Following the education cuts made by the current government in the financial budget presented in September 2016, there was heavy scrutiny by the opposition as well as the populace. An official at the Union Human Resource and Development Ministry pointed out how the government had reduced the education budget by 25%, and most of the heat had to be faced by none other than the University Grants Commission (UGC).
One of the outcomes was a rise in the delay of scholarships received by worthy students enrolled in different programs. Although this lag in reimbursement of scholarships hit every student who relied on it, those from economically backward sections, belonging to the Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi communities were affected the most. This article aims to list and talk about a few cases from recent memory where students from Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) categories were the worst hit by such cutbacks.
In 2017, TISS released a notice informing students of the university’s change in policy. The notice pointed out that the students from SC/ST/OBC communities seeking admission to TISS in the year 2018 would have to bear their own hostel and dining expenses, and the support provided by the institute in the previous years would be withdrawn. The director of TISS, Dr Parasuraman said that the institute was facing severe budget cuts and was waiting for almost 20 crores from the central government and hence, unable to provide financial assistance to its students.
Along with a cut in waivers provided to students from marginalised communities, TISS has seen a continuous fee hike as well, owing to the lack of support from the Centre over the last few years. According to a charter released in 2018 by the student union of TISS, the percentage of students from the OBC category has decreased from 22% in 2014-15 to 18% in 2016-17. This drop in figures shows the clear impact that depreciation in funds can have on a college.
This month, Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Odisha, wrote a letter to the centre, asking them to reconsider the change in policy regarding post-matric scholarships. Before 2016-17, the union government was responsible for providing a major segment of the funds allocated under this scheme. But this changed when, in 2017 the onus of funding about 80% of all scholarships was put on the state government. This abrupt change in the scholarship policy has caused a delay in fund transfer and led to a tough time for students under the scheme.
A similar effect can be seen in places like Manipur and Punjab. The All Tribal Student Union, Manipur (ATSUM), held the state as well as the Centre responsible for not being quick enough in disbursal of scholarships under this program, the delay being mostly due to the change in policy.
On the other hand, the government-affiliated universities in Punjab were requested not to charge the exorbitant fees from students belonging to the SC category, until, at least, the release of their scholarships under the GoI-PMS scheme.
A leading college in terms catering to the needs of students from SC/ST/OBC communities, IGNOU, also introduced a fee hike in its programs. This hike was met with strong opposition from the student unions as well as the faculty of the institute. Being a university dedicated to bringing sustainable social change, a hike of about 20% in all of its 163 courses would make it extremely difficult for people from marginalised communities to get into such institutes.
A statement released by the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) mentioned the current and future fee amounts for various courses. This move by the authorities was credited to the 30% grant cut inflicted on the central and state universities, as dictated by the terms under the 7th Pay Commission. This decision to increase the fees is set to impact a lot of students who rely on subsidised courses.
Students from SC/ST communities studying at Shri Andal Alagar College of Engineering (affiliated to Anna University) in Mamandur, Chennai were forced to wait outside their examination hall for half an hour, owing to the delay in the payment of their fees. The Centre is required to deposit the fees so that the state government can release the post-matric scholarship. Since 2017, the state government of Tamil Nadu has continuously blamed the Centre for not releasing the SC/ST grants used by the state for payment of student scholarships.
According to this Times of India story, the engineering colleges that take admissions through Anna University counselling saw a decline of about 23% students belonging to SC/ST communities over the course of one year.
In 2015, similar cases resulted in students committing suicide – either over public humiliation following fee default or due to lack of consideration from government authorities, both state as well as central.
Along with curtailments and delays in the post-matric scholarships for students from SC/ST/OBC communities discussed above, the UGC has also been slacking in providing various other financial aids. Two of these are the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) and the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF). Yet again, the system has failed students belonging to India’s minority communities as well as Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students who for their education, rely on the support of the Social Welfare and Minority Ministry along with the UGC.
Although concerned officials in their response said that the deserving students were selected in 2016-17, a change in the UGC’s selection procedure for MANF is what has caused the delay. This has reportedly meant a total of about 2500 fellowships lapsing over two years. Along with a delay in the disbursal of amounts, both MANF and RGNF suffer from other problems like a lack of communication between the UGC and the disbursal authorities.
These are a few of the numerous incidents which have come to haunt the academic life of research scholars and fellows for some years now. The current BJP government has been accused over and over again for slashing important aids and funds to students and scholars from marginalised communities. Even though a lot of scholarships have seen an uptick in their number, a huge chunk of education-related support to these communities seems to have dwindled over the years.
There is no doubt that the education sector has suffered from massive budget cuts since 2014, resulting in widespread dissent and opposition from students. Movements like Occupy UGC and its likes exhibit the frustration that the withdrawal of non-NET fellowships and scholarships would cause across academia.
Nevertheless, be it the problem of coordination between the Centre and the state or be it the lack of funds dedicated to the education sector, it remains the responsibility of the government to better the situation as soon as possible. There is no healthy democracy without eligible representatives from every community India houses and by denying the opportunity of education to all of our students, we are necessarily dismantling the equal society we aspire to achieve.