IISER Pune. Photo: By arrangement
Stagger past the massive gates, and the campus unfolds delicately like an origami blossom, conjured out of straight lines, geometric patterns, and crinkled grass. This is the Indian Institute Of Science Education & Research (IISER), Pune, part of a crop of modern, state-run “research institutes of the highest calibre, where teaching and education in basic sciences will be totally integrated with state-of-the-art research.” Head in a bit further, towards the Main Academic Building, and this admirable vision materialises outright, stencilled letters on brick, promising “IISER Pune … where tomorrow’s science begins today.” It immediately raises the question – where precisely are we today?
Since its founding in 2006, IISER Pune has emerged as a premier basic sciences institute, offering both undergraduate (BS-MS) and graduate (integrated PhD (iPhD) and PhD) degrees to students. In this article, we detail, based on RTI data, how marginalised castes and women are disadvantaged and excluded at all levels – undergraduate, graduate, and faculty – with broader parallels to Indian science.
BS-MS admissions and graduation rates
Women are consistently under-represented in the BS-MS program offered by IISER Pune, making up a total of 28.8% of total admissions over the years 2006-21 (Fig Ia). Furthermore, after hitting a high of 38.9% of admitted students in 2010, women’s representation has stagnated, if not diminished thereafter (Fig IX).
Meanwhile, General + Economically Weaker Section (EWS) candidates have comprised 54.8% of total BS-MS admissions, with Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates constituting 4.5% and 13.7% of total admissions during the same period (Fig IIa). A look at the yearly data reveals that IISER Pune has been struggling to consistently meet reservation norms, especially for ST and SC students (Fig III). In the 16 years spanning 2006-21, reservation quotas (7.5% for STs, 15% for SCs) were only fulfilled in four for the former and seven years for the latter. Furthermore, reservation norms for Persons with Disabilities (PD) were violated in all years between 2016-21.
A more concerning picture arises when we consider dropout rates in the BS-MS programme over the same duration. The IISERs (and IITs) have previously been noted in multiple Rajya Sabha sessions to have disproportionately higher dropout rates of Dalit/ST students, and our analysis confirms this reality. Between 2006-20, Dalit and ST students, on median accounted for roughly 50% of the total dropouts in any given year (Fig IVa), far exceeding dropouts from the General Category. Similarly, women from SC and ST communities make up nearly half of all female dropouts in that period (Fig IVb). This trend does not appear to have significantly improved with time, with the percentage share of dropouts from Other Backwards Castes (OBC) increasing over the years (orange line, Fig V).
Taken in the context of the likelihood that a student from a given category would drop out, our findings are all the more astounding. In the 15 years since IISER Pune’s founding, over a third (~36.2%) of admitted Adivasi students dropped out, as did over a sixth (~17.6%) of Dalit students. ST and Dalit students were 5.5x and 3.5x more likely than General Category students to leave the BS-MS program (Fig VIa). These figures are pretty robust across genders (Fig VIb), although we stress that we probably underestimated the likelihood of SC/ST women leaving the programme.
Karu*, a Dalit BS-MS student, believes there are a host of socio-economic disadvantages at play. “Many lower caste students hail from low-income families in rural areas and have studied in regional languages. They might find it difficult to adapt to a predominantly English-medium setting and often feel excluded by peers who are upper caste, wealthier, from urban regions and proficient in English.”
Such was the case of Anuradha*, a first-generation college student from a rural Dalit community, “No one had studied beyond Class XII in my family (that too mostly in arts) so no guidance was available. And the school I went to rarely had regular classes and it was so irregular that one of the teachers herself said to avoid coming to school regularly and instead study from home.”
This issue is compounded by the elimination of remedial classes since 2019 (for academically struggling students) at IISER. While Anuradha found their focus on tutorial (assignment) questions rather than building fundamentals unhelpful, she thinks their discontinuation is a mistake. “They helped me to get connected with people who share the same problems and difficulty, and I wasn’t judged for broken English, unlike normal classes. Shutting it down is stupidity, this is gonna increase both dropout rate and academic distress in students facing difficulty.”
We note that remedial classes for Mathematics courses have resumed in the past academic year. Furthermore, for English specifically, the non-mandatory proficiency class was replaced by a compulsory foundational course offered to all first-year BS-MS students in 2019. As per a faculty member:
“Students have uniformly found this model of a common Communication Skills course with staggered instruction, plenty of practice, and task-oriented tutorials very helpful. If required, students are given additional help before and after exams.”
The “leaky pipeline” metaphor has often been invoked to describe the progressively diminishing presence of women and minorities as one climbs the academic ladder (described as “leaks”). By all measures, a substantial “leak” in Indian science occurs in the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies, as is the case here.
IISER Pune has consistently failed to implement reservation policies in its graduate programmes. Since the inception of the iPhD programme in 2011 to 2021, 283 individuals have been admitted. Out of these, only 3 were Dalit, while 20 were OBC. No ST scholar has been accepted by the iPhD programme over the course of 11 years (Fig IIb). Furthermore, in 4 out of the past 11 years (2011, 2015, 2018 and 2019), all 100% of seats were allotted to General students.
Similarly, between 2008-21, out of 723 students admitted to the PhD programme at IISER Pune, only 7 (< 1%) were from ST communities, while 4.9% hailed from Dalit backgrounds. 75.9% of all admitted students in these 14 years were from General or EWS backgrounds (Fig IIc ).
Importantly, these dismal statistics are not for a dearth of applicants. During the same time span, 1,485 Dalit and 427 Adivasi candidates applied to the PhD programme offered by IISER Pune. The iPhD programme, which admitted 3 SC and no ST students in that period, had 709 SC and 144 ST applicants.
In keeping with trends seen in IITs and IIMs, General Category candidates are nearly 1.9x more likely to be accepted into IISER’s PhD programme, in comparison to OBC and Dalit aspirants, and over 4x as likely as ST aspirants (Fig VIIa). They are also nearly 6.5x and 16x more likely to be admitted into IISER’s iPhD programme than OBC and Dalit candidates, respectively (Fig VIIb).
IISER Pune officials issued the following statement on category-wise graduate admissions:
“The institute makes all efforts possible to maximise the selection of students from SC/ST/OBC categories by relaxing criteria at different stages of the PhD selection process. In the 2022 PhD and Integrated PhD admissions, the number of students admitted in the OBC quota has met the required mandate; however, the numbers for other reserved categories were low. The institute is very keen to have all category numbers meet mandated quotas as it is committed to affirmative action.”
Jogen*, an iPhD alumnus, said the issue was quite evident. “I have a strong view on the fact that IISER Pune doesn’t implement the reservation in PhD admissions and I have constantly discussed the same with friends”. Partly, he thinks the lack of a fixed intake makes it harder to designate and meet quotas in graduate programs. “There is no definite number of seats. It is during the interview stage that they will admit a variable number of students.”
In addition to the difficulties inherent to the admission process, graduate students face numerous challenges once they are in the programme, which further contributes to the marginalisation and exclusion of minority students.
“Financially, PhD fellowships are laughable. Straight out of college, my engineering batchmates were making at least twice my stipend within a year at software solutions companies,” says Manohar*, a PhD candidate. “So if you have a family to support, that’s a huge constraint. Added to this is the fact fellowships often don’t come on time or in any kind of reliable timeframe.”
Moreover, as is often the case, running out of stipulated funding after five years and not having finished your PhD, creates massive uncertainty. “(The situation) is entirely up to the individual PI [Principal Investigator]. And I’ve known people [PIs] who are indifferent to PhDs sticking around two years without pay and without any signs of finishing”.
This may all foster a vicious cycle. As Karu* puts it, “Worrying about acute financial stresses and family issues often prevent many lower caste students from focusing on their academics, while simultaneously making them worry how their poor academic performance might cost them their scholarships and degree.”
The gulf in representation becomes most apparent at the upper reaches of academia. As of 2021, there was a sizable gender gap in faculty recruitment, with only 19.8% (25 out of 126 faculty) of the total faculty being women. Moreover, there exists a bottleneck in promotions and achieved seniority – only 1 out of the 27 titular professors was a woman (Fig VIII).
Moreover, IISER Pune reported not a single faculty from SC/ST backgrounds and only 7 (5.6 % of the total) from an OBC background. As with the gender data, only 1 of the 27 full professors was an OBC, as of 2021 (see Fig VIII).
Fatima*, a Dalit BS-MS alumnus thinks this lack of diversity in positions of power has cascading effects on the student demography. “Because of the widespread belief that SC/ST students are not good enough, most Dalit and ST students have to hide their identities for fear of discrimination. There is very little representation in the faculty as well, which means that most have been through a similar system and have their own biases against SC/ST students. There is no safe space to talk about these issues, and no clear measures highlighted to deal with discrimination.”
The way forward
We wish to emphasise the importance of material conditions in explaining part of these trends. The present neoliberal model has seen global cuts to social spending and increasing deregulation and privatisation of public sectors. This views higher education not as a public good but as a commodity, one which has no “highest priority claim on incremental public resources in developing countries”. As part of a broader decades-long decrease in tertiary education spending per student, IISER Pune has faced significant funding cuts, necessitating fee hikes and slashed spending.
In combination with the cancellation or reduced availability of scholarships such as KVPY and INSPIRE, this makes it harder for marginalised and working-class students to pursue higher studies. Between 2016-22, annual fees for the BS-MS programme at IISER Pune have increased by 288% for SC/ST students (currently Rs 21,600) and by 333% (currently Rs 58,340) for everyone else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, over the same period, the share of women and OBC students has stagnated or decreased (Fig IX), while dropout rates of OBC candidates have steadily risen (Fig V).
The situation for graduate students, as noted previously, is dire, with inadequate wages aggravating financial and mental difficulties and disproportionately preventing marginalised groups from pursuing graduate degrees.
Changing these base conditions would be difficult, as they are indicative of broader trends in education that transcend the IISERs. Even so, a glimmer of hope lies in the grassroots organisation of students, which was seen during the recent BS-MS fee hike protests across various IISERs. It is also telling that multiple increases in PhD stipends only occurred after sustained nationwide protests.
Moving beyond material conditions, concrete action must be taken to prevent taken to eradicate caste, anti-Muslim and gender discrimination on campus. Furthermore, measures need to be taken to support the presence and success of disadvantaged communities. This would require several steps, such as setting up an SC/ST Cell as per UGC guidelines, reinstituting remedial classes (which were discontinued around the time of the funding cuts), prompt financial assistance, mandatory caste sensitisation workshops for students, staff and faculty and more diverse hiring practices, among others.
Indeed, many of these proposals are popular and have previously been raised by IISER Pune’s Student Council and individual students. As for students, building a more diverse Student Union, inclusive of people across genders, castes and religions, would bolster negotiating power with the institute to effect such changes.
Kanchikacherla*, a Dalit BS-MS alumnus sums it up, “To annihilate caste, you have to confront it headfirst. But if people, especially upper caste people are in denial, then how will we confront it? How will we do anything about it? If there is no open conversation (about caste), is it not denial?”
Finally, we note that any transformative change must also include building coalitions with the staff and workers on campus, many of whom come from oppressed castes or groups. Ensuring their access to living wages, healthcare, sanitation, and education is essential. Issues such as child labour and open defecation violate basic human dignity and cannot be tolerated within IISER Pune.
As Anand Teltumbde writes:
“(The) caste system shut the doors of education to the majority of its population (…) the chain of continuing injustice can be effectively snapped if India ensures its entire population gets (free) equal quality education.”
In light of our data, if we truly wish to arrive at tomorrow’s science, we first need to break with the present, and let go of the past.
Note: Individual names marked with an asterisk (*) have been changed to protect their identity.
Gowri is an alum of IISER Pune, and is engaged in a Masters’s degree in Human Rights at Central European University. Koustav is an alum of IISER Pune, currently pursuing a PhD abroad. Saismit is a Master’s student from IISER Pune. Umesh is an alum of IISER Pune, who is pursuing a PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.