Over the last few days the country has seen one of the largest student uprisings in its recent history. UGC’s decision to scrap the non – NET scholarship, as declared on 20th October 2015, after a UGC meeting dated October 7, 2015, served as a tipping point for the simmering unrest within this student community, which has long been struggling under the assault of rising tuition fees and cost of education, reckless semesterization program at undergraduate level and deteriorating quality of public higher education due to fund cuts and a plethora of market oriented/vocational courses taking advantage of job insecurity.
The student community erupted in anger, bursting into massive protests in various universities all over the country. In Delhi, UGC office was stormed by hundreds of protesting students, who occupied space outside – chanting slogans, singing songs, clashing with the police (twice now the police has lathi charged students, leaving several injured and at least five hospitalized) and refusing to budge/vacate until their demands were met. Students across various colleges and universities resonated with the movement within a matter of hours and a broader solidarity against fund cuts has been forged among the agitating students of Jamia, NEHU, JU, AUD, JNU, SAU, DU, MGHAHV Wardha, HCU, Gujarat central university, Haryana central university.
Under the non-NET scholarship, UGC has been providing a monthly sum of Rs. 5000 and Rs. 8000 to MPhil and PhD scholars respectively. Not indexed to inflation, this amount has been proving too small to cover ever increasing cost of education and research/for a comfortable and dignified life as a research scholar, and in any case, students of all state universities (particularly state universities) are outside the ambit of its benefits. The decision of the committee (that was instituted by the UGC in February 2015, ironically, to look into the enhancement of the non-NET) to scrap the scholarship was under the pretext that its outreach was limited to central university researchers. As a result the first delegation of protesting students raised the demand that the scholarship be reinstated unconditionally, its amount must be enhanced and its outreach must be expanded to cover state universities as well. In response the UGC agreed that the scholarship will be continued in its present form, but by a sleight of hand, instituted a review committee that will decide the criteria (merit or income cap) through which it will now be given only to selected students across central and state university researchers.
Over 800 student protestors marched to the MHRD rejecting the additional criteria on 5th november, denouncing it as an exclusionary measure. Smriti Irani was forced to meet the students outside the MHRD and merely reiterated what the UGC had already told the students. She also admitted/said that there is no student representative within he review committee and though students could send in depositions regarding what sort of criteria they would prefer, no student will be a part of the committee. Students decided to present the review committee with a mass deposition rejecting any additional criteria on the 18th of November. The students rally wasn’t entertained by the MHRD and stopped way before it reached the ministry gates. Police force was again unleashed on the students and the students were forcefully removed from the site and detained at the Parliament Police station. Students were beaten up, pushed, groped and clothes of many female students were torn during the same. The police behaviour has gotten worse with time and many a times male police officials have openly assaulted female students.
It is acknowledged that despite the non-NET being a meagre amount in view of the skyrocketing inflation in the country, it serves as a lifeline to a large mass of students from poor/working class backgrounds, Dalit families and female students seeking self dependence. In a country where structural oppression based on class, caste and gender has kept large sections of the people historically deprived and away from access to education, and education is promised as an opportunity to break free from these structural inequalities, then/ and it is criminal to deprive these sections of our society of education. In any case only 4.5% of Indian students reach higher education and even fewer continue into research. If the Government withdraws its support to these students in their middle twenties they will have little option than to look at alternative ways of self-sustenance or drop-out. This will also reflect in the research questions that will be raised within universities and as the student community in the university gets elite so will its area of research.
This move by the UGC needs to be understood in the context of India’s larger submission to WTO diktats. It is yet another move towards marketization and privatization of higher education in the country. Bending under the World Bank’s insistence to reduce fiscal deficit, Indian government has already been cutting funding and subsidy to many important sectors in the economy. Higher education is yet another field which the government is now intent to open up to market forces. With more and more private universities being encouraged to set shop in the country, the government has also been repeatedly announcing and glorifying the prospective entry of foreign universities in India’s higher education sector.
December 2015 will mark the WTO-GATS Conference wherein the Government of India is all set to allow 160 member countries of WTO to establish universities in India as commercial ventures. With this, the people’s right to education will be completely dismantled as the government will then be bound to protect the interests of foreign and domestic corporate houses that pursue profits in the sector. To create a “level playing field” for these profit making entities, the government will need to dismantle all subsidies and support to public universities, so that these private and foreign entities can “compete” with public universities in the market. It is in preparation for this commitment to the WTO that the government took this move to scrap the non-NET scholarship. Thus we need to understand this as a deliberate attempt to sabotage public universities in preparation for the planned privatization and marketization of higher education of India. There is an uncanny similarity between the way the demise of public healthcare one cannot help but observe the mushrooming of Maxx and Fortis hospitals while most of the populace requires AIIMS. Both of these are social sectors and privatisation in these sectors inevitably means the continuation and exacerbation of inequality in our country.
Having understood the design of the Government the students have waged this larger struggle for the right to education demanding increase in the scholarship amount, indexing it to inflation, dissociating it from any notion of “merit”, bringing all universities (including state universities) in the ambit of this scholarship, and most importantly to put a complete halt to the process of privatization and marketization of higher education in the country. #Occupy UGC has been able to reach the student struggles that had been already happening and been able to give a call for unifying these struggles across the country. In line with this, the coordination committee of the OccupyUGC movement (a committee of representatives from various colleges, universities and student organizations which has been leading the movement) has declared a national rally for ‘Dilli Chalo’ on the 9th of December against ceding education as a tradeable service in the upcoming Nairobi round at WTO. Thousands of students would be marching to the Parliament on the 9th to register their protest against this move to auction out their right to education to private players.