Inclusive universities

Print edition : March 30, 2018

The counselling schedule for engineering courses at Anna University in Chennai in July 2017. The "Inclusive Universities" report predicts that enrolments in universities will go up owing to greater geographic mobility, growing aspirations, the OBC reservation and the demand for new skill sets. Photo: G. Sribharath

On the Allahabad University campus in February 2016. A key finding of the report is that nearly 50 per cent of the students in universities are the first in their families to attend college. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A research project on higher education aims to push across the point that universities need to fulfil their objective of providing equal learning opportunities to all students regardless of their backgrounds rather than be centres of excellence for a few privileged groups.

A university is a reflection of the world outside its gates. Social hierarchies often get replicated among students on campus. Prejudice can manifest itself as anything from subtle forms of harassment to major outbreaks of violence. But can a university not build a more egalitarian climate for learning among students who come from varied backgrounds of society? A report that came out on February 12 shows that it can be done.

News on various kinds of bigotry on campuses appears regularly in the media. This year, in Allahabad Degree College, a fight over a trivial issue escalated and led to the death of a 26-year-old Dalit student, Dileep Saroj. In Delhi University, a student of Dyal Singh College alleged that Jat boys hurled casteist slurs at him and physically attacked him while he was pasting posters for a protest. Students of Hyderabad Central University have maintained that Rohith Vemula’s suicide (in January 2016) was in fact an institutional murder. Jawaharlal Nehru University students are still struggling to get a breakthrough in the case of Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance (October 2016). Each of these incidents began with a small but significant issue that could have been tackled before it became serious. But why was that not done? Moreover, the way each of these cases was tackled by the state and the administration begs the question, why did they treat the victims as villains?

Titled “Inclusive Universities: Linking Diversity, Equity and Excellence for the 21st Century”, the report, an outcome of the Inclusive Universities research project, may be able to throw light on some of these concerns. Conducted by researchers from College of Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule (KSP) Women’s Studies Centre, Pune University, the project aims to probe the psychosocial aspects of caste in India’s higher education sector. The study was conducted by, among others, Sangeeta Kamat, Swati Dyhadroy, Sylvia Hurtado and Ximena Zuniga and was dedicated to Sharmila Rege, a former head of the KSP Women’s Studies Centre who passed away in 2013.

When a case of discrimination surfaces, the first point of contact is the students themselves and the second the teaching staff. If matters are resolved at these two levels, they need not escalate. But often, the personal prejudices and caste backgrounds of the educators dictate how they address the problem. One of the policy objectives of the project is to use its survey data to build greater awareness among the faculty and the administrators on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion on their campuses. In classroom lectures, a lot of teachers talk about social justice, but how many of them participate in the building of a socially just campus?

To engage with educators and administrators from multiple institutions for more equitable and democratic campuses, the researchers plan to hold discussions with them about research, policy and practice. Since the project is based out of India and the United States, they hope to develop a comparative perspective on the issues of minority and disadvantaged students in the two countries. The researchers surveyed 2,000 students in Pune University, which, according to them, is the first-ever comprehensive portrait of a representative sample of students in an Indian State university, for an extensive demographic and campus climate study.

The survey generated research tools and frameworks with which universities and researchers can assess the campus climate for diversity, educational practices and democratic outcomes. By helping researchers understand the conditions that contribute to the success of historically disadvantaged groups, the study aims to push across the point that universities need to fulfil their objective of providing equal learning opportunities to all students regardless of their social backgrounds rather than be centres of excellence for a few privileged groups.

Gross enrolment ratio

While the college age population of India (16-25 years), according to the report, is 150 million, not all of these young people join college. The Gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is a mere 24 per cent, which is lower than that of developed countries and other emerging economies. The study suggests that more needs to be done to ensure that this ratio goes up and the country’s demographic dividend is harnessed for better outcomes. The GER rose rapidly from 8 per cent to 24 per cent between 2001 and 2015. The total number of institutions increased from 12,080 to 35,357 between 2002 and 2012. A major proportion of the increase is accounted for by private institutions offering professional degree programmes such as in engineering, computer science, pharmacy and teacher certification. India will become the “youngest” country by 2020 with a median age of 29 years, which will make it the largest labour force in the world and the biggest consumer market.

The study predicts that enrolments will go up owing to greater geographic mobility, growing aspirations, the reservation for the Other Backward Classes, and the demand for new skill sets. Higher educational spaces will become more heterogeneous and diverse in terms of class, caste, gender and linguistic abilities. In order to improve the quality of educational outcomes, it will be imperative for institutions to harness this diversity. A key finding of the research is that nearly 50 per cent of the students are the first in their families to attend college. This means that most university students today are likely to be first-generation learners from low-income rural households and previously educated in regional languages. Among these, Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) students are more likely to face challenges and therefore can be disadvantaged on multiple fronts, while others may be privileged in multiple ways.

The data on gender show that while the reservation policy has allowed some S.C. men to access education, S.C. women and S.T. men and women are the least represented in university spaces and more needs to be done to ensure their participation. Women from the general category are numerically superior in the social sciences and sciences to men from the same category.

Gender parity

The study has revealed some new patterns in terms of gender parity. “While men access higher education at a slightly higher rate than women, the social profiles of the two are a study in contrast. Female students tend to be from urban, English-educated, economically better-off backgrounds, whose parents have some form of college education, whereas male students are disproportionately from towns and rural areas, educated in the vernacular medium, from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the first in their families to go to college. Thus, while the gender gap is narrowing, it is predominantly women from relatively privileged caste and class backgrounds that are able to access postgraduate education, whereas women who are socially and economically disadvantaged are largely absent from higher education. In contrast, male students tend to be from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority of whom face one or more challenges of transitioning from a rural upbringing, vernacular medium education, poverty, or as first-generation college entrants. These disparities have important implications for inter-group communication and interactions in academic and non-academic settings, and is a critical factor in shaping campus climate,” according to the report. Interactions between male and female students on campus and the dynamics of these are dictated by not just gender identities but also other parameters. Often, the cultural divide between the two leads to friction, with both sides not really understanding their differences. If universities are actively aware of this, they could help resolve several misconceptions.

Faculty demographics

Meanwhile, the study shows that the faculty demographics have not kept pace with changes in the student population. The faculty remain overwhelmingly male, from the forward castes and from urban, college-educated households. Overall, the faculty profile differs from student demographics, and this has significant implications for the campus climate and the learning environment, including issues relating to effective mentoring and the relative absence of role models for underprivileged students.

As far as experiencing discrimination goes, a relatively small percentage of students (25 per cent and fewer) said they were targeted because of their caste in one way or another, and nearly 40 per cent said they had experienced “tense, uncomfortable and hostile interactions” on campus. “Interestingly, more men reported experiencing discrimination than women that may relate to the inverse social disparity between men and women, wherein male students are from underprivileged backgrounds compared to women students. The implications of this inverse social disparity are wide-ranging and deserve further study. Students’ pluralistic orientations are an important determinant of campus climate. For instance, students self-rating of their ‘ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective’ and their ‘tolerance of others with different beliefs’ is fairly low with only 35 per cent stating that they are ‘very strong’ in these attributes. Their ‘ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues’ is similarly low, with only 35 per cent responding that they are ‘very strong’ in this respect,” according to the report.

The report recommends the creation of a diversity index or disadvantage index that would reflect a composite measure of multiple forms of disadvantage and help universities develop better student support initiatives. Moreover, it recognises that merely bringing in students from marginalised sections of society does not improve the diversity of campuses. Any radical change in the student composition is likely to have a negative impact if the institution does not play a proactive role in inclusion and in facilitating an exchange of ideas across differences. Historically, dominant groups have opposed the entry of previously excluded groups from spaces they occupied as seen in the anti-Mandal agitations by students of prestigious universities such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management and the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences.

With this study, the researchers hope to fill the gap in research studies around higher education in Indian universities. According to them, the data may be useful to develop curricular and co-curricular learning opportunities to develop new knowledge, capacities and skills among students, faculty and staff. It can also be used to make policy, institutional and pedagogical changes, including in the way financial allocations are made, and in the design of buildings and working and living spaces, suggests the report.

“Campus climate research, if done well and used purposefully, can result in a more democratic and pluralistic ethos on campus, which is an urgent and universal concern today. Moreover, improving the climate for diverse students, faculty and staff has numerous documented benefits in terms of learning and work environments.... Universities can achieve robust and long-lasting excellence only if reforms link with advancing the education and social mobility of the growing numbers of low-income and underrepresented populations,” said the researchers.

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