Quotas are route to inequality at IITs, IIMs

Their dropout rates are higher at IITs, and salaries lower at IIMs

NEW DELHI: The recent decision of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, to terminate 25 students, many of them from the scheduled caste category, for poor performance has raised hackles all around.

While the National Commission for Scheduled Castes is pressuring the institute to take them back, the issue that cannot be wished away is their actual performance after gaining entry into these hallowed institutions.

Have quotas really worked? How do students from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC/ST), inducted on the basis of lower qualifying marks, fare in terms of performance and salaries at the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)? Are they able to cope with high academic pressures?

DNA, which used the Right to Information Act (RTI) to extract numbers on SC/ST performance from reluctant institutions, has some answers. We found that quotas don’t work as well in the IITs, where the demands for academic excellence are higher, but the results are reasonable when it comes to the IIMs.

It’s clear that dropout rates are high among SC/ST candidates at the IITs; at the IIMs, their average salaries are also lower than general category students. The big differences, though, come up in the case of top performers. At IIM, Kozhikode, the highest salary earned by a general category student was Rs70 lakh this year; the highest earned by the SC/ST candidate was just Rs13 lakh. The differences in average salaries were lower: for general category students, it was Rs15.84 lakh, for SC/ST Rs11.01 lakh.

The real problem area seems to be the IITs. According to information provided by IIT-Powai in Mumbai, 21 SC/ST students were asked to terminate their undergraduate BTech course in 2006-2007. In the last three years, the number of reserved category students terminating their courses at Powai has risen quietly. In 2005-2006, the institute had asked 20 SC/ST students to pack their bags. A year earlier, in 2004-2005, 19 students left without completing the course. Between 2003 and 2007, the yearly average dropout number for IIT, Powai, is a high 16 students .

Two other IITs — in Delhi and Kharagpur, for which DNA has data — had lower average dropout rates of 11 and eight among SC/ST candidates. The dropout rate for general category students at IIT, Powai, hovers around 1-2% and, according to faculty members, is nowhere close to that of reserved category students.

Students are asked to terminate their courses when they accumulate more backlogs (courses failed) than permitted by IIT rules. “There is no semester-wise fail/pass system at IIT, Powai. Students can continue further studies with up to four backlogs (failed courses) at the end of each semester, till the second year, or up to six backlogs at the end of each semester during the third and subsequent years of study,” says Dr Indu Saxena, deputy registrar at IIT, Powai.

But things are better at IIT, Delhi, where yearly dropout rates have stabilised in the range of 3-9 for SC/STs combined after a peak of 23 in 2002. A professor at IIT, Delhi, told DNA that the institutes seldom have any control over dropout rates. “The quality of reserved category students every year is variable, unlike general category admissions, where merit is the sole criteria. In the case of reserved categories, sometimes totally undeserving candidates are admitted who cannot meet the standards set by the institute,” he said.

The gap between general and SC/ST category students is less stark at the IIMs, where average salary differentials are not seriously out of whack. DNA, however, found that students from the general category fared much better than reserved category students in terms of salaries offered at campus.

IIM, Ahmedabad, did not share details about the highest salary offered to SC/ST candidates in 2008, but the highest obtained by general category students was Rs60 lakh. Average salary levels for the last two years show some serious divergences.

Last year, the average salary offered to a general category student at IIMA was Rs13.70 lakh, while an SC/ST candidate got Rs11.14 lakh. This year, the general category average was Rs17.81 lakh while the average salary given to reserved category students was Rs14.50 lakh.

According to Bakul Dholakia, former director of IIM, Ahmedabad, disparities in salaries are not surprising. “At IIMA, we have always acknowledged the academic differences between general and reserved category students. It is generally assumed that reserved category students, on an average, score 20% less than their general category counterparts. Keeping this in mind, an average salary difference of Rs3-4 lakh between general and reserved category students is logical,” he told DNA.

Piyush Sinha, professor at IIMA, feels that “average salaries figures are not sufficient to conclude that reserved category students at IIMs do not perform as well as their counterparts in the general category.” According to him, “there are many factors that decide the salary during campus recruitments. The companies which come to the campuses are never given out the names of candidates based on caste. Everything works on merit.”

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