New Delhi: Student protests against Modi government’s education policies are fast mushrooming in universities across the country. The students’ union-backed protest at all four Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) campuses – Mumbai, Tuljapur, Hyderabad and Guwahati – are evidence that there is nationwide dissent when it comes to social justice and education.
TISS students have been protesting since February 21 against the hike in dining and hostel fees along with withdrawal of fee waiver to the students belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC), and on Friday, three student delegates held a press conference at Delhi’s Indian Women’s Press Corps.
Addressing the media were Fahad Ahmad, general secretary of the TISS students’ union and two Ph.D scholars – Priyanka Sandaliya and Subhankar Roy. They informed the media about the university’s response to the ongoing conflict, their interactions with the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) and the legal notice served to six students. By highlighting these issues the students wished to draw media attention to the efforts of the university and the government to delegitimise their protests.
The academic fraternity has alleged that institutions are increasingly becoming less inclined to listen to the demands of their students. One glaring example of this trend was provided by the Central University of Orissa, which was shut down when students demanded permanent faculty and access to better facilities.
The speakers at Friday’s press conference said education in India is being taken over by private interests, which puts disadvantaged students at risk of being forced to leave higher education. They highlighted the declining ratio of OBC-NC students in the university, which has fallen from 22% in 2014-15 to 20% in 2015-16 and then to 18% in 2016-17. The crux of the problem is that TISS is a publicly-funded university, which also gets funds from the Tata Trust. However, the cut in funds for scholarships and the method of calculating the Rs 20 crore deficit has not been adequately explained, according to the students. Therefore, they demand greater financial transparency from the institute.
Demands from the students include the provision of sufficient funds from UGC along with a clear plan on how institutes should utilise these funds. Following the protests, UGC in mid-March released arrears worth Rs 11 crore to TISS, Mumbai but there is ambiguity about how this money will be used.
Other demands include an increase in budget allocation towards education to 10% of the GDP as opposed to the present 0.45% for 2018-19. This should be supplemented by special fund allocation towards the Government of India-Post Matriculation Scholarship (GOI-PMS). Also, the scholarship should be distributed in a timely manner to avoid disruption of students’ education.
Three MPs recently wrote a letter to the Union finance minister Arun Jaitley to request the release of Rs 12,000 crore in funds intended for SC/ST scholarships.
In 2015, the institute claimed that the government would not provide a scholarship to the OBC-NC students covered under the GOI-PMS. They were asked to pay upfront hostel, mess and tuition fees. In 2017, it issued a notice stating that even SC/ST covered under the GOI-PMS would have to pay the fees, since there was a Rs 20 crore deficit in the amount of scholarship. This is claimed because of rising fee structures, which results in an inability by the institute to adjust the amount of scholarships and freeships.
Another issue of conflict has been the expansion of the TISS campus to incorporate more courses. Sandaliya commented on how contradictory it was to have a rural management course with a rural development course in the very same institution that was slashing scholarship funds.
The dialogue between the students and the administration resulted in TISS agreeing to adjust scholarship fees for the batches of 2016-18 and 2017-19. The focus is now on new students who will seek admission and how their education will be funded.
In response, the institute has labelled the protests as being fuelled by “fringe-elements”. They have also signalled an end to the protests, which is contested by the students.
The students received a lackadaisical response to their grievances from the HRD minister Prakash Javadekar and the SJE minister Thawar Chand Gehlot.
The National Commission for STs has issued a hearing on April 12 in New Delhi. The sitting hearing with the National Commission for SCs is scheduled for April 18 and National Commission for OBCs is on April 7. These hearings will involve representatives of students, the MHRD and the institute authorities. The students hope this will urge the government to restore and safeguard the spirit of reservation and affirmative action.