Columns Education

As crisis grips education in India, a two-day conference deliberates on the way forward

Neha Mishra & Sayantan Datta

The Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad, and the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy, Krea University, brought together eight speakers to shed light on violent desires, exclusionary tendencies and transformative potentials in India’s education system. This report summarises their key arguments and offers ways to undo systemic discrimination against marginalised groups in India’s top education institutions, including science institutions.

As crisis grips education in India, a two-day conference deliberates on the way forward
As crisis grips education in India, a two-day conference deliberates on the way forward 

The ecosystem of education in India is going through significant changes: even as Indian institutions continue to climb ranks in global metrics, textbooks are being rewritten and students from marginalised backgrounds in India’s elite science institutions are dying by suicide at an alarming rate. The representation of marginalised groups in Indian science classrooms continues to be abysmal, and students are bringing arms to resolve conflicts. In these contexts, it might not be wrong to say that education in India, including science education, is facing an unforeseen crisis. As sociologist Satish Deshpande has remarked, the future of education in India is turbulent”.

To deliberate on this perceived moment of crisis, the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy, Krea University, and the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad, came together to organise an online conference titled Education in India: Violent Desires, Exclusionary Tendencies and Transformative Potentials” on the 26 and 27 of May this year. 

Invited speakers deliberated on the exclusion of marginalised groups from educational institutions, the role of learners’ identities in shaping their experience in these institutions, and the need for allyship and dialogue within these spaces. Further, the speakers also deliberated on how these dialogues and solidarities might transform the ecosystem of education from one where marginalised groups are actively eliminated (what the organisers call necropolitical”) to one where their aspirations are recognised and their identities are affirmed. 

In this report, we summarise the key takeaways from the different presentations in the conference.

(For the concept note, the complete list of organisers and speakers, and the abstracts, please see the abstract book of the conference here.)

How are marginalised groups excluded from education in India?

Recent reports uncontroversially demonstrate the underrepresentation of marginalised groups in educational institutions in India. Per a 2023 Nature report, the numbers of people from marginalised castes and tribes in elite Indian science institutions are abysmal, a fact that also holds true for (cisgender) women and transgender people.

Further, the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT‑B), demonstrated during the conference that elite institutions like IIT‑B fail to adequately adhere to the reservation criteria in their admissions and employment. Similar concerns have been previously raised regarding special recruitment drives of IIT-Madras as well.

Per the APPSC’s data, from 2015 – 2019, IIT‑B has admitted only 19%, 7.5% and 1.64% of its PhD students from Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) backgrounds respectively. These numbers significantly fall below the official reservation mandates of 27%, 15% and 7.5% respectively.

A rift between aspirations and experiences

Despite education being seen as a key driver of mobility for people coming from historically marginalised backgrounds, the experiences of learners whose parents have been engaged in historically stigmatised occupations indicates a contradictory reality.

These learners receive no support from teachers in the university, an experience that appears to be in stark contrast with that in school. In school, teachers established better interpersonal relationships with students from historically marginalised groups and actively assisted them in making important academic choices, such as selecting a particular stream of study.

Further, for learners coming from families of workers in stigmatised occupations, spaces of higher education are deeply isolating. The rift between their lifestyle and that of their more privileged colleagues’ forces many of them to conceal their marginalised caste and class identities, and the occupations of their parents. 

In other words, the promise of education as the great equaliser remains unfulfilled.

The violence of silence

Educational institutions stigmatise not only certain occupations (and therefore, certain castes), but also people coming from non-normative genders, forcing transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary persons to live in the closet. The alternative to hiding their identity is facing intense violence and abuse of verbal, sexual and non-sexual nature. This is one of the reasons why a large number of transgender and gender non-conforming children drop out of education at different stages. 

A more covert form of violence is the lack of conversation around the ways in which gender, caste, and class shape the experience of people in spaces of education, especially science education. This includes a hesitation on people’s part to address questions of caste and gender. 

In the conference, this silence was attributed to the increasing depoliticisation of educational institutions, which reflects an increasing tendency to censor critical viewpoints in these spaces.

The lack of critical viewpoints in educational institutions appears to be in stark contrast with the purpose of education, including science education, which is to inculcate critical thinking rather than obedience to authority. Yet, as the narratives from the speakers highlighted, the overarching focus on merit” coupled with the increasing depoliticisation of campuses is geared towards producing obedient and subservient citizens rather than those who can question policy and demand rights.

The way forward: Re-politicising and democratising education spaces

Acknowledging that education in India is a site of violence against marginalised groups inevitably compels us to put at front and centre the project of social justice in spaces of education in India.

However, conversations around social justice might be difficult to initiate in classrooms, given their hierarchical nature. Thus, democratisation of classroom spaces might be one way; rather than exerting unquestionable authority in their classroom, teachers can help students imbibe critical thinking and dissent by fostering spaces that encourage critical discussions.

Another way to ensure that classrooms and institutions reflect viewpoints from both privileged and marginalised groups is to ensure adequate representation of people from marginalised backgrounds in the classroom. Towards this, affirmative action policies – like reservations – have a major role to play. For example, at the time of writing this report, transgender persons in India have been demanding horizontal reservations in education and employment.

Intersectionality and interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary and intersectional ways of teaching and learning are also key to re-politicising and democratising education. This is because interdisciplinary pedagogies can help break traditional silos, provide new methods of inquiry and investigation, and help cultivate networks of solidarity and collaboration across different disciplines.

For example, consider the case of science institutions, where conversations on democracy, privilege and merit” are rarely found. In such institutions, courses on history of science, and science and technology studies, can lead to transformative changes in how students see themselves and their disciplines.

By encouraging students to consider the social and political contexts in which science, scientists, and scientific institutions operate, educators can enable them to engage with questions surrounding democracy, privilege, and merit within the realm of science. 

From institutes of eminence to institutes of (critical) empathy

Many of the exclusions mentioned in the first part of this report are exacerbated in the elite institutions of the country; this includes gender- and caste-based discrimination. As more and more elite institutions are recognised as institutions of eminence” by the University Grants Commission, it is perhaps not eminence that should be at the heart of successful institutions, but empathy. 

But how might empathy be exercised? By increasing the interaction between privileged and marginalised groups, one creates opportunities for people from privileged backgrounds to listen with care to narratives of marginalised groups. Listening with care allows the privileged to recognise the similarities and differences between their experiences and those of people from marginalised backgrounds. 

This in turn allows people from dominant groups to critically look at their privileges, understand the limitations of their standpoints, and reinvent spaces of education as more democratic, inclusive of and accessible to people from marginalised backgrounds.

Listening with care, therefore, is the starting point for building solidarities that can make education in India more equitable. This conference was an attempt towards the same, and such attempts need to continue and grow.