Hyderabad Central University: RTIs filed by Ambedkar Students’ Association reveal apparent casteism in PhD interviews 

From hierarchical patterns in grading, to awarding zero marks to reserved candidates - the report alleges the admission process to be in disproportionate favour of Upper Caste candidates
ASA-HCU report alleges casteism in PhD Interviews | Image: EdexLive
ASA-HCU report alleges casteism in PhD Interviews | Image: EdexLive

The Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), Hyderabad Central University had accused the Hyderabad Central University of “gross discrimination” against reserved category students, that is, students belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC) categories, in the interview round for PhD admissions via a seven-page report it took out on March 30. 

The report has found that seven departments in particular — Biochemistry, Computer Science, Plant Physics, Electronics, Applied Mathematics, Microbiology, and Physics -— seemed to favour unreserved or general category students over reserved category students by admission interview panellists. 

The report, which was based on data from entrance test and interview marks of top scorers of each department in each category acquired under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, states that despite scoring similar scores as students from unreserved category, the reserved category students scored disproportionately low marks in the interview round compared. ASA alleges that this is a deliberate attempt by the departments to keep the general category exclusive to unreserved students. 

“The report makes it abundantly clear that caste is alive and thriving in higher educational institutions. Structural discrimination and disadvantages are chipping away the gains of reservation from OBC, SC and ST students,” they stated via their official Twitter handle, @asahcu.

Closely observing the admissions every year

This report, says ASA, is not a isolated act; rather, it is part of a series of activities carried out by the association during admissions. Every year, the organisation pays close attention to the admission process to watch for discrepancies and caste discrimination in admissions.

“The admissions process, as everyone knows, is the entry gateway into the university and here is one of the areas where our people are excluded and discriminated against,” a member from the association, on the condition of anonymity, says. Thus, they undertake several initiatives to assist students from the unreserved category with the admission process and advocate against discriminatory admission practices. 

Their common activities include setting up help desks to assist students, photocopying and filing admission forms, interview preparation workshops, seminars and more. 

Navigating red tape

ASA says that the biggest challenge they faced while preparing the report is obtaining all the information they needed through RTIs. 

The association had started working on the report two months prior to its publication. “As it takes 30 days to receive information under the RTI act, we filed the RTI for the entrance exam and interview marks right after the admission process had concluded,” they said. 

They further said that they had to make multiple visits to the RTI office to make ensure that they receive complete information. 

However, once this data was finally in place, there were huge differences in the entrance exam marks and the interview marks obtained by reserved category students. As a result, another RTI was filed seeking data on the interview panels, to check in which departments these differences could be noted. 

Gross, graded inequality in marking

Elaborating on an earlier point, the report alleges that awarding SC, ST, and OBC candidates low marks in the interview round, despite them scoring good marks in the entrance exam, is a way to keep them out of the general category and ensure that the seats are filled by unreserved students. 

Calling it a “subversion of the policy of affirmative action”, the report states that it “turns the principle of social justice upside down”. It further claims, “Categorisation, which exists solely for the purpose of positive discrimination, seems to have been used blatantly for negative discrimination, which is unconstitutional and a grave violation of the principle of social justice.”

Moreover, there seems to be a hierarchical pattern in how the marks were awarded, much akin to the caste hierarchy in India. Candidates from unreserved category seemed to be awarded more marks than the lower caste candidates from the SC, ST, and OBC categories.

To illustrate using an example, the average score of the top five unreserved candidates for the Applied Mathematics PhD entrance exam was 38.33 and their average interview score was 11.37. However, the average entrance exam and interview marks for OBC students were 40.67 (a score higher than those of the unreserved students) and a meagre 5.3. 

In a similar fashion, the average exam scores of both SC and ST categories were 50 marks — the highest in the department. However, the average interview marks was 5.7 for the SC category and 5.3 for the ST category. 

Furthermore, the report also states that out of 28 seats in these departments, 27 of them have been filled with unreserved category students. Other departments, despite having discrepancies, have fared better — with 34 out of 79 seats, that is, more than half of the seats being filled by students from the reserved categories. 

ASA says that this report, backed by data from several RTI responses, affirms what they had been saying for so long — that the general category admission has been skewed drastically in favour of unreserved category students in the seven departments due to discriminatory marking.

“The reservation policy, which is supposed to ensure that there is a minimum percentage of students from reserved category, is now being used in the university to limit the number of reserved category students to the bare minimum,” the report states. 

Some candidates were even awarded ZERO marks

In addition to these disparities, the report also sheds light on a few extreme cases where reserved candidates were awarded zero marks in other departments on unknown grounds.

For instance, the report talks of an OBC student in the Department of Applied Mathematics who had scored the highest marks (45 marks) in the written test. However, he was awarded a mere 3.2 marks out of 30 in the interview. Two faculty members on the panel also gave this student only 1 mark.

“How are the students, who have secured good marks in the written examinations, given extremely low marks in the interview when both written exam & interview tests are composed and conducted by the same panellists, both to evaluate the research aptitude and subject knowledge of the students?” asks ASA in the report. 

Demands stated

First and foremost, ASA demanded the university constitute a committee to review this pattern of discrimination found in these departments at the earliest. These panels are to have representatives from SC, ST, and OBC communities, along with one representative from the student union. “It should also come up with guidelines to prevent such patterns from recurring again," they said. 

They say that awarding zero marks to students who already cleared the entrance exam has no rationale and undermines the validity of the entrance exam. Further, they say that awarding only unreserved students with abysmal marks like a zero only confirms their suspicions that it is just a way to prevent them from pursuing their higher education. Thus, they demand that no student is eliminated with dismal marks like zero in the interviews and all students are evaluated fairly.

The report also questions what exactly had been evaluated in the interviews if the marks awarded were in correlation with the caste category of the candidates and alleges that this is evidence of a lack of objective criteria employed to evaluate students’ research aptitude, research proposal and subject matter expertise. 

Moreover, ASA also alleged that some of the departments where the differences in interview markings were most stark, refused to provide faculty-wise marks of the interview panel.

“They responded to our RTIs that all the marks to the candidates were provided on the basis of common consensus and that there was no record of the individual marks provided by any faculty. This is a non-transparent way of marking candidates, further adds to the arbitrariness of the evaluation process and allows faculties to escape accountability. We demand that all members of the interview panel be required to provide individual marks to the candidates and maintain a record of the same,” they said.

Response and further action

“A lot of our people, who scored low marks in the interview round despite doing well in the entrance exam, appreciated our report. They felt seen and their plight was represented by the report,” ASA says about the response that the report garnered from SC, ST, and OBC students. 

They say that since they do not have a parent party and their efforts are driven by a sense of justice and commitment to Ambedkarite ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, this response is extremely gratifying. “We have worked very hard to make the report as lucid and its data as visually accessible as possible. We want this to work in favour of reserved category students,” they said. 

Now that the report is out, they say, the next step is to ensure that the university implements their demands. 

“As an independent organisation, we have always functioned like a pressure group to make our demands met. Now that we are also a part of the student union, ASA can also raise the issue in academic councils and meetings. In addition, we have shared the report with the concerned authorities and will press them to act on it,” they said. 

“Moreover, we have a strong case as our report is backed by irrefutable data. This will let the administration know that we are being vigilant and the pressure on them to ensure fairness is stronger,” they added.

Furthermore, ASA states that these demands are in line with UGC (University Grants Commission) guidelines and will set a good precedent for other universities if implemented. “The demands we state not only prevent discrimination in the admission process, but also help the university filter in better candidates,” they said. 

Earlier, in a similar instance, ASA had uncovered through RTIs that reserved category candidates were not awarded marks at all and were marked as “not suitable”, violating UGC norms. In the same case, it had also been found that the double-blind system was not being followed properly. “Persistent struggle of ASA over the years has ensured that all students were marked, and the double-blind system was by-and-large followed (this time),” they said.

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