Is the government furtively trying to do away with non-NET fellowships?

A review committee would consider ‘economic and other criteria for non-NET fellowships’.

WrittenBy:Arunabh Saikia
Date:
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The four-member student delegation had been inside the University Grants Commission (UGC) office for a while now, making everyone outside slightly anxious. “What’s taking so long?” a girl asked her friend. She wasn’t the only one to ask the question. Everyone in the 200-odd strong crowd who had assembled on Monday, October 26, to “Occupy UGC” to protest the government’s ambiguous position on the non-National Eligibility Test for teaching (non-NET) fellowships, knew the importance of the meeting happening inside: The Chairman of the UGC, Ved Prakash, had finally agreed to meet representatives of the protesting group. A breakthrough that could change the course of things.

Seemingly to ease the air, Sucheta De, president of the All India Students’ Association (AISA), began addressing the crowd. De, whom I have heard speak a few times before, is an excellent orator, who knows just how to stir up her audience. “Smriti Irani is trying to fool us with wordplay; we are not some uneducated fools to get duped into believing that our demands have been met,” she thundered.

De was referring to a press release issued by the Human Resources Development Ministry the previous day. The press release stated that a review committee had been established “to go into the issues related to the research fellowships provided by the UGC”. While the statement equivocally reiterated that “all existing and continuing fellowships, NET as well as Non-NET would be continued”, it said the review committee would consider “economic and other criteria for non-NET fellowships”.

The protesters who had assembled that day in front of the UGC office were incensed by the use to the word “other”. They claimed the word “other” was inserted to bring in a criterion of merit. “Merit? Bullshit! Isn’t the fact that students enrolled in MPhil and PhD courses [students of these two courses are eligible for the fellowship] have cleared an entrance test, approved by the UGC itself, proof enough of merit?” De roared.

This was the seventh day of “Occupy UGC” protest. A UGC meeting, held on October 7, to deliberate on the fate of the non-NET fellowships, had sparked off the protest. Introduced in 2006, the non-NET fellowship is a monthly stipend of Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 that the UGC provides to all students enrolled in MPhil and PhD courses, respectively, in the central universities of the country.

For some time now, students across the country have been demanding a hike in these fellowships from Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 for MPhil courses and Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 for PhD courses. Another demand is to extend these fellowships to state universities too. This meeting was held to discuss the report of an expert committee that had been formed to look into these demands.

According to the minutes of the meeting, the UGC, instead of hiking the fellowship amount, “resolved” to discontinue the stipend. It, however, stated that incumbent beneficiaries would continue to avail the fellowship “as per the existing guidelines”.

To object to the resolutions of the meeting, students from the central universities of the city – Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia University – took to the street and staged demonstrations on the UGC premises last week. The government sensed trouble – and issued the said press release to damage control. Irani also tweeted out saying the scheme would continue and the fellowship amount will be transferred directly to the beneficiaries’ bank account. News reports also seemed to suggest that the deadlock had been broken – and the HRD ministry’s statement was some sort of a breakthrough.

According to the government, the press release was preceded by a consultation with the student unions of the universities. AISA, however, strongly refutes this claim. “The only people they spoke to were leaders from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad. This is all a big joke,” said Mohit Pandey of the AISA. The press release, according to AISA, is just a ploy to divert attention from the main issue with clever wordplay. “There is nothing in the press release that says that new students would also be awarded the fellowship. What do they think we were protesting for?”

According to a student pursuing his MPhil in Sociology in JNU, WhatsApp messages were sent out by the ABVP on Sunday, saying the issue had been solved – and there was no reason to protest anymore. “ABVP would have us believe that the government has ceded to our demands but a closer reading of the press release revealed that it just reinforced the resolutions of the meeting on October 7, whereas our demand is that the fellowship be not only continued but the amount also increased.”

The ABVP’s Saurabh Kumar Sharma, who is the joint secretary of the Jawaharlal University Students’ Union (JNUSU), vehemently denies Pandey’s accusations. “The delegation that met Ms Irani included leaders from the student unions of various universities across country. Also, how can they say there was no representation from JNU? Am I not an elected member of the JNUSU?”

Sharma, who is studying for a PhD in Computational Neuroscience, claims the protest by AISA is politically-motivated. “Who leaked the minutes of the meeting? There was no official notification; AISA took to the streets on the basis of the minutes of the meeting.” Sharma alleges the minutes were intentionally leaked to help AISA gain political mileage.

Did ABVP, as accused by AISA, send out mass messages telling students that the protests had been called off? “There is a systematic way to do things -the government has assured us that the review committee would look into our demands. Why not give it some time instead of taking to the streets all the time?”

The government’s rationale is that the fellowship, as it stands now, is non-uniform and only a miniscule number of students from central universities benefit from and that it lacks accountability and transparency. That is, however, an argument that the protesting students don’t buy. They claim it is part of the larger plan of the new government to privatise higher education. “The PM is going to Nairobi for the World Trade Organisation summit in December, where he will negotiate the terms of World Trade Organisation-General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO-GATS). The truth is there will be no negotiation. He will just agree to whatever the Americans say,” said De.

The terms of the GATS requires the host country to give the foreign institutions the same treatment as domestic ones. That, many of its detractors fear, will lead to education being treated as more of a service than a right, and undermining the role of public universities. “The scrapping of the fellowship is the first step to privatise education in the country and making it unaffordable for most of the country,” an AISA leader told me.

Prakash was not available for comments we had sought from him about this concern of the AISA.

“The scrapping of the fellowship will affect women the most. The only reason most women are even allowed to pursue higher education is because of the fellowships – and the government talks about merit now,” said De.

*****

The four-member delegation finally came out after an hour or so. Kanhaiya Kumar, who was part of the delegation that met with Prakash, addressed the crowd to apprise them of the meeting: “Ved Prakash asked us why we don’t try and get the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) instead. The JRF doesn’t even account for five per cent of students researching in humanities and social science and science. Is that even a solution?” The crowd broke into a chorus of “shame-shame”.

To be sure, only a very small set of students benefit from the JRF: only the 10 per cent of the students who clear the NET.

The government, as of now, stand on flimsy grounds as far as its explanation goes. The logic that the non-NET fellowship will be standardised by including students from state universities doesn’t quite cut ice. The central allocation for state universities has actually been cut down from the last year. Besides, there has also been a cut on the overall education budget of the country.

While there will be more clarity on the fate of the non-NET fellowships only in December when the review committee submits its reports, the brutal police crackdown on the protesters has done the UGC no favours. Kumar wrote in a Facebook post yesterday that the movement would only be intensified: “Education is not for sale.”

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