Widening access may have to wait due to the pandemic

India’s top institutions, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), have approached the government, requesting a year’s extension to the 2021 deadline to add new seats to accommodate a new 10% quota for students from ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ (EWS), saying social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic will mean that increasing student numbers will be difficult.

The move would affect the poorest students, already facing the impact of job losses in their families due to lockdowns. Institutions say they cannot cut back on places, but they can postpone increases in the number of seats.

The country’s 23 IITs will need to add some 6,700 places at the undergraduate, masters and research level to comply with the additional quota which was first brought in in 2019. According to the IITs, around 2,300 extra places were added for the 2019-20 academic year, with the remaining 4,400 places expected to be added this year, to comply with the government’s regulations.

All centrally funded educational institutions must raise their total student body to incorporate the new 10% quota, while ensuring that the existing quotas under the constitution – amounting to 50% of seats – for disadvantaged social groups or categories including ‘Scheduled Castes’, ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘Other Backward Classes’ are not displaced.

This means an additional 200,000 places in centrally funded institutions implemented over two years – a major expansion in the number of university places overall.

While the IITs fulfilled their commitment for the first year, 2019, by adding seats, they now say lack of hostel facilities and the COVID-19 lockdown are posing a hurdle to accommodating more students this year. In their joint request, the IITs pointed to the delay in the construction of hostels due to the shutdown.

The country’s NITs last week made a similar request to the government, in a letter to the Human Resource Development Ministry from the director of Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology (MNNIT) Allahabad, Rajeev Tripathi.

Of the country’s 31 NITs, a few implemented the quota for undergraduate courses last year. The request for extension of the implementation deadline was from institutions that were supposed to introduce quotas from this year onwards.

Government sources said the Human Resource Development Ministry will refer the request to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which had moved the EWS quota proposal that was later approved by the cabinet early last year.

Tripathi of MNNIT Allahabad said: “We are left with no option. After all, we have to follow social distancing and have to take all the precautions because of the pandemic. We know it is going to affect those children who were hoping to get admission. But we cannot do much on this.”

Ensuring physical distancing in crowded hostels upon reopening will be a challenge for IITs and NITs. An official of an NIT in north India, who did not wish to be identified, said the infrastructure of many NITs would have to be strengthened to accommodate the additional students. He said the lodging situation in the NITs was no better than for IITs.

“The present infrastructure in NITs is obviously not enough if we have to ensure a physical distance of one metre between students in classrooms and hostel rooms,” he said.

Universities, including IITs, have also faced a shortage of teaching staff as they have increased the number of students to include the EWS quota.

However, the request comes at a time when the disadvantaged have been particularly hard hit by local lockdowns and a suspension of economic activity, which will affect their ability to apply to universities that have not implemented the EWS quotas.

A survey of higher education institutions affiliated to Mumbai University, carried out by university teachers’ unions in Mumbai and released on 11 June, found that with many parents from economically weaker sections of society losing their source of income, “enrolments in this segment will see a drop”.

The report on the impact of lockdown on higher education by Tapati Mukhopadhyay, president of the Maharashtra Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation, and Madhu Paranjape, general secretary of the Bombay University and College Teachers Union, said that “as the family income gets adversely affected, the first casualty in poor families becomes education, especially for the girls, more so for those belonging to the ‘backward classes’”.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.