The government has called a meeting of the vice chancellors of all central universities this month to discuss how to end possible discrimination on campus against socially disadvantaged students.
The meeting between education minister Smriti Irani and the heads of 46 universities on February 18 comes after the suicide by Dalit Phd student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad last month, which triggered a national outcry over alleged social discrimination on campus.
The Opposition is expected to raise Vemula’s death in the Budget session of Parliament beginning February 23, and Union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya’s alleged role in prompting Hyderabad university authorities to suspend Vemula, a Dalit students’ leader.
Following Vemula’s death, Irani had promised steps to ensure there was no social discrimination in universities.
“This meeting is a follow-up of the January meeting,” a government official said, adding it will discuss the University Grants Commission’s 2012 regulation on promotion of equity in higher education institutions.
Experts say on-campus discrimination against socially disadvantaged students remains hidden in plain sight.
“Subtle discrimination is taking place in universities across the country. Students from the deprived section of the society don’t get equal treatment from the faculty and fellow students too which alienates them further,” said Rahul Sonpimple of the Birsa Phule Ambedkar Student Association at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“Many leave mid-way while others don’t opt for Masters. The environment in the universities is also not conducive and Dalit students feel uncomfortable.”
This, in part, may explain the government’s struggle to ensure sustained enrolment of socially disadvantaged students in higher education.
An analysis of government figures shows a sharp dip in the rate of growth in enrolment of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students in higher education over the past four years.
A community-wise gross enrolment ratio (GER) – the ratio of the youth in universities and colleges compared to the total number of youth in higher education age group of 18 to 23 years – reveals how fewer SCs and STs were getting into colleges.
Only 18 of every 100 SC youth made it to college in 2014-15 against a national average of 23.6. For scheduled tribes, the ratio was much lower at 13.3, underlining the skewed employment opportunities for the socially and economically disadvantaged.
The survey covered 33.3 crore students who had enrolled in colleges and universities, including about 45 lakh SC and 16 lakhs ST youth in 2014-15.
Nidhin Shobhana, programme associate of National campaign on Dalit human Rights, said the real picture was much worse since the enrolment ratio did not capture the higher drop-out rate of people from the weaker sections.
“And it will not improve unless universities take affirmative action to retain them,” he said, calling it a big worry since education was the gateway to better job opportunities.