Rising Discontent Among Science Students as Government Dials Back on Scholarships

Science education in the country may face a huge setback as IISER students are forced to bear the brunt of new reforms introduced by the government.

INSPIRE. Credit: inspire.nitrkl.ac.in

INSPIRE. Credit: inspire.nitrkl.ac.in

Chennai: Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government took over at the Centre in 2014, a flagship scholarship scheme offered by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has faced major fund cuts, leaving students increasingly discontented.

The Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research – Scholarship for Higher Education (INSPIRE-SHE) was instituted in 2008 under the UPA I regime to encourage students to take up “higher education in science-intensive programs”.

INSPIRE-SHE offers 10,000 scholarships worth Rs 80,000 each every year to students studying the basic and natural sciences at the bachelors and masters levels in institutions across the country. The scholarship is valid for up to five years (three-year bachelors + two-year masters degree), subject to the satisfaction of strict academic standards.

These scholarships are awarded to students studying science and who score among the top 1% in the class XII exams conducted by various boards, securing a rank less than or equal to 10,000 in the IIT-JEE Advanced exam, or those admitted into one of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), the National Institute of Science Education and Research or the Centre for Basic Sciences.

In April 2016, the DST restricted the number of INSPIRE scholarships awarded to BS-MS students at the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) to 585. However, the student intake was 1,300 for the seven IISERs combined. The students are selected to receive the scholarship according to DST-INSPIRE normsHowever, the terms of these norms are not to be found on either the DST or INSPIRE websites.

According to sources, last month, the dean of academic affairs at IISER Bhopal emailed students citing a DST letter dated 23 January, 2018, (DST/INSPIRE-SHE/2016; not to be found on the DST or INSPIRE websites) informing them that, from 2018-2019, students will have to maintain an annual grade point average (GPA) of 7.0 or greater to be eligible for the scholarship. Before the email was sent, this figure was known to be 6.0.

A student at IISER Pune said that all students had received an email stating that the INSPIRE cutoff had been revised and that more details would follow soon.

Per the same sources, the dean of academics at IISER Mohali had announced that this change was applicable to students across all five years of study, not just to the incoming batch. It was neither clear if this had been communicated to the other four IISERs nor whether these changes are applicable to non-IISER recipients as well.

The IISERs were established in 2006 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development under the advice of the Scientific Advisory Council. The seven IISERs – Kolkata, Pune, Mohali, Bhopal, Tiruvananthapuram, Tirupati and Berhampur – were set up between 2006 and 2016. The IISERs’ raison d’être was to focus on “both teaching and research in a totally integrated manner, with state-of-the-art research and high quality education, … nurturing both curiosity and creativity”. The institutes offer an integrated BS-MS degree integrating learning in classrooms with hands-on research.

One of the major attractions at these new institutes was a guarantee of the INSPIRE-SHE award. Every student enrolled in the IISERs was eligible to receive the Rs-80,000 scholarship provided their academic performance was satisfactory, i.e. if they maintained an annual GPA of 6.0 and above on a 10-point scale.

But now, a sizeable number of students, many of whom had opted to study science because of the DST scholarship, stand to get affected by these changes. According to one source (to whom The Wire spoke on condition of anonymity), the student representative council at IISER Mohali has asked the dean of academics to share the DST letter containing the guidelines with them. However, the institute’s faculty members have remained quiet.

Paralleling the fund cuts for the SHE scheme, there had also been a 100% hike – i.e. doubling – of tuition fees at all IISERs in 2017. This ties in with the BJP government’s intention to corporatise higher education. This was evident from the budget presented by finance minister Arun Jaitley earlier this year.

During his speech, Jaitley said that the government would launch a scheme called ‘Revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education’, to be funded by the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA). Under this, higher educational institutions will be funded through loans from the HEFA rather than through grants, as is the case currently. The institutions will then have to raise their own income and pay back these loans.

For example, IISER Pune has launched multiple channels through which funds can be transferred to the institute. That these measures may lead to a bias in favour of corporate-friendly projects and undermine the basic aims of promoting scientific research in IISER has been a concern of many at IISER Pune.

But the bulk of the burden, with increasing fees, scholarship cuts and a shift towards market friendliness, is poised to fall on the student community.

Note: This article originally stated that students would have to maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 7.0 to qualify for the scholarship. The figure is actually of annual GPA. The article was updated on March 5, 2018, accordingly.