts. Their situation is made worse by the fact that the children of the underclass to which they belong are virtually excluded from admission to “good schools” to which children of privileged classes find easy access.

It is not possible to compensate for all handicaps. Moreover, most handicaps are difficult to define in terms of objective criteria. For example, if the parents are illiterate or if the situation at home is not conducive to children advancing in their studies, those handicaps are real but not easily quantifiable in terms of objective criteria and are therefore difficult to compensate for. But one handicap that is both real and definable in objective terms is the quality of schooling. Perhaps quotas can be justified if they are based on objective criteria related to a measure of the quality of schooling. It is also conceivable to use socio-economic criteria, but these would be highly subjective, especially in countries like Sri Lanka where most people are in the unorganized sector in which even the rich escape paying income tax. Our scheme may need to depend solely on an objective grading of schools.

For example schools may be graded 1,2,3,4 and 5 on the basis of the average of the last three (or four) years of admissions to university faculties. The total of  the marks scored by a student at the university entrance examinations can be increased by 10,20,30 and 40 respectively for those attending schools graded 2,3,4and 5 respectively. This ranking could vary from faculty to faculty since some schools may be good in Maths science, others in Bio science, etc. The ranking may also change gradually from year to year as schools improve or decline in respect of each discipline. This scheme has several important advantages. The grading is objective, transparent and any student or parent can understand it. It also addresses real disparities (unlike district quotas and linguistic quotas) in a meaningful manner. Further, the step up a child receives is modest so that there is no glaring disparity within each university class as under the current district quotas scheme. Moreover, since the step up is modest the incentive for each school to upgrade itself is not undermined; nor is it likely to provoke a negative backlash of resentment. It is a scheme such as this that can successfully replace the district quotas scheme   that now prevails. But a scheme such as this may not be acceptable to the  elite outside Colombo and Jaffna among whom Ministers and Members of Parliament are well represented and who are well served by the district quotas scheme. Perhaps this is why the District Quotas Scheme continued to prevail despite the protests of the Colombo elite, who also enjoy some political clout, and of the Jaffna elite and the underclass everywhere, who remain powerless.

  • the way of the dodo

    At least in colombo, the schools that send the most number of students to Universities aren’t necessarily filled with super rich people’s kids. Schools like Royal, Ananda, Visaka are largely made up of entrants from the year 5 scholarship. The vast majority of these students are from lower middle or middle class families. Therefore, your affirmative action policy is simply discriminating against kids that do well in the year 5 exam.

  • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

    Suppose there are two kids, one with a below average IQ of 90, studying at Royal College, and another with an above average IQ of 180, studying at CWW Kannangara Madhyama Maha Vidyala. Suppose that according to some accepted metric, Royal College is given 15 points and CWW 10 points.

    Since we are talking about equal opportunities, there’s no reason to not take IQs into the equation. The one with higher IQ will always have more opportunities all else being equal. None of the kids had any say in the level of their intelligence so there’s no real difference between an environmental factor and IQ.

    So we take both IQs and the points given to the schools.

    Kid 1 = 90 * 15 = 1,350
    Kid 2 = 180 * 10 = 1,800

    So in this case, kid 2, who has a higher IQ and higher points, will be asked to get more marks at the examination than kid 1, because he’s more privileged than kid 1.

    If there is a fair and objective way to measure IQ, there is no reason that this kind of system should not be used university admissions. People do not work for their intelligence. They are born with it. It’s not something that they can change. So its just like any other environmental factor.

    Then what about hard work? The ability to work hard is also largely influenced by genes. Some people have higher metabolism rates and are more active than others. Again, this is not something they can control. So you have to factor that as well.

    The end result is, whenever you are using a quota system, you will always end up being unfair to some. It’s just inevitable. But to reduce that unfairness, you have to take as many variables as possible into the equation. Simply taking one or two variables, such as district and college, is not going to be enough to make it work. You might end up making the system even worse than it was before the quota system was introduced.

    But then the problem with a complex quota system (other than the people who messed up Z-scores won’t able to handle it) is that people will always find ways to manipulate the system. This is why I reject quota systems in general. Quota systems give too much power to administrators, which will always lead to corruption.

  • Navin

    In all these articles where language based standardization is criticized as a racist act by GoSL, none mention the context under which it was introduced.

    “The crux of the problem was that the indigenous Tamils who constituted 11.1% of the population—as distinct from the Indian Tamils of the plantation areas had for years enjoyed a predominant position in the faculties of science, engineering and medicine of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya and Colombo. This was partly a result of their higher rate of literacy in English and of the excellent facilities for education in science in the schools of the Jaffna district from which many of them entered the universities. In 1970, for instance, the Tamils had just over 35% of the admissions to the faculty of science; in engineering and medicine it was as high as 45%.” — Affirmative Action Policies: The Sri Lankan Experience, K M de Silva.

    Some Tamils even today suggest that what the government should have done was to develop schools in rest of the country and let the Sinhalese students compete with Tamil students which would have taken good 10-15 years! Less said the better how selfish such arguments are.

    No matter which standardization scheme is adopted some students even after working hard will get left out. Then the argument should be how to improve the scheme and not for complete merit based admission.

    When student population is so skewed that in extremely competitive fields like Engineering and Medicine, almost half the students come from approx. 10% of the population, then something has to be done and promptly too. Unfortunately, even prominent Tamil academics like Prof. Hoole write about standardization without mentioning figures on the context standardization was first introduced.

    People should not correlated lower performance with lower talents. Today India, a country with 4 times the population of USA, can barely score 1 gold at Olympics! Does this mean Indians are incompetent at Sports?

    Yet we see so often Tamils posting that Sinhalese are genetically backward compared to Tamils or Tamils are more intelligent, hard working and enterprising than Sinhalese.

  • Safa

    Welcome back ground views.

    In my opinion the best solution would be to do away with this discriminatory system and allow merit to be the only criteria. Safequards can be introduced for disadvantaged areas as a quota based on marks exceeding a minimum level. Such quotas should be across the board and free from racial or religous undertones.

    The country has suffered due to the present system due to which talented children are deprived of higher education simply because the live in towns and cities or attend good schools. Govt should ensure that there is at least one grade 1 school with maximum facilities in each major town in order to level the playing field.

    • Safa

      Safequards can be introduced for disadvantaged areas as a quota based on marks exceeding a minimum level.

      This should read disadvantaged families (based on income levels)

      • Dr.Nesiah

        Response of Devanesan Nesiah
        Safa
        The problems I see with your suggestion are :
        1) There is so much disparity entrenched in the system that we cannot expect even the most effective reform measures to level the playing field in the near future . In the short run some Reverse Discrimination is needed. I agree that District Quotas are not the answer.
        2) Unfortunately incomes are very difficult to ascertain, especially in the case of those self-employed or employed in the informal sector. These categories make up the majority in our country. Thus an employee in the modern sector earning barely above the poverty line may get caught up for income tax but a person in the informal sector with the much higher income not reflected in any audited account book may escape paying income tax. This problem prevails in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
        No scheme of Reverse Discrimination can take care of all handicaps, but a scheme of Reverse Discrimination based on the grading of schools on transparently objective criteria could compensate for disparity in the quality of schooling, which may be the most important impediment to creating a level playing field.

  • Dr.Nesiah

    Nesiah’s response to the way of the dodo
    I did not say that schools that sent the most number of students to universities are filled with the super rich. But I dispute your claim that students in school like Royal, Ananda and Visaka are largely entrants from Year 5 scholarships. If they are of low middle class, you would expect them to walk or bus to school, not travel in private motor cars. A statistical investigation or even a visit to those schools at school opening or school closing time will settle this issue.
    I agree that Year 5 scholars are better represented at Royal, Ananda, and Visaka etc than in slum, estate and remote village schools. This is because Year 5 scholars have a choice and those schools are obliged to accept them. But the rest of the intake in to those schools is disproportionately upper middle class because those children get preferential admission to those schools which provide them with better access to the most competitive University faculties. In the case of some of those privileged schools, like Royal and Visaka, other rules like area preference and preference for children of passed pupils also facilitate such disparity.
    Under the scheme that I proposed, most Year 5 scholars may opt for nearby “middle grade” schools with less transport costs and less social disorientation but without compromising their career prospects. A further benefit for the education system is at the quality of the students entering such “middle grade” schools will improve through greater intake of Year 5 scholars, thus reducing the gap between such schools and Royal, Ananda, Visaka etc.
    Nesiah’s response to sharanga
    Firstly, I conceded that all disparities cannot be compensated for. Second, I do think that superior I.Q. should, in the national interest, be a factor in admission to the most competitive University faculties; the problem is that there is no objective measure of I.Q. Third, I am not sure that I.Q. is fully determined at birth by our genes alone. Like many other abilities it could be upgraded through training and optimum use or degraded through abuse and disuse. Fourth, I agree that a complicated quota system will permit manipulation and that is why I suggested a simple, transparent system that anyone can understand.
    Since no objective measure of I.Q., capacity for hard work etc are available, all these arguments are hypothetical. I agree with you that since there are many relevant variables, correcting for one or two will not eliminate injustice and, in exceptional cases, may even aggravate injustice. All we can do is to attempt to reduce injustice in a majority of cases.
    Nesiah’s response to Navin
    I conceded at the outset that there were real political problems that led to the introduction of a quota system, and also that I do prefer some adjustments of the raw marks. I also grant that there is no correlation of I.Q. with ethnicity, i.e. no ethnic group is more or less intelligent than any other. What I proposed was designed precisely to achieve what you have recommended- to improve the scheme with no claim that it is perfect. Simplicity and transparency are essential to prevent manipulation by those operating system.
    Nesiah’s response to Citizen
    There is much in what you say but this is and will remain our country, and Tamils (and Muslims and many other ethnic groups) will remain a minority. What we need to do is to attempt to reduce discrimination. This requires cooperation with other ethnic groups and forming coalitions with others with similar objectives.

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Dr Devanasen Nesaiyah,

    You say “A hasty (and shortsighted and irrational) decision was taken by the Cabinet of Ministers to fix different pass marks to students of different ethnic groups so as to achieve an acceptable ethnic mix in University admissions in 1971. This was blatantly racist”

    I am in complete agreement with the above statement subject to the following correction.

    Standardisation of University Entrance was introduces in 1970 and was based on the Mother Tongue (not different ethnic groups as stated). It was replaced by the District quota system in 1974.

    You also say that “Predictably, the impact on Sri Lankan Tamils was traumatic, …..

    The above statement is misleading as it affected ONLY a minority of the Sri Lankan Tamils and not the Sri Lankan Tamil Polity as a whole as conveyed. The reason why I say this will be apparent when the changes are studied in chronological order as the system continued to evolve and by 1981 was a far cry from the blatantly racist system that it was, in 1970.

    It is indeed strange to observe, the MAJORITY of Tamils in SL, OPPOSING changes to this system in 1981, if it remained discriminatory towards the Tamils by that time.

    Why was the TRUTH withheld?

    In 1981 the Tamils from the districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara—in short, all Tamils except those from the Jaffna district OPPOSED a proposal to change the system and wanted the system to continue.

    The Jaffna Tamils are only a small minority of the SL Tamil Polity and cannot and should not be passed off as representing the SL Tamil Polity, as done very deceptively by your statement.

    This deception of projecting the Jaffna Tamils as the majority of the SL Tamil polity has been going on for a long time to the detriment of the Sri Lankan Polity as a whole. When such deception is practised by senior members of SL Civil Society, the damage done to reconciliation becomes difficult to repair.

    You are also guilty of misrepresentation and leading the reader deceptively to an erroneous conclusion by omitting the Chronology of the changes that took place since 1970.

    1970 – Standardisation by media introduced. Students to science-based courses were admitted on the basis of separate pre-determined minimum mark levels applicable to each of the three language media.

    1971 – The principle of standardisation of marks was extended from language medium to subjects as well.

    1974 – The principle of district quotas was introduced for the first time. Eligible students were classified according to the administrative districts from which they had taken the GCE (A/L) examination. Students were selected in the order of merit of standardised marks. The number of places available for each course of study was allocated to the districts in proportion to their general population.

    1976 – 70% of the places in each course were filled according to the order of merit on an all island basis as determined by the standardised marks obtained at the GCE (A/L) examination. The remaining 30% were filled on a district basis.
    – The concept of “educationally under-privileged districts” was introduced in this year and one-half of the places to be filled on the district basis i.e. 15% of the total number of places was reserved for students from 10 districts classified as being “educationally underprivileged”
    These districts were:
    1. Ampara 2. Anuradhapura 3. Badulla 4. Hambantota 5. Mannar 6. Monaragala 7. Nuwara Eliya 8. Polonnaruwa
    9 Trincomalee 10. Vavuniya

    1978 – Standardisation was abandoned and the new government decided that admission would be on the basis of raw marks as was the practice prior to 1970. It also decided that a student who would have gained admission to the University had there been a standardisation of marks should not be deprived of such admission owing to the
    abolition of standardisation. The number of underprivileged districts was increased to 11 with the inclusion of the Batticaloa district to the category.

    1979 – Government decided that admission should be made only on the basis of raw marks and that the places available in 1979 should be filled according to the following formula:
    (a) 30% of the places in each course of study were to be filled on an all island merit basis.
    (b) 55% of the places in each course of study were to be allocated to the 24 administrative districts in proportion to their respective populations and filled on a district merit list.
    (c) The remaining 15% of the places in each course of study were to be allocated, in proportion to their respective populations, to 12 administrative districts deemed to be “educationally underprivileged” These students were also chosen on a district merit list.
    These districts were:
    1. Ampara 2. Anuradhapura 3. Badulla 4. Batticaloa 5. Hambantota 6. Mannar 7. Monaragala 8. Mullaitivu 9. Nuwara Eliya 10. Polonnaruwa 11. Trincomalee 12. Vavuniya

    1980 – The number of underprivileged districts was increased to 13 with the inclusion of the Puttalam district.

    1985 – The government decided to change the district and underprivileged district quota as follows:
    (a) the national merit quota to remain at 30%
    (b) to increase the district quota from 55% to 65%, and
    (c) to reduce the under-privileged district quota to 5% from 15% and also to reduce the number of such districts to 5 from 13. The underprivileged districts were: 1. Ampara 2. Badulla 3. Hambantota 4. Mannar 5. Mullaitivu (KMDS)

    In late 1981 a new formula was announced for 1982-83. The principle recommended was a two-tier system in which 40% of all students were chosen on the basis of the highest aggregates attained at the examination on a country-wide basis; a second tier was to be chosen on the highest aggregates achieved at a district level. The 60% of students so chosen would come in at a lower level than the 40% who were on the wider “merit list”—the aggregates of the former category of students varied greatly from district to district. The 15% special allocation for educationally backward areas was to be eliminated. The proposal to abolish the latter allocation was received with relief by critics of the system who argued that the pendulum had swung too far towards the “underprivileged” districts. However, Ministers and MPs representing the latter districts put up a spirited defence and succeeded in preventing the introduction of the new scheme. In the election years of 1982 and 1983, the government preferred to let the existing system continue rather than persist with a change which had brought together, in defence of the 15% allocation, an extraordinary coalition of forces. Naturally, Sinhalese from rural areas led the campaign, but they had the support of the Tamils from the districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara—in short, all Tamils except those from the Jaffna district—and the Muslims as a whole. Thus the system of district preferences, introduced originally as a temporary device, survived into the late 1980s, and indeed to the present day. (KMDS)

    Standardisation was introduced by a Muslim Minister of Education Mr Badi Uddin Mohamad and another Muslim minister Mr A.C.S. Hameed prevent further reform in 1987. Reform of standardisation was also opposed by the Muslims (Moors and Malays) and the Indian Tamils. This shows that the other Ethnic Minorities were Pro standardisation.

    From 1978 onwards Sri Lanka’s university admissions policy changed from one of ethnic preferences to one of regional preferences in favour of rural areas -–without regard to ethnicity or religion. (KMD Silva)

    The Moors-Malays saw their number of admissions to scientific courses double between 1970 and 1975 (KMDS)

    Here is an observation from T. Sabaratnam, an ethnic Tamil, who wrote LTTE Terrorist leader Pirapaharan’s biography.

    “The district quota system that came into effect by the end of 1974 introduced the scheme whereby 30 percent of the students were admitted to the university on the basis of merit and 55 percent on the basis of district quota, with the balance 15 percent of the places reserved for backward districts.
    The district quota system, though detrimental to the students from the Jaffna district, benefited Tamils living in other Tamil districts. In 1974 Jaffna’s share of university admission shrank to 7 percent, roughly equal to its population ratio. This system benefited students from Vanni, Batticoloa, Trincomalee, and Ampara. It was under the district quota systems that the first student from Kilinochchi entered the university.”

    It should be noted that the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination by which an under privileged student is awarded a scholarship to enter a Privileged National School is separated by the two media streams Sinhalese and Tamil. The qualifying aggregate mark is HIGHER for the Sinhala stream and LOWER for the Tamil stream.

    Hence today, a Tamil medium student will obtain entry to a Premier National School with LOWER marks than a Sinhalese student.

    K.M.D. Silva was a critic of the policies introduced in 1970. He was a member of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and its Vice-Chairman. He chaired an official committee in 1987 which investigated the impact of these policies on the Sri Lankan University system, He left the UGC in 1989 and again chaired another official committee in 1993 that investigated the impact of these policies. He is hence, an authority on the subject.

    The above is a re-edited version of my original response posted on 4th October at the following link, which unfortunately does not appear due to the repairs that had to be carried out by the tech staff to bring GV, back online.
    http://groundviews.org/2012/10/04/a-review-of-quotas-in-university-admissions/#comment-49071

    • Dr.Nesiah

      Off the Cuff
      You are wrong about the admission scheme in1970/71. In that year a quick ad hoc decision was taken to set different pass marks for the different ethnic groups. Since this was based on political expediency and not on any educational or egalitarian principle, the scheme was kept secret, as also the various schemes in subsequent years. As you may be aware, only a selected few high ups in the Education Ministry ( and a few who these high ups confided in ) were aware of the scheme. In such cases, secrecy leads to corruption. Though more than 40 years passed, the admission details over these years have remained under wraps. Since in the early years the scheme was based on ethnic and not district quotas, all Tamils were badly affected, not just Jaffna Tamils. In fact large proportions of the youth who took to arms were from the Eastern districts as well as from Jaffna. At that stage the quality of schooling available to “Estate Tamils” was so poor that admission to University education was beyond their aspirations. It was so even pre 1970 /71.Their focus, apart from survival, was on access to decent schools. Now they do aspire to university education. The scheme that I have proposed will help them.
      Jaffna Tamils are not a small minority Sri Lankan Tamils. In 1970/71 the population of the Jaffna District (then extending to Kilinochchi ) was a little under one million, i.e.: about one half the total Sri Lankan Tamil population living in the North and East. If the Sri Lankan Tamil population of Colombo and the rest of the Island were assigned according to their district of origin, the proportions of the population ratios would not have changed much (may even have increased the Jaffna share slightly). One half is not a small minority, but size is of little relevance. Just as every numerically significant ethnic group has the right to internal self determination (regional autonomy) , every region or province or district or village has the right to determine what is good for it in terms of the principle of subsidiarity. Jaffna district, because of its numerical supremacy, cannot dictate to other districts of the North and East. The scheme of Reverse Discrimination that I have proposed is in keeping with this principle, extending it to the school level.
      You accuse me of Jaffna bias but produce no evidence. Pre – independence, Sri Lankan Tamil politics did have a strong Jaffna bias. This gradually eroded post – independence except within the LTTE and one or two very small parties. It is difficult to find even a trace of it in the dominant Sri Lankan Tamil party today ( the TNA) which is now led from Trincomalee. Having served three happy years each as Government Agent of Mannar (mid 1960s) and Batticaloa (late 1960s), I can speak with some confidence on this subject. I have sustained my good relations with the people of Mannar and Batticaloa even into subsequent generations with frequent visits and interactions ever since.
      Contrary to what you say, it was not standardization but a scheme of ethnic quotas that was introduced in 1970/71. What was called “linguistic standardization” followed by “ subject wise linguistics standardization” took two or three years to evolve. If not for corrupt manipulation that secrecy made possible, the Muslims and Indian Tamils and other Tamils with lower raw marks on the average than Tamils in Colombo and Jaffna would have been the worst sufferers. The discomfiture of the political leaders including the Minister of Education with a system that was politically feasible only through corrupt practices let to the introduction of District Quotas on top of linguistic standardization. The secrecy and corruption have became permanent features of the system, and on top of it there is ethnic discrimination in the guise of linguistic standardization.
      Sinhalese and Tamils children of similar socio-economic background and studying in the same school were treated differently through differences in university entry levels. This occurred at every level, from the children of top professional in the elite schools to the children of slum dwellers and estate laborers in nearby slum and estate schools. Is it not outrageous that the sons of Sinhalese professionals at, say, Trinity College have lower cut off marks for University entrance, than the children of Tamils slum dwellers and estate laborers in nearby slum and estate schools? Is this affirmative action? But since under district quotas the entry levels for Kandy are lower than for Colombo and Jaffna, the elite of Kandy gain extra benefit even over all slum dwellers of Colombo and Jaffna. Is this affirmative action?
      You confuse linguistic standardization with district quotas, and then claim that, “ It is indeed strange to observe, the MAJORITY of Tamils in SL, OPPOSING changes to this system in 1981, if it remained discriminatory towards the Tamils by that time”, and again, “In 1981 the Tamils from the districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara—in short, all Tamils except those from the Jaffna district OPPOSED a proposal to change the system and wanted the system to continue”. This is a falsehood. The Tamil people never consulted. The political elite among them, such as MPs, send their children to the best schools with Tamil medium in the districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara, and they may have benefited from district quotas more than what they lost on account of linguistics standardization. But the bulk of the poor remain excluded from access to university education for their children.
      Some of what you say of events post 1979, after standardization was abandoned and District Quotas remained may be true, but you return to falsehood by again confusing District Quotas and standardization, and by confusing pre 1981 policies and post 1981 policies when you claim that “Reform of standardization was also opposed by the Muslims (Moors and Malays) and the Indian Tamils. This shows that the other Ethnic Minorities were Pro standardization”. Linguistic Standardization could never have been backed by Tamil speaking minorities as it was completely against their interest. In contrast, District Quotas were naturally backed by those in back ward districts as it was in their interest to do so.
      The poor sections of the population of all ethnic groups, whether Sinhalese speaking or Tamil speaking, will benefit from the scheme that I proposed, much more than under District Quotas. Predictably, it will not find favor with the elite anywhere. It will also enable the veil of secrecy covering the process of University admissions to be lifted, thus under mining the corruption that accompanies secrecy.

      • Off the Cuff

        Dear Dr Devanesan Nesiah,

        My sources are Prof K. M. de Silva and T. Sabaratnam.

        The first is an authority and critic of the 1970 policies of Uni Admissions. He was a member and the Vice-Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), the APEX body responsible for Uni Admissions. He chaired an official committee in 1987 which investigated the impact of these policies. He left the UGC in 1989 but was again appointed for a second time, as the Chairman of another official committee in 1993, to investigate the impact of these policies.

        The second is an ethnic Tamil who authored Terrorist leader Prabahkaran’s biography, hence cannot be accused of being biased towards the govt or the Sinhalese, as any bias that he may have had, is towards the Tamils. The documents authored by these two writers are available on the web.

        Prof K.M. De Silva says
        “Media-wise standardisation,” to use the jargon of administrators, was a device to weight the marks of the candidates so that those qualifying for admission from each language group would be proportionate to the number who sat the examination in that language”
        (Affirmative Action in Sri Lanka, p 251)

        The 1970 policy was absolutely Racist because it was based on the LANGUAGE in which a student sat the examination. Please note that Muslims also use Tamil as their language.

        Please note that it is “Language Groups” NOT “Ethnic Groups” as stated by you (mischievously?) that had different pass marks. The Tamil Language Group includes TWO ethnicities. Hence the confusion is yours.

        I am neither wrong nor confused. You should look for confusion elsewhere.

        On the other hand, you seem to have been caught by surprise to learn that, ALL the MINORITIES (including the majority of Tamils) wanted the Status quo of the Uni Admission system that existed in 1981 kept UNCHANGED. This was the District Quota system that came in to existence in 1974.

        In 1974 the policy changed to a District Quota system and from then on it gradually won the support of ALL the minorities, as the District Quota system favoured the Educationally disadvantaged districts, irrespective of ethnicity.

        I am sorry to observe you spinning conspiracy theories without producing authoritative evidence to support what you wrote. Kindly backup your statements with authoritative references if you do have any.

        BTW. Please do your research doctor, before you accuse me of writing falsehoods. Your ignorance is not proof of it.

        • Dr.Nesiah

          Dear Off the Cuff
          I am sorry if I hurt you by accusing you of writing falsehoods. I know both Prof. K.M. de Silva and Mr. T. Sabaratnam. I have equally good sources but none as reliable as simple logic. Checkout the following in the light of logic:

          i) Could anyone have identified what “all Tamils except those from the Jaffna district wanted” without any referendum or even a survey? Is that claim made by you not suspect? If it was made by political leaders, it is equally suspect. Political leaders may claim to represent all their voters, and sometimes they do, but they may also represent their socio-economic class or their personal / family interests, depending on the issue.

          ii) Media wise standardization, in the absence of any fudging made possible (in this context made inevitable) adversely affected all Tamil medium students everywhere in the island. How can any Tamil medium students or their parents or leaders, whether Tamil or Muslim, be happy with it unless there was some personal assurance of fudging to ensure that they would be looked after? Is your claim credible?

          iii) Unlike Media wise standardization (which benefits Sinhala medium students exclusively to the detriment of Tamil Medium students, and is therefore racist), District Quotas benefit those from backward districts. If these two schemes are combined, it is difficult to say if a particular Tamil medium student from a backward district would, on balance, gain or lose. Tamil medium students from Colombo or Jaffna, even if they are from the lowest socioeconomic category and attending a school of the lowest quality, will always be losers. Is it not a travesty to call such racism Reverse Discrimination or Affirmative Action? It is interesting to note that several upper class professionals from Colombo and Jaffna send their children to schools in “backward districts” for just two or three years to qualify under the favourable quotas of those backward districts. Is such fraud not an inevitable consequence of District Quotas?

          iv) The system of university admissions that prevailed prior to 1970 was unfair to the underprivileged in that there was no Reverse Discrimination / Affirmative Action. This situation has continued ever since because none of the “reforms” since then can qualify as Reverse Discrimination / Affirmative Action. However the system that prevailed prior to1970, though unfair, was not racist in that ethnicity has counted. In the systems post 1970, ethnicity did count by way of language medium and are therefore racist to the core. The District Quota scheme by itself is not racist (unless combined with media wise standardization) but does not address any real disability and is therefore not Reverse Discrimination/Affirmative Action. The scheme that I have suggested seeks to compensate for the most important disability (quality of schooling) and also avoid racist discrimination. If you can design a scheme to address any other disabilities also but without introducing ethnic discrimination, that would be wonderful.

          v) Sadly, several leading schools in Jaffna including those headed by Christian Missioneries excluded “untouchables” till about a century ago. Since independence, there has been very little or no discrimination or exclusion on grounds of ethnicity or caste in the field of education. In contrast, in the USA race was widely used to segregate and exclude non-Whites till the 1960s. That practice was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act enacted on 10 June 1964. In India, Scheduled Castes (Dalits/Untouchables), Scheduled Tribes and Other Backwards Classes have been segregated and excluded from ancient times. This was made unlawful in the Indian Constitution enacted on 19 Nov. 1949, and the practice has greatly diminished. In the USA quotas in university admissions, employment and many other matters were introduced as a Reverse Discrimination/Affirmative Action measure till quotas were abolished by the US Supreme Court ruling in Bakke v Regents of California(438 US 265 in 1978). In India quotas for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes continue even now since they are entrenched in the Constitution. We in Sri Lanka may have no need for such drastic measures but some form of Reverse Discrimination/Affirmative Action is needed in respect of university admissions.

          vi) Your claim that Moor-Malay entry in to universities doubled between 1970 and 1975, if true, cannot possibly be on account of linguistic standardization, unless the students changed their medium of Education, or came in under District Quotas. Moors and Malays who retained their medium of instruction and stayed within the same districts could not have doubled their entry in to universities in the absence of fudging. What is needed is to enable independent researchers to study the old mark sheets (1970 onwards) and discover and publish the facts. This will surely expose much fudging/ corruption since 1970

          vii) You say that since 1979 there was no standardization. You also say that Minister A.C.S. Hameed prevented the reform of standardization in 1987. You go on to say that Muslims and Indian Tamils were against the reform of standardization in 1987. If standardization was abandoned in 1979, how could all these people have been against its reform in 1987? Is there no confusion here?

          Many interesting developments related to Affirmative Action are currently under way in the USA, but that is a subject for another entry in Groundviews in due course.