A historic victory was won in South African on October 23 over neoliberalism. The #FeesMustFall protests that rocked the nation have been the largest student protests since the famous 1976 Soweto anti apartheid demonstration. A number of universities across the country were shut down, the parliament in Cape Town was stormed by students and the capital Pretoria saw a gathering of about 10,000 at President Jacob Zuma’s office. Finally, the President called a press conference to concede to student’s main demand of not increasing the fees next year. The next stage of the struggle has demanded for free tertiary education.
Meanwhile in New Delhi students have called for a #OccupyUGC movement for reinstating the Non-NET Scholarships in central universities. The student movement, that arose in response to UGC’s move to stop the non NET fellowship for M.Phil.and Ph.D. students intensified today as Delhi police resorted to lathi charge and detained about a hundred students as they tried to enter the UGC office.
The MHRD statement which assured the setting up of a Review committee has only raised further concerns as it seeks to introduce “economic and other criteria for eligibility for non-NET fellowships”. This is only an attempt on the part of the government to invidiously reduce the total number of scholarships under the ambit of the new criteria.
This is consistent with other government moves in recent years such as enforcing the semester system and FYUP (Four Year Undergraduate Program) system and budget cuts in education so as to open the education sector to privatization and liberalization. In 2005, the Congress led UPA government had expressed its readiness to allow the establishment of colleges, universities and other technical or professional institutions in India for-profit commercial ventures by all WTO complying entities. It is in the upcoming Tenth Ministerial Conference that the Indian government is expected to finally finish such negotiations in WTO’s General Agreement on Trade and Services or GATS. This would mean categorisation of education under the WTO-GATS as a saleable commodity of which the students will effectively become the consumers.
While private universities like Shiv Nadar University,Noida, Ashoka University, Sonepat, Jindal Univesity,Sonepat and Symbiosis University, Pune have flourished lately through collaborations with the likes of Carnegie Mellon and King’s College, London, the fact remains that these private universities have exorbitant fees. The numbers are particularly staggering with Shiv Nadar University charging about 6,00,000 rupees for eight semesters and Ashoka University charging about 4,90,000 per annum.
Therefore the recent move by UGC (reinforced by the MHRD statement) is not only a sellout of education to the WTO but also a systematic exclusion of the economically weak and deprived sections of the society from higher education. Higher education enables the assertion of one’s identity and an exploration of freedom. It also plays a fundamental role in achieving a just and egalitarian society. The impending unaffordable fees and privatization of education are bound to perpetuate the economic and social inequalities of caste, class and gender in India.