How Meritorious and Inclusive Are Our Institutions of Higher Education?

The recent report advocating for IITs to be exempted from reservation in appointments subtly implies that Dalit-Bahujan lecturers are not 'meritorious'. This is evidence of how social elites still hold a hegemonic position in these institutions.

Recently, a panel of IIT directors and some government officials submitted a report to the Ministry of Education suggesting that IITs should be exempted from reservation in appointments as they are ‘institutes of national importance’. To preserve the ‘higher merit’ of these institutions, reservation policy shall be barred. This report in a subtle manner argues that candidates selected through reservation policy would be meritless, and therefore, it may compromise the ‘efficiency’ criterion.

IITs and IIMs attract the most brilliant set of students from across India through a tough and competitive entrance examination. Both the institutions are heralded for its high academic standards, training programmes and for producing tech-geniuses and influential market leaders. The prodigies of these institutions have contributed immensely in building India’s global image in the neoliberal economy and many are heading or working in the most prestigious corporate houses, IT firms and influential international bodies. These institutions often promise that they do not compromise on individual merit and academic abilities of their students.

Importantly, socially marginalised communities have consistently been arguing that many of these institutions practise various forms of caste-based discriminations and hardly follow the constitutional mandate to implement the reservation policy. But when these institutions are reprimanded for not abiding with the social justice policies, they open their defence by arguing that it may damage the institute’s ‘superior academic virtues’ and thus neglect such crucial cases of injustices. The said report only highlights its wish to retain the elitist domination over the faculty positions and avoid deliberation on how to make these institutions meritorious or inclusive.

Depletion of merit in the institutes of higher learning

There are very few Indian institutes in the global ranking of the top 200 academic institutions. Our research institutes and universities often lack good infrastructure, working environment, high-quality libraries, good laboratories, standard publications and patent registrations. Though institutions like IITs and IIMs attract a lot of public funding and other crucial support from the government, still many of these institutions (there are 23 IITs and 20 IIMs) have failed to prove their merit on international standards. Even popular institutions like JNU, DU, TISS do not figure in top 100 academic institutions of the world.

Also read: When Will India’s Educational Institutes Have Their ‘Dalit Lives Matter’ Moment?

Teaching is one of the most respectable jobs. In institutions like IITs, the quality of teachers matters more as they often train and determine the future of their prodigious students. However, each teacher is different from another based on his/her integrity with the profession, academic commitment and ethical applications. There are very few teachers that show extraordinary brilliance or high academic rigour and contribute to the production of knowledge.

Some teachers invest a lot of time in administrative works, in building a good rapport with the students or in improvising the general institutional life. But most of the teachers look at teaching as a mere job without bothering much about intellectual or ethical advancement.

For a very long time, teaching was not a lucrative profession – especially in professional courses like engineering and medical. Most of the academic institutions do not prepare us to become serious researchers or train us to look at the teaching position as a quality profession. It is often seen as a second choice for the entrant as it pays less, compared to the salaries and facilities provided in other professions.

Thus, the market of foreign institutions attract better talent than our universities and only the remaining scholars enter into the teaching fields, including the IITs. The standard of the institutions suffers as the best minds are often unwelcomed in teaching or research jobs.

The campus at IIM Ahmedabad. Courtesy: insideIIM.com

The campus at IIM Ahmedabad. Courtesy: insideIIM.com

A citadel of Brahmanical hegemony

The prestigious institutions also lack concerns for social justice, diversity and inclusion of the socially marginalised masses. Whenever the issue of reservation of seats in higher education or in the faculty position is raised, reactions are often triggered arguing that it may deplete merit and talent. (Remember the anti-quota protests organised by ‘Youth for Equality’ after the announcement of OBC reservation in higher education).

It suggests that the inclusion of SCs/STs or the OBCs in these superior academic positions would be detrimental to the quality and standards of the institute, and therefore, reservation shall be avoided in these prestigious institutions. Though reservation in admission is permissible, however, for positions of power it appears as anathema for opponents of diversity.

The IITs, IIMs and AIIMS provide reservation for students belonging to the socially marginalised communities, however, any cursory reflection over other spheres of these institutions would showcase that the Dalit-Bahujan groups remain outside the purview of faculty and administrative positions. The number of SC and ST faculty members in IITs is below 3%. The faculty and administrative positions are dominated by social elites, who see themselves as “talented”. Positions of power are exclusively controlled by one set of castes, disallowing the Dalit-Bahujan counterparts to become equal shareholders.

The reservation policy was introduced to make public institutions more inclusive, diverse and democratic. Socially marginalised communities had an opportunity to enter the corridors of knowledge to become part of intellectual circles. Often, these students are first-generation learners, mostly belong to the poorer economic background and many lack the social and psychological support needed to survive in these institutions.

Also read: IITs Should Be Able to Choose Their Directors, Says HRD Ministry Panel

However, many Dalit-Bahujan students face visible discrimination and harassment by the dominant elites of the institutions. The students and researchers from the marginalised communities are mocked due to their social background, belittled for their language skills and even punished when they compete against their upper-caste counterparts.

University campuses are dominated by the cultural and ideological values of the social elites. Whenever students from marginalised communities try to intervene in these spaces they face threats, punishment and even violence. For instance, an attempt was made to link the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras to the Bhima Koregaon case last year.

There are numerous media and commission reports that have demonstrated that the students from deprived communities are deliberately given less marks, discriminated in viva-voce interviews and punished for not coping with the academic requirements (see the Thorat Committee Report). Such depletion of social justice in these merit-based institutions has overtly been neglected and no substantive plans are being proposed to make the conditions of Dalit-Bahujan students and faculty better.

Towards merit-based and inclusive institutions

Teachers are powerful influencers. In the conventional practices of the Hindu caste system, only the Brahmins had the rights to teach and to become a ‘guru’. Rest of the castes could only learn from the master. Ironically, the women, Shudhras and the untouchable castes were not only barred from the teaching profession but also from learning (remember Eklavya or Shambhuk). Their prime job was to serve the social elites without much deliberation.

In modern times though, such terrible social practice has been challenged and reformed, however, in the domain of higher education it appears that the social elites (mainly the Brahmins) still hold a hegemonic position, whereas other communities only have peripheral space. This aspect of our academic institutions must be changed.

The new economic policy prepared by the current regimes gives a passive assurance towards implementing social justice policies in higher education and overtly showcases their commitment in preparing institutions so that they can serve the market forces. However, without correcting the historical wrongs that have contaminated these institutions, any policy guidelines would be ineffective. There is an urgent need to work on both the fronts of attracting ‘meritocratic’ faculty and also to make it more socially inclusive.

There is a need to build better infrastructural facilities in all the institutions of higher learning so that they can attract better talent in teaching or administrative positions. Equally important is to respect and implement the social justice policies so that universities and research institutes can be more inclusive and democratic in a truer sense. Without achieving both the values, celebrations of these institutions as the places of ‘excellence and efficiency’ would merely be rhetoric.

Harish S. Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Social Sciences, New Delhi.