By Shabnam Shaikh*
Since 21st of October 2015, students across the country in every college have been protesting against the scrapping of the Non-NET Fellowship given to the M.Phil/Ph.D students by the University Grants Commission (UGC) (a sum of Rs 5000 and Rs 8000 per month respectively). It is a tragedy that the decision to scrap the non-NET fellowship was taken on 7th of October by a committee that was in fact set up to enhance the fellowship but it decided to scrap the fellowship entirely.
Undergraduates, post-graduates, teachers, intellectuals and people from all walks of life have joined the protest in solidarity against many measures which have been taken by the government in past few years such as semesterization, fee hikes, fund cuts etc in order to privatize education and parcel out its vital responsibilities at every level to serve the interests of the corporations.
At the outset, this is visible in the decrease in allocation for education in Union Budget by 17% (currently 68,980 crores) while there is a concurrent increase in the allocation for defence by 7.7% to 2.47 lakh crores for the year 2015-16. The allocation for higher education remains abysmally low within the education sector. In the name of ‘national interest’, it is clear that the central government would rather display military might to the world than nurture its young intellectual minds.
In Delhi, students have waged a united struggle outside the UGC office and have been occupying it 24X7. Protesting students were lathi-charged and detained twice, brutally beaten by the Delhi police, abused and intimidated and threatened with dire consequences. Women students have been repeatedly beaten up by male police officers. Meanwhile, the UGC, a body answerable to the students, remained conspicuously silent.
Despite these circumstances, the students have sustained their spirit and have constantly occupied the space outside the UGC till now. The students have shown unprecedented unity in the face of police brutality and uncompromisingly fought for their democratic right.
It is important to recognize the objective behind these efforts by the government to privatize education. The current government is furthering a policy that began with the opening up of the economy in the early 90s. On the 1st of January 1995, India signed an agreement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) called the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which effectively subsumed ‘education’ as a service provided for industry.
The agreement asserted that benefits of providing education will invariably ‘spillover’ as a consequence of furthering industry and trade. In this country, this understanding was enhanced by the Birla-Ambani Report on Higher Education in 2000. This report unilaterally claimed that in order to make education conducive to the demands of the market economy, universities need to be privatized. Further, organized students movements were seen as a threat to the effort to make education ‘profitable’ and therefore needed to be curbed.
Unsurprisingly, this report was followed by another government report now infamous as the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR) which was imposed on all universities in the country with the logic of ‘national integration’ as the parameter for student assertion wherein any student protest could be simply deemed ‘anti-national’ if it didn’t serve the interests of those in power. At the same time, the university administration officials, funded generously by corporate sponsors, started speaking of the need for ‘world-class universities’. Since 2008, we have seen this vision being imposed on the country’s biggest university, Delhi University, through the semester system, then Four-Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) and now the rehashed Credit Based Choice System (CBCS).
Nowhere in this entire process were students or teachers, the real stakeholders of education, consulted. The Central University Bill echoes this policy a centralized, homogenous curriculum across the country. This aims to scuttle critical thinking, voices of dissent and take away the autonomy of university spaces.
Bending under the World Bank’s insistence to reduce fiscal deficit, Indian government has already been cutting funding and subsidy to many important sectors like health and education. December 2015 marks 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. 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.
Indian universities/educational institutions and policy in all sense will come under the WTO rules to the disastrous extent that Indian parliament or constitution would have no control over these policies. This will completely dismantle our right to education. 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.
It comes as no surprise then that these policies seem to adversely affect the economically most vulnerable sections of the society. 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.
The rising cost of education, the professionalized courses, inadequate housing for students and the prohibitive criteria for admission render higher education inaccessible to the poorest and pushing the middle class towards private universities. The courses provided in such institutions remain both opaque and irrelevant for those coming from across social, economic and regional differences. By introducing merit/income criteria based fellowship, (which is a prerogative of brahminical response to any inclusive provision of keeping Dalits, women, minorities, differently abled in to the education system, employment opportunities) students from struggling backgrounds will get even further excluded from the higher education.
On the 5th of November, the students led a protest march till the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) where we were asked to give our feedbacks to the review committee. On 18th of November, students, in large numbers marched to MHRD for submitting mass depositions regarding the same but no official from the review committee listened to us, our feedback was not submitted, and instead police action was unleashed on to us brutally. The hundreds of students have united to fight not just the scrapping of non–Net fellowship but the entire machinery that aims to churn out unthinking cogs for the service of corporate profits and continue to push their demands.
*Article distributed by National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)