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How Do We Make Higher Education Truly Diverse & Inclusive?

At the recent 16th FICCI Higher Education Summit 2021, Professor Sonajharia Minz, Vice Chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Dumka, Jharkhand, while speaking on diversity in higher education, emphatically stated that “diversity comes with respect and respect comes with knowledge of the other.” So how can Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) inculcate this knowledge-sharing culture among their students and faculty? To answer this question, it is essential to understand what diversity and inclusion in higher education mean and where the real gaps lie.

Going Beyond The Usual ‘Diversity & Inclusion’

Diversity and inclusion in higher education go beyond class/caste divides to include languages, choice livelihoods, values, beliefs and practices (Hall 2017). India is often referred to as a ‘diverse’ nation owing to the myriad regions, languages, classes, castes, ethnicities and knowledge systems. However this diversity which is India’s biggest asset is not articulated adequately in the education system in India. The gender gap in the literacy rate between men and women is more than 15% according to the 2011 Census. Education levels for people of Schedule Castes (SCs) indicate that approximately 4% are graduate level and above while amongst people of Schedule Tribes (STs) approximately 2.6% are graduates and above. This data demonstrates the multiple levels of exclusion that are deep seated within the Indian education system. In 2016, India adopted the United Nations Agenda on Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, making it necessary to address this exclusion. Of these, Goal 4 refers to ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’ for all. Our country’s HEIs are therefore duty-bound to institutionalise diversity and inclusion in their institutional structures and practices.

Societal Disparities Deter’s Access To Education!

Higher education is inaccessible to a large section of the Indian population due to various disparities that exist in our society. Socio-economic status is one major determinant of accessibility to higher education. Gender-based discrimination prevents women and people belonging to other genders from gaining equal opportunities for accessing higher education. Individuals belonging to ‘the lower castes’ have far fewer opportunities to send their children to HEIs compared with individuals belonging the privileged upper castes. Stigma and caste-based violence, occupational restrictions, and lack of institutional support form additional barriers to their accessibility. Inequalities based on religion prevent religious minorities from getting equitable opportunities to higher education. Students who have physical or mental disabilities are often faced with unsupportive curricula, inadequate infrastructure, and insensitivity from educational institutions. Despite reservations and scholarships at the State and Central levels, lack of effective implementation, investment in training and capacity building of administrative staff as well as attitudinal challenges at the community level perpetuate these barriers.

Exclusion Of Knowledges, Cultures And Languages

HEIs in India often design their academic curricula in a manner that excludes diverse sets of knowledge systems and cultures from their scope. Academic theories steeped in traditional ways of knowing are taught to students without reference to diverse knowledge systems. The language used for teaching is usually one predominant language of the region. Teaching faculty are not trained enough to adequately bring about inclusive protocols and practices in their methodology. Exclusions based on societal inequalities are institutionalised in admission processes, research methods, teaching, and learning at HEIs. There is often a pressure to homogenise the ideologies of students and faculty, making contrarian views unwelcome. Unity in diversity is conveniently replaced with the narrative of unity instead of diversity.

Social justice is a critical element for ensuring diversity and inclusion in higher education. Social justice centres the values of equality and equity. It envisions an environment where people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with different ways of knowing have equitable access to that space, are treated equally by others and have an equal say in the processes within that space. Within the context of higher education, social justice therefore becomes instrumental in ensuring a diverse and inclusive education eco-system.

Placing social justice within the framework of social inclusion can provide solutions for achieving social sustainability. A five-fold model that simplifies university social responsibility within this framework entails: (a) Individual responsibility based on human capacity, (b) Academic social responsibility which includes different kinds of knowledge production, (c) University social responsibility (USR), (d) Corporate social responsibility of university and other institutions of public policy, and (e) Global social responsibility. Higher education has multiple levels at which stakeholder interventions are required. Different levels of stakeholders must work collaboratively for bringing about the desired outcomes.

The Way Forward

Diversity and inclusion in higher education drives innovation and economic growth. It is the life force which drives equity and equality at the individual and community level. How do we ensure diversity and inclusion within student and faculty composition, curriculums and research? How do we create a cultural shift to ensure the diversity of knowledges, languages, and perspectives in pedagogy? How do we train our teachers to become sensitive to a variety of ideas and experiences? It is these questions that require our attention in order to systematise diverse and inclusive practices at HEIs at multiple levels of functioning.

The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) released by the Government of India explicitly speaks of ‘respect for diversity’ and the ‘local context’ in ‘all curriculum, pedagogy, and policy,
always keeping in mind that education is a concurrent subject’ (NEP 2020). To achieve this, the Central and State Governments must collaborate with HEIs to prepare a database of vulnerable groups who are unable to access higher education. There must be a needs-based enquiry to understand where the gaps lie on the basis of which a workable strategy should be formed for bringing these groups into the higher education stream.

Steps like simplifying the admission process at HEIs or creating parallel admission mechanisms online and offline and in multiple local and regional languages are the need of the hour.

Admission officers across departments and subjects must be sensitised for objective analysis of student performance in order to prevent discrimination based on gender, caste, class or other markers of identity.

Free student counselling at the pre-admission and post-admission juncture is equally important; counsellors need proper training and sensitisation before they can deal with students.

Further, financial inclusion of vulnerable, under-represented groups is key. Under the NEP 2020, regions of the country with large populations from educationally-disadvantaged and Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs) have been suggested to be declared Special Education Zones (SEZs), where all policies are implemented to the maximum through additional concerted efforts. Taking a leaf from the NEP 2020, HEIs must ensure that scholarships are granted to identified groups and must reach them at the start of the academic year to ensure maximum benefits can be gained out of them. Infrastructural investments for safe housing, food and water, computers, books, and stationary must be made for vulnerable students.

Bringing about gender diversity requires consistent efforts by HEIs through sustainable policies and practices. For instance, at Sri Sri University, six building blocks proved useful in successfully institutionalising gender diversity:

  1. Conscious action including reservations for underrepresented genders.
  2. Intentionality of leadership which emphasizes on diversity in all organizational policies such as code of conduct.
  3. Training and development across knowledges skills and attitudes.
  4. Networks and platforms which can help under-represented genders to seek opportunities in their career paths or fields of interest.
  5. Skilling centers.
  6. Physical and mental well-being and happiness.

With regard to teaching and learning, students who come from different socio-economic backgrounds must be taught at a level playing field. For those who need additional support remedial classes must be available to guide them through the courses. Language courses must be introduced for students to be exposed to local and indigenous languages. Curricula must have a field component where students interact with their local communities and co-produce knowledge with them. Cultural exposure must also be part of the curricula design, where in students learn to respect, value, and appreciate different cultures, languages, and ways of knowing. Monitoring and evaluation of institutional policies as well as academic and vocational courses must be conducted. Access audits, equity audits and other similar tools may be utilised to understand where the gaps lie in fostering diversity and inclusion at the institution. Finally collaborations at the community, state, national and global level can help scale efforts for creating a cultural shift towards an inclusive higher education ecosystem for all.


Hall, Budd. 2017. “Diversity and Social Inclusion in Higher Education.” Reflections from FICCI HES 2017.
<https://unescochair-cbrsr.org/pdf/resource/FICCI%20Doc%20II_Diversity%20%20Social%20Inclusion_4Jan.pdf>, Last Accessed on 02.03.2021
Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. 2020. “National Education Policy 2020.”
Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2011. “Census India.”

16th FICCI Higher Education Summit 2021


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