Since Tuesday, when news first broke out about the non-National Eligibility Test (NET) fellowship being discontinued for research scholars, students across universities have risen up in protest.
By the next day, the protest led by Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) had turned into an “Occupy UGC” movement, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. Friday was marked by paramilitary crackdown on students as some were detained and others lathicharged.
The movement is slowly turning into a pan-India movement with protests erupting in Hyderabad, Allahabad and Bihar.
In practical terms, the discontinuation of the non-NET scholarship would mean financial assistance of Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 for MPhil and PhD students, respectively, being taken away. This fellowship benefitted both those who were not eligible to sit for NET and JRF as well as those who could not clear it.
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Students protesting against the move are not demanding just the reinstatement of the fellowship but also its increase. The protest hinges on two basic interconnected planks. Firstly, protesters say this will adversely affect students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds who rely heavily on the fellowship to carry on their research. Without the money, they will have to look for part time work to sustain themselves which will then affect the quality of research, as the focus will be divided.
Secondly and more importantly, they see this as a part of the larger plan of the BJP government to make Indian higher education compliant with the WTO-GATS (World Trade Organisation-General Agreement on Trade in Services) requirements. In the upcoming 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi this December, India is purportedly ready to sign an agreement with WTO which will make education a service rather than a right.
According to GATS, the host country will have to give ‘national treatment’ to foreign institutions, ‘not less favourable’ than that given to domestic companies. Therefore, India will not be able to discriminate between foreign and domestic institutions in term of subsidies, qualifications, licences etc.
Since subsidising private groups is not an option, the only way to level the playing field is to withdraw subsidies from public institutions. Students say the withdrawal of the fellowship is the first step in withdrawing funds from public institutions before it’s made self-financing and thereby privatised.