Swati Moitra
February 4, 2020
Why does the fee-hike at one of India's oldest and most prestigious universities matter, and what implications will it have on public-funded higher education in India? An erstwhile scholar from JNU reflects.

The Struggle for Affordable Public-funded Education for Young India

Tertiary or higher education remains an unattainable dream for most sections of India’s one billion strong population, with the gross enrolment ratio (GER) hovering around 26.3% in the year 2018-19, as per the data provided by the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE).[i] It has been pointed out that this number remains considerably low in comparison to other emerging market economies such as China (around 48%) and Brazil (around 50%), let alone advanced economies like the USA (87%). A low GER, however, is only the tip of the iceberg — the AISHE collects no data on the ratio of dropouts in tertiary education, leaving us to wonder what the numbers might look like. To offer some perspective, the highest dropouts in school education are in the secondary level, with the adivasi-dominated state of Jharkhand topping the list with only 30 students out of 100 enrolled finishing school in 2018-19.

To offer some more perspective, also drawn from the AISHE reports (2017-18 and 2018-19): the data comprehensively highlights that there has been a considerable rise in private colleges and universities in both percentage and absolute numbers, with a corresponding rise in enrolment in the same. On the other hand, the public universities — besieged by a series of ‘reforms’, latest being the Choice Based Credits System (CBCS) and its one size fits all curriculum — have seen a marginal drop in student enrolments across disciplines, which perhaps does not deliver a stellar report on the validity of said ‘reforms’.[ii] The powers that be, of course, show little interest in slowing down to take account of the same, and have promised — especially courtesy the proposed National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 — ‘radical’ restructuring, a veritable ‘reform’ extravaganza, if you will. After all, there must be no roadblocks to the path of the inevitable transformation of the ‘offer’ made to the World Trade Organization (WTO) back in 2005, that of making higher education available for global trade as a commodity, into an iron-clad ‘commitment’.

Where does all of this leave our public universities, which, given the reputation many of them uphold as well as the considerably lower fees that they charge, remain one of the only available avenues for upward mobility in India’s caste-ridden society? What does it mean that the series of ‘reforms’, increasingly rammed in with scant public discussion or regard for material conditions in different parts of the country, mandate ‘financial autonomy’ and a reduction of the number of higher education institutions, even as it proposes pushing up the GER? And how do we reconcile with the push for fee hikes and ‘need-based’ financial support (read: loans), even as data published by Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) displays that the proportion of education loans being declared non-performing assets (NPAs) has jumped to 9%, in diverse programs ranging from medicine to business administration?[iii]

If you have spent at least some time in or around a central or a state-run university in India, you must have sensed one thing — these are spaces filled to the brim with an acute sense of financial distress.

Allow me to speak of my own experiences: I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2006 as a student of MA English. I came from economic privilege, to say nothing of the social and caste privilege that my Bengali Brahmin origins offered me. I had two working parents who did not require any financial assistance from me, even though I had turned 20 at the time. I could spend up to 5,000 rupees per month on my mother’s debit card, since I did not have one of my own at the time.

This was not true for a large number of my friends, who had to offer tuitions to children on campus or in the Munirka/Vasant Kunj area in order to survive and to send money back home to their families. To put things in perspective, again: the Merit-Cum-Means scholarship for BA/MA students, back then, was 1,000 rupees. The mess bills in various hostels ranged between 700-1,000 rupees. Students ran back from the academic complex to their hostels for lunch and from the library for dinner. It took me a few months to understand why some students did not opt to eat the subsidized canteen food for lunch or casually pick up a cup of cold coffee, or why some (such as my roommate in 2007, an adivasi girl from Rajasthan who was the first woman in her family to enrol for a Masters’ degree) chose to wait for the evening tea to be prepared in the hostel instead of joining us at one of the dhabas. At the time, there was a facility called ‘late lunch’/ ‘late dinner’, where a plate of food could be kept for you if you were going to be late and had informed the mess authorities beforehand. Very often, this food was eaten by the hostel cats. Eventually, the administration shut down this option, and students who chose to study late or work in the labs had to make do with maggi or paratha from Ganga Dhaba. On the days we felt particularly rich, we headed to Kiechha’s or Mughal Durbar on campus, and fought over small change.

Research in Indian public universities is subsidized, not funded. My Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) amount[iv], as a research scholar, was 12,000 rupees — a princely sum at the time. My friends who did not have the JRF were recipients of something called the UGC Non-NET Fellowship[v], which offered the magnificent sum of 3,000 rupees to M.Phil scholars and 5,000 rupees to Ph.D.. scholars. The scholarship money arrived once in four or five months, leaving us with little option but to look for work. This had to be done with care, since the university administration did not approve of research scholars working but also offered no opportunity for work as Research or Teaching Assistants. I had become so desperate that I went to a random job interview for a company whose name I cannot remember all the way to Pitam Pura. My friends worked for KPOs in Okhla where they wrote rich people’s SOPs for universities abroad. I worked as a copy editor in a publishing house, I freelanced, picked up the strangest gigs even before I knew what the ‘gig economy’ was (someone for instance wanted me to write their wife’s PhD — I convinced them both that it was a bad idea and tutored her instead), just to keep some money coming in. Eventually, I took up an ad-hoc job at the University of Delhi and stopped withdrawing my JRF, which lapsed after a semester. Very conscientious, I stopped asking the university for research contingency funds as well.

Our hostels had khatmals and power cuts. There was frequently no water — in fact, having running water was a rare surprise. Once, there was no water in the women’s wing in Chadrabhaga Hostel for 14 days, so we had to go downstairs and fill our buckets with water from a tanker that was stationed outside. In summer, sometimes, my room in Ganga Hostel (I lived in three different hostels over the years) was so hot that I would wet the floor and lie down on it.

Again, I had a financial security net — in the months I had nothing, I could ask my family for help. In the months I had money, I blew it completely on indulgences. This was not true for most people on campus, including my closest friends, who simply did not have that option, who had families depending on them. My friends at the university, meanwhile, came from the furthest parts of the country, from diverse caste and community backgrounds, and they all wanted one thing — to study. To survive. To leave the university with their heads held high.

I am a taxpayer now, and so are my friends. Whatever we received, we give back. We are grateful for it. But those years as beneficiaries of the public education system instilled some important values within most of us, such as the firm belief that education at all levels must be understood as a public good, not a commodity to be sold at will among the highest bidders. Students are not ‘consumers’ or ‘users’, but the very future of our great nation.

In the past few years, a vast majority of student agitations across India’s campuses have been on the issues of fee hike and scholarship denial, on library access and hostel hours, on social justice and gender justice. It would not, in fact, be an exaggeration to state that young India — at least, those sections of it fortunate to have had access to tertiary education — is hungry for greater access to quality and affordable education, something that the ever-expanding number of private-run universities are ill-equipped to and disinterested in offering. It is important to listen to these student voices, from places as disparate as Manipur University and IIT Delhi, Hidayatullah National Law University and Punjab University. It is important to recognize the precarity that is built into the very structure of higher education in India, which remains deeply Brahminical in how it envisions ‘access’ and ‘merit’.

It is this precarity that student voices have been articulating from different corners of India, even as education policy pushes them towards further precarity — towards fee hikes, towards the world of ‘financial autonomy’ and ‘need-based’ education loans. The casual statement of absurdities such as differential fee structures within our public universities, or said public universities competing with each other in the marketplace of education — as though higher education is equivalent to car models, measurable in the same manner! — in the public sphere suggests how truly out of touch most of India’s educated elite is with the aspirations and material needs of India’s youth. In fact, the endless litany about ratings and rankings and Indian universities ‘falling behind’ in the global ‘race’ highlights a curious fallacy: we appear to truly believe that quality research and education can somehow be produced with consistency in an atmosphere of such constant financial distress, or that somehow we can ‘get ahead’ even without systematic investment in human capital, by the way of some miraculous, magical jugaad.

The promise of spending 6% of India’s GDP towards education has grown so old that policymakers themselves appear to have forgotten it. It is time they — and we, the society at large — took account of the disparity between the promise of ‘radical reforms’ and the material concerns of India’s youth, and made concrete attempts to bridge that gap.

[i] “All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19” (Key Results of the AISHE 2018-19, Department of Higher Education, Delhi, 2019), p.II

[ii] “Minimum Course Curriculum for Undergraduate Courses Under Choice Based Credit System”, UGC, Delhi, (URL: https://ugc.ac.in › pdfnews › 8023719_Guidelines-for-CBCS)

[iii] Akanksha Soni, “Education Loan NPAs on the Rise”, The Hindu, January 14, 2019. https://www.thehindu.com/education/education-loan-npa/article25957682.ece

[iv] “Junior Research Fellowship in Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences”, XIth Plan Guidelines, UGC, Delhi, page 2/15

[v] India Today Web Desk New Delhi, February 3, 2017 UPDATED: February 3, and 2017 17:00 Ist, “No Fellowship to Non-NET Candidates: UGC,” India Today, accessed December 17, 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/no-fellowship-non-net-candidates-958796-2017-02-03.