Disrupting the ‘new middle class’ space of Indian public universities

Nandita Dhawan, Dina Zoe Belluigi, Grace Idahosa

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 have been framed as offering a broad interpretative framework for the enactment of change for social, economic and epistemic justice. Higher Education Institutions are positioned as key drivers of the SDGs. The National Education Policy 2020 in India has declared „quality education‟ (SDG 4) as the first and foremost priority in education. In addition to the constitution of a “Gender Inclusive Fund” to provide equitable quality education for all girls, the Policy has also set high Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education for “Socio-economically Disadvantaged Groups”. Transformation for sustainability becomes crucial to the role of higher education amidst stand-off between initiatives of public universities and privatization of higher education, debates on the knowledge economy, and processes of massification and democratization. The university is a highly politicized and fractious realm both for students and academic staff. While there has been an increase in enrolment of first generation students, when it comes to faculty recruitment in public universities in India the representation of women, lower castes and minorities falls far below the mark.

Based on findings of a mixed methods study conducted with four higher education institutions in India in 2019, the paper deconstructs the umbrella category of “socio-economically disadvantaged groups” articulated in the National Education Policy 2020. In view of addressing the issues of gender inequality (SDG 5) and quality education (SDG 4), we locate our argument in the discourse of the rise of the „New Middle Class‟ in India from the 1990s. Rather than practicing social justice, the enactment of policies of affirmative action have altered public universities into producers of the „New Middle Class‟, all the while they claim to be expansive and inclusive. These policies „allow‟ the subalterns to be clothed with the veneer of modernity of the intellectual class as they enter higher education institutions on condition that they conceal their sociocultural identities, norms and unprivileged social positioning. This ensures that the university can continue with its claim to be a secular and neutral zone unmarked by difference or hierarchy. Thus, terms such as „quality‟ and „equality‟ seem to become more a tool for social control than social justice. While the entry of gendered subalterns is framed as a brand of the „New Middle Class‟ modernity, mobility and development, any assertion or retention of their gendered, caste or minority identities are simultaneously repudiated and misrecognised. It is the „unmarked‟ and „universal‟ „New Middle Class‟ who want to be in control, though not always with success, of defining the limits of „legitimate‟ participation of the subalterns in the university space, and in turn the world beyond. The paper uses feminist analysis to understand the insider perspectives of academic staff and leadership belonging to the NMC and their participation in the processes of incorporation of subalterns in university spaces.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 03 Apr 2021
EventInternational Conference on Globalisation of Professional Legal Education: Constitutional Conspectus - the School of Law, Bennett University, Greater Noida, India
Duration: 02 Apr 202103 Apr 2021


ConferenceInternational Conference on Globalisation of Professional Legal Education: Constitutional Conspectus
CityGreater Noida
Internet address


  • quality education
  • gender
  • caste
  • higher education
  • leadership
  • sustainable development


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