Struggle against fee hikes, draconian rules is a battle for public education as we know it, writes JNU graduate

  • Aside from the proposed fee hike, the administration intends to increase the room rent, service charges, water and electricity bills, and mess security deposits

  • The estimate suggests that there is a 70 percent hostel fee hike where the annual charges will amount to a minimum of Rs 56,500

  • Nowhere does it mention anything about SC/ST reservations or deprivation points in the hostel allotment

After the completion of my undergraduate degree in a college affiliated with the University of Mumbai, I was planning to go to Belgium to do my postgraduate studies in philosophy. With some luck, I got selected for a Master's programme. Although the total cost of living and academic expenses of Belgium were comparatively less than other European countries, it was quite expensive for me.

My mother was the sole earning member of the family, whose monthly income through teaching was Rs 12,000 and still is. The month in which I got my admission confirmation was the time when it was extremely difficult to secure any scholarship. The obvious option was to resort to education loans. The three or four banks that we could speak to seemed to have too costly an interest rate, and even they required putting the house we lived in on mortgage since we had no other property.

For many of us who come from low-income families, going to a bank for a loan is a reminder of our class position. One has to go through a high-risk and precarious set of decision-making processes and it seems reasonable for most of us not to actually take that route. The admission statistics put out by JNU administration show that in 2017, at least 317 candidates were from families whose monthly income was below Rs 6,000 and at least 306 candidates whose monthly income is between Rs 6,001 to Rs 12,000. There are more details available that simply bust the myths that are being spread in the media against JNU, which go to show that joining many institutions in the country is still a huge task for a lot of us.

The struggle against fee hikes is part of a larger fight for saving public education. This fee hike is in continuation with the multiple attempts to charge students more and privatise universities across the country, including and especially through the idea of the New Education Policy. Last year too, the JNU administration tried to increase admission fees which after protests, were reduced to some extent — a tactic they intend to use this year as well.

 Struggle against fee hikes, draconian rules is a battle for public education as we know it, writes JNU graduate

File image of JNU students protesting against fee hikes, draconian rules. PTI

Aside from the proposed fee hike that is part of the recent IHA manual (of course, passed undemocratically and without any consideration for due process), the administration intends to increase the room rent, service charges, water and electricity bills, and mess security deposits. The estimate suggests that there is a 70 percent hostel fee hike where the annual charges will amount to a minimum of Rs 56,500. Nowhere does it mention anything about SC/ST reservations or deprivation points in the hostel allotment.

It does however include directions for reducing hostel entry timings to 11.30 pm and suggestions to wear 'decent clothes' in the mess hall. Such regressive directives also means policing the mobility of students, especially those seen as "excessive" in their actions and seen as a nuisance for the administration. All of it must be rejected in toto.

The struggle against fee hikes has been going on for more than two weeks now and it is the first time that so many students have come out against the administration in the past few years. The coordination that hostel presidents, different centre SFCs, union members, organisations, and individual students and activists have shown has been impeccable, despite errors time and again. But what motivates all of us to continue is the very idea of university that we cherish and intend to recreate in all educational spaces across the country.

In this matter, JNU still remains a symbol for what affordable quality education means in this country. One tweet by an ex-JNUite summed it up well when he said that he can provide 10 flaws of the institution in counter to one that is stated, but it still does not change the fact that JNU has been a place which has allowed many students from marginalised and non-affluent backgrounds to transcend the socio-economic conditions from which they come.

The kind of rhetoric one notices on social media is evidence enough to suggest that so many Indians loathe public education. The constant complaints by this mythical taxpayer (who thinks no one else pays tax) who wants to defund public universities are as follows:

1) the students there are freeloaders;

2) these institutions cultivate a particular kind of ideological leanings among students that seems threatening to the status quo socio-political order;

3) they include courses on social sciences and humanities that are seen as useless to serve the nation-state.

All of these arguments, then, are deployed alongside weird recommendations to take education loans, work and study simultaneously, and not be a burden on these taxpayers.

First, students come from families that do pay taxes and many students through their HRA also contribute to the revenue of the university and the government. But even if they were not, why would it be so bad for our country to spend revenue on education? Education remains the backbone of any country. The amount of money governments spend on military, advertisements, the tourist industry is quite a lot and it is possible, and essential, to have more institutions such as JNU that are subsidised to the extent this university has been in the past. Free education means more education.

Second, the fact that certain institutions produce students who speak truth to power and question the narratives that trickle down from government and their propaganda machines is something citizens should be glad about. It shows that, unlike large sections of media, at least the academic and educational sector has not completely bowed down to the ruling elites. Simultaneously, educational spaces such as JNU are home to many ideological positions. It is suggestive of hypocrisy that many of these complaints are only toward Ambedkarites, Leftists, and specific political orientations without mentioning the fact that even ABVP which is RSS' student organisation has been protesting the manual (for whatever it means to do so under its own favoured regime).

Finally, the kind of education one receives in social sciences and humanities is obviously contributing to the country's intellectual resources — both that can be used in application and otherwise. More importantly, it is necessary that such education provides critical and ethical avenues for thinking about newer ways in which our worlds must be shaped, which is precisely what they try to do. It is not the point of gender studies, political theory, sociology to be instrumentalised into the efficiency and productivity model of education that is popular these days. There are vocational courses for that, which, too, by the way, are part of JNU and students there are also affected by such proposals as contained in this manual.

The neoliberal individualist pattern of thinking has seeped so much into our psyche that it is difficult to get out of it. Many who themselves have come out of poverty have become the biggest apologists on social media for privatisation. Just because some have to be indebted or have had to work through multiple jobs to finish studying doesn't mean everyone has to. Rather, it means that even they should not have had to do so in the first place. All of this also goes along without recognising the dire economic anxiety that accompanies students who come from poor and marginalised backgrounds. Many here are first-generation learners and the entire burden of their family's well-being sits on their shoulders. Loan economy cannot be a solution to a structural issue; it is merely an individual recourse for a social problem. In such a condition, such fee hikes mean more agony and nothing else.

What this kind of rhetoric often leaves behind is that many students have actually lived their lives juggling studies and work. Many of my fellow students belong to families where their parents are domestic helpers, autorickshaw-drivers, labourers etc. But even beyond that, they themselves have done odd jobs so they can fund their own education. These students understand the value of each and every penny that goes into making a public university and recognise the need to participate in student politics, so as to better the conditions and ease the process of access for the upcoming student batches. Far from being free-riders, some of the students have been part of the foundation of this country's economy on which governmental and private companies sit to merely dictate whims for their own benefit.

Even a little increase in fees means that many students have to rethink their entire monthly expenditure. And it is high time we recognise that students having to choose between entertainment, a social life, good and healthy food, and affordable education is no meaningful choice at all. All individuals deserve and must have access to all of these facilities. If that amounts to free-riding, then all of us should be able to do that. The disproportionate access to economic and social resources means that only few can enjoy themselves without any labour, but others cannot. It is crucial that no student has to go through these conditions. Otherwise, the 'progressive and developing' tag that we like to carry as a country remains a sham.

What students movements should and have been aspiring for is free and universal education across all levels. Education is not a private commodity; it is a public good that remains a tool for social transformation. If this education is not affordable or easily available to all, then what is the point of it? Gone are the days when students will remain silent and calm about the ivory tower nature of academia and education.

Representational image. CNN-News18

Representational image. CNN-News18

JNU administration's fee hike means that more than 3,000 students have to leave their education because they or their families cannot afford it. Economic schemes such as monthly allowances and scholarships already reach students late due to the tremendous amount of bureaucratic inefficiency in our public sector. On top of that, such proposals by the administration heightens the worry that students have to face on a daily basis. The dropout rate in many schools is quite high and will only continue to increase because of such decisions. Moreover, it is not as if the services that JNU administration wants to charge students so much for are in great condition. There are many infrastructural issues that must be politicised and raised which demonstrate the ridiculousness in charging such exorbitant amount for hostel facilities.

Such demands against fee hikes have been going on in IITs and other institutions of education across India as well. However, the coverage they receive is relatively less due to JNU being one of the primary targets of the BJP government. But what this points to is the simple fact that there must be a national movement for free and universal education for all at all levels that we must build.

On 28 October, the IHA hostel manual was passed without inviting any student representatives. On Wednesday, the administration conducted an EC meeting outside the campus without informing all the EC members amidst student protests. In it, they again, without any respect for procedural norms and democratic spirit, revised the manual removing the clause of curfew timings and dress codes, and nominally reducing the hike.

However, the amount still remains too high for students and the students will continue resisting the implementation of entire IHA manual. Currently, there is a demand for having a proper EC meeting with JNUSU members getting a say in the rules and regulations that affect their daily lives on campus. Our fight is not for meagre compensation, but substantive access.

One of the things I was glad about when I achieved admission at JNU, apart from affordability, was the fact that it provides an access to an entirely different world, where one can dream of a newer, better tomorrow. It provides one with lessons not just in academics but also in politics, friendships, camaraderie and the resilience to go through daily life. At this juncture, our fight against this administration hellbent on privatising this public institution will not end; we only hope that others across the country also understand the concerns students have and partake in our struggle.

The author is a graduate student of philosophy at JNU

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2019 08:20:35 IST