Occupy UGC protest highlights the demerits in the merit system
The ‘Occupy UGC’ protest is a larger fight to save the state of higher education in India.
Post-liberalisation, the nature of education and the scale of universities in India have undergone a major transformation. It was a time when global players were commoditising education and beginning to interfere in the principle of access to education as a ‘fundamental right’ for the citizens. On the one hand, the quality of education being offered in governmental institutions was declining, and on the other hand, there was a rise in the number of private higher education institutions in India. The government believed that the move would help in providing education to more people, enhance their knowledge base, equity, development, etc. But it had failed to realise that the hiked entrance fees would bar many students from entering these institutions. Now, there are fewer state or central universities offering quality education, promoting research and research scholars with a subsidised amount of entrance/annual fees.
A student pursuing an MPhil or a PhD reaches an age where he/she doesn’t want to be dependent on their family for funds. In the case of students belonging to economically backward communities, it becomes even more difficult to pursue education if there is no viable subsistence. This is particularly true in the case of women. In such a situation, it becomes the duty of the government to provide them assistance by educating them and giving them equal employment opportunities and wages.
In research universities, students are not merely consumers, they are doing value addition to the existing knowledge pool of society and deserve to get assistance from the government to pursue their research interests and produce relevant output. Research scholars are demanding a rise in the current scholarship fund from Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 a month for MPhil students and from Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 a month for PhD students as they too have to come to terms with the rising prices of essential commodities and for many these scholarships are the only means of livelihood. Here, one needs to realise why one should opt for higher education. Is it possible to survive on one’s own when the government decides to scrap the existing fellowships and later make them available for only those who fall under a specific ‘merit’ or ‘economic’ criterion? The other question is: How to define this ‘economic’ and ‘merit’ criterion for a student who has already cracked the entrance exam. The merit criterion is, in fact, narrowing the scope of fellowships to exclude many to opt for higher education.
Universities are meant to be socially inclusive. But the criterion is dividing the students by increasing the spirit of competition and decreasing their friendly exchanges. And we are left as ‘computerised robots’ and not ‘thinking individuals’.
The ‘Occupy UGC’ protest is a fight to save higher education in the country. In times of a global ideological and financial crisis, education seems to be the easiest target for cutting funds. Instead, it should be priority for any government and must get the highest budgetary allocation. Our education system is at stake. People who can afford go to foreign universities and those who do not have the ‘time’ or ‘money’ can decide between petty jobs and poor education.
Twinkle Siwach is a PhD scholar, Media Studies, JNU.
The views expressed are personal.