Minutes of a one-day consultation meet held on January 30, 2010 at NIAS, Bangalore
On January 30, 2010, a consultation meet was held at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, to discuss support programmes for reserved category students in technical education institutes across India. The meeting was chaired by the Director, NIAS and attended by invitees from technical education institutes, the Karnataka Knowledge Commission and Centre for Research and Education in Social Transformation (CREST).
The National Institute of Advanced Studies felt that it was time to initiate a consultation on the issue of support programmes for reserved category students in technical education institutes because the last detailed study on the issue was undertaken in 1992, said Prof. A. R. Vasavi, School of Social Sciences, NIAS, explaining the raison de etre for the meeting. Prof. V. S. Ramamurthy, Director, NIAS drew attention to the fact that most research articles dealing with this topic appear outdated and the opening of new IITs and the expansion in the number of seats meant for reserved category students further turns the spotlight on the issue.
Students from the reserved categories, especially the Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi in most of India), have found it difficult to take full advantage of the affirmative action measures proposed for enhancing their participation in the nation’s best technical institutes. While a section of the Dalits and Adivasis are hampered from performing to potential by socio-cultural issues, especially their lack of a strong foundational education, and their lowly self-identity, some others refuse to be categorized as “reserved,” and want to be recognized only on their merit. NIAS’s concern is the former category of students, who, with some form of institutional support, could be helped to address and overcome their performance-related problems, said Prof. Ramamurthy, setting the tone for the discussions.
In essence, the question that was sought to be addressed at the one-day consultation meet was: How can the IITs, the NITs and the engineering colleges fulfill their social obligations and at the same time retain their credentials as centres of academic excellence. In this regard, NIAS’s new initiative is not intended as a search for a solution; rather, the initiative seeks to provide a platform for various institutes to “share their experiences” and “learn from each other,” said Prof. Ramamurthy.
A beginning in this direction was made by this consultation meet, which brought together representatives from five Indian Institutes of Technology [IIT] and two National Institutes of Technology [NIT]; a representative of the state engineering colleges from Visveswraya Technological University [VTU], Belgaum; representatives from the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, the National Law School of India University [NLSIU] and the Centre for Research and Training in Social Transformation [CREST].
The discussions at the one-day consultation meet reiterated the need for such an initiative, as all the participating institutions reported to be facing the same problem though the approach of each institution to problem-resolution seemed unique. As Prof. Vasavi put it, from the ideas that emerged out of the discussion, it appeared that there could be possibilities for inter-institutional collaborations and hopes for scaling “responsive” programmes across institutions.
The rest of the Minutes summarises the deliberations at the consultation, highlighting the discussions regarding the problems being faced by the reserved category students, and the steps that could be taken for addressing them in the short term.
Putting The Problem In Perspective
Prof. M. Balakrishnan, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi made a Powerpoint presentation that gave an overview of the operationalisation of reservation in IIT Delhi. He began with the performance of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students in the Joint Entrance Exam [JEE] to the IITs, and traced their performance to the end of the first semester and at graduation. He also analysed the effect of the mandatory preparatory course on the academically weaker students admitted to the course under Common Merit List [CML] after applying the reduced cut-off percentages for reserved category, Dalit and Adivasi students.
The major observations made in the presentation were: 1) The number of SC and ST candidates appearing for JEE had increased, but the numbers making it to the CML had decreased despite the lowering of cut-offs; 2) Ninety per cent of the SC and ST students who are admitted to the IIT graduate successfully, though they are likely to take one semester more, on an average, to complete, and their performance is 20% lower than the general category students, on an average.
Prof. Balakrishnan concluded the presentation by recommending strong intervention at the school level, especially identifying the meritorious SC and ST students at an early stage and providing them special education geared towards performing well in the IIT system. Prof. Balakrishnan also felt that the effect of the preparatory classes show that if marginal students are helped, they can come out on top. The IIT system helps them [the reserved category students] to grow [in confidence, self-esteem, etc.], he said. He also welcomed the idea of compulsory attendance, citing a study by IITD which showed that weaker students benefited from compulsory attendance.
Prof. Kushal Deb, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, has recently taken charge of the SC-ST cell in the institution. He said that he has been attempting some innovative measures like talking with senior students who have come through the preparatory course about the problems they faced as juniors. He said that he also tries to be student-friendly and approachable. He finds that, in general, views regarding reservations are extreme: From those who are highly casteist [quotes from site on Ambedkar] to those who complain that the IITs are crumbling bastions of excellence [due to reservation policies]. However, the reality, he feels, is somewhere in-between. There is no explicit discrimination, but there exists a certain kind of prejudice against lower castes which gets expressed in Internet mail discussions. While on one side there is objection to the use of words like “brahmanism,” on the other, students presume as a slight even ordinary administrative measures such as use of smaller fonts for demarcating “preparatory” students. One student who had come through the preparatory classes complained that the use of the smaller font made him feel humiliated. The fonts were subsequently replaced with bigger ones.
Prof. Deb felt that Deans and Directors are genuinely concerned, and this finds expression in the long discussions they chair, sometimes into the middle of the night, whenever any grievance [regarding SC/ ST] is brought before them. Fear and caution also prevails at these meetings, feels Prof. Deb. In this regard, he also cited the initiative of a faculty member, Prof. H. Narayan, who had conceived of an Academic Rehabilitation Programme [ARP] for weak students of all categories. Those with lower academic performance are sent to the preparatory class, even if they have already come through it. If they don’t clear the exams, their parents are called and they are asked to move out their wards. The rationale is that they can come out on top if they study in RECs or elsewhere, whereas in IITs they will not be able to clear the system. Students identified under ARP are also given the option of taking about four months off to teach at a coaching centre or to work somewhere and come back. It has been observed that, often, the self-esteem of these students increases and they do better on returning, Prof. Deb said.
Prof. Deb also mentioned that among the reserved categories there is a general apathy towards discussing their problems. However, he shared some inputs from his informal interaction with senior students of the Meena community [A Scheduled Tribe], who had passed out of preparatory in their first year. They felt that there was a tendency among students like them to “take it easy.” They suggested that the professor “cut off the net connection,” as students were known to while away time downloading and watching popular regional movies in the computer room. They clearly stated that while some students were slipping because of academic background, others were doing so because of their attitude. The senior Meena students, who had proved to be “gods” on the sports field, and hence had a fan following of sorts, were categorical that the rigour of the regular system had to be faced and “spoonfeeding” at the preliminary stages would not help them.
Dr. B. Raj Mohan, Department of Chemical Engineering, National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal, made a Powerpoint presentation about the activities of the SC-ST Cell in their college. The cell was started at the initiative of Mr. Jora M. Gonda, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who himself belongs to the reserved category and hence wished to do something for the students who came from these social groups. Dr. Raj Mohan mentioned that Mr. Gonda had put in a lot of effort into this initiative. The cell provides special coaching for the first year B.E and B.Tech SC and ST students. The classes are conducted after 5 pm, by a teacher, assisted by paid student instructors. So that weak students may not feel discriminated against, the classes are open to all SC and ST students. But student response is poor, perhaps because faculty response is also poor, says Dr. Mohan.
Prof. K Rajanikanth, Principal, M S Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Visveswaraya Technological University, said that though no study across the university has been undertaken so far, it has been observed that in MSRIT the drop-out rate of the reserved category students is very low (about 2%), though the SC and ST students take double the normal duration to complete the course. However, he mentioned that the rank category of the students admitted to MSRIT is up to the 200th -300th rank for merit category students and 7000-8000 for reserved category students – all of whom are selected through a Common Entrance Test held for the VTU’s ~120 colleges.
Initiatives to help the academically weaker, especially reserved category students, are taken at three levels explained Prof. Rajanikanth: By the government [which is common to all students/ colleges], by state government organizations, particularly courses for personality development in a few, select colleges, and by the institutions themselves. MSRIT has placement-oriented, soft skills programmes, but there is resistance if it is announced as “for weak students.” Kannada television channels have sponsored programmes for coaching classes for CET. Contact centres with TV have been made available by the state government in community centres in rural areas. However, in general, Prof. Rajanikanth felt that though the students face some entry-level difficulty, in English and Maths, even this comes down after a few semesters, generally after the 2nd year, and hence no separate coaching is required.
In the concluding presentation, Dr. Damodaran Nampoothri and his team from CREST gave an overview of the work being carried out by their organization for the development of students from marginalized sections who have completed their graduation but are unable to progress further due to their lack of social capital and symbolic capital.
Inadequate soft skills, low aspiration and poor access to quality education at the school level were identified as the main disadvantages that the reserved category students suffer from. These are the problems that institutional interventions would have to address in order to succeed in the larger interest of improving the academic performance of the reserved category students. However, such measures would have to be sensitive to the various reasons that have thus far resulted in poor student response: resistance to ‘segregation,’ inhibition about being identified as ‘weak’ students, attitudinal problems such lack of focus, a general apathy, lack of seriousness, lack of time due to academic work and poor faculty response to providing sustained support.
Measures Identified For Implementation
It was generally agreed that any intervention had to be of a sustainable nature, based on a long-term, in-depth analysis of various parameters in each of the institutions. However, it was felt that it was important, in the meanwhile, to undertake certain immediate steps as well. The pan-institutional feeling was that there is a need for some kind of hand-holding and a sustained attempt to identify and address specific deficiencies. At the same time, there was also consensus that segregation would be counter-productive as it is perceived by the proposed beneficiaries as humiliating. It was also strongly felt that there was need for early, pre-college intervention for capacity-building among the reserved category students. On the basis of these considerations, it was proposed that:
- The Centre for Research and Training in Social Transformation (CREST), Kozhikode design a five-week module for pilot-testing in IIT Delhi. The objective of the module would be to strengthen fundamental skills in English speaking, communication, negotiation. The course would be open to all, but free only for the reserved category students. It would be conducted at Kozhikode for students selected by IIT Delhi through IIT-JEE 2010.
- A comparative database be prepared of the support programmes implementation in the IITs and the fourteen colleges of the Visveswaraya Technological University that are covered under TEQIP (Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme), a pan-national, World Bank funded programme for select institutions, facilitated by the State Project Facilitation Unit and DECU.
It is hoped that these initiatives will, respectively, result in:
- Creation of effective course content that all interested institutions can borrow from the IITD-CREST pilot for implementation in their institutions.
- Presentation of a model support programme that has components to strengthen scholastic skills, student attitudes and faculty involvement.
APPENDIX: LIST OF PARTICIPANTS
Prof. V S Ramamurthy
National Institute of Advanced Studies
Dr B S Padmavathi
Senior Research Associate
Karnataka Jnana Aayogac
(Karnataka Knowledge Commission)
Prof. A.R. Vasavi
Professor, School of Social Sciences
National Institute of Advanced Studies
Dr. B Raj Mohan
Dept. of Chemical Engineering
Prof. K. Rajnikanth
Prof. Kushal Deb
Associate Professor (Sociology)
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Prof. M Balakrishnan
Dept. Computer Science and Engineering
Prof. Samit K. Ray
Department of Physics & Meteorology
Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur
Dr. K Ratnakumar
Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Prof. Ravindra Brammajyosula
Department of Ocean Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
Dr. Damodaran Nampoothri
Mr. Vinod Krishnan
 Admissions to the technical institutes [TIs] are through central or state administered common admission tests and the reservation of seats is as per government norms. Overall, about 50% of the seats are reserved for the socially disadvantaged and physically disabled students. As most of these students are found to be academically backward, all institutions have initiated special programmes to mentor, counsel and help these students scale up their performance. Since the IITs follow their own grading and evaluation systems, in addition to academic support programmes, they are also enabled to devise a grading system that provides a certain leniency for reserved category students.
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