15 student suicides so far this year – What is being done?

Alarming numbers of student suicides – at least 15 this year – and dropouts at India’s top higher education institutions are focusing attention on the importance of safeguarding student mental well-being and the need for a zero-tolerance approach towards discrimination in educational institutions.

Among the 15 student suicides registered already this year, three have been at prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and nine at centrally funded universities, including three at the National Institutes of Technology.

Disadvantaged groups are particularly affected at top institutions, partly due to academic pressures but also social ostracisation and other stresses. In 2022, 25 students died by suicide, with a majority of the cases reported from IITs. As many as nine students in IITs took the extreme step last year.

According to the latest data shared on 3 April by Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, some 20 students died each year in 2018 and 2019, including eight students from IITs during each of these years.

The number dropped during 2020 and 2021 to 10 and 13 student suicide cases respectively, but rose last year with 25 student suicides in 2022 at IITs and centrally funded universities.

During these years, IITs saw students ending their lives regularly, with three cases in 2020, four in 2021 and nine in 2022 – a total of 35 students who died by suicide across the country’s 23 IITs since 2018.

Another seven students enrolled in National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and three at the New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences – the country’s top medical school – died by suicide in 2022, a year that saw a steep surge in suicide incidents compared to the previous two years when the figures had dipped somewhat.

Measures to prevent suicides

On 5 April, Minister of State (junior minister) for Education Subhas Sarkar told the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, that academic pressure, family and personal reasons, and mental health issues were some of the causes of student suicides.

Asked about measures to address the root cause of student suicides, the government said in its written response to the Rajya Sabha that the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has “provisions for counselling systems for handling stress and emotional adjustments in institutions”.

However, many academics said the distressingly large number of students choosing to end their lives required immediate steps so that more young lives are not lost. Some said this year’s already-alarming figure of 15 was the tip of the iceberg as only students of premier institutions and central universities were included in the latest government statistics to parliament.

“We don’t have the data of the students dying by suicides in lesser-known higher education institutions, particularly in smaller cities,” said a senior faculty member at a premier institute who is not authorised to speak on this sensitive matter.

Increasing number of dropouts

Meanwhile, the number of students dropping out of higher education institutions since 2018 has also been increasing.

Since 2018, more than 19,000 students from disadvantaged categories including ‘Scheduled Castes’, ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘Other Backward Classes’ have dropped out of central universities, IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) – all extremely competitive institutions that attract top students from around the country.

Records show the number of student dropouts between 2018 and 2023 from various courses in central universities, IITs and IIMs was 19,256. Sarkar this week noted that the 54 central universities, 23 IITs and 20 IIMs accounted for 50% of dropouts among Other Backward Classes, 26% of Scheduled Castes and 24% of Scheduled Tribes.

Reservations of university seats for certain categories of disadvantaged students are enshrined in the Indian constitution, with 7.5% of seats in all government-funded higher education institutions reserved for Scheduled Tribes and 15% for Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, previously known as ‘untouchables’, to promote equal access.

Additionally, 27% of seats are reserved in all federally funded universities and higher education institutions for students belonging to Other Backward Classes – who are socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged.

“The current education system is highly stressed,” said SS Mantha, former chair of the All India Council for Technical Education, and Ashok Thakur, a former government education secretary, in a commentary published this week in the English language Indian Express newspaper.

Disadvantaged groups

“Dropping out could easily be an individual issue. But then, how does one explain dropouts in such large numbers?” Mantha and Thakur wrote, pointing to research that shows just 50% of students make it to graduation without dropping at least a year or without “keeping a heavy backlog from previous years”.

They pointed to financial pressures faced by disadvantaged students but added that “peer and parental pressure also lands many students in colleges and courses which they might be ill-prepared for. Indecisiveness and improper career choices can derail any student’s progress.

“Students could also be plain unhappy with the college. Aptitude tests, course evaluation and counselling would help,” Mantha and Thakur said.

A student at IIT Bombay who is a member of the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, a student group formed at IIT Bombay to promote social justice and equality, pointed to multiple reasons for high suicide and dropout rates among students from disadvantaged groups.

“The kind of exclusion, kind of alienation and the kind of ostracisation students from these communities go through is a matter of concern. They are being treated differently on campus, and time and again they are told that they are here in the institute because of reservation [policies] and not because of their capabilities,” the student told University World News.

He said that as soon as people come to know about the fact that they are students from reserved categories, their behaviour “changes completely”.

“The reserved category student suffers not only from their fellow students but also from the faculty. They are given less marks in practicals just because they belong to disadvantaged groups. So, discrimination exists in all forms,” he said.

He noted that students did not get support from counselling staff as the majority of counsellors were from the upper castes, and in many cases lower caste students were seen to avoid visiting them.

Efforts to contact Madhu Belur, co-convener of the Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe cell at IIT Bombay, failed to get a response.

Himanshu Rai, director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indore, said the institute placed great emphasis on promoting diversity and inclusivity.

“The institute reserves a significant percentage of its seats for students from socially and economically marginalised communities as well as individuals with disabilities. For our PhD programme, we are specifically seeking candidates from ST [Scheduled Tribe] backgrounds,” Rai told University World News.

He added that IIM Indore had implemented various measures “to ensure equal learning opportunities for all students”.

“During the interview process, we meticulously analyse if students from specific categories require additional training in subjects like English and mathematics,” said Rai and added that faculty were always open to discussions with students and offer guidance and support when needed.

“Our mentorship programme pairs students with faculty members who provide guidance on a wide range of academic and personal issues. These initiatives create a supportive learning environment that fosters the academic and personal growth of all students,” he added.

Government response

On 20 March, Minister Pradhan chaired a high-level meeting focusing on mental wellness of students, stressing that his ministry was committed to ensuring the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of students.

During the meeting he called on senior officials to put in place an effective grievance redress system marked by shared responsibility and which might include university management, faculty and parents.

Pradhan touched upon issues that affected student well-being, including gender equality, caste sensitivity, easing of academic pressure and a robust system of counselling, among others.

He said the ministry had taken steps from time to time to ease academic stress. These included bringing in peer-assisted learning, the introduction of technical education in 13 regional languages – which eases the burden on those struggling with English-medium education at top institutions – and entrance examinations in 13 languages.

He pointed to Manodarpan, a government initiative to provide psychological support to students, which was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued, as well as guidelines on prevention, detection and remedial measures for mental health-related issues.

Pradhan said the ministry is preparing comprehensive guidelines to safeguard the mental and emotional well-being of students, which would holistically cover schools right up to higher education institutions.

The guidelines would institutionalise mechanisms to protect students from threats or assault, which could be physical, social, discriminatory, cultural and linguistic and cause psychological distress leading to self-harming or self-destructive tendencies among students.

The guidelines, Pradhan said, would include the creation of an inclusive, integrative and non-discriminatory environment; sensitisation and capacity-building programmes for faculty members; orientation, counselling and support; early detection mechanisms for immediate intervention; promoting close-knit student-faculty interactive communities; incorporating team activities; effective and speedy grievance redress mechanisms; physical fitness provisions and programmes and emphasis on nutrition; and personal involvement and monitoring by heads of institutions, faculty and parents.