Friday 26 February 2021

PhD entry in IITs tougher for students from marginalised communities

 Despite official policy, OBC, SC and ST applicants less likely to gain admission as compared to those from General Categories

Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe applicants are half as likely to get selected for a Ph.D. programme at leading IITs in the country as aspirants from the General Category (GC) are.

Data collated from a series of RTI applications, including from The Hindu, on the number of applicants versus the number of those admitted to Ph.D. programmes in the five older IITs has indicated that the acceptance rate is skewed against students from the SC, ST, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities.

The acceptance rate, which refers to the number of students selected for every 100 students who applied, stood at 4% for students from historically privileged castes (General Category). It falls to 2.7% for OBC students and further down to just 2.16% for SCs and 2.2% for STs.

Policy ignored

This finding comes against the backdrop of the Education Ministry’s data submitted to Parliament last year showing the failure of the IITs to fill Ph.D. seats as per reservation.

It showed that of the total admissions made by all IITs from 2015 to 2019, only 2.1% went to STs and 9.1% to SCs. The government’s reservation policy mandates allocation of 7.5% seats for students from the STs and 15% from SCs.

Similarly, 23.2% seats went to applicants from the OBCs against the 27% mandated by reservation. Remaining 65.6%, or roughly two-thirds of all the seats, went to GC applicants.

The IITs have often cited the lack of applicants from the marginalised communities for the situation. However, the RTI data reveals quite the opposite.

Five-year period

The RTI query data covered 3,279 Ph.D. admissions made from among 95,445 applicants in the five-year period from 2015 to 2019 in the four popular departments of civil (CE), electrical (EE), computer science (CSE), and mechanical (ME) engineering departments in the IITs of Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, and Kharagpur.

These five IITs accounted for nearly 60% of all Ph.D. admissions made by all 23 IITs. Within these five IITs, the four departments included in the analysis accounted for roughly 25% of all the admissions made in around 80 different departments offering Ph.D.s.

The trend of acceptance rate being significantly higher for GC students is more pronounced in the Delhi, Madras, Bombay and Kanpur IITs. Though the skewed acceptance rate was observed in IIT Kharagpur also, it did marginally better.

In absolute numbers, only 238 of the 11,019 SC applicants and 40 of the 1,809 ST applicants got selected, according to the RTI data.

The disparity is more visible when the proportion of each category of applicants was compared with their proportion among those who gained admission.

The percentage of GC students among those admitted was always higher than their percentage among those applied. However, the converse was true for OBC, SC and ST candidates. Their percentages among those admitted was always lower than their respective percentages among applicants.

For instance, in IIT Delhi, while 63.3% of all applicants were from GC, they accounted for 76.3% among those admitted. In contrast, the percentage of OBC, SC and ST candidates dropped from 22.9%, 11.9% and 1.9% in the application stage to 17%, 6% and 0.7%, respectively, in the admission stage.

Few of the specific instances where the skewed admission rate was striking included the January 2019 admission cycle in EEE in IIT Delhi. Of the 195 SC applicants, only three were selected (acceptance rate of 1.5%) while none were selected from the 30 ST applicants. In contrast, 50 students were selected from the 1,071 GC applicants (4.7%).

In the July 2016 admission cycle in EEE in IIT Kanpur, 29 candidates were selected from 396 GC applicants (7.3%) while not a single one of the 46 SC applicants made it.

Bucking the trend

Interestingly, data from IIT Guwahati painted a different picture, countering the explanations for the disparity in other IITs.

According to data on 456 admissions and 13,033 applicants provided by IIT Guwahati, the acceptance rates for students from marginalised communities were roughly similar or even higher than GC students.

While the acceptance rate for GC candidates was 3.3%, it was 4% for OBCs, 3.4% for SCs, and 4.9% for STs.

While IIT Guwahati also failed to fulfil the reservation-mandated allocation of seats, it was the only major IIT that came closest to the desired numbers. The percentage of OBC, SC and ST candidates among those admitted were respectively 21%, 12.3% and 5.5%.

‘Selection bias’

Responding to the data, Professor and Chair in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University Ajantha Subramanian said it was far more likely that the failure to fill the reserved seats was due to selection bias.

Professor Subramanian, who has written on the workings of upper caste privileges in the IITs in her book The Caste of Merit, told The Hindu, “There has been long-standing opposition among IIT administrators and faculty to reservations, which they see as a form of unjust government intervention in their meritocratic institutions.”

Arguing that the data showed the pyramidal structure of Indian education in which exclusion increased as one moved through advancing degrees, Professor Subramanian said the argument of “merit” was often used as an alibi for continuing social exclusion.

“A truly just admissions policy must directly address the vastly different circumstances from which students come so that so-called ‘merit’ is recognised as the by-product of unfair structural advantages and not simply as innate talent,” she said.

The recent report of an Education Ministry-constituted committee, which included administrators from a few IITs, has faced criticism for recommending the abolition of reservation in faculty recruitment.

Sukhdeo Thorat, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and former Chairman of University Grants Commission, who previously headed a committee to look into caste-based discrimination at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said the data highlighted the need for a further detailed study on the issue.

He stressed the need for increased transparency in the admission process and the presence of OBC, SC and ST members on the selection panels.

ChintaBar, a student collective in IIT Madras, has said the acceptance rate must ideally be higher for students from reserved categories with different cut-off marks for them.

Pointing out that the number of applicants from reserved categories was many times higher than the reserved seats, it urged the IITs to follow reservation in letter and spirit.

The Hindu reached out to the six IITs for their comment. IIT Delhi and IIT Kharagpur did not respond to repeated queries.

The other IITs ruled out the possibility of any bias in the selection process, and said the admissions were conducted in a fair manner. Confirming that the reservation policies were followed in all seats funded by the Education Minstry and different cut-off marks were followed for reserved category students, they said efforts were being made to fill seats as per reservation.

IIT Guwahati did not directly answer a question on reasons for the acceptance rate being uniform. The institute, however, said it was working towards admission policies to ensure all seats under reserved categories were filled.

Students from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities have significantly poor representation and acceptance rate in Ph.D programmes at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, analysis of data obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) Act revealed.

The analysis was based on data provided by IIT Madras regarding 2,195 admissions made from 54,462 applicants in the five-year period from 2015 to 2019.

The data showed that SC students numbered only 7.6% and STs were just 1.2%. The reservation policy requires that 15% of seats be allocated to SCs and 7.5% to STs.

Moreover, the data showed a significant difference in the acceptance rate, which refers to the number of students admitted for every 100 applicants. While General Category (GC) students, which in the case of the IITs predominantly refers to those from historically privileged communities, had an acceptance rate of 4.4%, it was 2.9% for SCs and 2.7% for STs.

Only 167 of the 5,855 SC applicants and 27 of the 991 ST applicants were selected.

Interestingly, the institution had filled the reservation-mandated seats for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), thanks to nine of the 16 departments that managed to fill the seats. . 29.8% of the seats went to OBC candidates against the 27% of minimum allocation to be done as per reservation norms. The remaining 61.6% seats went to the GC category.

Though IIT Madras had admitted 3,874 Ph.D. scholars from 2015 to 2019 according to the data submitted by the Ministry of Education in the Parliament last year, it provided community-wise data on applications and admissions for only 2,195 admissions (57% of the total).

Despite appeals through RTI, a few of the 16 research departments in IIT Madras did not give data for some semesters. For the Mathematics Department, the administration said it had data for only one semester.

It can be noted, however, that the RTI data followed a fairly similar pattern to that of the data submitted to the Parliament in terms of seat allocation. Of the 3,874 admissions, 64.4% went to the GCs, 27.9% to OBCs, and only 6.4% to SCs and 1.3% to STs.

The RTI data threw light on how the difference in acceptance rate was more pronounced in some departments.

For instance, in Aerospace Engineering (AE), the acceptance rate was 6.6% for GCs and only 1.7% for SCs. In absolute numbers, only five of the 292 SC applicants were selected. In contrast, 100 applicants were selected from the 1,520 GC candidates.

A stark difference in acceptance rate was also observed in Applied Mechanics, Electrical Engineering, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Management Studies, between GC and SC applicants.

The Department of Computer Science and Engineering had one of the highest number of applicants from SC and ST categories. From the 755 SC applicants, only four were selected and from 136 ST applicants, none were selected. 

While the overall acceptance rate was lower in the department, it was lower still for SC and ST applicants.

Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering were among the exceptions, with similar acceptance rates for all categories. While most departments had poor acceptance rates for STs, departments like Physics, Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, and Ocean Engineering, had better acceptance rates for SCs. Consequently, they came closer to filling seats as per the reservation rules.

Ruling out the possibility that the difference in acceptance rate was due to selection bias, Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras, said that the institution in fact adopted a strategy of calling a high percentage of SC and ST applicants for interview.

He said that an internal analysis of the past three years of data showed that SC and ST candidates were roughly 10% and 1.7% of the total applicants to the institution. He said that while 32% of applicants were called for an interview overall, the rate was 65% for SC and ST candidates.

“Only 25 to 30% of those from SC/ST categories who are called attended the interview,” he said. While the percentage selected among those interviewed was 24% overall, it was 16% for the reserved categories. “The acceptance rate for SC/ST is therefore not lower given that the calling rate is double,” he said.

On how the institution filled the seats reserved for OBC with the acceptance rate being better, he said, “We do not know why, but are happy that this is so.”

RTI data for 2015-2019 reveals poor acceptance rate for students from marginalised communities, with 25 of 26 departments not filling OBC, SC quotas either.

None of the 26 departments in IIT Bombay managed to fill seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe students in Ph.D. programmes between 2015 to 2019, according to data obtained through Right to Information queries.

The data obtained by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, a student collective in IIT Bombay, showed that 25 of the 26 departments failed to fill Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Scheduled Castes (SC) quota as well. Eleven of the 26 departments did not admit a single student under ST category in the period under question.

Of the 2,874 admissions for which data was provided by the institution, 71.6 % went to General Category (GC) students, which in terms of IITs predominantly constituted students from historically privileged communities; 19.2 % went to OBCs, 7.5 % to SCs and 1.6 % to STs. Reservation policy demands a minimum allocation of 27% to OBCs, 15% to SCs and 7.5% to STs.

Skewed entry

In 13 of the 26 departments, more than 75% of the seats went to students under GC.

The data showed the acceptance rate, which refers to the number of students selected for every 100 applicants, to be lower for students from reserved categories than those from GC. While the acceptance rate was 3.8% for GC, it was 3.1% for OBCs and STs and 2.5% for SCs.

In 16 of the 26 departments, this skew in acceptance rate was more pronounced with SC and ST students having acceptance rates at half or lower those for GC applicants.

For instance, Electrical Engineering (EE) and Mechanical Engineering (ME) departments had the highest number of ST applicants. While two of the 148 ST applicants got selected in EE with an acceptance rate of 1.4%, the acceptance rate was 3.8% for GC. In ME, not a single ST candidate from 110 applicants got selected whereas 168 students were selected from 4,590 applicants under GC with an acceptance rate of 3.7%.

In the Energy Sciences and Engineering department, only 5 of the 610 SC applicants got selected with an acceptance rate of 0.8%. In contrast 82 from 3,902 GC applicants got selected with an acceptance rate of 2.1%.

Computer Science was one of the few departments that recorded dismal acceptance rates across OBC, SC and ST categories. Only five from 797 OBC applicants, four from 495 SC applicants and one from 78 ST applicants were selected with an acceptance rate of 0.6%, 0.8% and 1.3% respectively. In contrast 69 applicants from 2,997 GC applicants were selected with an acceptance rate of 2.3%.

The Centre for Studies in Resource Engineering (CSRE) and SJM School of Management (SJMSM) were the two departments that did not admit a single student from among SC and ST applicants. The two departments together selected 74 students from among 1,780 applicants under GC. However, none were selected from 313 SC and ST applicants.

Environment Science and Engineering (ESE) and Centre for Policy Studies were the only departments to fill seats reserved for OBC and SC students. ESE and Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) came closer to filling seats reserved for STs. HSS also had marginally better acceptance rate for OBC, SC and ST applicants.


The data also indicated that more students from marginalised communities were rejected at the interview stage.

A comparison of the proportion of students from different categories showed that their proportion remained fairly the same at the application stage and the interview stage. Overall, around 12% of applicants got rejected; the remaining 88% made it to the interview stage.

However, among those selected post the interviews, while the percentage of GC increased to 71.6%, the proportion of students from all other categories went down.

GC candidates accounted for 64.8%, OBCs 22.2%, SCs 11.1% and STs 1.9% in both application and interview stages. However, among those selected post the interviews, while the percentage of GC increased to 71.6%, the proportion of students from all other categories went down.

‘Fair selection’

In response to queries on the data, the IIT Bombay administration said that the selection process was fair and transparent.

“Lower cut-offs and extra efforts are made to take candidates as per reservation categories to fill the seats,” a spokesperson for the Institute said.

On the acceptance rate being different, the spokesperson said, “IITs have very high expectations of our student input, which is needed to carry out research towards a Ph.D.”

“While we do get sufficient candidates in certain departments, in some other departments, students of the required calibre tend to take up industry jobs rather than join for a Ph.D which has extra uncertainties and lower income levels during Ph.D and in some areas even post Ph.D. It is possible that the family background and economic level may have an impact on such candidates applying for a Ph.D. This requires a proper socio-economic study,” the spokesperson added.

(Source: The Hindu)

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