Occupy UGC: Education is our right and not a privilege
Students protesting the scrapping of non-NET fellowships given by the University Grants Commission are calling for a march and mass deposition from the UGC to the Ministry of Human Resources on 18th November, and an all India ‘Dilli chalo’ march on 9th December. Read their statement below:
Today, students across the country in every college are protesting against the scrapping of the Non-NET Fellowship given to the students by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to research scholars (M.Phil students get Rs. 5000 per month and Ph.D students get Rs. 8000 per month). Undergraduates, post-graduates, teachers, intellectuals and people from all walks of life have joined the protest in solidarity.
The reason for this solidarity stems from the measures taken by the government 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 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. This budget makes it clear that the central government would rather display military might to the world than nurture its young intellectual minds. Moreover, these moves are being defended in the name of ‘national interest’. The decision to scrap the non-NET fellowship came as part of this fund cut policy and on the 7th of October the committee set up to enhance the fellowship turned tail and scrapped it entirely. Since this decision was made public, students have gathered in front of the UGC offices all over the country.
Here in Delhi, students have waged a united struggle outside the UGC office since the 21st of October. Protesting students were lathi-charged twice, badly beaten by the Delhi police, abused and intimidated and threatened with dire consequences. The first time the students were detained, they were taken to Bhalaswa police station in the outskirts of Delhi. But more students joined in the days that followed and the police brutally beat up and detained us a second time at the Kamla Market police station on the 27th of October. Women protesting were targeted and beaten 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. The students have shown unprecedented unity in the face of police brutality and uncompromisingly fought for their democratic right.
It is important to recognise 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, it stipulated that organized students movements needed to be curbed as it was seen as a threat to this effort to make education ‘profitable’. 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 centralised, 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 in the economy, higher education being the one. 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. 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 privatisation and marketisation 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, who are already facing structural violence and discrimination on the basis of caste, class and gender. The denial of fellowship is just one such move by the government. 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 or criteria based fellowship, students from struggling backgrounds will get even further excluded from the higher education. It is clear that the government is washing its hands off all responsibility towards the youth of this country and it is this very section that is then being exploited by corporations in the race for jobs and security.
On the 5th of November, the students protesting outside the UGC led a protest march till the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The anger palpable throughout the day among the protestors reflects this two decade long history of privatising education. The hundreds of students united to fight not just the scrapping of education but the entire machinery that aims to churn out unthinking cogs for the service of corporate profits and continue to push their demands:
a) Restore, Increase and Expand Non-Net Fellowship – no merit/criteria based exclusion.
b) India withdraw from WTO negotiation.
c) halt the process of fund cut in education- spend 10% of the budget in education.
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