Address systemic exclusion of SC/ST/OBC students from PhD programmes: AIOBCSA writes to UGC

'Every effort must be made to ensure there is no discrimination,' says the UGC Chairman, adding it is the responsibility of the universities to ensure a just admission process
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

Alleging deep-rooted exclusion policies being implemented by universities against students from the reserved categories, the All India OBC Students Association (AIOBCSA) has written a letter to the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, M Jagadesh Kumar, raising concerns about the fresh draft of PhD regulations released for feedback by the UGC.

The UGC draft recommendations for PhD regulations allot 100 per cent weightage to the interview for students who have qualified JRF/NET. The regulations have also said that 60 per cent of the students will be selected via the JRF/NET exam and 40 per cent will come in through the entrance exam conducted by the university. In light of the second scenario, 70 per cent weightage will be given to the written exam and 30 per cent to the interview. These recommendations have been in place since 2018, and were reaffirmed by the fresh guidelines as well. "The method of giving 100 per cent weightage to interviews has been followed for decades in institutions such as the IITs as well. It is not unique to the universities," says Prof M Jagadesh Kumar. 

The UGC's stance on the matter, says Prof Kumar is one of ensuring zero discrimination in the PhD admission process. "We should make every effort to ensure zero discrimination. It is the responsibility of the universities to ensure a transparent admission process," he says, adding that there should be zero tolerance for discrimination. 

Last year, the Jawaharlal Nehru University was rocked by allegations of discrimination in the PhD viva voce against students from marginalised communities. Students who spoke with Edexlive claimed that they were awarded a paltry 1 or 2 marks out of 30, which ended up ruining their chances to qualify for the PhD seat. Additionally, a couple of students claimed that the interview panel was outrightly discriminatory against students from SC/ST/OBC categories.

This was despite the fact that these Departmental Research Committee, as they are referred to in the UGC's draft guidelines are not supposed to have access to information such as the student's category. The JNU administration, in the centre of the storm last year, had issued a statement banking on this fact to claim that discrimination was not possible. "The members of the PhD Selection Committee who conduct the viva voce are not provided with the information regarding the categories of the candidates in order to eliminate any bias and prejudice whatsoever," read the statement. JNU called its admission policy "fair, transparent and inclusive," and said that observers are appointed for the committees to ensure no discrimination takes place.

Prof Subhajit Naskar, a Professor at Jadavpur University, who also gave the JNU PhD selection viva voce in 2012 and was awarded one mark, claims, "The surname gives it away. You cannot hide caste when they have the student's surname. Then they also judge these students based on their appearance and their command of the language. They do not need information on the caste to stereotype against students from marginalised communities."

"This is systemic discrimination that is keeping marginalised students from their studies," claims President of the AIOBCSA, Kiran Kumar. "There is no mention of a grievance redressal system in the fresh guidelines, and they do not take note of the complaints of discrimination," he adds. The Departmental Research Committee is the final word on a candidate's competence to pursue PhD from their centre and institution. The AIOBCSA adds that representation on the panel must also be rectified and that 50 per cent of the panel must belong to marginalised categories so they aren't forced to merely endorse the opinion of the rest of the board.

However, Prof Kumar says that one member who is allotted to the Departmental Research Committee is specifically there to ensure that the process is fair and free from discrimination and that the students feel comfortable in front of the panel. "If the universities feel the need to increase the number of members from marginalised communities on the panel, they are free to do so," says the Chairman. He adds, "Each university has been given a circular by the UGC that mandates the creation of a grievance redressal committee, both at the level of each department, and at the level of the university. It is the responsibility of the Vice-Chancellors of the universities to ensure that the committees are sensitised, and that grievances are addressed at the earliest."

JNU's Vice-Chancellor, Prof Santishree Pandit, who was appointed in February this year, claimed earlier in March that she had no knowledge about the issue and students have not approached her with the same. "There have been one or two cases where I have been told that some of the professors do discriminate. Maybe we have to sensitise them that they cannot use primordial identities," she said. When asked about the possibility of students being discriminated against on the basis of their surnames, she suggested that the method of mentioning surnames should be done away with. "In Tamil Nadu, names are written as first names and the father's name. That is a very good method. Why do you have surnames that can identify your caste? Change it. I will give you the Dravidian answer for it," said the VC.

Kiran Kumar also claims that the University of Hyderabad, where he is currently a student, is also displaying instances of systematic discrimination. "In the school of Chemistry, for example, students from marginalised communities, who couldn't get a seat in their category, and somehow managed to get a seat under the general category are being excluded from the system. The authorities are segregating students under each guide on the basis of caste. They have my rank and my area of specialisation from the interview. They will then exclude that particular specialisation and the category I got the seat through from the faculty I wish to study with," he claims, adding that the PhD guidelines are silent on such exclusions.

In their letter to the Chairman of the UGC, the organisation has also demanded that the marks earned by the students in the written interviews of the university should not be disclosed to the panel. Additionally, the letter says, "Universities must declare the marks obtained by the students in entrance examinations and interviews in the public domain. Non-disclosing of the results in the public domain will raise many doubts regarding the transparency and accountability of the admission procedure."

In response to that demand, Prof Kumar tells Edexlive that such a decision is left to the discretion of the universities. "Each university is autonomous. If students feel marks should be disclosed, universities must make them available. And the Grievance Redressal Committee should deal with any instances of alleged discrimination," he adds.

The letter has also said that since the MPhil programme has been done away with, the UGC must increase the number of PhD scholars allocated to Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor to 10, 8 and 6. It has also raised concerns about the possibility of misuse of the None Found Suitable options in reserved categories and asked for a ban on the same. 

Prof Kumar says the UGC already allows double the average number of PhD students under professors even in an institution such as the IISc. "Globally, even in the best universities, the number of students working with a professor is not more than three or four students. The UGC has said that a professor can guide up to eight students. That's already too many slots with the professor," he believes. Regarding allegations that reserved category seats left empty are being filled by students from the general category, Prof Kumar says that that goes against constitutional requirements and that it should not happen.

The AIOBCSA also claims that 15 days is hardly any time for the public to read, understand and analyse the recommendations. "We have been writing to all the democratically elected Members of Parliament (MPs) to create awareness about the proposed guidelines and the systematic procedure of exclusion," shares Kiran.

Related Stories

No stories found.