Higher Studies at Leading Institutes – Marginalised Sections Still Kept Away

Muhammed Sabith  

Even as the country is celebrating its 75th Independence Day this month, its marginalised social groups remain far away from achieving the social justice envisaged by both the founders of the Republic and its inclusive Constitution.

Reservation was one of the ways, a very impactful tool, identified by the early Indian leaders to address structural and historical inequalities within Indian society.

However, the reservation, be it in education or in jobs, could not yet achieve any significant result, let alone complete equality with the privileged communities, by helping the most disadvantaged achieving what the elite social groups have achieved decades or even centuries ago. However, it would be wrong to argue that reservation achieved absolutely nothing. It could achieve something, but social justice.

Some latest revelations, including by the parliament, have revived the discussions around India’s marginalised communities and their quest for equal opportunities and social justice. Those revelations also call for renewed deliberations on the issues of reservation and representation.

Latest data reinforce the fact that only laws and rules cannot achieve the social justice, if it is not complemented by effective intervention by the executive, judiciary as well as the civil society.

Two important recent revelations are: 1) students from marginalised communities form significant percentage of those who discontinue their studies at country’s leading higher education institutions 2) thousands of posts reserved for marginalised communities remain vacant in top institutions of higher studies.

Marginalised struggle to survive in leading IITs

In response to a question, the Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan recently informed the Rajya Sabha that almost 63% of the undergraduate students who discontinued their studies at the top seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) over the last five years is from the reserved categories. Among these, nearly 40% were from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. In some institutions, the SC/ST students constituted 72% of the dropouts. Remember, only half of the undergraduate admissions at IITs are filled with students from disadvantaged communities.

However, according to Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, students discontinue their courses “mainly on account of securing seat in other departments or institutions of students’ choice or on any other personal ground”.

What is even more important to notice is that students coming from these communities struggle even with some support mechanism, such as, in government’s own words, “fee reductions”, “institute scholarships”, and “priority access to national level scholarships”.

According to The Hindu, “analysis of the seven IITs that stand in the top 10 of the National Institute Ranking framework shows that the disproportionality of dropouts is starker at some institutions”. IIT Guwahati is among those institutes that have the worst record, with 88% of its 25 dropouts hailing from the reserved categories. Similarly, of the 10 students who dropped out of IIT Delhi in 2018, all were from the reserved categories. In last five years, 76% of the dropouts from IIT Delhi are from the reserved categories. Out of 10 dropouts from IIT Madras during the last five years, six were SC/ST students, and another was from an Other Backward Class community.

A few months back, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth And Sports, in its report presented in the parliament, said “regardless of the umpteen number of schemes and initiatives … the share of enrolled SCs/STs still continue to be under-represented with respect to their share in the total population.”

As per the AISHE Report (2018-2019), the highest number of students is enrolled at under graduate level across India. Out of the 79.8% of the total enrolments at under graduate level, the Scheduled Caste students constitute only 14.9% and Scheduled Tribe students constitute only 5.5% of the total enrollment, the parliamentary panel pointed out. “Further, the percentage of SC/ST students enrolled in Post graduate programmes and Integrated M.Phil/Ph.Ds are not known”.

In the report, the parliamentary committee also noted that gross enrolment ratio (GER) of SC/ST student is 23.0 and 17.2 respectively compared to the national average of 26.3. The committee also observed that “in spite of various scholarships and initiatives taken up by the Department [of Higher Education] the GER of the SC/ST students has not reached to the level of national average”. The report further said that the committee “would like to reiterate that the Department should take steps to bridge the gap between the general category students and the SC/ST students and also take initiatives so that students from these sections do not leave their education in between”.

The panel said that the measures and schemes of the UGC “remain either underutilised or unimplemented”. It proposed “an outcome-based approach” in higher education sector.

As per the AISHE Report (2019-2020), Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in Higher education in India is 27.1. However, it is 23.4 and 18.0 for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, respectively. The GER is calculated among the age group of 18-23 years.

Of the total enrollment in higher education, SC students constitute 14.7% and ST students only 5.6%. While 37% students belong to Other Backward Classes, only 5.5% students are from Muslim community and 2.3% from other Minority Communities. This shows that most of the marginalised groups are grossly underrepresented, as the representation is very low for Adivasis, OBCs and Muslims, compared to their actual population.  

The UGC, on its part, says that the higher education body has devised several schemes and programmes to limit the inequality and discrimination in higher education, such as establishing centres for study of social exclusion and inclusive policy across universities and giving a one-time grant for establishing the office of the Equal Opportunity Cell/ Equal Opportunity Centre in universities/ colleges.

The EOCs are aimed at overseeing the “effective implementation of policies and programmes for disadvantaged groups, to provide guidance and counselling with respect to academic, financial, social and other matters and to enhance the diversity within the campus.”

The impacts of these initiatives remain doubtful, as noted by the parliamentary panel.

Posts reserved for disadvantaged groups remain vacant

Answering a separate question, on reserved posts for SC, ST and OBC candidates in Central Universities and Research Institutions, the Education Minister informed the parliament another shocking reality – thousands of post meant for these marginalised communities remain vacant.

He informed that 4,821 reserved posts for OBCs, 2,608 posts for SCs, and 1,344 for STs remain vacant across 45 central universities, IGNOU, IISERs and IISc. For OBCs alone, recruitment to more than 50% of the posts reserved for them didn’t take place yet.

It is not clear whether the minister was referring to the academic posts alone, or was he referring to both the teaching and non-teaching vacancies at these educational institutions. The question, which was raised by the Lok Sabha MP M. Selvaraj, was also unclear about the nature of the posts.

According to official data, 4,251 posts reserved for OBCs are vacant in 45 central universities, as on April 01 this year. This is out of a total of 7,815 posts reserved for the category. Similarly, 2,389 posts reserved for SC communities and 1,199 posts for STs remain vacant at these universities. The SCs and STs have 5,737 and 3,097 posts reserved for them at central universities, respectively.

The number of vacant posts in other leading institutes of higher education is also revealing. For example, the IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) has 380 posts reserved for the SCs, but 157 of these posts remain unfilled. Similarly, 231 posts (out of 346) for OBCs and 88 posts (out of 180) for STs remain unoccupied.

At different Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), 71, 19, and 153 posts are reserved for SCs, STs and OBCs, respectively. But out of these posts, 28 SC posts, 11 ST posts and 67 OBC posts are yet to be filled.

The scenario is not much different at Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Only 31 appointments have been made out of 303 posts reserved for OBCs, meaning that recruitment hasn’t happened for 90% of the posts reserved for the communities. In the case of ST communities, only 38 appointments were made out of 84 posts reserved for them. 34 posts reserved for the SCs also remain vacant.

These are, indeed, the latest statistics on the country’s social inequalities, as well as on how the students and teachers from the marginalised communities are struggling to survive and to get recruited, amid discrimination and higher level of pressure at the country’s most sought-after institutions.  

Mistakes need to be corrected

There should be sincere efforts by the government to correct the mistakes, and ensure that the students and academics from the marginalised communities reach the country’s top educational institutes and, equally importantly, survive there.

It is unfortunate that issues, which are as much serious as this, do not get adequate public attention even after official recognition, such as response in the parliament, which admits the existence of those issues.

Political leaders, intellectuals, journalists and other influencers – both from within the specific communities and from the larger civil society – should raise voice to address the injustice and discrimination faced by members of SCs, STs and OBCs in the higher educational institutions.

There is urgent need to examine the actual reasons – both explicit and implicit – behind the high number of dropout of students from marginalised communities from leading institutions of higher education. Both the government and non-government bodies, including the community organisations, should plan and implement effective support mechanism and other strategies, to ensure that the students from disadvantaged communities who are enrolled in prestigious institutions complete their courses.

The government should also take urgent measures to fill, within a specific time period, every single post reserved for various deprived communities. If the government doesn’t act, it’s the responsibility of the concerned communities and others to strengthen pressure on the government to act.