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Student Dropouts: Alarming Surge Exposes Failings in India's Higher Education System

High Student Dropouts Shine a Spotlight on Deep-Rooted Problems Within India's Higher Education Landscape.

By Aryan Saini
New Update

Student dropouts
A stressed student | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

In June, Rohit Jagenia, a promising individual hailing from Kota, Rajasthan, took his own life by hanging from a kitchen ceiling fan. Rohit's dreams had taken a toll after he dropped out from IIT-Gandhinagar. Similarly, in January, another shocking incident surfaced when Shivam Pandey, a student at IIM Ranchi, was found hanging in his hostel room in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Shivam's grieving father has raised suspicions of foul play surrounding his son's demise.

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These heart-wrenching incidents have unveiled a disconcerting reality: India is witnessing an alarming surge in dropouts from higher education institutions, paralleled by a distressing rise in suicides and unnatural deaths among students. It prompts us to ponder: What drives these young minds to such extremes? Is it the relentless peer pressure, the crushing weight of academic expectations, burgeoning mental health concerns, overbearing family demands, or perhaps, a systemic failure within our education framework?

The tragic cases of Shivam and Rohit are not isolated incidents; they are merely two among the many distressing stories that have emerged from the sea of students embarking on their higher education journeys in prestigious institutions. What's particularly alarming is the overwhelming surge in student dropouts within these institutions. 

Recently, Subhas Sarkar, the Minister of State for Education, responded to a written question posed by BJP Rajya Sabha member Sushil Kumar Modi. The data provided by Minister Sarkar paints a grim picture of student dropouts, revealing that a staggering 34,035 students have dropped out from various higher education institutions in the country. Notably, a significant portion of these dropouts occurred in postgraduate and PhD programs. Central universities topped the list with 17,454 dropouts, followed closely by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) at 8,139, and the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) at 5,623. Other prestigious institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (1,046), Indian Institutes of Management (858), Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs) (803), and Schools of Planning and Architecture (SPAs) (112) also reported troubling dropout figures.

In a recent gathering of the IIT Council, the concerning issue of high student dropouts within the IITs took centre stage. The discussions brought to light several factors contributing to this distressing trend, particularly at the undergraduate (UG) level. Among the reasons cited were family-related challenges, difficulties in coping with the intense and high-pressure academic environment that characterises the IITs, and a lack of adequate support from fellow students.

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What's disheartening is that these issues are not new; they have been extensively deliberated upon in the past, both at the ministry and institutional levels, often involving committees and experts. However, despite the recognition of these problems, the nation has witnessed a glaring lack of concrete strategies and policies to address and improve the conditions within these prestigious institutions.

In the wake of alarming student dropouts and suicides, it is tempting to lay the blame squarely on the pressures of academia and family expectations. However, the grim reality suggests that there are far more insidious problems lurking beneath the surface in our higher educational institutions, and these issues are not receiving the attention they deserve.

Startling government statistics reveal that a staggering 25,593 students from reserved categories, including Schedule Castes (SC), Schedule Tribes (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC), and other minority groups, have dropped out of central universities and IITs over the past five years.

These numbers beg a question: Are our esteemed higher educational institutions failing to provide a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for students from reserved categories? The statistics, on their own, indicate a worrisome trend that demands immediate scrutiny and action. It's an uncomfortable truth that caste-based discrimination, which should have been relegated to the annals of history, continues to persist within these institutions. Shockingly, this discrimination is not limited to the interactions among students but also extends its insidious reach and is perpetrated by teachers and the management.

The issue of discrimination within India's higher education institutions runs deeper than just economic disparities among students. Experts who have extensively studied this problem, and have been part of significant committees, have consistently highlighted the pervasive nature of discrimination. It transcends economic backgrounds and is primarily rooted in caste-based biases, resulting in the stigmatisation and isolation of SC/ST students within the very campuses that should be nurturing their academic growth.

What's especially troubling is that, despite the presence of reservation policies aimed at providing opportunities to underprivileged communities, students from the reserved categories often find themselves on the receiving end of disrespect and prejudice. Instead of being embraced as individuals deserving of equal opportunities, they are unfairly labelled as mere beneficiaries of reservation, often excluded from the cream of the student body.

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In the past, there were discussions and recommendations suggesting the need for colleges to establish robust anti-discrimination officers and anti-discrimination cells. These measures were meant to create safe spaces and mechanisms to address discrimination and promote inclusivity. Regrettably, these vital initiatives have not been implemented in many of our higher educational institutions.

This failure to tackle discrimination head-on has been perpetuating a culture of injustice and exclusion within our campuses. Absolutely, it is essential to recognise that there are various factors contributing to student dropouts and suicides, including family and academic pressures, financial constraints, mental health issues, career choices, and personal or family-related issues. However, the stark reality of the 21st-century Indian education system is that when a disproportionately high number of these tragedies befall students from reserved categories, it is an indictment of the entire system.

In this day and age, it is a matter of deep shame for the education system if discrimination persists within its hallowed halls. Our institutions should serve as beacons of inclusivity, diversity, and equality, where every student is given a fair chance to succeed and excel. The perpetuation of discrimination has no place in a modern and progressive society.

Education is not solely about academic excellence; it is about nurturing the human spirit and ensuring the well-being of students. We cannot afford to have institutions that prioritise academic achievements over human lives and the human spirit. It is incumbent upon our educational institutions and policymakers to confront these issues head-on, dismantle discriminatory practices, and create environments that are genuinely inclusive and supportive for all students.

The persistent inaction in addressing these pressing issues raises critical questions about the sincerity of our commitment to safeguarding the well-being of our students and ensuring their success in higher education. It is a stark reminder that mere discussions and rhetoric are not enough; concrete actions and reforms are imperative to create a more just, inclusive, and supportive educational landscape where every student can thrive and pursue their dreams without fear or prejudice.

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