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Students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai have demonstrated an unprecedented protest in the history of their institute campuses at Mumbai, Guwahati, Tuljapur and Hyderabad. TISS is a deemed to be university as per University Act 1954 (3 of 1956) No. F,1122/62U2 fully funded by University Grants Commission (UGC) /Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India as it claims. It was also seen as one of the premier, elite and pioneer institutions of social sciences in the country. Currently TISS has around 5000 B.A., M.A, MPhil and PhD students studying across four campuses after it expanded in last few years unlike any other university in the country.

Social Justice or Favor?

TISS implemented the social justice policies as per the guidelines of the Government of India like most of the other universities (many universities are yet to fill the reservation mandated quota for students, faculty and staff). It had to introduce a system called “free ship” to make the entry of the students at par with the reservation guidelines for the students belonging from the socially and economically marginalized sections of the society. This was introduced in the context of the exorbitant fees demanded by the institute in comparison to other public funded universities and relatively less amount that state pays for the GOI PMS students fees. The constitutional provisions of reservation for these categories were met only after the introduction of fee-exemption. Hence, the free ship should be viewed not as a charity/ favor or even “free ship” done by either TISS or the Government of India but the entitlement and the right of the students, more importantly as the constitutional provision mandated by the Constitution of India to the under privileged sections. TISS then became a center of higher learning which provided facilities to these students. In an unjust move, TISS administration suspended the fee exemption given to the OBC NC students in the year 2014 and for the SC/ST students in the year 2016 and students have been opposing this move since then. Even after decades of the implementation of reservation policy, many Indian Universities still have not filled the prescribed reservation quota for the reserved categories for students, faculty andstaff. Indian universities have also been spaces of exclusion and discrimination for the students belonging form these communities starting from the process of admission to convocation, the debates around this were intensified especially after  Rohith Vemula’s death and the students movement that followed. Reservation and the financial assistance/fee waivers in the form of scholarships and free ships is perhaps one of the important factors in the development scheme for people from historically oppressed, marginalized and exploited background. Hence, this become essential to ensure the entry of the marginalized students to universities.

Of Fund cuts, Arrears and social justice

TISS is also a university which faced successive fund cuts by the The Ministry of Human Resource Development and UGC along with the non-payment of the GOI PMS scholarship amopunt to the students by the state governments. The claim of the Institute (TISS) is that there is a deficit incurred by it for GoI-PMS students due to non-recovery of scholarship amount. Further, that the MHRD has asked TISS to source its own financing to continue this policy of upfront fee waiver, as it was a policy started by TISS on its own accord. Not only do institutes such as TISS face the burden of reduction in funding from the non-plan expenditure, they are also affected by the non-payment in the case of central government funded schemes such as GoI-PMS. The central government has withheld finances to the Ministry of Social Justice to fulfill GoI-PMS obligations. As on 8th February, 2018, the arrears reported by the Ministry of Social Justice for the GoI-PMS for SC category was Rs 6824.51 crores.  This arrear is based on claims made by GoI-PMS students from across different states. What is to be kept in mind is that this funding has to suffice for all Post-Graduation from 10th standard to PhD. This is in the context where the current government claims to be creating increase in number of students receiving scholarship and passing rate of them in post matric education (12th, Bachelors and Masters).  In the absence of central funding , State governments either provide inadequate funding or do not provide funding at all to GoI-PMS students. For instance within TISS, from the state of Kerala, OBC and OEC students receive between Rs 25000-40000 a year and some states SC students are paid their complete fees. But states such as UP fail to release this amount. This holds true before and after the implementation of the direct benefit transfer scheme. Students have raised these questions to their institute, MHRD, ministry of social justice and other departments concerned

Along with this, students also argue that there has also been an unrealistic and unplanned expansion of TISS over the last one decade which worsened the situation. The funds that have to go for the social justice measures and student welfare were compromised for the development and expansion of the institute to an all India character. Most importantly this is not a new issue and the crisis of the GOI PMS scholarships, there have been petitions and memorandums given by the students to the administration to look into this issue and create a sustainable solution to facilitate the enrollment of the SC/ST and OBC students. TISS claims that “Since its inception, the Vision of the TISS has been to be an institution of excellence in higher education that continually responds to changing social realities through the development and application of knowledge, towards creating a people-centred, ecologically sustainable and just society that promotes and protects dignity, equality, social justice and human rights for all.” However, in reality it says to its students from the SC/ST/OBC and other marginalised sections that it has no funds for them to study. Students question these very ideals that TISS claims to stand for and ask if there is a space in this for the students who belongs from most marginalised and oppressed backgrounds. The arguments given by institute over a period of time to these students were to take loans, CSR funds being used for the fee payments, pay the fees once the students pass out and take up a job or create a corpus amount from the private partners to fund these students etc. When an institute expands the students coming from the marginalized sections are not included in the expansion?.

Fee hikes and the GOI PMS

Over the years TISS has had huge hike in the fees, resulting in a massive increase in the payment of upfront component of GOI PMS. This is a massive and disproportionate burden on the GoI PMS students. Regarding recovery, GoI-PMS scholars are asked to submit Stamp Paper Affidavit stating that if they do not pay scholarship amounts, they are liable to forfeit their degrees. This means  Institute has collateral to withhold student’s degree. This can happen in any cases if the state becomes unable to release the scholarship amounts. The rapidly rising fees under the heads of hostel and dining hall are becoming unfordable. These massive amounts have now to be paid upfront every semester.

Fee hike from 2013- 2017

 

Heads 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Hostel (including electricity) 6000 6000 10000 15000
Dining Hall (per semester if hostel availed) 12000 14000 14000 16000
TOTAL 18000 20000 24000 31000

The fee hikes over the years for hostels in 2013-14 from 6000 have raised to 15000 in 2016-17. Those who hold GOI PMS fee waiver, only had to pay a nominal admission fee of Rs 4,500. With the withdrawal of this waiver, students are now asked to pay upfront fees of Rs. 31,000. This has affected over 500 students at TISS. The annual family income of these GOI PMS scholars is less than two lakhs per annum for SC/ST and less than one lakhs for OBC and these students are being forced to pay semester fees of Rs. 62,000 on an average. In the past four years, it has been observed that with the withdrawal of upfront fee payment waivers, the enrollment of students from OBC category has dropped in the Institute from 27% to 18%. This means that students who are seeking access to higher education from marginalised communities are being prevented from receiving a higher education because the fees charged by TISS is unfordable for them. OBC NC is also a category in which Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christian who otherwise have not added to the SC list are included. A similar drop in numbers of SC ST students is certain if the aid is not revoked and up-front fee payment is demanded from students. These high fees and the withdrawal of aid for OBC students has resulted in an immediate and sharp fall in enrollment in this category. Based on an RTI filed by students in 2016 seeking the percentages of students belonging to different categories taking admission to TISS, the following trend was observed for OBC students.

 

Year OBC students as percentage of Total Students
2014-15 22
2015-16 20
2016-17 18

Source: RTI filed by students

Targeting TISS and the TISS’s target

TISS as a university has been targeted after new government took office, it was mainly because of the kind of research and intervention that it was engaged with the most marginalized and poor.  In 2015, the name of TISS was deleted from the On line application procedure for students belonging to ST category doing their MPhil and PhD programmes. The fellowship original known as Rajeev Gandhi National Fellowship for ST students (RGNF) was renamed as National Fellowship for Higher Education of ST Students (NFST). In the On line list, the name of TISS was missing from the list of eligible institutions.

Another incident in which University Grand Commission (UGC) had sent circulars to many universities including TISS demanding the details of students from particular sections. This was done at the behest of Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). These include Adivasi, Dalit, Muslim minorities and those who are part of communist or communist-like minded students’ organisations. This highly confidential circular to the Vice Chancellors demanded for their addresses, photographs, courses undertaken with the particular university, parental details, etc. The right wing government wants to completely wipe of any sort of dissent against its regime and has put in place all sorts of systems against those who resist the anti-people policies of the government. In a way it is to trap students into a cobweb and stamp them as terrorists, extremists and anti-nationals. Many students from these sections were under severe threat for being from these social groups. In another move UGC had stopped funds to three UGC funded centers at TISS Center for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Advanced Center for Women’s Studies and the Nodal Center for Excellence under the Scheme of Human Rights. All three centers at TISS were renewed for the 12th Five-Year Plan, the period for which ended on March 31 2017.  This was understood as targeting the courses and pedagogy taught by these centers to do with oppressed and marginalized.

The TISS students protests should be understood in two ways, the first is the historical marginalization of he students and the policy towards them from the institute as they are not the priority of the university where they conduct research studies about them and treat them as their data and subjects. The careless nature of the institute to stand for its own ideals when it come to the access to education for the students from oppressed communities. The second is larger privatization of the higher education and the increasing fund cuts at the public education and increasing privatization of education and reducing public funds to education, the socio-economically backward sections of the society become the first victims. The question should also be asked, who will fund for the scholarships, Fellowships and fee waivers. If the institute has capacity to expand from five MA courses to fifty MA courses, how it become unable to fund for the students who belonging from the marginalized? Are they not priority along with the expansion policy?. Indian campuses post Rohit Velmula movement have become spaces of students’ unity from the oppressed backgrounds. They not only shout Jai bheem or Lal salam but Jai Birsa  Jai bheem , Jai Phule  Jai bheem , Jai Fathima  Jai bheem , Jai Savithri  Jai bheem and many more. This is also a unity of Dalit, Adivasi, backward, Minority, women and sexual minority and all other progressive sections within the campus. This is part of the historic movement for the democratization of campuses and fight for social justice which is  not began by these students or will not end by them either.

Ajmal Khan is a PhD scholar at TISS, Mumbai.

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