Why higher education requires an intersectional lens

Intersectionality is a theoretical framework that asks academicians and social development practitioners to use multiple lenses and identities in order to develop a deeper understanding of different issues and concerns.

Higher education has been globally recognised as a medium through which individuals can overcome a variety of social barriers and inequalities. Higher education is also a medium through which knowledge development and social development is engineered.

Higher education has therefore become an institution with intersecting objectives and mandates. This makes access to higher education a highly contested arena.

Globally higher education institutions are juggling multiple demands such as the need to maintain competitive positions in terms of funding and research output and to turn out good and employable graduates, as well as the need to contribute to social development and social justice through studentships and scholarships.

Around the world different intersecting barriers to access such as social class, gender, race, ethnicity and disability have been recognised. It is also evident that these concerns have evolved over the last century and have become complex and nuanced as they continue to become increasingly tangled up with each other.

Admissions procedures

In the United Kingdom and the United States, complex admissions processes have evolved in an attempt to address intersectional inequalities and identities. For instance, admissions officers consider personal statements or college essays and variations of these in addition to academic performance and achievements in high school.

Apart from an objective consideration of academic performance, there is a significant subjective evaluation of applicants’ experiences and linguistic skills.

On the other hand, there are several countries around the world which actively practise national affirmative action policies, such as Brazil and India.

The affirmative action policies in Brazil are designed to target inequalities based on socio-economic status and race. However, there have been hiccups in Brazil as studies are finding that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and marginalised ethnic identities are more likely to graduate from lower status higher education institutions.

On the other side of the globe, the Indian affirmative action policy is practised through a system of reservation of seats for students from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. The Scheduled Caste and Tribe communities are historically marginalised communities and continue to experience social and economic exclusion, discrimination and prejudice.

Most higher education institutions in India have a comparatively simple admission process. Students are selected purely on the basis of the marks that they have secured in the public senior secondary (high school) examinations. Different higher education institutions and courses have minimum marks and applicants who attain them are eligible to enrol in higher education. Anyone who has achieved the eligibility criteria can pay fees and can enrol.

The reservation system usually lowers the eligibility criteria in terms of marks in public examinations. In practice, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students enrolled in higher education institutions have considerably lower marks in their public senior secondary examinations.

The gap in educational achievements and performance between the Scheduled Caste and Tribe students and the general student body has implications in terms of social and educational experiences and outcomes inside and outside classrooms in Indian higher education institutions.

While there has been a significant improvement in the enrolment and participation of Scheduled Caste and Tribe students in Indian higher education institutions, there is a need to focus more on the institutional processes and social discrimination which students from marginalised communities continue to encounter during the course of their studies.

While affirmative action policies in India have had a significant impact on enrolment and participation numbers, they inadvertently perpetuate a meritocratic myth that an individual’s capabilities are reflected in their academic performance, in terms of quantifiable marks in public examinations.

Additionally, it must be noted that marks in public examinations are often boosted through private investment in tuition and coaching services. Private coaching and tuition centres are big industries in India. This is indicative of the fact that high marks or percentages in Indian public senior secondary examinations are often the result of students’ social capital and their ability to afford private coaching.

A marks-centred approach

The relatively simple admissions processes practised by Indian higher education institutions actually perpetuate a meritocratic tunnel vision focussed on marks. Nevertheless, the American and British admission processes which involve personal statements or essays and references also perpetuate highly subjective Eurocentric and middle-class skills and capabilities.

For example, studies in the Global North show that students from lower social class backgrounds and marginalised ethnicities often choose not to apply to more prestigious and meritorious courses and institutions. This process is also gendered, with fewer female students enrolling in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

The reservation system and affirmative action policies in India ensure that students from marginalised communities are also proportionately present on more prestigious courses and at more well-regarded institutions. However, inequality can still be traced in terms of the participation of female students.

Research by Girija Borker has demonstrated how female students are enrolling at lower status colleges in the University of Delhi due to safety concerns. This research mapped the daily travel choices of male and female students, the marks they achieved in their public senior secondary examinations, their educational choices and travel practices.

She also found that female students are spending more time and money on a daily basis in order to access higher education. Safety concerns have been shown to be a significant factor: when families perceive a lack of ‘respectable’ and ‘safe’ travel options for women, they are often enrolled on part-time or correspondence courses.

A post-colonial perspective

Gendered safety concerns in the Indian context are about parental or family anxieties with regard to preserving the honour and respectability of women and girls. This is not a new concern, with India being one of the most unsafe countries for women.

Rather, it is a historically developed one going as far back as the purdah and zenana systems that involved the cloistering of women, thereby excluding them from educational and economic opportunities and independence. These practices reflect a social construction wherein ‘honour’ and ‘respectability’ are regarded as being held within female bodies.

Colonial and post-colonial narratives in favour of women’s education have not challenged these ideas. Education for girls or women is rationalised as a requirement for a good marriage with a modern Indian man and because the women will be mothers to the next generation who will build a prosperous nation.

Therefore, education of women has enhanced their gendered roles as wives and mothers within the household and did not transgress into public spaces and the workplace.

While there is a similarity in gendered inequality observed in places around the world where women self-select away from more prestigious courses and institutions, the nuances of how female students in India perceive their educational choices and trajectories can only be comprehended within a post-colonial Indian context.

Post-colonial contextuality is an additional dimension to the rather international intersectional understanding of barriers to higher education. It would help us to understand intersectional identities and inequalities in the Indian context within a larger intersectional international context.

Anjali Thomas is a PhD student at the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. Her PhD is being funded by the Fair Chance Foundation and the University of Warwick. Her PhD research will inform the Fair Chance for Education Project on gendered pathways to educational success in Haryana, India. This is a five-year action research project that seeks to determine the gendered factors that contribute to educational success for young people in Haryana, India.