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Questioning Excellence

Expelling 73 Students in IIT Roorkee

Sthabir Khora (sthabir@tiss.edu) teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The recent expulsion of 73 students by IIT Roorkee and the subsequent decision to allow re-examination following the orders of the Uttarakhand High Court has ramifications far beyond the ambit of education—almost all of these students belong to the reserved categories. Can one take away in the name of autonomy and merit what one gives in the name of social justice?

Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee had expelled 73 students for under performance, of which 90 % belonged to reserved categories. Later they were allowed to take a re-examination following the Uttarakhand High Court's order. The initial move by the IIT cannot be restricted to the single act of expulsion from an institution of higher education—it has wider ramifications. This act can be replicated by any other educational institution, in any other sphere. The question that needs to be asked is this—can one take away in the name of autonomy/merit what one enables by way of social justice?

Reservation and Merit

There are two ways to understand scheduled caste and scheduled tribe (SC/ST) reservation in education institutions. According to one argument the resources (seats in educational institution) belong to society at large and society can dispose of it the fairest way possible. SC/ST students are constituents of society and therefore historical wrongs are being corrected by providing means to affordable higher education.  Exclusive merit argument is not applicable in this case.

The other way reservation of SC/ST can be understood in India is in terms of inter-generational restorative justice (Goldman 1979). According to this, if the principle of justice is violated at one time it has to be restored subsequently, otherwise justice has no meaning. Subsequent generation can be recompensed on behalf of the generation which was wronged because the wronged generation is dead. The resource to recompense comes from society at large which was originally responsible for the widespread discrimination in the first place.

All these arguments are now somewhat settled, framed by the constitution and formalised by the state. Upholders of the “so called merit” argument therefore tend to agree on this one time “concession.” However what proponents of merit propose is that once admitted the SC/ST students have to conform to the “general yardstick.”

Institutions and Autonomy

The issue of “general yardstick” and autonomy is integrally linked. One can draw fruitfully from the debate on particular professions and autonomy in this regard. Professions are granted autonomy on the premise that “they know best” (for you). Similarly universities are to be given autonomy because they know best (for society).  

However, Larson (1977) points out that autonomy should be distinguished from sovereignty. Autonomy is a tacit agreement between the profession and society. Society grants autonomy to the profession in good faith that the profession will not misuse autonomy.  The abuse of autonomy is purported to be checked by a “code of conduct.”

Autonomy and “code of conduct” does not prevent abuse—for example, doctors are accused of professional malpractice with alarming regularity and can be booked under the consumer protection act. Similarly, universities/academic institutions are to be granted autonomy on the premise that they know best, but there could be exceptions there as well. Thus opinion is divided on the limits of this autonomy and the juncture at which governments should step in to address problems in these institutions.

Autonomy implies discretion which is a double edged sword—it can do both good and bad. There is no autonomy if ends and means are highly defined. Luckily ends and means in education organisations do not follow bureaucratic diktats.  

It is in this kind of a situation that discrimination can masquerade as discretion. First, what is the ideal level of quality bench mark to be maintained?  A particular benchmark requires removal of 73 students. Move the benchmark a little higher; it will require more students to be excluded. This begs the question at what level 24 carat shuddha (pure) merit will be attained. And, if these 73 students were not removed, how it would have affected the pursuit of quality by others?

Excellence for All

If we assume the IIT entrance examination and subsequent education in IIT as a coherent two part system, then the reserved categories necessarily require additional support in the second part of the system after their entry into the first part of the system. 

However the discrimination continues there with arguments put forth like—why should IITs subsidise what could be interpreted as the fallout of a broken secondary school education system?  The secondary education in turn will blame the primary education. In primary education a significant portion of the blame will be on social cultural capital or the divine who created such castes.

Elite institutions like IITs are ideally positioned to cater to a third generation higher education participant rather than a first generation learner. Thus, when a first generation enters these institutions, s/he faces an uphill task. An inability to communicate in English or poor skills in their chosen subjects is only a part of the problem.

It is best to illustrate this with the case of a Dalit student, studying for a masters degree in science at an IIT, to speculate what can work and why. The student failed in a course on “programming with C language” that was common to BTech and MSc. The remedial class was not necessarily a forum for strengthening concepts in the coursework, it was relegated to be an inferior version of the regular class by design—an MTech teaching assistant, rather than a full-fledged professor, was teaching a class of 50. Fortunately the student had an MTech roommate who made the effort to help him because both belonged to the same state.  Thus, mentoring, which is more effective, has its sociological dimensions.

Institutions should look into their curricula and supporting structures when large numbers of students fail. The fault also lies with the way teacher-student relationships in higher education are established. This is not just an academic transaction it has several socioeconomic factors working for as well as against it.  

Islands of Excellence

Institutes of “national” importance should not feel burdened by national imperatives that are guided by the concerns of the privileged. If these islands of excellence are subsidised by the state, and in turn by society—often dubbed by neoliberals as the privatisation of public resources—then their actions cannot be beyond scrutiny.

IITs have not achieved their eminent position in India endogenously. They were designed from the start to be a class apart—perhaps even to exclude several others. Fine-tuning their teaching and research programs to the developmental needs of a country seeped in discrimination is the need of the hour. Therefore, the question of whether merit can be defined by the circumstantially lucky few needs to be asked again and again.

References

Goldman, AH (1979): Justice and Reverse Discrimination, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Larson, MS (1977): The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis, London: University Of California Press.

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