At IITs, PhD Applicants from Marginalised Communities Have Much Lower Acceptance Rate

New Delhi: Scholars from marginalised communities are significantly underrepresented in PhD programmes at Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in the country and applicants from these communities also have a lower acceptance rate.

The data, collated and analysed by The Hindu in a three-part series, flies in the face of the common defence put forward by these institutes that they have fewer PhD scholars from marginalised communities due to the lack of applicants.

The failure of IITs to fulfil the government-mandated policy of reservation in both admissions and appointments has become apparent over the past few years. Data submitted in parliament by the education ministry in March 2020 showed that these institutes did not meet the quotas reserved for marginalised communities.

The Hindu reported that the acceptance rate – the number of admissions granted for every 100 applicants – stood at 4% for students from historically privileged castes or the general category. However, for applicants from the Other Backward Classes (OBC), it is just 2.7%. The acceptance rate drops even lower for applicants from Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), at 2.16% and 2.2% respectively. This points to a ‘selection bias’ and not a lack of candidates, experts told the newspaper.

The data is collated from the five older IITs – Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Kharagpur. The newspaper sought information over the five year period between 2015 and 2019, covering 3,279 PhD admissions granted from among 95,445 applicants in four popular engineering departments: civil, electrical, computer science and mechanical.

The proportion of general category students among those admitted was always higher than their percentage among those who applied. The opposite was true for OBC, SC and ST candidates. The report gives the example of in IIT Delhi, where applicants were from the general category accounted for 63.3%. However, they accounted for 76.3% of 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,” The Hindu said.

IITs are mandated to allocate 7.5% of their seats to students from ST communities and 15% to students from SC communities. Also, 27% of the seats are reserved for OBC students.

‘Selection bias’

Harvard University professor Ajantha Subramanian told The Hindu that “it was far more likely that the failure to fill the reserved seats was due to selection bias”.

Subramanian wrote the book The Caste of Merit, which discusses the workings of upper caste privileges in IITs. “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,” she said.

She said the argument of “merit” is often used as an alibi for continuing social exclusion.

Sukhdeo Thorat, the former chairman of the University Grants Commission who headed a committee to look into caste-based discrimination at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Delhi), told the newspaper that the data highlighted the “need for a further detailed study on the issue”.

He said there should be more transparency in the admission process and the presence of OBC, SC and ST members on the selection panels.

Five IITs responded to queries from The Hindu, ruling out the possibility of “any bias” in the selection process. The institutes said efforts were being made to fill seats as per the mandated quota.

IIT Madras filled OBC quota, but not SC and ST quotas

In the second part of the series, The Hindu explored data related to IIT Madras. It showed that PhD students from SC communities constituted only 7.6% and those from ST communities were just 1.2%. The institution filled the quota for OBC students. Students from this category constituted 29.8% of the seats, which is higher than the 27% minimum allocation provided by reservation norms.

Also read: Less Than 3% of All Faculty Members at IITs Are SC/ST

Here too, the data showed a “significant difference” in the acceptance rate. “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,” The Hindu reported.

None of IIT Bombay’s departments filled seats reserved for ST students

In the third part, the newspaper revealed that none of IIT Bombay’s 26 departments managed to fill the PhD seats reserved for ST students between 2015 to 2019.

This data, obtained by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, also showed that 25 of the 26 departments failed to fill the quotas for OBC and SC students. “Eleven of the 26 departments did not admit a single student under ST category in the period under question,” the report says.

At IIT Bombay, PhD students from OBC communities constituted 19.2% of the total, while those from SC communities accounted for 7.5%  and ST students 1.6%.

The acceptance rate was lower for students from reserved categories: it was 3.8% for the general cateogry and 3.1% for OBC and ST students, and 2.5% for SC students. “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,” The Hindu said.

The data indicates that more students from marginalised communities are rejected at the interview stage. The newspaper said that during the application and interview stage, the proportion of students from different categories remained fairly same. Around 12% were rejected at the application stage, with the remaining making 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,” the report says.

The IIT Bombay spokesperson told The Hindu that the acceptance rate is lower for applicants from marginalised communities because “IITs have very high expectations of our student input, which is needed to carry out research towards a PhD”.

This allusion to a “lack of merit” has been constantly rejected by student groups and activists.

Last year, a panel appointed by the education ministry to suggest measures to improve reservation in admission and appointment at IITs ironically suggested that these institutes should be exempt from implementing quotas for faculty appointments.

The panel, which included directors from two IITs, also claimed that posts reserved for SC, ST and OBC lecturers could not be filled because ‘suitable candidates’ could not be found.

IIT Bombay’s Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) criticised the report, saying the panels should have highlighted “wrongs in the existing selection process and recommending ways to correct those”. Instead, the committee exhibited its “casteist ignorance” by blaming the candidates from “reserved categories for not being ‘qualified enough’”, the student group said.

Featured image credit: Bryn Pinzgauer/Flickr