Relevance of student protests for the Indian public

December 26, 2015

by Bincy Mathew

In the over 50-day protest that has had students from around the country rallying against the privatization of education in the context of WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, the media and the public at large seem to have a myopic picture of the situation. The issue of students protesting is neither restricted to a fraction of students who are demanding the increase of scholarship amount for MPhil and PhD students; nor is it only a matter of the poor and middle class reeling under the burden of the increasing cost of education. The quality of education in India has much to do with government apathy as well as ill-informed decisions it has taken to address issues.

As far as apathy is concerned, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was few months ago asked by the Science and Technology Ministry to self-finance its research. In contrast, countries like China invest significantly in their universities to boost the quality of research. Institutions such as Peking and Tsinghua therefore score high on universities’ ranking list. As Phil Baty, editor, Times Higher Education, says: “The research infrastructure in India is not quite as strong, and they have not received much investment in comparison to places like China”.

In context of policy decision, the UGC had sought to end the scholarship provision from universities for research scholars, which triggered the recent protests. The government’s early decision to scrap non-NET fellowship ahead of the WTO conference was an indication of its intention of steadily withdrawing from the education system by having more private universities. The issue is not of private universities setting up campuses in India. While private universities such as Ashoka University and Shiv Nadar University are exceptions, there are tons of other private engineering and medical universities that have gobbled up money (capitation fee) from students without meeting the standards of quality education. Even though charging of capitation fee was banned by the Supreme Court in 2003, colleges have not abided by the rule. How does the government plan to ensure quality of education provided by foreign universities in India if it has not been able to regulate private Indian universities?

Quality of teaching

The media and the government are responsible for contriving a golden picture of India of a high GDP growth, but other aspects such as rising income inequality has not been highlighted as the flipside. The last 25 years of the post-liberalization period has been known as “jobless growth”. For instance, growth of total employment in India fell to one per cent in the 1990s from over 2 per cent in the eighties, according to an ILO report. Moreover, there has been significant insecurity over securing regular employment in recent decades. Even a glance at the employment scenario in the education sector will show an increasing trend of hiring teachers on contract basis for extended periods. In leading Central and State universities, with an increasing number of ad hoc teachers and fewer senior faculty, students suffer on account of being taught by less experienced teachers. It is equally bad for young professors who have to find ways of navigating the bureaucratic university system. This is a fraction of what this means not just for teacher employability, but also the quality of pedagogy that is the foremost factor for an all-round education for students. This has implications for generations of Indians, for not only will the gradual withdrawal of the government hurt us, but several generations down the line would get bogged down with tedious jobs to repay student loans in private universities. The issue of heavy student loans is emblematic of the United States, especially in leading private universities. We’re inching closer to this mode of education. We have already been pushed into a system where students have to single-mindedly focus on building their CV for highly-demanding jobs. Eventually most youngsters get entrapped in the system of repaying loans and then find themselves ensconced in the corporate world.

Assembly line workers

Neoliberalism has thus seeped into the system and shaped our outlook. From the race towards getting high scores to train themselves for college placements that ultimately place you on a 9 to 9 job under strictly regulated conditions. In fact most corporate offices in India demand long, fixed working hours that have no relevance to the productivity of work. In many private schools and universities for that matter, teachers are expected to put in long-work hours for no practical reason.

The effects of a neoliberal capitalist framework is such that a corporate life molds one to become calculative and adapt oneself to a regulated working atmosphere which is not so much based on dedication, but strategies of scrapping through to the end product of the organization. New employees, fresh out of college, are made to believe that this is life, this is how life is going to be. One has to learn to be a yes-man, suck up, and be exactly what the crowd expects: it is a homogenization of employees. Otherwise, one is an outcast and has no option but to adhere. People have been reduced to becoming assembly line labourers/manufacturers of corporate roles. This is exactly what the private universities would prepare a large number of students for, who would have to acclimatize themselves to the corporate environment to survive while they stick up to rigorous jobs even though they are hired on contract and decision of continuing the contract is on the discretion of the employer.

The issue of contract-based employment is not limited to the education sector alone, but has also extended to other sectors such as the media and the government. Layoffs in the form of early retirement, arbitrary transfers are part of the game. The government spends nearly Rs 300 crore on contract workers. It is in fact the largest employer of contract-based work in the country.

What’s lacking in our movement?

If we were to look at the situation globally, France was witness to drastic measures in the mid-1990s that included cutting down on salaries of airline employees and diversion of funds towards private schools that led people from different sections of society to protest. In India, on the other hand, we are being subject to similar measures (labour reforms, etc) slowly and steadily, which is why our reaction has been lackadaisical and more of a ‘reflex action’ such as the recent UGC protests. Also while in India student protests are seen as an isolated event, the current student protests in Brazil have the support of the community at large. Around hundred schools have been occupied in Brazil with active participation of large numbers of students. Even during the Naxalite movement of the 1970s, students from Kolkata were given food and shelter by people who empathized with them. Consider the case of the FTII protests against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman continued for 139 days that had to be withdrawn eventually, even though it received the support from known personalities. Considering the consequences of the education policy for the public at large, the protests require the support from all sections of society who ought to join in the protests, for the sake of their own children who will be affected. Greater participation would be beneficial for sustaining the movement.

Also, unfortunately students in general do not see themselves as stakeholders in what is going on. A neoliberal atmosphere has taken the sheen out of movements, while some students bravely face the bitter cold at UGC.

On the other hand, student movements have waned, and campaigns get restricted to specific student political parties to which many students cannot relate. Therefore issues lose relevance and support in no time. Having a political mind and not doing anything about is a waste of intellect and one’s capacity for bringing about change in the system. But many students do not have a forum or space to express their support. This is one of the reasons why the current student movement has not garnered the kind of support of students it should have. Because we are already part of the neoliberal system even though we are protesting it. In the long run, campaigns of student political forums function as a system of networking which is not followed by movements but seminars and ‘talks’ at noted coffee spaces, which has little impact on garnering large-scale support that is required for the cause. Tea is itself commoditized into ‘high tea’, for then how can it ever serve as a forum for discussion, for leading a revolution.
To sum up, we’re going through a phase that is witnessing a slow destruction of our education system. Our generation has at least seen the good part of the Indian education system, despite bureaucratic hurdles endemic in the system. It is not just us, but our children who will suffer the consequences in the years to come. It may be late to take a stand, to join the movement. But it’s better late than never.


Indian varsities lag behind in research by Bincy Mathew, 8 December, The Hindu, 2013.

Asian Experience on Growth, Employment and Poverty (2007) ILO, Geneva.