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What do students from marginalised backgrounds study, and how well are they represented across higher educational fields of study? New data from the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19 offers some answers.

On the whole, there are not substantial differences in what scheduled caste students and forward caste students study, with some exceptions. Social work and auxilliary nursing is more widely taken up among Dalit students than among forward caste students, for example, while hotel management is more commonly taken up by forward caste students. Note that “forward caste" in some cases might include non-Hindu minorities whose details have not been disclosed by the institution.

Across most key fields of study, however, Dalit enrollment in 2018-19 fell short of the mandated quota of 15%, as did scheduled tribe (ST) enrollment (mandated quota of 7.5%). In many large states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, fewer than 20% of students enrolled in higher education in 2018-19 were scheduled caste or scheduled tribe. As of 2011, Dalits formed 16.6 percent of the Indian population while STs formed 8.6 percent.

Quotas are applicable to state-run institutions, and to a limited extent to privately run institutions. In 2006 the then UPA government paved the way for the extension of reservations to private colleges, but there isn't a binding central law yet. Most technical education private colleges provide reservation under state laws, but by no means is this comprehensive.

Dalit students formed 11% of the undergraduate and post-graduate enrollment in 2018-19. They made up under 10% of PhD students, but 16% of M.Phil students. When it came to non-degree certification, Dalit sudents made up 14% of diploma-holders and 13% of certificate-holders.

Of the top 10 universities in the country (as ranked by the National Institute Ranking Framework), just three have 22.5% of more SC/ ST students. Another three have over half girl students. Delhi’s much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is the only one to do well on both counts.

Across the 21 Indian Institutes of Technology, under 19% of enrolled students in 2018-19 were SC or ST, and an even smaller proportion were female. The drop-out rate from IITs is slightly higher among SC students than among forward caste students, the public data journalism portal Factly has found.

Dalit students at IITs have reported facing caste-based discrimination, and record poorer academic performances than their forward caste peers even after controlling for socio-economic backgrounds, World Bank economist Priyanka Pandey and social activist Sandeep Pandey have found.

The situation is not very different at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). At the 19 IIMs, 16% of students are SC or ST, and a quarter are female. At the six All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, just under 20% of students are SC or ST, and nearly half of all students enrolled in 2018-19 were female.

Access to education matters most for historically marginalized castes because such access can change their job prospects dramatically, and give them a real shot at climbing up the socio-economic ladder, which remains stacked against the less-educated in modern India.

It is worth noting however that education does not fully level the playing field for marginalized groups. Dalit respondents to job advertisements were less likely to be called up than upper caste respondents with the same qualifications, the economists Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell found in a field experiment. The AISHE data also offers some insight into what young women are choosing to study, and indicates that they are breaking major barriers in higher education at a historic pace.

For the last two years (2017-18 and 2018-19), the number of female students enrolling in higher education in the sciences has exceeded that of male students, even though the total number of male students in higher education still exceeds the number of female students. This is a reversal of the earlier trend where male students led female students in enrollment in the sciences.

The number of girls enrolling in basic undergraduate degrees - BSc and BCom - is still growing, while that of boys in these categories is falling. Enrollment in BA degrees fell for both boys and girls. Male enrollment in other popular fields - mechanical and civil engineering - is also falling, while enrollment in management courses, teaching courses, and in computer engineering is growing. For females too, enrollment in teaching and computer degrees is growing steadily.

Some fields of study are intensely gender-segregated; enrollment in auxiliary nursing is 99% female, while enrollment in hotel management undergraduate courses is over 80% male.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist

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