TISS Students Strike: Privatisation of Education Threatens Social Justice

The ongoing student strike at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai comes in the wake of reduced funding, withdrawal of scholarship for students from marginalised backgrounds, and disproportionate increase in fees. It brings to light the increasing privatisation of higher education under the current political regime, which has brought about erosion of principles of social justice and affirmative action.

 

The strike at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai has entered its eighth day. It was called by the TISS Students’ Union at the institute’s Mumbai campus on 21 February 2018 and has been observed across the Guwahati, Hyderabad and Tuljapur campuses. This strike is against the burden of rising fees and its effects on students from marginalised communities. While the struggle at TISS continues and can only be resolved on the ground by students and the administration, this article seeks to highlight the issues surrounding these protests in TISS. 

 

Demands of the Students 

 

The protesting students have put forth the following charter of demands:

  • to scrap the notification for Government of India–Post Matric Scholarship (GoI–PMS) students of the 2016–18 and 2017–19 batches to pay an upfront fee;
  • to roll back the notification to the same effect for GoI–PMS students in the 2018–20 batch;
  • to roll back the notification of upfront fee waiver for students in the integrated BA–MA courses in the Guwahati, Hyderabad and Tuljapur campuses (the students of these campuses have also raised campus-specific issues);
  • to seek representation of Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) members to head the Social Protection Office at TISS, Mumbai;
  • to seek greater transparency and better information on the status of funding and expenditure at TISS.

 

This protest follows closely on the heels of another protest in 2017 by the students of TISS to raise a charter of demands on the issue of fee hike and its effect on (GoI–PMS) students. While a partial rollback in fees for some batch of students was achieved in 2017, the situation remained unresolved, leading to the current protests.
 

Rising Fees and Upfront Fee Payment for GoI–PMS Students 

The GoI–PMS scheme is a centrally funded scheme for post-matric students from SC, ST, and Non-Creamy layer-OBC (NC–OBC) backgrounds. It is a 100% centrally funded scheme, where money from the centre is provided to students through their respective state governments, so that these students can pay for their higher education. Till 2014, this amount (at least in TISS) was directly provided to the institute from the state governments. Since then, however, with the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system, this amount was to be sent to the bank accounts of students. At TISS, until 2014, GoI–PMS eligible students were allowed to take up provisional admission in Masters (MA) courses at TISS Mumbai by paying an amount of Rs 4,500 only—there was a waiver for upfront fee payment of tuition, dining hall, and hostel charges. This policy of upfront fee waiver was a practice followed by TISS on its own accord, based on its founding principles of social justice.

 
At the same time, while receiving this waiver, students eligible for GoI–PMS also signed an undertaking (on stamp paper), that they would repay the scholarship amount received by them to the institute. If they failed to repay these dues, the institute had the right to withhold their degrees. Therefore, the relief accorded to students was in the form of a waiver of upfront fee payment and students provided a guarantee of repayment after receiving the scholarship amount. With the advent of DBT in 2014, the TISS administration, citing a lack of funding, discontinued this waiver of upfront fee payment for NC–OBC students. In 2016–17, it discontinued the waiver for SC and ST GoI–PMS students. The latter notification was not clearly told to students in the prospectus or the institute website prior to their admissions, and this was in clear contradiction to University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines for disclosing fee structure details.[1]  

 

These developments have evoked outrage from students also because there has been a tremendous surge in fees at TISS and consequently, disproportionate burden of this has been transferred on to GoI–PMS students. Table 1 shows the rise in fees at TISS over the last four years.

 

 

What Does This Hike in Fee Imply? 

The components of dining hall and hostel fee have increased from a total of Rs 18,000 to Rs 31,000 in three years; these fee components have increased by more than one and half times. The total course fee (for different courses) per semester is now over Rs 40,000 and this surge in fees has put a burden on all students in TISS. This is the reason why students from across the board joined protests in the previous years as well as in the current year. A more stark implication of this rise in fees has been for GoI–PMS eligible students. Many of these students have an annual family income of Rs 1–2 lakh per annum. The withdrawal of upfront fee payment waiver now implies that they must now pay an upfront fee of Rs 31,000 instead of the earlier amount of Rs 4,500. This has forced many students to reconsider or withdraw their admission or borrow money. The withdrawal of students from TISS has already started taking place. From 2014 onwards, a combination of high fees and withdrawal of the upfront fee payment waiver for NC–OBC students has led to a fall in enrollment of students in this category. This can be observed from the information obtained by students from an RTI (right to information) query regarding enrollment filed in 2016 (Table 2).[2]

 

 

TISS as a Deemed University Aided by the UGC

The response of the TISS administration to these issues has been that the increase in fees and withdrawal of GoI–PMS upfront fee waiver is a response to two types of fund cuts—the cut in non-plan expenditure grant of TISS and the non-recovery of GoI–PMS money from students availing the scholarship. Let us address the fund cut first. 

 

TISS currently receives non-plan expenditure from the UGC, amounting to the tune of Rs 50 crore annually. This funding has been reduced by the Ministry of Human Resource Development by 5% each year from 2016, and the arrears of this grant from previous years (over Rs 100 crore) has still not been received (Vishnoi 2015). This fund cut is a consequence of a unique position occupied by TISS in the higher education framework. 

 

TISS is not a private university. It is a deemed university, which receives aid from the UGC. It is not a centrally-funded public university, but offers courses on social science with student intake (for some courses) at par with these universities. It has a high NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) rating at par with universities that offer professional and vocational courses. It seeks to be recognised as this, but is not accorded such a status. At the same time, the principles that TISS has claimed to follow are those of social justice, provision of quality higher education, and commitment to affirmative action. 

 

Whilst teaching students about structural inequities in society and nurturing a spirit of questioning the establishment, TISS has also tried to work closely with the Government of India and various state governments. It currently has over 4,500 students across its campuses with over 200 teaching faculty. This unique position has led TISS to experience different forms of crises. This has taken the shape not only of fund cuts to non-plan expenditure, but also other cuts by the central government. One such issue was the funding withdrawal (as part of the Twelfth Five Year Plan) for centres of Women Studies, and Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (Sharma 2017). As a response to this predicament, TISS charges fees and deposits far higher than most deemed universities (including those whose funding was cut along with TISS) and public universities. This has severely crippled many students from low income backgrounds from applying to TISS.

 

 

Notional Increase in Student Expenditure Deficit

The second claim made by the TISS administration is that it has incurred a deficit due to non-recovery of scholarship amounts from GoI–PMS students. Further, the administration said that the MHRD has asked the institute to source its own financing to continue the policy of upfront fee waiver, since it was a policy started by TISS of its own accord. The central government has withheld finances to the Ministry of Social Justice and which would then fulfil GoI–PMS obligations. As on 8 February 2018, the arrears reported by the Ministry of Social Justice Empowerment for the GoI–PMS for SC category were to the tune of Rs 6,824.51 crore (Rajya Sabha 2018). These arrears are based on claims made by GoI–PMS students from across different states. The states with the highest arrears reported are Tamil Nadu (Rs 1,547.56 crore), Uttar Pradesh (Rs 1,490.30 crore), Maharashtra (Rs 1,433.92 crore), and Punjab (Rs 835.24 crore) (Rajya Sabha 2018). 

 

Despite this deficit, in the 2018–19 budget, the planned budgetary expenditure allocated by the central government for GoI–PMS students belonging to SC category was a paltry Rs 3,000 crore. This amount was a reduction from Rs 3,347. 99 crore in 2017–18. An important concern to be kept in mind is that this funding has to suffice for all eligible students from Class 10 onwards. This situation makes a mockery of the outcomes claimed by the current central government for this scheme—“increase in number of students receiving scholarship and passing rate of them in post matric education (12th, Bachelors and Masters)” (e-Utthaan n d).

 

In the absence of this central funding, different 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 Other Eligible Communities (OEC) students receive between Rs 25,000–40,000 a year and SC students are paid their complete fees. At the same time, states such as Uttar Pradesh fail to release this amount. This holds true both before and after the implementation of the DBT scheme.

 

Without central funding to recover this loss and due to the non-transfer of GoI–PMS funds by the central government, institutes like TISS claim that the only way out for them is to increase the fees. The figures used to calculate student deficit expenditure are the fees charged to students. This is not an expenditure figure calculated on the actual costs incurred for each student. Further, as the fee keeps increasing each year across batches, so does this deficit figure claimed by the institute. What drives the student expenditure deficit (more than the non payment of GoI–PMS money) is the increase in fees declared each year by TISS. The rising "student deficit expenditure" claimed then is notional and is inflated as compared to an expenditure calculated based on actual costs.

 

According to the data obtained in the previous years from the institute, for the academic year 2015–16, we have two batches of students enrolled in MA programmes—a senior batch of 2014–16 and a junior batch of 2015–17.

 

 

In 2015–16, for 99 senior batch GoI–PMS (SC, ST) students, the institute claims expenditure of Rs 30,81,900, and for 118 junior batch GoI–PMS (SC, ST) students, the institute claims an expenditure of Rs 50,85,700. If we assume that no student pays any scholarship amount back to the institute, there will still be an increase in deficit amount by Rs 20,03,800. 

 

Even though the increase in number of GoI–PMS students here is only 19 students, the claimed estimated increase in expenditure is Rs 1,05,464 for each extra student in the junior batch over the senior batch. 

 

While there is a deficit increase claimed, what actually drives this deficit is the increase in fees. The increase in fees notionally increases the institute’s “expenditure” on students and therefore results in the claim that institute deficit has risen disproportionately. 

 

Conclusions

If deficit on student expenditure is less than what is claimed, one would assume that the high fee collected by the institute from most students affords it some allowance to continue the upfront fee payment waivers for GoI–PMS students. However, the option chosen by institutes such as TISS, in the face of the burden of reduced central funding and removal of fee waiver, is to increase fees. This again fuels the increase in deficit expenditure and is a burden borne by students. In the same period, when reservations have ensured that there is greater diversity and representation of communities from marginalised backgrounds in higher education, this gain is being eroded by making higher education unaffordable and out of reach for these students. 

 

It is in this context that these student protests must be seen. Protesting students have been vilified by the administration (and right-wing and “apolitical” commentators) for resorting to protests and strikes instead of “dialogue” (Rajranjan 2018). Ironically, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) (a student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which wields influence on the party in power at the centre) has supported the students of TISS. Of course, this support was extended with further irony—denouncing the method of protests and strike, and a comical offer to mediate the issue between the administration and the central government.[4] 

 

Despite these obstacles, the student protests at TISS are based on unity amongst students belonging to different political worldviews—the left, Ambedkarite, Adivasi, and queer movements. They have been supported by the institute alumni, the faculty (the TISS Teachers Association and the SC–ST Teachers Association), left and Ambedkarite student groups from across the country (Students' Federation of India (SFI), All India Students Association (AISA), All India Students Federation (AISF), Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA), Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation (BASO), Ambedkar Students Association–University of Hyderabad (ASA–UoH) and student unions of colleges of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, and Jamia Millia Islamia. 

 

As students in the TISS campuses across different political positions come together with support from their faculty and support from students across different universities in the country, the principle of social justice, which the institute was once known for, is under threat. The understanding amongst students in clear; a dual fight is to be waged. Not just against the periodic attacks on campuses by the right wing (from the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula at UoH to attacks on JNU, University of Delhi and Jadavpur University), but also against the privatisation of higher education (in the form of reduced funding, increase in fees and discontinuance of waivers and support) and its assault on the principles of social justice and affirmative action.

 

 

The author of this note was part of a team that prepared a submission to the administration on the issue of rising fees and has used in this note data submitted to the administration. The author would like to thank Gaurav Gharde, Sandeep Mahato, Ranjini Basu, and many other students for their assistance in data collection.

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