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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Dalit scholar suicide: Time to reflect on institutional response to student diversity in higher education - DNA


NIDHI S SABHARWAL | MALISH CM | Thu, 4 Feb 2016-04:05pm , New Delhi , dna

Caste dynamics on campus.

Rohith Vemula’s suicide should make us reflect. Though discrimination in education is not new in India, the current public response towards the issue must be understood in the context of the changing nature of the higher education scenario in India. The higher education sector in India has experienced an unprecedented expansion in recent decades. With this expansion an elite-centric system moved to a stage of massification. Recent data from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) indicate that the gross enrolment ratio in higher education in India stands at 23%. The expansion of higher education has been accompanied by social diversity in student population.

Non-elite and non-traditional social and income group learners have entered the higher education system. In 2014, 63% of the student population in higher education belonged to the Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and other backward classes. The social composition of the faculty and administrators however, remains largely homogeneous. Recent data from MHRD shows that 61% of the faculty in higher education belong to the upper castes, followed by the OBCs (23.5%), SCs (7%), Muslims (6%) and other minorities including STs (2%) and PWDs (0.5%). 

Upper-caste representation further goes up in centrally-funded institutions like IITs, IIMs and NITs.

While public policy promotes expansion and diversity, the important question is how institutions and structures rooted in tradition are responding to this period of transition in higher education. The findings of the ongoing study being conducted by the authors reveal that faculty perception goes against the spirit of diversity. Based on meritocratic argument, students belonging to the Scheduled Castes — the former ‘untouchables’ — are now viewed as the ‘unteachables’ in higher education spaces. Also, their mannerisms, accents and sartorial preferences are devalued and made fun of in the campus. This puts pressure on students to behave ‘appropriately’ and it results in alienation. This can be read along with the fact that peer group formation is based on group-identity. This takes an extreme form when student elections are contested on the basis of caste. Since they are in minority, the students from the Scheduled Tribe group find minimal representation in college unions and student representative bodies. Girls from Scheduled Castes experience heightened vulnerability to harassment because of their gender and caste. It was found that, irrespective of institutions being studied, SC students are hesitant to reveal their identity. This reflects a fear of discrimination.

To institutionalise equality and protect students from discrimination, there are clear directives from higher education authorities to create Equal Opportunity Cells in institutions. 

According to the directives, there has to be appointment of anti-discrimination officers and ombudsman for redressal of grievances of students. Legal methods have been also implemented in higher education spaces to safeguard students of the discriminated groups such as women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from possible discrimination (UGC ‘Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions Regulation’, 2012). We found that although all types of cells such as equal opportunity, anti-ragging and women’s cells exist, most of them are not functional and certainly not effective. Similarly there is limited institutional-level planning, monitoring and coordination of the cells.

There is a gap between policy for expansion of higher education system and institutional capacity to adapt to changing nature of student diversity. The major reasons for negative attitudes towards student diversity can be attributed to insensitivities of institutional leaders and faculty members towards socially and educationally disadvantaged social groups. They often forget that equality of opportunity in education is not just the removal of disability, but also development of abilities of populations who were historically denied educational opportunities. Where removal of discrimination is a distant dream, one cannot even talk about developing abilities.

We also find rays of hope. In one of the colleges the students said that the principal of the college made them feel safe and secure in the campus. Students had a direct contact with the principal and that the students felt free to approach him anytime if they faced problems on campus. The students shared feedback to the effect that the ‘Principal is friendly, sensitive, helpful and his proactive interventions improve the climate of the campus’. The proactive nature of the principal was reflected in his regular meetings with the students to enquire about their well-being. He encouraged them to raise any issue and report undemocratic practices.

We found some of the faculty members taking proactive steps to encourage inter-group interaction in classrooms. These include strategies of mixed groups for interactions, debates and discourses that helped the students to come together and remove ignorance based on identities. It was difficult initially as the students wanted to retain their identity-based peer group and did not want to mingle with others. Some of the faculty members were also sensitising students to the culture of diverse social groups in society. These examples show that the institutional leaders and faculty members can make a difference. However, sustainability of such examples is possible when these are institutionalised.

There has to be an institutional mechanism to respond and adapt to the changing nature of social diversity amongst the student population. The teaching community and education managers must provide and promote the spirit of democracy, where opposing ideas may be expressed and innovative ideas can emerge. The socio-cultural space of campus must be receptive and sensitive to students of diverse backgrounds and campuses must cultivate a culture of respecting diversity and sharing. Lack of inter-group interactions and formation of peer groups on the basis of identity is a symptom. This, in fact, undermines the very idea of campus as a democratic, social space where young minds engage with diverse peers and learn from each other. It is also time to critically look at leadership patterns in our higher education institutions. From individual-centric leaders, our system has to move to collective and shared leadership wherein each stakeholder is incorporated into the decision-making system. Treating symptoms alone may not cure the disease.