Our inaugural speaker event featured a visit by Uma Vishnu, a journalist with The Indian Express who wrote a recent series (1, 2, 3) of articles on the controversial explusion of 73 first-year students at IIT Roorkee. Around 10 faculty members were present, and we had a lively discussion lasting nearly 2.5 hours. Some of the salient issues that came up:
- Of the 73 students, 31 were ST, 23 SC, 8 OBC, 4 PD, and 7 General. Thus, over 90% of the students were from disadvantaged communities, which clearly points to a failure of the system rather than a failure of individual students.
- The new rule of a minimum cumulative grade-point average (CGPA) of 5 to continue to remain on the rolls at IIT Roorkee was responsible for the vast majority of expulsions. Based on the earlier rule of earning a minimum of 22 credits after the first year, only 6 of the 73 students would have been in line for expulsion. Many students had passed all courses they had taken, yet had been expelled due to missing out on the CGPA criterion.
- Many of the students had a sense that their socioeconomic/linguistic background was a disadvantage, which restricted their opportunities at IIT, compared to their more privileged peers.
- The language barrier in particular was identified as a major disadvantage. A large proportion of the students had been schooled in Hindi or regional language mediums. The remedial English language instruction they were supposed to receive at IIT was insufficient. It did not prepare them to be able to follow lectures or participate in tutorials conducted in English. Technical vocabulary in particular was a problem. Dr. Simona Sawhney mentioned an initiative that had been taken by some senior students under the aegis of the Board for Students' Welfare (BSW) to mentor first-year students from non-English medium backgrounds in this particular respect: for instance, a glossary had been prepared with translations of technical terms from English to Hindi. A longstanding idea to set up some kind of dedicated centre for language pedagogy and writing on campus, perhaps along the lines of JNU's Linguistic Empowerment Cell, was also raised in this context.
- The case of one particular student (Ashish) was discussed in some detail: he struggled with the English instruction to begin with, but managed to do well and secure a CGPA above 7 with a great deal of effort. He would note down all unfamiliar words in class and go look them up in a dictionary; he also made use of online videos in Hindi to improve his understanding of the course material. It would surely seem too much to expect that every student would be able to put in so much time and effort, just to overcome their initial disadvantage. And doing so would greatly restrict their opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities and develop in other ways, as already noted.
- There was some discussion of diversity programmes at MIT, which is often seen as a role model for the IITs. However, MIT seems to have been much more proactive in trying to engage with students from historically disadvantaged and under-represented communities, and understanding the specific issues and concerns faced by them. Recently they appointed an ‘Institute Community and Equity Officer’. This is one aspect of the MIT system that IITs might particularly benefit from emulating and adapting to the Indian context.
To summarise, the discussion helped to highlight many connections and intersections between the issues of pedagogy, caste, and language. Many ideas emerged for how the IITs can do a better job of providing an environment and pedagogical framework in which all of our students can flourish, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of these ideas are already being experimented with, and we are keen to try many others. The IITs need to take pedagogical practices more seriously as a topic for research and discussion: not only should we be more open to moving beyond traditional models and explicitly addressing the heterogeneous needs of our increasingly diverse student population, but we should also be conducting systematic studies to assess the efficacy of such interventions. At the least, easier access to (anonymised) data on student performance and how it relates to factors such as caste/linguistic/economic background, as well as different teaching models, could be very helpful in better understanding where things are going wrong and how we might be able to fix them.
‘Institute Community and Equity Officer’