By Parag Banerjee:
In a meeting on 7th October 2015, ironically called to look into the possibility of enhancement of ‘non-NET’ scholarships, the UGC has instead decided to scrap the fellowship altogether. This directly affects the entire student population in higher education, who are doing or hoping to do their MPhil and PhDs. What has been discontinued is a meager fellowship of Rs.5000 per month for MPhil students and Rs.8000 for PhD students, which is lower than the minimum wage for an unskilled worker in Delhi for example, but it is, in fact, the last resort for many students coming to the university. For students from working class backgrounds, from socially and educationally backward communities, from rural and semi-urban setups, women students coming to the university after fighting a hundred battles against a society that wants to marry them off, the withdrawal of these scholarships mean a swift death of their ambition for research and being forced to search for jobs after their Bachelor/Master Degree. What those at the helm are trying to make us adapt to, is the reality of precarious working and living conditions of the larger section of the country’s youth – the absent future we face.
In the mid-80s the burning question was: whether you want to remain ‘connected’ with the globalized world, or you want to remain in the ‘darkness of under-development’; whether you want to be a part of the global economic value chain, and pay the price for it, i.e. perform your designated work as per the need of the global division of labour. Consent was manufactured throughout society, with ‘educated citizens’ of the country being in the lead with their aspirations for the carrot, to get a place under the ‘great globalized sun’.
Over a period of 25 years, the large parliamentary left parties, the mainstream socialist tendencies and even many of the representatives of the Dalit and Adivasi communities have consented and implemented this ‘development model’ when they got a chance to occupy state-power. With the ruling class of the country having answered that question with a resounding yes, we are now being asked to part with the promised pound of flesh for our ‘Liberalized, Privatized, Globalized’ economy. But as such stories usually go, the line between those who won in the bargain and those who lost is getting clearer by the day. The UGC withdrawal of scholarships, as also the general withdrawal of the state from basic social sectors like health and education only wants to harden the line even further. And again those who anyway live frugally are being asked to pay the bills for the privileges of the rich.
Our government today is unrelenting in its commitment to enlist education as a ‘tradable commodity’ in keeping with the WTOs mandate, come December. The recent order is just another in a long list of such attacks – privatization of existing institutions, opening of private universities and all manners of legal and fiscal provisions to ensure a red-carpet welcome for foreign capital investment in higher education. Each of these blows on higher education in the country has been dealt with much commitment by the government – not to the people on the fruits of whose labour the bureaucrats live and who elect the government, but to their real bosses at the WTO.
In the eyes of the WTO and the kingpins of global capital that it represents, ours is a country, not very different from many other developing countries, which has a large population, but is unable to ‘manage’ its large reserve of cheap labour and natural resource. There are some modern politicians like Modi and Manmohan, who ‘understand’ that the country will perform best by doing what it can do. Of course, a section of students will definitely be CEOs in Silicon Valley, will go to Princeton, Harvard, MIT. This outflow of ‘cream students’ has seen a steep increase over the recent past. The perfect neo-liberal fairytale of the hardworking and meritorious student making it big in the world and making his/her country proud! The only trouble is that in this country with a huge youth population, there are others too who want to do research, who have things to think, write and talk about, albeit not in the language of Harvard, Oxford or Chicago. These poor fellows do not want to face the reality that their country will never be able to generate domestic employment for them. Rather looking positively, let us provide them all elementary education till 14 years, make them apprentice in some factory so that they can develop their skill, or provide some micro-credit so that they can have start a home-based unit and be part of the global production network. To add to the problem, these people have some bizarre system of Reservation in the name of ‘social-justice’, through which they bring in ‘less qualified people’ to universities! Clearly such a mess must be cleared, and the quick answer is that of educational ‘reform’.
This model of development and skill envisaged in these reforms is based on the assumption that the business of knowledge production is not meant for all. Earlier, the brahmins held this exclusive right by birth, now it will be preserved by the ‘free market’, ensuring that you choose freely to do the job of semi-skilled persons rather than being a university research scholar with no support and a seemingly doomed future. Private institutes with sky-rocketing fees are gradually becoming the mainstream of higher education, which have no reservation on the basis of caste or any provisions for affirmative action to level the playing field for various sections from society. Similarly, foreign universities, where the ‘best of the lot’ from any Indian college/university are aspiring to go today have no reservation. If this continues then inevitably in the coming days higher education will become the fiefdom of the privileged few, who can ‘afford’ to ‘get an education’, excluding people from lower economic background, Dalits, minorities and a significant section of women, legitimizing such systematic exclusion through the logic of ‘quality’. The student community is sought to be split into two. A few at the high end of knowledge production in a handful of universities, backed by big scholarships, even an inflated JRF/SRF in the Indian context and another ‘trained’ to do the kind of jobs that need to be done, call center staff, technicians, skilled workers. Such a reorganization of privilege mediated by the state exemplifies the new Modi style of Hinduvta politics which reinforces the Brahmanical, patriarchal social order in the name and logic of neo-liberal economics.
The logic of neoliberal development at work today thus works very well to rationalize the measure which the UGC has taken. When Modi goes around the world in 30 days in the next few days, he continues to ask global capital investors to ‘Make in India’. His sales pitch hinges on the two golden promises that all investors want from the government: that all ‘bottlenecks’ (read resistance and constitutional safeguards) will be removed, and that India will provide ‘cheap labour’. In this scheme of things, there is no sense, the rulers argue, in providing higher education or research opportunities for the majority of students – it is an ‘unnecessary cost’. As for the needs of ‘Skill India’, ‘technical, apprentice, contract workers’ are enough. Tellingly, one of the significant proposals already being pushed through in the entire gamut of changes in labour laws is a change in and expansion of the Apprentice Act. If you thought ‘forget any permanency, be on contract’ was the rule, now scale even further down. The capitalist associations themselves admit to this – the ASSOCHAM says in its report said, “50 lakh jobs have been lost in the years of high GDP growth from 2004-08, marking high joblessness with high growth.” In such a scenario, the right to research is clearly meant to be a privilege. The message from the UGC is clear: Did you mention research? Sorry, that’s not for you, unless you are already privileged in the proper class-caste categories and can afford to go abroad (where ‘austerity measures’ and stricter rules for the immigrants are waiting).
What is at stake in these reforms and the UGC’s withdrawal of the scholarships is not just the futures of a handful of research scholars but the very contours of our social organisation. The central university has, over the decades, emerged as one of the relatively most ‘democraticised’ of public institutions. Students from various social, economic, caste and gender backgrounds have managed to enter the university space after a prolonged and still continuing struggle. With the introduction of reservations and the entry of women into higher education in significant numbers, the knowledge that gets produced in the university and which gets circulated in society has also gained diverse, complex and critical dimensions. Most importantly, access to higher education today exists as an important ground from which countless ambitions for social and economic empowerment take flight, fuelling the claims of diverse sections of society on the fruits of our collective labour, sections which have had to fight tooth and nail for even the right to aspire.
The closing of the doors of higher education to the larger section of society must necessarily translate into the narrowing of our social horizon, a strengthening of the Brahmanical order that has oppressed our social imagination for far too long. Such moves are being challenged and fought against this moment. Even as we write, hundreds of students stand outside the UGC office in New Delhi, refusing to budge until the body revokes its orders. But they must be joined by hundreds of others from across the country, across sections of the student community invested in a progressive imagination of society from various entry-points, for various reasons, with various aspirations, all set to lose unless we fight back, united and strong.
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