Good Institutions & Bad Students? Understanding Hierarchies of Exclusion in Indian Universities

Rout, Bharat Chandra (2014). 'Good Institutions & Bad Students? Understanding Hierarchies of Exclusion in Indian Universities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This research paper is based on the life experiences/stories of four marginalized students who were systematically excluded through a mechanism of 'pseudo criteria' by denying admission in pursuing their research studies (M.Phil/Ph.D.) in some of the premier national/central institutions of higher learning situated at the national capital of India. Narrative technique is used here to organize life stories of these four students in order to bring in them a sequence and focus in their experiences of marginalization and exclusion. Narratives represent storied ways of knowing and communicating.The four students, who were systematically denied admission into Ph.D. programme, have had to make some remarkable struggles and compromises in their life to reach up to higher education. Institutional policy and practice of exclusion and discrimination is captured through the experiences/stories of four students through narrative analysis here. The paper is an attempt to identify the 'political spheres' of exclusion recently practiced in Indian universities in the name of fair selection and evaluation through a systematic gate-keeping force that silently discriminated against and excluded the four students in the name of 'meritlessness'. 

The Dynamics of Access

Widening access to higher education has remained a continued challenge in higher education policy making and implementation in India. While there is an overall trend showing improvements in access (enrolment) to higher education, the scenario is not true and perennially abysmal for many groups, e.g. lower castes/tribes, minorities and women. Public policy in widening access to higher education has different implications for different socio-religious and gender groups. This is partly because of the historical evolution and social practices of Indian society that divided people along certain ascriptive identities.  The complexity of access is therefore not just only surrounded with availability of quality institutions, rather more significantly as to how access policies recognize the demeaning affect of such ascriptive identities in blocking access in the name of 'inefficiency' and 'meritlessness'. However, accessing higher education is also conditioned by the socio-economic background of students and the eventual gaining of a kind of socio-cultural capital depending on the family size, education, occupation etc. that is being recognized in education and society which substantially provides and facilitates conditions for future access and treatment in higher education. 

Socio-Economic Background

Education is a cumulative process and educational opportunities can and should be traced back to the students' families. The four students who are the prime focus of this paper; three are from rural peripheries of Andhra Pradesh (AP), Odisha and Bihar respectively and one is from Delhi. Srinivasulu (from Prakasham district of AP), Nityanand (Bargard district of Odisha) and Abhisek (from Rural Bihar) had lot of expectations for pursuing higher education, employability prospects and furthering of social status and respect.

The Encounter: Access and the Gate-keeping Force

The idea of systematic and designed exclusion of students from accessing and further participating in higher education does operate differently for different students depending on their caste (Thorat and Kumar, 2008), religion (Dutt 2005), socio-economic background (Jayaram, 1987, James R. 2002) and level of conformity in socio-cultural capital (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Robbins 1993) with its mainstream practices and acceptance by the universities. The exclusion is systematic and designed when one finds  strong connections between the 'reason(s)' for exclusion (if at all it is mentioned) substantiated and supported by various policies of exclusion in the universities, e.g. university admission policy, affirmative action policy etc.

For instance, Nityanad mentioned,

'it never matters how well you perform both in course work and in dissertation; how well you are in collecting references, making class-notes, using library and taking suggestions from the teachers, which finally reflect in the quality of assignments and dissertation submitted. But what counts finally is your 'face value' in front of the teachers and the larger perception of the institution towards you. Apart from this, how well one speak English language is nonetheless significant in determining the 'face value' and whether or not you will qualify for admission into Ph.D. in the institution'.

In another instance, Abhisek claims that,


'You need to endure and keep your morale high in order to persist and complete your course. It is not surprising to face questions and comments based on regionalism (with some regions of India having the vibrant intellectual culture historically, West Bengal, per say) and language (your ability to speak English) even from the teachers. In first interaction of class, if you are found to be 'not-so-good' in English, than you should not expect further question from your course teacher. Further, there is a channel of interactions between teacher and students, in which some teachers prefer to have 'within-classroom' and 'outside-classroom' interactions with some selected students those who have similar ideological commitments and regional connections'.


Concluding remarks

The paper addresses issues of exclusion and discrimination consciously sustained and practiced by Indian universities mirroring through the experiences of four students who were systematically denied admission into Ph.D. programme even after successfully completing their M.Phil. Programme.  The narratives of four students show that there are connections of exclusion with students' ascriptive identity, socio-economic backgrounds and level of socio-cultural capital. Institutions maintain their active and passive exclusion through a mechanism of gate-keeping force that differentiates students accessing higher education in terms of their basic socio-economic and familial backgrounds. The role of university support structure has not been much helpful, since it is only few from marginalized communities who could take their help. Exclusion and discrimination are seen to have been practiced in the processes of curricular transactions and course evaluations as well.

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