The month of July is usually an exciting time for students at IIT Madras – freshers eagerly await the dawn of their college lives, and senior students look forward to welcoming in a new set of thoughts, ideas and perspectives. Over the last few days, however, the social media has been abuzz with indignation at the administration’s decision to house undergraduate freshers and undergraduate seniors in different hostels this year.
The Room Allocation Committee for 2013-14 has proposed deviations from tradition in this year’s room allotment – undergraduates of the 2013 batch will be allotted to Brahmaputra and Mahanadi hostels, which have, hitherto been exclusively PG hostels, and PG students of this batch will be accommodated in UG hostels such as Narmada and Jamuna. This decision means that students of UG courses and those of ‘taught’ PG courses (MBA, M.Sc and M.Tech) will reside in hostels away from seniors of their own programmes. This is currently the topic of much debate among the student community, and indeed among the faculty. Many students have expressed strong reservations against this suggestion, while the administration cites multiple reasons for such a course of action.
Much of the protest against this move is from undergraduate seniors. They believe that freshers in a UG hostel are an integral part of the hostel’s culture and to deprive them of this exposure would prove detrimental to both the hostels and the freshers. The opportunity to interact with and learn from seniors has, in the past, transformed many a promising freshman into a talented veteran. Says Pranathi Diwakar, former Literary Affairs Secretary of Sharavathi Hostel, “To put freshies in a separate hostel would be detrimental to their insti lives. Extra-curricular activities build hostel spirit and allow freshies to get to know their seniors, gain confidence in their own abilities and discover talents they never knew they had. People who have been shy about trying out new things can do so in a small and receptive environment. We could never have done a thing at inter-hostel events without freshies, and their enthusiasm was the main motivation for seniors to participate too.”
There is also a feeling that since most PG hostels have limited presence in most inter-hostel competitions, except Schroeter, a talented fresher’s abilities will not be utilized as well as would be expected otherwise. This argument, though, has a valid rebuttal – as the case of Tamiraparani Hostel shows us, undergraduate students are capable of creating their own culture and succeeding wherever they go. Sameer Wagh, a resident of this hostel, opines, “If a fresher is social enough, he will participate irrespective of his surroundings. And one can always socialise with people and seniors from other hostels.” However, it is certainly easier to succeed when the hostel has a precedent of participation in such competitions.
Further, the hostels themselves require UG students to keep the future prospects of their current cultures in LitSoc, TechSoc and Schroeter alive. A hostel’s prospects in each of these inter-hostel competitions depend heavily on how they train their freshers for specific events in each and without them, current stalwarts in each of these will be hit very hard. Many seniors feel that hostel culture, which is an intrinsic part of life in the Institute for most UG students, will suffer without future batches to carry on existing traditions.
Students are also concerned that the lack of interaction between a UG fresher and his seniors in a hostel environment will affect him academically and personally. While PG seniors are in a different stage of life from UG students, UG seniors have experienced being in a UG fresher’s state of mind just a few years back and are hence better placed to relate and respond well to his problems. Often, the UG fresher is most comfortable approaching a UG senior from his own hostel. However, this does not always have to be the case. Pramod “PDF” Kasi, a former undergraduate resident of Pampa hostel (a predominantly PG hostel), points out, “We never had a UG-PG distinction. In fifth year we participated in Drams, and half the participants were PG.” He also added that talking to PG seniors gives one a different, and often refreshing, perspective. Sharing a hostel with students from different programmes, then, might give undergraduate freshmen the best exposure – isolating them from neither UG seniors nor PG seniors. In fact, this is common on foreign campuses, whose dorms have a healthy mix of UGs and PGs.
While the consequences of such a move can only be guessed at, the administration’s reasons for it are quite clear. The foremost one is ragging. Although there has been a significant decrease in the number and severity of ragging cases over the past few years, there has been some concern over what steps are necessary to bring this menace to a complete stop. This measure will definitely bring down ragging within hostels, but it won’t do the same for ragging at fundae sessions, LitSoc meetings, Schroeter matches, department nights, Gurunath etc., which, in all probability, may increase further. This rule may help a lot of students escape unpleasant experiences, but it will also deprive them of meaningful conversations, discussions and friendships with sensible and mature seniors. Inter-hostel ragging, which is mostly regional in nature and where seniors from one region interact with freshers from the same region, is unlikely to be affected at all.
What then? Will the next step be to curtail all interactions between seniors and freshmen? Such a system does exist in other colleges – for example, IIT Kharagpur. The result there has been that students spend their first year in relative isolation, and are subjected to ragging during their second year. Since there are fewer regulations protecting second-year students from such interactions than there are protecting freshmen, such a system is more dangerous than the one we currently have.
The administration also hopes that this move will help students perform better at academics. Their theory is that freshers are gullible and their attention can be easily diverted in the current environment to extra-curricular activities (read: Shaastra, Saarang, Schroeter, etc.). The absence of such influences, they argue, will benefit students. There is widespread disbelief among the students at this reasoning. Undoubtedly, all the students cannot be expected to have a similar interest in academics and to rid them of the opportunity to experiment and discover their true interests, be it in any sphere than the institute can provide, will be highly damaging to the students’ prospects and indeed, to the institute’s future. The underperformance of students can be attributed to a wide variety of causes, including large impersonal classes, the lack of useful tutorial sessions (where students can get individual attention), etc., but this one is neither the most threatening nor the most out of hand.
This move raises other questions. What will the administration do next year, when both UG and PG hostels have senior undergraduates? Will people have to change hostels after their first year? That is no small inconvenience. Students who have settled into their residences will understandably feel disgruntled at being asked to move to a different hostel after a year.
All these underlying inconsistencies and contradictions lead one to think – is this the only way forward? Can we not have alternative measures as substitutes so that we don’t end up spoiling one thing while rebuilding something else? For example, larger sensitization drives about ragging could be conducted to raise awareness and understanding among students, stricter monitoring by Mitr could be realised, penalties for indulging in ragging could be clearly explained regularly to senior students. The fundamental difference between these measures and the one proposed is that these don’t deepen the trust divide between the students and the administration. They also have far fewer negative consequences and are long-term solutions rather than quick-fixes.
Deliberating on these lines, the student body decided to take up the issue with the administration and conducted a survey to gather feedback from the student community. The survey was widely publicised on the social media and e-mail, and students were encouraged to voice their opinion. In a matter of hours, over a thousand responses were recorded and the statistics of the survey were included in a presentation made by the Secretaries to the Room Allocation Committee in a meeting held on 12 July. The responses in the survey were overwhelmingly against the new proposal, and the students’ representatives had come up with an alternate proposal, which attempted to provide a middle ground between the admin’s side and the students’ side, wherein both UG and PG freshers would be accommodated in hostels with UG seniors. However, the Committee decided to go ahead with the original proposal.
The administration was not required to bow to student pressure or repeal the decision, but their action causes one to wonder why students are rarely consulted on such matters that significantly affect student life. It was well within the administration’s purview to listen to the protests and hold meaningful discussions with the students. Having done so would have been a step towards greater democracy and better understanding, and it is a pity that the administration missed out on the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the dissenters.
This move may be intended well and aimed at righting a very disturbing wrong, but its negative impacts are not paltry either. It will definitely be a boon to some freshers, who would otherwise be much more vulnerable to ragging and end up falling prey to it. But then, these students comprise a minority and the administration must decide whether the benefits to them will be worth condemning the other majority to a comparatively less valuable hostel experience.
T5E wishes to point out that the word ‘ragging’ is used in a very loose sense throughout this article.
We are aware that many of our readers have strong views on this topic. We encourage you to write to us at t5e [dot] iitm [at] gmail.com with your views on it, as we would like to publish pertinent opinions on the issue.