SOME PERSPECTIVES ON THE #OCCUPYUGC MOVEMENT IN INDIA

Since mid October, research scholars all over India have been an agitated lot. The UGC, or the University Grants Commission which is the governing body for education in the country, issued a circular stating the withdrawal of the non-NET Fellowship for M.Phil and PhD scholars from the coming academic session. The fellowships were to the tune of Rs. 5000 (50 pounds) for M.Phil scholars and Rs. 8000 (80 pounds) per month for PhD scholars who have not cleared the NET examination. For the uninitiated, the UGC holds the NET (National Eligibility Test) exam twice a year which is mandatory to qualify in order to hold a teaching position. The top 10 percent of those qualifying the NET are eligible for the Junior Research Fellowship of the JRF which is around Rs. 25000 per month (the JRF was reviewed recently).

This scrapping of the non-NET Fellowship was undertaken by the UGC in the most arbitrary fashion possible. In a case of cruel irony, the UGC met in early October to review the fellowship, addressing the demands of students and academics alike. Some of the demands were to extend the fellowship to scholars in all State and Central universities unequivocally as the fellowship is currently available to only central universities and each university can apply its own rules on who should be a beneficiary of the fellowship. Another major demand of students was to revise the rates of the fellowship, which to say is ‘peanuts’ is also an understatement.

As Professor Ayesha Kidwai points out in her article, only a minuscule percentage of the research scholars in India are supported by the JRF. She lists that – “The figure of 6400 fellowships in 2010-2011 works out to research support for just 4.6% of the 137,668 students registered for research in the humanities, social sciences and sciences across India in that period”.

There are many reasons why we students are protesting against this vehemently. The most important of them all is the simple fact that this scholarship has enabled researchers to pursue their research. Because hostels are subsidized, students have been able to do their fieldwork, buy books, attend lectures in other colleges/universities, and participate in conferences etc, with this small amount allocated to them.

A massive rally of protesting students in New Delhi demanding the continuation of Non-NET fellowships.

A massive rally of protesting students in New Delhi demanding the continuation of Non-NET fellowships.

Students have been continuously picketing outside the UGC office premises since October 21st, even sleeping on the road in the harsh Delhi winters.  There has also been massive support from academics who have joined the students in the protests. To name a few prominent members, Prof. Ayesha Kidwai, Dr. Brinda Bose, Mary E. John, Nivedita Menon, Prof. Anand Kumar, and former UGC member Prof. Yogendra Yadav among scores of others. Many other academics have been conducting ‘open classes’ with the protestors starting with Prof. Janaki Nair who conducted a class on October 30th on the subject ‘When Higher Education Was Engendered’. This movement is no longer just centered in Delhi and has gained massive support from students all over the country including Gujarat, Punjab, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Shillong, Kolkata, Madhya Pradesh etc (more information here). This is one among those rare student protest movements which has spiralled beyond the limits of state borders or concerns. It is of concern to one and all. And why is it so?

This fellowship, though a small amount, has been a lifeline for many students to be able to pursue research in India. Higher research is still not considered or even accorded the status of professionalism here. On most occasions parents dissuade their kids from pursuing research. In a country obsessed with engineering, medical and MBA degrees which allow one to start earning from a relatively young age, research is looked at with disdain. This fellowship has been crucial mostly to students from deprived backgrounds such as Dalits (ex-untouchables) or minorities (Muslims, Christians and Sikhs) and to women as well. Due to the massive protests, the UGC hastily formed a committee to look into the reasons of the protest. The committee met for the first time on 3rd November. One of the circulars that the UGC issued in view of the protest on October 27 said that the fellowships will not be discontinued but will be issued on the basis of ‘merit’ and ‘economic criteria’. Now we all are aware how ‘merit’ functions in India.

The major problem with the Indian education system as well as the mindset of the people has been the extra emphasis on grades and ranking since school. This is deeply flawed, and still swears by the ‘rote system’. To add to it, a small percentage only makes it to some of the better schools in the country and most children go to government run primary schools. Therefore, the question of ‘merit’ in allotting an M.Phil or PhD fellowship is a serious flaw. Take for example, the NET exam. This is an exam which again exemplifies India’s love for rote. The exam requires a scholar to answer multiple choice questions and is highly debatable if at all it can judge a researcher’s research ability. Getting an admission to the M.Phil course is not easy. It requires a scholar to clear a tough entrance exam and if selected will have to clear a panel interview. Same is the case with PhD admissions as well, though some universities like the Jawaharlal Nehru University have an integrated M.Phil/PhD program.

Again, the economic criterion that the UGC is proposing is also highly problematic. And particularly for women, as on many instances, this fellowship has helped girls to dodge a patriarchal system and follow their dreams and careers. In a country, where patriarchy is palpable at every single sphere and girls are still expected to follow the diktats of the family, such fellowships have been the sustenance for women to pursue higher education. And this is not just limited to girls from lower middle classes or working class families. Many women from even elite and rich families have rebelled against patriarchy and pursued their studies because this fellowship allowed the possibility. So when economic criteria are to be analysed for a researcher, whose economic criteria is one talking about? Is it of the family or the researcher? This question would be an oxymoron in itself as the researcher is not liable to have any source of income other than the fellowship.

The reason for this draconian act of the government has a lot to do with the general callousness and disregard that the Modi government has towards higher education. Earlier this year, the government instituted massive cuts in education by about 25% from the last year. As per reports, support to state universities was also cut by about 48% as compared to the last academic year. The last one year has also been marked by controversial and contentious appointees to crucial academic positions including the highly debated and protested appointment of the Chairperson of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).  This withdrawal of the non-NET fellowship and slashing of funds for education is also related to India’s commitment to ‘open higher education trade as a service in the WTO-GATS negotiations slated to take place in December this year’ (see Ayesha Kidwai’s article).

These steps would sound the death knell for higher education as we know in the country. One of the most populous countries, India has a dismal record of the number of PhD scholars. A 2013 report taken out by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), pegs the number of PhD scholars to a paltry 0.5% of students enrolled in higher education making this de-facto a minuscule amount of the total population. If this fellowship is further withdrawn, many more scholars will be left with no other option but to quit their research. Further, many more will be highly de-motivated to pick up research as a matter of passion or career. Many of us, including me, are in this field not purely because we see this as a ‘career option’ but because we love our subjects and we strive to gather knowledge which we can perhaps later disseminate to the younger lot in various ways. It’s a matter of tragedy, that the government today has no respect for knowledge creation. But it serves well for the state to remember that a nation’s greatness is also measured by the knowledge it generates. The struggle is still on. As I write this, a massive students rally marched from the UGC premises to the MHRD headquarters in Delhi on November 5th forcing the MHRD Minister Smriti Irani to leave the confines of her cabin and address the students on the streets. We shall not rest until we are given what we deserve. Till then #OccupyUGC shall continue.

This post was written by Shaheen Salma Ahmed.

Shaheen is a MPhil student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests include,the body in visual representations, mass media and advertising, identity politics , gender and nation, Indian politics and its propaganda through mass media.

Photo Courtesy : Occupy UGC Movement Facebook Page.

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