Inclusive Universities: Part of Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Program

Reported by Eunice Kua


At a recent Tuesday Dialogue, Professor Sangeeta Kamat and doctoral student Bharat Rathod discussed their research project on diversity in higher education in India.


The Inclusive Universities project is a collaboration between UMass Amherst and Pune University in India, a unique partnership under the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Program. UMass Amherst is one of four U.S. institutions selected for the program in 2013. The project’s goal is “to dispel the presumed opposition between equity and excellence in higher education and make a compelling case for how diversity and excellence reinforce one another and are essential to innovation and progress in multicultural democratic societies.”


Dr. Kamat set the scene with an overview of the context— “Indian higher education in an emerging economy.” She explained how the recent growth of private institutions has resulted in a shift in composition of student populations in public universities to include more historically marginalized groups, without a corresponding change in faculty and administrative diversity. Students have organized massive protests against the universities and the state, accusing them of discriminatory policies against students from low-caste or marginalized backgrounds. A recent wave of protests was triggered by the suicide of a Dalit student. Sangeeta noted that university administration responses to the protests have ignored or denied questions of social inequality as a basis for the conflict.


A point of interest was how even the language of the protests reflects the changing demographics of the student body—the speeches are no longer so much in English, spoken by the more well-off urban population, but are in Hindi, as many current students are first generation university students from rural areas. There has also been a new women’s movement led by female students.


The Inclusive Universities project uses campus climate research as its framework. It is an approach that sees the diversity of the student body as an asset rather than a liability and seeks to build a positive learning environment for all.


Adapting Sylvia Hurtado’s multi-contextual model of diverse learning environments, the project has collected data in the form of a campus climate survey from nearly 2,000 Pune University students from all departments. Data analysis is ongoing.


The team found that many of the students had been educated in Marathi rather than in English, and they had to adapt the survey instrument considerably during the translation process, in order to make it relevant and comprehensible in Marathi. The final survey was bilingual, so that participants could read and answer the questions in either language.


The team hopes to present the project report next year at Pune University and also in New Delhi in order to further the conversation around diversity and university reform on a wider scale in India.