Recently released government guidelines have announced that students belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community will now have to undertake the National Eligibility Test (NET) in order to apply for MPhil and PhD funding. To secure the special research fellowship, they will now need to qualify for the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) through the National Eligibility Test (NET).
The fellowship has been offered by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment since 2005. It is disbursed to students from the SC community who want to pursue their MPhil or PhD in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, engineering or technology streams at Indian universities. This mandation will impact nearly 2,000 students: around 1,500 in the humanities, and 500 in the science stream.
So far, students from the SC community were not required to qualify the NET exam; they only needed to pass their post-graduate exam and were selected on the basis of their research proposals, as reported by The Telegraph. As per the news report, the Modi government’s decision to add this criteria has been criticised and opposed, even from within the party.
A press conference was held on December 28, 2018 by the DUTA (Delhi University Teachers Association) to protest the “attack on reservation in educational institutions.” At the conference, BJP Lok Sabha MP Udit Raj, who is also national chairman of All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations said, “The new guidelines are unjust and a move to exclude Dalit students from higher education.”
The National SC, ST, OBC Student and Youth Front, a Delhi-based group has also written to the University Grants Commission (UGC) pleading to change the eligibility criterion for the fellowship, as per a report by News Central 24×7.
Around 8,000 Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) awarded every year have a 15% SC quota covering 1,200 seats, whereas the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship for students from the SC community went to those who skipped or failed the National Eligibility Test (NET). But the decision has raised fears among students that the fellowship, renamed National Fellowship for Scheduled Caste Students in October, would now in effect be absorbed by the JRF’s Scheduled Caste quota.
Students who come from financially unstable backgrounds and belong to minority groups cannot afford expensive coaching and use these special fellowships to research on sociological aspects of such as social discrimination and social disparity, among others.
Swali, a post-graduate scholar in English from Delhi University, while speaking to Newsclick said, “The government through these moves wants to send out a message that the fundamental right to education should rest with the majority. I come from a background where being a woman from the marginalised community, affording to acquire education in the national capital has not been easy, I want to question this government, ki kyun aap Dalit aur Muslim scholars ko aage badhne nahi dena chahte?”
The Wire reported that a mechanism is expected to be developed by the UGC, so as to “verify the genuineness of the SC certificates” to eliminate the possibility of students applying for the fellowship on “fake certificates.” SC students who clear the NET-Junior Research Fellowship will not be eligible to gain any other benefits from similar schemes handled by the UGC.
While this ministry has issued the change in guidelines, the UGC will be the one to decide the procedure and guidelines for actually implementing the scheme. The revised guidelines talk about it saying, “UGC will be responsible for conducting NET/UGC-CSIR joint tests for 2,000 SC students.” The UGC will also do the advertisements and invite online applications. Selections of the UGC are not open to appeal.
Last Friday, students from across the country gathered in Delhi to organise a forum, led by student leaders titled Young India Speaks, which has vowed to fight the decline in central government funding for higher education, the attack on the autonomy of institutions and policies affecting social justice.