31/10/2015 9:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Decoding Govt's Doublespeak On UGC's Non-NET Research Fellowships

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 23: Delhi Police detain ABVP workers after they blocked traffic at ITO Road while protesting against UGC for discontinuing non-NET scholarship for research scholars outside the UGC Headquarters at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, on October 23, 2015 in New Delhi, India. The UGC started the non-NET fellowship in 2008 to encourage research in the universities. The scheme of non-NET fellowship was discontinued by the UGC. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

While students in South African universities were protesting against rising fees for higher education, events at home have not been very different. The past week has seen an unprecedented student movement gaining voice from Delhi to Gujarat, Mizoram and Hyderabad in opposition to the arbitrary decision of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to discontinue the non-NET fellowship scheme for research scholars in Central universities.

There have been subsequent attempts by the state to scuttle the students' movement by unleashing police violence, first on 23 October and then again on the evening of 27 October. 27 October's crackdown saw several of the peaceful protestors at the UGC premises, demanding an audience from the Chairman of the UGC, being brutally lathi-charged and manhandled by the police -- some suffering grievous injuries and being hospitalised.

As many as 33 protestors were detained in police custody on unreasonably framed charges, till students, teachers and public intellectuals gheraoed the site and pressured authorities to release the detainees late at night.

Researchers as Enemies of the State?

At a time when RSS-backed mobs are publicly lynching religious minorities and Dalit children are being charred to death inside houses, why must peacefully protesting students singing songs and slogans be treated with baton-blows and threats to life and dignity?

The answer, of course, needs no fanciful stretch of the imagination. A society which deems dissenting scholars and writers as antagonists to 'national interest' will of course try to stifle the voice of budding researchers who dare to exercise that same right to dissent. It comes as no surprise therefore that libraries are to be reinvented as 'good governance' museums, directors of research organisations are being forced to step down and research grants or projects are being withdrawn.

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The government's open war against scholars invested in a life of research can only too easily consummate itself by slashing funds for research programmes in public institutions and delegitimizing higher education as an unviable career option for a 'digital' neoliberal India.

The 'Curious' Case of the Non-NET Fellowship

The backdrop to this perception of rights-demanding students as disrupters of public life and therefore liable to police brutality begs a recounting of the larger context.

It was on 7 October that the 510th full commission meeting of the UGC considered the Report of an Expert Committee on issues of enhancing the non-NET fellowship (which currently stands at a meagre Rs. 5000/- for M.Phil students and Rs. 8000/- for registered Ph.D scholars in Central universities) and "resolved to discontinue the scheme".

Agenda clause 4.01 from the minutes, however, stated that "students who are already getting the non-NET fellowship will continue to do so as per the existing guidelines". The text of the Resolution clearly settled for a discontinuation of the fellowship scheme prospectively from the next academic session.

Students from across universities in Delhi and outside gathered at the UGC office in protest against this move and demanded a dialogue with the Chairman, while the social media reverberated with hash-tagged slogans of 'Occupy UGC' and solidarized most sections of the academic fraternity. Sensing the increasing discontent within erstwhile 'apolitical' factions in the student community and the spontaneous forms of mobilization on an issue that impacted the everyday life of research in the country, the HRD minister met a delegation of students' representatives from the BJP-backed ABVP on 25 October. Mind you, the protesting students assembled at the UGC office had absolutely no inkling or official intimation about this 'meeting'.

"India's consent to the commercialisation of its higher education sector as part of the WTO-GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) framework in December will allow for the unrestricted entry of foreign private investors and corporate partners in selling 'education' as a tradeable service. "

The minister subsequently tweeted in response to a social media post that the non-NET fellowship will not be discontinued. Enraged over this secret negotiation and an arbitrary 'recognition' of the ABVP as the only group of people who deserve an audience with the ministry, the protesters questioned how valid a 'tweet' was to over-ride the recorded resolutions of a UGC meeting.

Mounting pressures of public opinion forced the ministry to draft a press brief declaring its intentions of establishing a Review Committee "to go into the issues related to the research fellowships provided by the UGC" and mandated the submission of its Report by December 2015. The press statement also maintained that the recommendations of the said Committee will not be applied retrospectively and that "all existing and continuing fellowships...would be continued".

But, why then must protests continue?

The sham that underlies the MHRD statement and a subsequent order issued on the evening of 28 October becomes clearer on closer analysis. The latter claims to have directed the UGC to not discontinue existing fellowships, while the five-member review panel sits in judgment on future modalities.

That the decision to discontinue the non-NET fellowship would not have a retrospective purport was already succinctly laid out in the UGC resolution cited above. So, the minister's assurance does not in any way take away from the possibility of the fellowship being stopped or restricted (following the Report of the new Review Committee) in the coming academic session.

Interestingly, the deadline given to the proposed Committee for submission of its recommendations exactly coincides with the time of the Tenth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Nairobi from December 15 to 18, 2015. India's consent to the commercialisation of its higher education sector as part of the WTO-GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) framework in December will allow for the unrestricted entry of foreign private investors and corporate partners in selling 'education' as a tradeable service.

ugc protests

It will officially recognise the field of 'higher education' as a profit-driven free market economy, with requirements of prior sanctions from the WTO for any knowledge-promotion grants or schemes from the government. The GATS argues for minimal governmental intervention in the form of education subsidies and funding in public/national institutions, and insists on a level playing field for private capital to invest in the business. Furthermore, it urges the setting up of a single regulatory authority (unlike the partitioning of accreditational bodies in UGC, NCTE, AICTE, Bar Council of India, etc. entrusted with maintaining standards of quality) in order to ensure freer flow of multilateral trade interests in the education sector.

The UGC's October 7 resolution is therefore exactly in keeping with the intended privatisation of higher education through reduced public spending on knowledge-creation in national institutions. It also concurrently amounts to an act of self-erasure on the part of UGC as a regulatory body by restricting the purview of its administration on disbursal of funds/resources. The HRD minister's clever move to delay a final decision on the fate of non-NET fellowships till the end of December sits comfortably with the expected outcomes of the WTO meeting which are likely to emerge right before. It is clear that the minister is deliberately evading any decisive commitment to the lives and careers of thousands of students before the government finalises its own 'commitments' to global trade partners and private capital investments in higher education 'services'.

Policy Decisions in Higher Education and Budgetary Cuts

The minister maintained in her response to the student protests that the non-NET fellowship scheme was proposed to be scrapped in view of its discrimination against students of State universities.

She held that the newly-appointed Review Committee will also look into "bringing the benefits and opportunities of the Non-NET fellowship scheme to a larger number of Universities, including State Universities". While this seems like a laudatory move on the surface, the intentions underlying it betray an alarming degree of manipulative doublespeak in the government's policy-approaches. On the one hand, the primary motive cited by the UGC in its defence of the October 7 resolution was the successive curtailment of budgetary grants from the MHRD - and yet ironically, on the other hand, the ministry proclaims an extension of the fellowship scheme to "a larger number of Universities".

While the Union Budget for 2015-2016 slashed public spending on education by a huge margin of 16.5 percent, the outlay for "planned" expenditure under the Department of Higher Education was reduced by almost 6.2 percent. Given this massively reduced pool of resources allocated for higher education, what could be the logic behind the ministry's pledge for an extension of "benefits and opportunities"?

"Nor is this fellowship an act of charity on the part of the state, which it can choose to disburse, discontinue and restructure at will. "

The answer lies in the press statement itself. It is in changing the 'nature' of the non-NET fellowship and restricting its access to only a few selected students on the basis of additionally-manufactured eligibility criteria of 'merit' and 'means' that the minister's assurances can assume meaning. The statement clearly prescribes the agenda of the Review Committee as "considering economic and other criteria for eligibility for non-NET fellowships" and "recommending guidelines for the selection...of the non-NET fellowships". The non-NET fellowship, originally instituted with a vision to subsidise the costs of pursuing research and as an incentive to encourage bright minds to take up the cause of knowledge-generation despite social-financial odds, is now to become the 'privilege' of the chosen few.

Higher Education as Privilege

It is at this point that we need to ask a few relevant questions. Why must the MHRD attempt to transform the 'right' of every student enrolled in a research programme in a public university into a 'privilege' of the select few? Isn't the fact that each of these research scholars has to compulsorily qualify an all-India university-level entrance exam sufficient proof of her/his 'eligibility' for the fellowship?

Does the government believe that the university faculty-examiners aren't experts enough to evaluate research-potential in students, that it now needs to set up independent expert-committees to ascertain 'merit' equivalent to the fellowship? Any such "expert committee" will run the risk of becoming a weapon in the hands of the administration to selectively victimise students on the basis of their extra-academic careers, because evidently there will be no anonymity and transparency in such post-enrollment 'selection' exercises.

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The MHRD must be reminded that the non-NET fellowship is not some 'reward' for "meritorious" academic performance, but a guarantee of access to higher education and a means of meeting the necessary costs of research (like field-trips, purchase of books/academic resources, photocopying, printouts, journal subscriptions, etc.). Nor is this fellowship an act of charity on the part of the state, which it can choose to disburse, discontinue and restructure at will. It is public money, and it aims at recognising the value of knowledge-production and dissemination as crucial to the project of imagining a rational-progressive social order. It is what democratizes the right to higher education, and every effort to link it with assumptions of 'merit' or proof of 'means' is to restrict and privatize the access to knowledge.

The Lost Question of Enhancement

In all this talk about reviving the non-NET fellowship in toto, what the MHRD has carefully served to elide in all its official discourse thus far is the original demand of enhancing the fellowship amount. It was this issue of "enhancement of non-NET fellowship" that the October 7 meeting of the Commission was supposed to deliberate on and frame guidelines for.

Given the steep rates of price rise and inflation, around 50 to 70 percent of the existing fellowship rates for M.Phil-Ph.D scholars is used up in paying hostel fees on subsidised university campuses. For students staying in rented accommodation, the monthly living costs in cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Hyderabad are often double the entire fellowship amount or even more. If the whole of a research fellowship goes in paying house-rent, how exactly is a student expected to purchase books/equipment, conduct field-tours or undertake conference-travel - given that all these are the bottom-line necessities for a life of research?

Of course the government would be urging research students to take up private tuition or part-time contractual jobs. Institutions of higher education could be safely plundered and destroyed with little resistance from a largely-vulnerable contractual workforce, while teaching positions could be cut down, permanent appointments frozen, funding reduced, service rules violated and professional entitlements withheld.

The minister should have known that a rhetorical ploy of "revival" of the non-NET fellowship 'for the present' would not work, while the not-too-indefinite future is being plotted to be sold off on a platter this December. How many more baton-blows and gag-orders and lynch-mobs must we stand witness to, for our policy-makers to engage in dialogue with the thousands whose futures they seem to be sealing in resolutions and tweets and press statements?

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