3 January 2022

Gender Equality in Higher Education is more than just about parity in numbers.
In Conversation with Prof. Sonajharia Minz.
Author: Anandita Ghosh.

On an early December morning, Professor Sonajharia Minz comes into view on her Zoom window with the Sido Kanhu Murmu University gates in the backdrop. It is earlier than her working hours. Despite her busy schedule, she agreed to give us time and makes light of the fact that it is early yet. Prof. Minz greets us warmly and settles in for the interview.

The Savitribai Phule Pune University and Brunel University London, supported by the British Council, are collaborating on a joint research study to understand questions of access, campus climate, retention, and inclusion of gender in curricular and institutional practices in India. The study is being carried out in ten institutes spread across five states of India. Our conversation with Prof. Minz is part of this endeavour. This post provides a small glimpse into Prof. Minz’s ideas of gender equality in the space of higher education in India and the significance of her holding a leadership position within this space.

The Vice Chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University.

Last year, Prof. Sonajharia Minz was appointed as the Vice Chancellor (VC) of Sido Kanhu Murmu University (SKMU). As one of the first women with a tribal background to hold this position of leadership in the space of higher education in India, her appointment is a significant and historical moment. Given that merely 2.4% of teachers across India belong to scheduled tribes as per the All India Higher Education Survey of 2019-20, when scheduled tribes form about 8% of the national population, her appointment is even more significant.

SKMU was bifurcated from the M.T. Bhagalpur University (Bihar) in 1992. Currently located in Dumka, Jharkhand, it has constituent and affiliate colleges in six districts of Santhal Paragana division. While the cartographic boundaries of the Santhal Paragana has been shaped and reshaped in the course of history, negotiated through assertions rooted in land rights, ethnicity, and culture, the current region of Dumka is inseparable from the history of Santhal Paragana. SKMU is named in honour of two brothers - Siddhu and Kanhu - who were part of the Santhal Rebellion of 1855. The Santhal Paragana division is rich in natural resources. About 43% of the population in Dumka belonged to scheduled tribes as of 2011 and approximately 93% lived in rural areas.

As VC of SKMU, Prof. Minz speaks candidly about students at her institute and her sense of responsibility and accountability towards enabling them in continuing their education.

Parity, Equality, and Inclusion.

Prof. Minz makes a distinction between gender equality and gender parity, emphasising that equality includes aspects of responsibility, accountability, and raising one’s voice, holding positions of leadership while parity only deals with numbers.

In the region of Jharkhand, the overall gender parity in education appears to be balanced. However, a closer examination indicates this parity might not be reflected in the gender distribution within streams of study. Looking at enrolment trends at SKMU, Prof Minz finds that a very small percentage of students opt for science and even fewer opt for commerce. While it is possible that those opting for science leave the state to study, she says that perhaps this disparity in streams was because young women are denied or discouraged from pursuing science due to social, cultural, or institutional assumptions and biases. The presence of several all-women’s colleges in the state might be contributing to the overall gender parity in enrolment. Prof. Minz notes that while the presence of more women in particular streams/ departments that are not otherwise considered to be ‘women’s areas of study’ gets highlighted, there is insufficient focus on departments that continue to host more men than women. In terms of gender parity among teaching and non-teaching staff, the numbers are dismal. Prof. Minz notes that there continue to be many colleges where women staff do not hold any positions except at the lower levels. Among teaching staff too, the number of women who become professors or rise to positions of heads are very few. While women are encouraged and want to become school teachers, they do not continue to become professors in higher education. “Is it because of our dreams or because of social constraints?” She asks.

In speaking of gender equality as accountability, responsibility and leadership, she notes that the dismal number of women within the space of higher education itself limits the possibilities of having to entrust responsibility or reaching leadership positions.

Prof. Minz recognises the need for widespread sensitization and awareness programs on gender in her institution and colleges. Setting up women’s cell or sexual harassment committee is necessary but insufficient. Prof. Minz intends to introduce policies that will enable students who are female and come from marginalised backgrounds to continue their education. Initiatives include the setting up of crèches, ensuring well-lit and proper approach roads to institutions so that students feel a sense of safety, setting up administrative residences within the institute to also bring a sense of safety to caregivers. Her intention of introducing the option of Zero semester for PhD and postgraduate students to be able to take time off to deliver children or take care of new-borns seeks to restore dignity to the individual. The idea of Zero semester is intended to replace the notion of ‘Backlog’ or ‘having to clear a previous paper,’ which is often loaded with negative connotations. While she is exploring the question of having special shifts for women students, she notes that the timing of these classes is critical to ensure that women are actually able to access them.

In terms of employability or future prospects for her students, Prof. Minz believes in having a cell that focuses on Scholarship, Internship, and Training. This model is intended to enable students to develop their skills as opposed to Placement Cells that only focus on placement activities. Through skill training and internships, students would have a chance to learn and also identify future employers. Simultaneously, organisations that are gender sensitive can be approached to recruit only women. Activities under this initiative would include exclusive batches for those who are differently–abled and women.

Through her personal and academic journey, Prof. Minz says that she is guided by three terms of justice – gender justice, social justice, natural justice. This is reflected in her intentional placement of women and members from marginalised communities in various committees, task groups, etc. so that opportunities for participation are available to them.

Significance of her leadership.

In describing her initiatives and vision for the institution, it is amply clear that Prof. Minz does not imagine the university as an empty building, functioning only in office hours. Coming to SKMU, while she realised that gender parity in gross enrolment ratio was not really a problem in the region, she has tried to hold on to the idea of creating a safe space and climate for female students on campus. Her imagination of the campus is one that is accessible and occupied by students.

Speaking of her own journey, Prof. Minz recollects that her parents always encouraged her and instilled a sense of community in her. She recalls her parents telling her, “whatever we are able to do in life for bread and butter, it is not the only thing.” In response to what she thinks her role as VC will mean for those around her, she recognises that it will be inspirational for many but says that one must not lose individual uniqueness because some mainstreaming is now happening. However, it is important that those from the margins see and hear of contemporary role models. Being exposed to such leadership in proximity would be inspirational for young girls. She iterates that while such exposure might not mean ‘success’ or ‘achievements’ in the social sense individually, one never knows the ways in which such things get processed, and perhaps, their children will go on to make such achievements.

Closing remarks.

Prof. Minz says that her dreams are not only for the time of her children but also for her grandchildren’s generation. She recalls telling some of her students, “If I can become VC, any of you can.” The historic appointment of Prof. Sonajharia Minz is in many ways the possibilities that a democratic higher education space could open up. While her appointment is testimony to her own journey, it has also been possible through historical and collective struggles.

As our conversation comes to a close, Prof. Minz notes that while literacy happens in the classroom, education is not restricted to it. She believes that we need to be focusing on education in educational institutions rather than just subject wise literacy. “I’m in the middle of a move. I will be the first resident on the university campus. I have told the staff that I will sleep at the university tonight.” Prof. Minz says with delight. Her commitment to justice and her vision of education speaks to many of the contemporary concerns in higher education.

For more articles and conversations on higher education, follow this space.