Home 2021 IIT Bombay and Affirmative Action – Inconspicuous but Not Inconsequential

IIT Bombay and Affirmative Action – Inconspicuous but Not Inconsequential

by D Parthasarathy
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The IITs, like all government institutions contribute to the furthering of the constitutional mandate of inclusiveness in higher education, by implementing the policy of affirmative action for students from scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, and other backward class backgrounds. In addition, students who may be from financially indigent backgrounds are awarded a range of scholarships to complete their course of study. Affirmative action is not simply in the form of ensuring representation to students from these backgrounds in UG and PG programmes, but also in the form of other diverse methods aimed at ensuring that such students go on to benefit from the educational opportunities on offer at IITs. These include concessions in fees and other financial matters, access to learning material such as books, concessions in hostel fees, additional remedial classes where needed, and an SC/ST Cell to address any issues of discrimination or harassment that may be reported.

It is interesting that international higher education ranking systems do not incorporate this key contribution of universities in India to their societies and economies. Like other institutions of higher education, this social contribution of IIT Bombay is not insignificant, and needs to be included as such when we make an assessment of the IITs in general and to specific areas. While internationalization is a criteria for academic rankings, in a country as vast and diverse as India, inclusiveness and diversity is also about bringing in students into higher education from communities which have a history of being marginalized, and have lacked access to different levels of education. Increasingly, the trend is for a substantial number of SC, ST, and OBC students to make it to the merit list without availing the benefits of reservation. Among students who are currently enrolled, one observes several whose parents (usually fathers) have studied at IIT Bombay or another IIT. This is a testament to the success of the much maligned policy of reservations.

Affirmative action is not simply in the form of ensuring representation to students from these backgrounds in UG and PG programmes, but also in the form of other diverse methods aimed at ensuring that such students go on to benefit from the educational opportunities on offer at IITs.

How has IIT Bombay performed when it comes to engendering greater inclusiveness and ensuring that students admitted under SC, ST, and OBC categories perform well in academics and obtain good career placements? To what extent do such students carry forward their accumulated disadvantages? What systems are in place to ensure that students from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds are not subjected to persistent discriminatory attitudes or behaviour either institutionally, or on an individual basis? Such questions are not easy to answer given the paucity of good quality data and well-crafted research studies. In addition, such questions do not yield simple answers, for the simple reason that students from these socio-economic and cultural backgrounds encompass great diversity. They may be first, second, or third generation students accessing higher education. They may be first, second, or third generation beneficiaries of affirmative action policies such as reservations. Their financial circumstances vary, as does the quality of education they have obtained prior to joining IIT Bombay.

Further questions can be raised about what an education at IIT Bombay actually equips such students for? What kind of career paths do they have? Are these different from the general category students? How many of them go abroad for higher education? How many opt for higher studies within or outside India? Once again, in the absence of robust data sets, it is difficult to respond to such questions with any degree of accuracy or certainty.

Responses to these and similar questions would also depend on which level of higher education one is looking at: UG, Masters, or Ph.D., and the disciplines or branches one is interested in. One thing however is for sure: the reputation that IIT Bombay carries, the rigour of its educational training, and the exposure provided by the Institute all add to the basket of cultural capital that students need to be successful in the world upon graduation. Indeed informal surveys of students who are beneficiaries of affirmative action reveal that many of them have the same career paths as those of general category students – information technology, finance and banking, and consulting. One area in which these students are in a minority however is in start-ups. However this seems to be changing as well, and the limited anecdotal evidence I have seen seems to indicate that such students tend to involve in start-ups which are more socially focused rather than typical dot com kind of enterprises. Compared to their overall proportion in the student body, such students also tend to go for administrative careers (civil services), perhaps as a strategy to make a social difference to their own communities and the country at large.

Indeed informal surveys of students who are beneficiaries of affirmative action reveal that many of them have the same career paths as those of general category students – information technology, finance and banking, and consulting.

From limited data, anecdotal evidence, and experience of having taught students at IIT Bombay for over twenty years, some preliminary assessments may be made of the training that IIT Bombay provides to students from marginalized and hitherto excluded communities, their impacts, and the kind of problems they face in making optimal use of the opportunities afforded by an IIT Bombay education.

Undoubtedly, students who are from second or third-generation families, which have benefited from affirmative action, do well. They do well not just in terms of academic performance but in terms of having the confidence to deal with systemic, social, and institutional biases and prejudices in ways that are mature and balanced. As far as career paths and growth are concerned, these tend to be not very different from other students. Students from higher-ranked disciplines such as Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, or Chemical Engineering not surprisingly do well – going on to Ph.Ds, acquiring an MBA degree, or having high flying careers in the IT Sector, Finance and Banking or Consulting sectors.

While some students do struggle to cope with academic demands, the greater flexibility that has been enabled in recent years, allow such students (from all backgrounds) to innovatively game the system so that they don’t fall back too much in terms of academic performance. It is also reported that the greater the innovativeness in pedagogy and assessment systems, the better the performance of students from marginalized communities. Conversely, courses taught and assessed in old-fashioned ways may result in the phenomenon of some students being left behind.

IIT Bombay does have systems in place to identify at an early stage, students who perform poorly in academics for whatever reason. This group tends to have a higher proportion of students from SC and ST backgrounds. While such systems do help, a common complaint has been about the insensitivity of some faculty advisors in dealing with such students, who sometimes fail to understand the contexts of academic problems, or who may be insensitive in the use of language while dealing with such issues.

Undoubtedly, students who are from second or third-generation families, which have benefited from affirmative action, do well.

It appears that the kinds of subjectiveness that can lead to bias among faculty or student peers may be more at the PG level, where there is greater scope for more inter-personal interaction. At the UG level, however, while the student body may involve exclusions based on direct and indirect caste markers such as name or food habits, the massification of education itself acts as a barrier to large-scale prejudicial behaviour from those teachers who may still harbour hierarchical beliefs and attitudes. In general, however such attitudes tend to be hidden, and function in subtle ways, rather than outright hostility as is the case in many universities and colleges in India.

A key issue that needs addressing is something that has been pointed out not just by students from Dalit, Adivasi, or OBC backgrounds. Women students, students from regions historically underrepresented (J&K, North-East), minorities, and international students raise a key concern even while appreciating the academic rigour of the education that is provided to them. In subtle and open ways, directly and indirectly, institutionally and informally, students who are NOT male, upper caste, economically privileged, and from metropolitan centres are exposed to and made to feel – in myriad ways – a sense of discomfort, some form of exclusion, a feeling of being unwelcome, and an experience of not being able to contribute to the idea and norm of higher education. A feeling of not being part of the mainstream culture is a dominant one among such students. This then is the challenge that urgently needs to be addressed by transforming mindsets, pedagogies, institutions, rules, assessment systems, and infrastructure. For this, equity as a goal and as a mainstreaming device needs both comprehension and (the will for) implementation.

The contribution of IIT Bombay to the cause of affirmative action among students has not been insubstantial. Much has been done, and yet there is so much more to do. The next steps are less about fulfilling legal requirements and more about reimagining the idea of the modern university from the perspective of equity and diversity, and the benefits they can yield for advancing the larger goals of higher education and research.

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