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Breaking barriers, fostering inclusivity: Need to transform higher education in India with constitutional values and NEP 2020

India’s higher education system has faced significant criticism for its lack of inclusivity, with marginalised communities such as so-called lower castes, religious minorities, and women facing significant barriers to accessing higher education. The National Education Policy, 2020 has emphasised the need for inclusivity, but a lot more needs to be done to bring about a more equitable and inclusive higher education system in India.

THE recent suicide of Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old chemical engineering student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, belonging to a Scheduled Caste (SC), has once again sparked a debate on caste-based discrimination in particular and inclusion in general at prestigious higher education institutions (HEIs) of the country.

The heart-wrenching tale of Darshan’s suicide is far from an isolated occurrence. Within the sphere of India’s higher education, the poignant narratives of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad, Muthukrishnan, also a Dalit research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Dr Payal Tadvi, a medical student pursuing her master’s degree in Mumbai, who belonged to the Scheduled Tribe (ST) Tadvi Bhil, serve as sombre reminders. Each of these bright minds, hailing from marginalised communities, was driven to the tragic decision of ending their lives after enduring relentless caste-based discrimination at HEIs.

Even the Chief Justice of India, Dr D.Y. Chandrachud expressed concern last month at the pattern of students from Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalised backgrounds at top HEIs taking their lives.

Caste-based discrimination exists not only among students, but is also experienced by faculty members belonging to marginalised or minority communities.

The  rampant suicides prevailing amongst the marginalised communities  at HEIs is a symptom of a larger problem, which concerns the often ignored but relevant issue of ‘inclusion’ in higher education in India.

Caste-based discrimination exists not only among students, but is also experienced by faculty members belonging to marginalised or minority communities. In 2019, it was reported that when counted together, SCs, STs, and OBCs make up just 9 percent of the total faculty at IITs and 6 percent at IIMs. Similarly, the representation of SCs, STs, and OBCs in Ph.D. programmes at IITs and IIMs remains poor and below the constitutionally mandated norms. Thus, inclusion and lack of diversity at HEIs in India are clearly pertinent issues that require the immediate attention of policymakers and academics.  

Also read: Dismantling casteism: role of law in protecting students

What is meant by ‘inclusion’?

Inclusion can mean many things to different people. For a layperson, inclusion could mean a state of being valued, respected, and supported. Its dictionary meaning is “the action, practice, or policy of including any person in an activity, system, organisation or process, irrespective of race, gender, religion, age, ability, etc.”

Particularly in the context of higher education, inclusion stands for continually transforming the process of upgrading educational institutions to fulfil the needs of everyone, especially those belonging to marginalised groups.

Why do we need ‘inclusion’ in HEIs in India?

A number of individual and socio-economic factors can hamper a person’s ability to access and engage in higher education. These factors might be based on gender, caste, race, religion, socio-economic status, special needs and place of residence, among other things. Inclusion in higher education demands that these factors must not limit an individual’s ability to access and pursue higher education.

Lack of access to higher education can have several cascading effects, including reduced earning potential, discontentment with life, substance abuse, and a greater reliance on public assistance. Entry into quality HEIs can open up a number of suitable opportunities for individuals and provide them with a decent standard of living. Thus, inclusion today is seen as a basic human need.

Socially and economically disadvantaged groups continue to lag in their access to education at HEIs. These inequalities exist because of regional, socio-economic and gender-based considerations.

In the Indian context, the discourse of social inclusion in HEIs becomes all the more relevant considering its diverse population comprising many different religious, caste, cultural and linguistic groups. Thus, by virtue of its function as a public good, higher education must reflect the richness of this diversity by being socially inclusive.

The current state of inclusion in HEIs in India

While access to higher education has improved across all segments of the Indian population, a 2019 research paper titled ‘Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education in India’ from the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) has comprehensively demonstrated that socially and economically disadvantaged groups continue to lag in their access to education at HEIs. These inequalities exist because of regional, socio-economic and gender-based considerations.

Regional inequalities

In India, a preference for urban areas for the location of HEIs has reinforced the elite nature of higher education, as physical distance is a barrier for many people, especially those from disadvantaged groups. This urban bias has resulted in rural–urban disparities in access to higher education.

Social inequalities: Caste, religion and class

Expanding higher education in India has not eliminated social inequities. Although social inequalities in access to higher education have not worsened, they remain significant in contrast to regional disparities. For example, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) of upper castes is nearly twice that of STs and 1.5 times that of SCs, as per the NIEPA research paper. The GER increases as one progresses up the caste hierarchy, demonstrating graded access to the resources required for enrolment in HEIs.

Also read: Scrutinising the problem of abysmal Muslim representation at National Law Universities: a question of diversity and inclusion

Income inequalities

Income levels are another factor contributing to inequalities in access to higher education, in addition to social and regional group differences. For instance, in 2014, the GER for those in the group with the highest monthly income was seven times more than that for people in the group with the lowest monthly income, as per the NIEPA research paper. Consequently, the likelihood of enrolling in HEIs in India continues to be significantly influenced by one’s economic position.

Gender inequalities

The gender divide in access to higher education is another instance of inequality. At the national level, access to higher education continues to favour men (GER of 32.14 percent) over women (GER of 27.73 percent), notes the NIEPA research paper. In addition, women from lower castes experience more disadvantages than those from higher castes when it comes to access to higher education.

One of the main criticisms of the NEP is that it needs to go further in addressing the systemic exclusion of marginalised communities from higher education.

In addition to the previously mentioned inequities, it is also crucial to note that disadvantaged socio-economic groups experience unequal access to high-value disciplines of study like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Accordingly, students from privileged backgrounds— including men, those from higher castes and socio-economic classes, and those who live in urban areas, study STEM fields. In contrast, those from socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs) and those who live in rural areas are more inclined to study social sciences and agriculture, indicates the NIEPA research paper.

Indian constitutional framework and inclusion in education

The Constitution envisages the formation of an egalitarian Indian society. Particularly, Articles 14, 15 and 16 of it guarantee notions of equality and inclusion.

Equality has many dimensions: social, political, gender-based and economic. The concept of equality adopted under our constitutional scheme is ‘equality amongst equals’. Keeping these aspects of equality in mind, the constitutional scheme permits protective discrimination based on reasonable classification in favour of a class of citizens deserving of special treatment.

In the context of inclusion in education, Articles 15(4) and 15(5) specifically make provisions for the reservation of seats for socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs), SCs and STs in educational institutions, including HEIs.

In 2019, the Parliament enacted the 103rd amendment to the Constitution, which inserted Articles 15(6) and 16(6) that made way for the reservation of seats in educational institutions, including HEIs and public appointments, of up to 10 percent, for the economically weaker section of citizens, based upon family income criteria to the exclusion of the classes that have already received benefits of reservation, which is SEBCs, SCs and STs.

Also read: Rethinking the Debate on Reservations

In addition to the above provisions, Article 21A of the Constitution provides free and compulsory education to all children aged six to fourteen years as a fundamental right.

Thus, underlying our constitutional architecture is the firm foundation of ‘inclusion’, and of leaving no one behind.  

NEP 2020 and inclusion in higher education

In line with the constitutional values of equality and inclusion, the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) also makes explicit provisions for increasing participation and accessibility in higher education at different levels. In particular, Chapter XIV of the NEP specifically emphasises:

Entry into quality higher education can open a vast array of possibilities that can lift both individuals as well as communities out of the cycles of disadvantage. For this reason, making quality higher education opportunities available to all individuals must be among the highest priorities.”

The NEP envisions ensuring equitable access to quality education for all students, with a special emphasis on SEDGs. To this end, the NEP clearly articulates that the government should “earmark suitable government funds” and “set clear targets for higher [GER]” for SEDGs.

The NEP’s emphasis on multidisciplinary education and flexibility in curriculum design is one of its fundamental characteristics. This is a step in the right direction towards inclusiveness since it enables students from diverse backgrounds to study a variety of subjects and customise their education to suit their individual needs and interests.

While the NEP has laid the broad scheme for promoting inclusion in HEIs,  Union and state governments must focus on providing incentives and support systems to ensure the representation of SEDGs in higher education, and address the underlying issues of low public investment and the digital divide to promote inclusion in higher education in India.

The NEP seeks to bring institutions closer to the potential learners and therefore recommends establishing high-quality HEIs and special education zones in areas with larger SEDGs. The NEP also aims to enhance gender balance in admissions to HEIs.

While the NEP acknowledges the need to promote diversity and inclusion in HEIs, it must provide concrete steps to address the under-representation of certain groups in these institutions, such as women, SCs and STs. No clear guidelines are laid down to achieve higher GER for women and SEDGs.

Regarding financial inclusion, the NEP is by and large silent on increasing public investment in higher education, which remains low in India. This lack of investment can limit the access of marginalised communities to HEIs.

Further, the NEP’s emphasis on online learning has been criticised for potentially exacerbating the existing digital divide in India and creating further learning barriers for marginalised communities. This is particularly concerning as marginalised communities often have limited access to the internet and technology. Therefore, one of the main criticisms of the NEP is that it needs to go further in addressing the systemic exclusion of marginalised communities from higher education.

Also read: A Pandemic and a Policy: Contextualizing the National Education Policy 2020

The way forward

Individual incomes, national economic growth, and the social well-being of all citizens are impacted by education levels or lack thereof. The pursuit of education offers everyone the possibility to develop and raise their prospects of success in life. Given the importance of education, it is necessary to give everyone a chance to pursue their educational goals.

While there is no question that there are still geographical, social, economic and gender disparities in access to HEIs, the indicator of access equality has improved over time for all groups, especially those from disadvantaged groups. This impressive accomplishment is reflected in the rise in the GERs of students from SC, ST, and OBC categories.

Specific policy interventions are essential for marginalised groups to bridge the existing gap in access to HEIs. In order to achieve this, several strategies recommended in the NEP 2020 can be helpful, such as increasing financial aid and scholarships for socio-economically disadvantaged students, making the curriculum more inclusive, creating bridge courses for students from underprivileged educational backgrounds, strictly enforcing no-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in HEIs, and raising awareness of gender-identity and diversity issues among faculty, guidance counsellors and students.

While the NEP has laid the broad scheme for promoting inclusion in HEIs, Union and state governments must focus on providing incentives and support systems to ensure the representation of SEDGs in higher education, and address the underlying issues of low public investment and the digital divide to promote inclusion in higher education in India. At the same time, in alignment with our constitutional mandate, HEIs must also reflect inclusion and diversity while recruiting faculty members and admitting Ph.D. scholars.

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