Jomy Abraham, in her thirties, had returned to academics after a four-year break. She quit higher education to work, so that she and her researcher-husband could live together. Abraham came back for an MPhil from Hyderabad Central University after her husband found a job. She doggedly prepared for six months to crack the entrance and interview. As a non-NET (National Eligibility Test) fellow, she received a monthly stipend of ₹5,000 for a year to complete her degree. Half the money was spent on the mess bill, and the rest barely met research needs — buying books that were not in the library, stacks that had to be photocopied, and sourcing stationery not available in the campus. “I took four semesters to complete the course. Though the course is for a year, most students take an extension to submit the dissertation. The fellowship is only for a year, after which students have to find other sources of funding,” says Abraham. She dipped into her savings.

In August this year, she went through another exacting selection process to enrol for a PhD in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Again, as a non-NET fellow, she is entitled to ₹8,000 a month for four years. “I applied for the fellowship a month ago and got the allotment circular two weeks ago,” she says. 

For many like Abraham, the confusion around non-NET fellowship and its continuity has been demoralising. On October 7, the University Grants Commission (UGC) resolved to discontinue the non-NET fellowship, even though it had earlier constituted an expert committee to consider its enhancement. Students already getting the fellowship will continue to do so, it declared. The UGC’s decision led to an uproar from the student community, and for many, along with the scheme goes their sole aid during years of gruelling research.

The students embarked on what has since become the Occupy UGC protest, and Gate 3 of the ITO metro station in Delhi has been turned into a protest headquarters of sorts. The agitation, shy of a month now, has seen students taking out marches, facing police violence on occasion, and has also prompted the government to form a five-member review committee to address the scope of non-NET fellowships.

Last week, students from JNU, Delhi University (DU), Jamia Millia Islamia and Ambedkar University marched to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), in what has been their biggest show of strength so far. The HRD minister met the protestors on the street and assured them that the fellowship would stay and the review committee would look into its scope and selection criteria.   

The protesting students however are not buying it. They worry about the fallout if the review committee recommends discontinuation of the fellowship. “We had three demands when we started,” says Kanhaiya Kumar, president, JNU Students Union. “We want the non-NET fellowships to stay. We also want it enhanced and extended to all state universities,” says Kumar, a non-NET fellow pursuing a PhD in African Studies.

Though the MHRD circular stated that the review committee would consider the possibility of increasing the number of “NET fellowships, which are merit-based” and extending the benefits of the fellowship to more state universities, the students are anxious about a third point — the proposed economic and other criteria for the fellowship.

“We are not guinea pigs, stop the experiments,” says a placard propped against the ITO metro station wall. “Education has value, now it has a price too,” reads another graffiti. Late on a nippy evening in October, when traffic at one of the Capital’s busiest intersections is belligerent, 100-odd students sit in the open space outside the station and resolve to fight on for their right to education. They burn the effigy of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and condemn the attack on protesting students in Kolkata.

 Vrashali Sruthi, a graduate student from DU, is currently unaffected by the fellowship issue, but has been a regular at the protests. “We go to the campuses in the morning and mobilise support, and gather here in the evening,” she says. Subhashini, a 26-year-old law student at DU, is protesting too. “If the fellowship goes, people like me who are contemplating research, are going to be affected,” she says. With a postgraduate degree in hand, research is an option for her. “Students who go into research are making a huge decision against joining the workforce immediately,” she says. Many, well into their twenties and early-thirties, say they cannot take money from their family. “Cost of living, research work, field trips — nothing would be left of the ₹5,000 an MPhil non-NET fellow gets,” she adds.  Half of Pankhuri Zaheer’s MPhil non-NET fellowship goes towards her mess bill at JNU. “I am also learning dance and the money for it comes from the translation work I undertake for international students,” she says. The students want the non-NET fellowship increased to ₹8,000 for MPhil scholarship and ₹12,000 for PhD students. “What we are getting is lower than what an unskilled labourer gets,” says Zaheer.

The non-NET fellowship was introduced by the UPA I government in 2006. “It was felt that the number of doctoral students in the country was substantially lower than what it should be,” says Yogendra Yadav, former UGC member and a supporter of Occupy UGC.

Of the nearly one lakh students who enrol for research every year, less than five per cent qualifies for the full research fellowship — NET-JRF. The non-NET, a subsistence fellowship, is currently awarded to MPhil and PhD students in 46 central universities and select state universities. That still leaves a large pool of researchers with no state support. The uncertainty over the non-NET fellowship and the likely introduction of economic criteria are adding to their woes. Future researchers may be largely dependent on family support or an educational loan. “You may not get the students who are most keen,” points out Mary E John, professor and senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.  “Most researchers are under extreme pressure to earn. Men from modest backgrounds are fighting off pressure to support families financially and women researchers are often warding off the pressure to get married. The fellowship gives them breathing space. These researchers are taken on board after rigorous eligibility and selection process,” says John. Wondering why a committee constituted to enhance the fellowship has taken a U-turn, she fears for the future of research programmes. 

 She points out that over the years, research programmes have evolved from flexible systems to one that holds researchers and guides accountable, leaving little scope for misuse. “Even for a PhD, we have entrance examinations and minimum course-work; research has to be finished in the stipulated time, beyond which they do not receive the stipend,” she says.  The academic remembers that things had looked up for higher education a few years ago. The 11th Five Year Plan had increased by nine-fold the outlay for higher education. “Slew of expansion was in place as it was recognised that the state has to play a bigger role in higher education, that the share of GDP going into higher education was very less,” says John. That outlay has dropped from ₹57,610 crore (about 9.5 per cent) in 2013-14 to ₹16,122 crore at present (about 2.8 per cent). The total allocation to the MHRD dropped by around 24 per cent in Budget 2015-16, against the peak allocation made in 2012-13. “I am paying all my taxes — service tax, VAT, everything. Where is the money going?” asks John.

Occupy UGC may be about the non-NET, but Yadav says it invokes an angst that runs much deeper — the unequal opportunities in higher education. “An elementary analysis of the figures from 2011 shows there are around 4,000 fellowship slots in postdoctoral research, which covers 75-80 per cent of researchers. When it comes to MPhil and PhD scholars, fellowships cover one-fourth of them. Among the 3.3 million postgraduate students, UGC fellowships reach 0.01 per cent. For the 26 million undergraduates, there is nothing. All benefits of higher education are thus stacked at one end of the spectrum,” says Yadav. 

The system effectively pushes out the needy in the first five years of higher education, and this he calls education’s mortality rate. “When there are no ways to survive, they drop out,” says Yadav. Public universities in India are providing less financial aid than the private universities in capitalist countries, he says. The budget continues the fetish for elite institutions like the IITs and central universities. “Ninety-five per cent of the students are in the state universities,” he adds. 

 The students, meanwhile, are keeping Occupy UGC alive. The review committee is expected to submit its report in December and the agitating students cannot but link it to the upcoming WTO-GATS meeting in Nairobi, where opening up of the education sector is likely to be decided upon. “We are going to decentralise our protest. Representatives will visit campuses in the country and educate them on the movement,” says Kumar. Agitations are on in Hyderabad and Kolkata too.

Of late, many have advised Abraham to seek financial support from her husband, if need be. She finds such suggestions offensive. Abraham has had friends whose research hinged on the fellowship, friends who skipped meals during mess holidays as they couldn’t afford to eat out. “I have gone through the strict scrutiny of the university to get admission, and now it’s the government’s responsibility to fund me so that I can contribute to and push the boundaries of my discipline.” 

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