Raising of slogans during a 'People’s March' to protest against privatisation of universities ( Photo: PTI )

Institutions that have been given autonomy will probably hike fees, taking higher education out of the reach of weaker sections

No less than 62 state-funded universities have been given “autonomy”, which might be good for their managements but might cut off easy and affordable access to higher education, especially for students belonging to socially and economically weak sections. Commercialisation and privatisation now seem inevitable.

While protests and strikes have been organised to challenge and defy the contentious autonomy order, in many cases they have been misinterpreted and misrepresented. They are heedlessly dismissed as the “anti-national” protests of unruly and obstreperous students. Thus, it is important to extract personal narratives from these protests and present the issues in a comprehensible manner. To this end, a day in the campuses was enough to collect stories from people, visibly worried and enraged by the looming threat to public funded higher education.

Arzoo Saha from Cooch Behar in West Bengal, pursuing her Master’s degree from Delhi University, graduated from an under-staffed government college in an area where the closest library was five hours away. Many of her classmates never completed their degrees, dropping out when they could not afford education. She secured eighth position in the entrance exams held for Delhi University but couldn’t have studied there if DU hadn’t been state funded. An SC student from a lower middle-class background, Arzoo believes that privatised education will stifle such possibilities.

There are others like Pooja* and Arif who earn to fund their education. Jawaharlal Nehru University is more than just an educational institution for Arif. He had never had three meals a day before coming to JNU. His family did not want him to pursue education. Even now, he pays his way by taking tuition classes and availing scholarships. This is also true of Pooja* from Delhi University, who had lost her father when she was in Class III and her mother later. She works to earn and fund her education. Like Arif, she too believes, “If there is a fee hike anytime soon, it will create a lot of pressure on self-sustaining students like me”

In many other cases, students had to drop out of university as they could not even afford the low fee. This is true of Sneha*, who had graduated from a reputed government funded college, Miranda House. Yet, even with her decent graduation score, she could not continue her education because of a lack of resources. In another instance, Zainab*, a first year student of Jamia Milia Islamia, fears the possibility of dropping out. She is a Bangladeshi, whose sister suffers from multiple sclerosis. Her father, a retired army officer, can no longer sustain too many expenses. Zainab had desperately tried to reach out to the VC and concerned authorities for a fee concession in vain.

There are more students very likely to get affected by the commodification of education. One of the most overlooked of these sections is persons with disabilities (PWD category). According to Prerna, a PhD scholar of Delhi University, most of the PWD students in India depend on state-funded universities. This is one reason that they are all present in large numbers in Delhi University, JNU, BHU, HCU and the like. Only a few of them are supported by their families and many come from economically poor backgrounds.  Some depend on NGOs which do not have adequate funds. If universities are privatised, any kind of fee hike will hinder the educational as well as employment opportunities of such sections too.

Then there are women who are still considered a burden on their families. They are allowed to study only because their parents are willing to spend the meagre fee that was charged till now. Public education has been a significant tool for them to challenge hierarchies and empower themselves. The “autonomy” façade will thwart possibilities of assertion.

In future, education will be sold to good buyers.  It will remove all accountability and undo years of reforms in this direction. University spaces will be entirely usurped by upper caste and upper-class people, especially men. This will also undermine the demand for social justice which arises from these universities, which have proved to be the chief opposition to the ruling government in recent years.

When so much is at stake, why sleep with open eyes and observe with apathy this brutal attack on young people’s dreams?

Note: Names* have been changed as the respondents requested anonymity.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.

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