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Opportunities for Dalit and Adivasi Students for Higher Education in World’s Premier Educational Institutions

Opportunities for Dalit and Adivasi Students for Higher Education in World’s Premier Educational Institutions

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Insight Study Circle Meeting  held on 22 August 2010 (Sunday) at  Indian Social Institute, Lodhi Road, New Delhi. A report on Opportunities for Dalit and Adivasi Students for Higher Education in World’s Premier Educational Institutions


1. David Vumlallian Zou (from Manipur) teaches at History Department, Delhi University and did his doctorate from Queen’s University, Belfast with full scholarship from Academic Planning Grant (Northern Ireland).


2. Abhay Xaxa (from Chhattisgarh) is currently working with Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi and did his Masters in Social Anthropology from University of Sussex, UK  (2008) as one of the recipient of International Ford Fellowship Programme.

3. Bhawani Buswala (from Rajasthan) is currently in the country for his field research. He is pursuing his PhD in Anthropology from Brown University, Rhodes Island, USA on full university scholarship.

4. Rama Devi Hansraj (from Andhra Pradesh) completed her Post Graduation in Human Rights from University of London (2004) as one of the International Ford Fellow. She is currently based in Kolkata and is working with Catholic Relief Service.

Given below are the excerpts from the speeches from our panel of speakers followed by a brief interaction session with our audiences.

Rama Devi Hansraj

ramaI did my MA from University of Hyderabad, Department of Mass Communication. I am the first generation educated person in my family. After completing my studies in Hyderabad, I worked with some small Human Rights groups in Andhra Pradesh. Through that network I came to know about International Ford Foundation Fellowship programme that was meant exclusively for students from marginalised background.  I applied and was selected after going through its rigorous selection process. With that fellowship, I did my Masters in University of London in Human Rights.

As I was part of Dalit students’ movement in Hyderabad University, I was very conscious of caste discrimination that we all go through both subtle and direct. Perhaps that made me to opt for my study in the area of Human Rights.Also I felt that articulation on the issues is a major problem. I have heard many Dalit women who were able to articulate and share their personal experiences in their vernacular language so well but doing so in English was a big challenge. They are being represented by people who are only good at articulating in English and so people coming from the grass root realities could never talk for themselves at a bigger platform like UN. These reasons led me to opt for a course in human rights.

What I liked about Ford Foundation was their entire interview process. The whole process was very comforting and gave us enough breathing space and to remain confident as applicants. They appointed one panel member to each applicant to interact at personal level. The one who was interviewing me,  later, in the interview actually spoke on behalf of me which was very encouraging. This gave me lot of confidence and helped me face whatever question they asked.

Second important thing which one needs to be careful about is choosing the right university. One should always consult people who are experienced or have idea about the universities. We also need to concentrate on English for IELTS and GRE. One needs to have a complete preparation. After getting admission in particular foreign university, we need to create our own support group as the climate, people, language, everything there is very different. Having a mentor whether from India or abroad is very important. You need someone to fall back on.

One thing I really want our students to take note is that there are enough numbers of fellowships/scholarships available for study in foreign universities, not only for sciences but for social science subjects as well. The only issue is that we are not aware about them; we don’t have access to that information. I firmly believe that getting these fellowships is not very difficult and with some preparation we can very well avail them. So knowing about the scholarship is very important. Once you know about it, everything would be falling in line.We need to emphasis more in choosing the university and then fellowship, faculty etc. First choose the university, and then search for the faculty and the place where you want to study. Mostly scholarships will not support your entire studies. It would just support a part of it. Make more contacts so that you can get proper link.

David Vumlallian Zou

davidI come from a humble background and have done my graduation from NEHU, Shillong. While studying there I was really confused about choosing my career. All my friends around me were only interested in preparing for Civils exams and therefore I also made up my mind for that only.For my post graduation, I applied for JNU and TISS but joined JNU as I found it much cheaper. I was an English major but here I took admission in Department of History thinking that it would help me in my civil services examination.

After entering in JNU, I realised that the syllabus here was not meant for civil services at all and was more oriented towards research. I felt very disappointed but then gradually I got interested in academics as I start getting relatively good score and some encouragement from the faculties. Once I convinced myself about making academics as my career, I took admission for my Mphil in JNU itself. However, this was not easy option as my parents and family members were hoping for me to take up a job and support the family.

During this phase some seniors advice me to go for Civil Services but my professors and some non-Indian friends encouraged me to take up academics. My MPhil dissertation was on North-East which slowly got popular. To my surprise some professors even asked for a copy.One of them happened to be from UK who wanted to work in India especially in Northeast. He advised me to apply for PhD in UK. I was very surprised as I never thought that ways and was never sure whether I will ever get any scholarships to go abroad. However this professor from UK helped me in applying and with all other required scholarship and admission processes.

Most of the foreign scholarships are either 50% or 75% grants and do not cover your complete expenditure.  Without 100 % scholarship, it was impossible for me to go. I was fortunate as my professor friend, being aware of my background, helped me to get a full scholarship. They have a system, in UK, of assessment called research assessment exercise, done in every 5 years. So if a department does well in terms of publications or quality of research it is honoured with cash reward. That time the geography department scored 5 stars in human geography. They were in a position to accommodate 3-4 students with full scholarship. I luckily got this golden opportunity.

In the meanwhile I got my article published in Sociology India.  Universities in UK look into language requirement. They specifically want English publication. Since my earlier publication had a good command over the language, therefore, it made it easier for me in the long run. Getting into Queens University, Belfast for my PhD was indeed a stepping stone for me. I had to struggle a bit with the language and the culture but gradually I settled and could focus on my research. After returning back to India, looking for a job was again a lengthy process. I applied to many renowned universities and colleges but these haven’t even called me for an interview yet. Then I got in University of Delhi, where I teach now.

I feel for all our students who want to study in foreign universities to take note that publishing your articles in journals plays a very important role. Nothing is better than getting published in peer reviewed journals. This gives a quality edge to your work and increases your chances tremendously.In western universities too publishing in a good journal carries good amount of marks/weightage. They do have a ranking system by which your work would be marked; this would later help in getting into the department which one wants.

Bhawani Buswala

bhawani1Both speakers before me studied in UK and I would here be speaking more about higher education opportunities in USA. This country being an economic superpower has a bearing on the scale of academic research and educational opportunities. The shear number of higher education institutions here makes it a more probable place for one to have quality higher education.

In Europe you might get scholarships for 3 years or something but in USA there are more chances to get five year funding.  One has to keep in mind the duration of the programs, as in USA one needs minimum of 5-6 years to complete her PhD.  However you can get some of your credits transferred (from MA/Mphil in India).There are more chances of funding there and it can come in different forms; for instance some universities might waive only your tuition fees and others might fund you for almost everything and for entire period.

For many of us GRE has come to symbolize admissions in USA. But please remember that GRE is just one of the criteria. It is a standardized test which is required for all graduate programs in the US. It is a general aptitude test. Though there are some strong critiques of this test, the fact of the matter is that GRE exists and you have to go through it. However, the major problem for many of us will be financial. You need some good amount of money to even initiate the process. The cost of taking GRE is around $160 (Rs 8000) aprox. Due to competition one cannot just apply to one or two universities. Applying to each university will cost you on average $ 100 (Rs 5000) per university. I applied to 10 universities and I could do so because I was getting Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship.Your GRE score will be sent to three universities for free. After that you have to pay around $ 15 per university.

So it is important to keep all this in mind. Most of us get excluded here only because we don’t have that kind of financial backing with us. What is the way out? Can we create some mechanism to support our bright students who don’t have such money? I will leave this for all of us to think about. GRE test has three sections. One is verbal, which in normal parlance we call English– vocabulary, reading comprehension etc. The second is quantitative test, which we generally call Math test. This is the section that becomes horrifying for many of us, but I feel there is no reason to worry about it that much as the program which you are applying in social sciences might not attach that much importance to your marks scored in this section. This section deals mostly with basic high school Math.

Many social science departments might look more at your language and analytical skills than you score in math. So even if you don’t do that well in this section but are able to score minimum, there are still strong chances that you can make it to good schools and programs. Many would rather prefer students with good analytical writing skills over someone who scores high only in math. However this would be more true for social sciences than for admission in natural sciences and other applied sciences etc. I think one need about three to six months to prepare for GRE and about one year for the whole procedure of applying to different universities. Applying to foreign universities is a task and you have to go through the motions.

There is lot of material available and reference books to help you to prepare for GRE.The use and weightage given to GRE score varies with different universities. Say, if you think that your GRE score is not that great then write to professor (with whom you are in touch with ) or to the university where you are interested and ask whether you can apply there with your score and what are your chances. It is important because applying to each university cost overall about Rs 10,000 so this is very important. The universities looks for students whose research interests (thematic, regional, etc.) match with that that of the faculty members in the department. So before applying one should keep this also in mind.

It is very important for you to get in touch with the faculty there before applying. Generally they are very helpful and can be a great resource person for the process. One should not shy or hesitate to interact with them and should use all opportunities to talk to them about your project and also to meet them if they come to your university here in India.The best way is to read their works and see how their research is useful for you. It is very important to get in touch with them. Write to them that you have read this and this work of her, that there is a strong match of interests and that you want to work with her and will she be willing to help you in your project and guide in the admission process.

People there know about the caste system, they know how it works, they are also aware that the particular kind of scholarships and research coming out of India does get shaped  by the caste and class position of the researcher.  They know very well that top social science in India is influenced by the social locations of its practitioners. The faculty in the US recognize these facts and they really want and support students from marginalized sections from India to come and study there.

Try to spend some time on internet doing background research on particular universities and to identify them according to you interests. There are lots of rankings available. Don’t just rely on one or two universities. Take 2-3 top universities, 2-3 middle rung universities and 2-3 “not so great” ones depending on your monetary situation. But again I will say always get in touch with faculty working there in your area of interest. Most of them will respond to your emails and will guide you and can be of great help.

Then comes an important part of applying and that is writing SOP. Try to convey your thoughts systematically while writing your Statement of Purpose (SOP). That is where language skills come in picture. Try to get feedback on your SOP from your friends and faculty here. It is very important that you state clearly and interestingly your research ideas and plans. This is very crucial and needs most focus and attention. You need to write your SOP and get it reviewed by your professor here and your friend circle and get their feedbacks and then improve upon.

You also need recommendation letters from here. As you are a foreign student, they don’t know much about you and your work and how you are as a researcher. The recommendation letters are very important source for them to know about you and your research aptitude. It is important to have good recommendation letters from the faculty with whom you have worked here and who knows that you are a great research candidate.

Abhay Xaxa

abhay1I really thank all my previous speakers for making my task much simpler. I would straight away go into seeing these issue as abhay1opportunities – First thing as Rama and David pointed out – is that due to the lack of information our students don’t even know about such scholarships. I totally agree that the information about such scholarships is not known to the masses and it is only known in some exclusive domain. Thanks to internet and its rapid information dissemination system, which has made us more aware of the scholarships, its selection process and its criteria.

The universities, in places like UK, are part of knowledge economy where student from all parts of the world come to gain the knowledge but in turn contribute in the local economy. Universities like Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics are the places that support whole townships around them. In UK, where I went for my Masters, most of the M.A courses would cost 3000 pounds for European students, where else for others it is 9000 pounds. They are minting the money by providing hostel and accommodation to these overseas students. Organisations like DFID, Ford Foundation are there to represent UK. They, sort of, dictate the terms in areas of research that universities undertake.

All the scholarships, be it from China, UK or France carries their own perspectives. Just take the example of this Common Wealth Scholarships which has the agenda to dictate issues in certain block of countries. For example, a certain chunk of money would be kept to deal with migration issue. They have their own faculties with strong expertise to follow on such issues.

One can strategies to get more scholarship only after knowing the inside picture of the political economy. We should even know who are the political groups backing these universities? For example, Edinburgh is considered to be more leftist oriented. Here they will surely take someone who could impress them by using their ideology.

Just be prudent and go through the proper channel. Never forget that if someone or some organization is funding you for your studies they will surely have an agenda. You are getting the opportunity, get it and learn from it.

Try to be aware of the new trends on the ongoing research work done by the others. While formulating your PhD proposals one should not keep a standardized format. You should be careful enough to change it by keeping in mind the interest areas of the university and the concern faculties.  Write more customize proposals for different universities, for different supervisors. Once your work is known they will surely take you.

Coming into my experience part I also got the same scholarship which Rama availed – International Ford Fellowships. I was not from an academic background. All my education is from such colleges or universities whose name you must not have even heard like Guru Gashi Das University, Rani Durgavati University. I also did a correspondence course from Raja Bhoj University (Bhopal).

However I was into student activism whole heartedly and that is what made me more articulate in facing interviews, public speaking and made me confident to take a plunge in academics. I got through Ford fellowship in my first attempt. I have many friends who were more talented than me but were not able to get through just because of their fear of facing interviews. I think there is a strong need for us to organise multiple workshops for our students on how to face interview panels.

In Ford Fellowships, they do have social justice as one of their objectives and is one of their selection criteria. This was a ten year program in which they are trying to focus on students from marginalised backgrounds who otherwise might never get a chance to go for higher studies in foreign universities. But some time later, they have brought some changes in their criteria and now are focusing on few states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh etc. This has some benefits and also some criticism have come forth.

However, the most important issue which I feel we need to address immediately is to collect all the required information about various scholarships and disseminate among our students. For example some say that Common wealth Scholarship was meant for students from marginalised background but these are the ones who are not even aware about this scholarship and it is only the children of civil servants in the country who have availed this scholarship. I feel the real challenge for our organizations like Insight lies here.

Question & Answers Session/ Speakers Interaction with the Audience

How do we choose foreign university for higher studies? Which are the reliable sources of university rankings?

audience-11Bhawani: There are various university rankings available based on different criteria. If we are making our choices based on the ranking then it is important for us to know how the rankings have been formulated. If you Google about university rankings, you can also find the criteria on which the university/institution has been ranked.So if you are planning to go for pre PhD or graduate PhD programme, you might just want to focus on the universities which are ranked higher on the faculty publications, on the faculty student ratio and all other things and not on the universities in which the focus is more on the undergraduate (BA) studies.

Rama: The most important thing is what exactly your needs are. What you want should be clear. Mostly it is the guide or faculty that matters. If one gets the professor one wants to work with then the university doesn’t matter. Ranking and other things come later.

Abhay: I would suggest one should not always go by rankings. These are mostly sponsored. Foreign universities are part of knowledge economies. These are industries looking for students who can bring in money. Ultimately your interest in that course, your relationship with particular faculty should guide you for your choices. For example LSE will be ranked higher on the Economics department but there are lot other departments in LSE which are less known but might have some very good faculty.Rankings are not at all a reliable source as such as you can find huge variations. You have to also see the experiences of other people who have done studies there but then their experiences would also vary.

Rama: Definitely people who have gone to that university will be good resource for us as sometimes we might really end up in a wrong place if we don’t talk to people.

What difference does higher education from a foreign university make in your career? How foreign universities are different from Indian universities?

Rama: I did my MA in Human Rights from University of London. The quality was not very different from what I expect in an Indian university. Human Rights is relatively a new branch so there is not much difference but the exposure you get while studying in good foreign universities and overview on different issues across the world are much higher. This gives you much space in bargaining or negotiating with different agencies in job market after you complete your studies.For example, I joined in my present organisation at the base level as one of the programme officer but within a period of three years I have reached to the senior level management. I feel the credit must go to my exposure and development of wider perspectives on different issues due to my stay in one of the better foreign universities.

David: I think there is much difference. I can say this as I have also spent ample time in JNU as well before going abroad. I feel the research culture is pretty strong in foreign universities. The faculties and research students there are much more focused to their work and engage with much seriousness than their Indian counterparts.  There it is like, ‘you publish or you lose your job’ and therefore there is too much pressure on the faculties to perform. But here in India, when I published my first article, people said, ‘You should have published it little later. Why do you publish like you are scribbling?’ So that is where the difference lie.

Rama: Vis a`vis jobs, I don’t think that just a foreign degree will lend you a quality job. I know many of my friends who have foreign degrees but are either jobless or having much lesser jobs. I would like to reiterate that only one clear cut advantage, studying abroad, is the immense exposure and the resources available for research as compared to Indian universities and I think that is where the quality of foreign education in good universities is enhanced

What are the important things to keep in mind while writing Statement of Purpose (SOP) for different universities as one of the speakers mentioned that it is important to see the ideological leanings of particular university or professor we want to study with? Also it was said that we might need to apply in many universities to secure admission, not just one or two. So in such scenario what all we must keep in mind while applying?

Abhay: If you are interested in a particular topic, say Dalit empowerment, then you surely have to read more and more and collect more and more information on the above topic. You must have a clear idea about who are the experts in your field and their politics and agendas. If one particular university is known for its leftist orientations that does not mean that the whole university is like that or every one there will be a comrade but people in power there or those who dictate the agenda of that university might have a left perspective. I mentioned this in my speech in this sense.

Say if I am interested in migration studies and this has different perspectives. There can be a left perspective, a socialist perspective and even a rightist perspective. You must know from where all these thoughts are coming, which type of universities are dominating, which type of books are coming.  Therefore if you are applying abroad in this particular topic, you must have an inventory on the type of faculty you are interested in and type of university you are interested in. That makes things much easier.

Bhawani: Also we need to extend this beyond just getting admission. Even if you write to 20 people and out of that 15 say No but still you have established a link with these scholars. So no matter from where finally do your PhD from, you have the links of these professors. Tell them that you are working on this paper then some of them might even ask you to present it in their universities. You don’t necessarily have to go there for PhD. Making that academic link is very important. So if we can see it in broad sense that could be helpful as well.In India, we can easily recognize students from marginalized groups but what about foreign universities? Do western universities recognize caste? How will these ensure that we belong to disadvantage group in India or how to present ourselves so that they become aware of what kind of a background we are coming from?

Rama: I think scholars and faculties read a lot in western countries unlike their Indians counterparts. People in Europe, I feel, know about our issues very well and their awareness level is much higher. In our country most of the scholars remain in denial mode vis a vis caste but there they do acknowledge that such thing exists.Regarding making people aware of your background, I think SOP is the best way to do that. SOP is very important because it will decide whether you’ll get the admission and this is also a document which will give you an unconditional admission where you can really get rid of your proficiency test and things like that. It is very important to portray ourselves correctly and very strongly.

audience-2Bhawani: I think in SOP you’ll find question like what kind of issues do you want to work on.  There you can write that I would like to work on social issues of Dalit. They will also ask why you want to work on it and about your personal experiences.Then you can say that I come from that community and have experiences and therefore I am located in a space where I can analyze from a different perspective.Also many universities ask to write personal history in 1000 words. There you can write about your schooling, what kind of problems you faced etc, all of it can be included in that.

In my SOP, I wrote that I am from a Dalit community and my personal experiences have guided my research questions and that is the basic reason why I want to work on the issue of caste discrimination. In USA, people are aware of caste issue and they also have experience in tackling a comparable problem of racism.

If a person has done MA in one subject and wants to do a PHD in different one, is it possible?

Bhawani: I can speak about my subject. In Anthropology people come from different background, from environmental science, from literature, from anything. In USA, you have to do 2-3 years of course work. In that way they prepare you even if you have not come from that discipline. I have shifted from Sociology to Anthropology which can be seen as different disciplines there. If you want to be sure the shift in disciplines you must contact the faculty and directly ask her and also check out the department website FAQs.

Is any kind of discrimination there in west as it happens with us in India? I have done my PhD from Punjab University and I have experienced how the faculties here made me feel vulnerable especially during my paper presentations. I was compelled to feel discriminated due to their behavior.

Abhay: In UK, they have campuses with students coming from 120 different countries and it still carries its long experience with reverse discrimination, affirmative action and all those things. They also have tough anti-racial legislations. If you allege that you have been racially discriminated, they take this matter very seriously in the campus. But most of the times these discrimination happen undercurrent. Let me give you one example. There was one Bengali ‘upper’ caste girl who could not clear one of her term papers. She wrote a letter to the VC alleging racial discrimination. Immediately her supervisor was suspended and a big committee was formed to look into the matter. Later she was promoted and also given financial compensation. Can this ever happen in India where faculties openly abuse Dalit and Adivasi students and play with their careers? This example shows that the western universities do take such things very seriously. However let me add something here, for Dalit and Adivasi students problem arises not from the university but from the fellow Indians, sons and daughters of millionaires and elites who are studying there.

David: Discrimination at the street and at the faculty levels is completely different. I think on the street, if one walks in the evening anyone can get abused. I have been abused two or three times but within the university system I never faced any kind of discrimination. In fact, I felt very liberated when I went abroad for my studies. There they use to call me just Asian or South Asian, mostly south Asian. But in my own country we are being called as SC/ST or North Eastern.

For Dalit and Adivasi students who took education from poorly run government schools and are not comfortable with English, the whole process of filling up forms, applying to foreign universities, writing SOPs becomes too complicated. So how do we start from scratch?

Bhawani: Handling these things definitely becomes difficult for us but in such cases, groups like Insight can be of great help to our students.  Insight can help our students who are trying to apply for PhD abroad through its mentorship program where one or two person among us can become a mentor and take responsibility for these students by reading their SOPs, suggesting and guiding them.  I am not saying that this is going to be easy but I am saying that things can be done.

Dr. Arvind Kumar (Delhi University) – I think what we can do is we can have a model SOP and upload it on our portal so that our students can have a sense of how to go about that and can customize according to their interests. We need to do something at the community level as well. I appreciate Insight’s concern and their effort to start such initiatives and many of us have come together through its genuine effort.