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JNU fee hikes: Need to revisit subsidies

By DM Deshpande

JNU, though a premier institute is often in the news for wrong reasons. Recently, it hiked some of the user charges and without losing any time students came out on streets in mass protests.  

Very few people know that these revised fees would come in force from the next academic year only. Shouldn’t that have given ample time-at least six months if not more-to exhaust other sensible and less disruptive ways to resolve union conflicts with the University management? But no, typical of militant trade union method, students have gone on strike at the drop of a hat.

Unfortunately, in this sordid saga, both the sides are to blame; University not willing to ‘talk’ to students and unions deciding to go on strike instantly. Our educational campuses, especially in Delhi, have been plagued by major political parties’ direct interference in the affairs of the students. They have not only funded students’ unions but also resorted to violence at times, during elections, for instance.

As you sow, so you reap; prohibitory orders had to be issued to rescue citadel of democracy (parliament) from crusaders coming from a ‘temple of learning.’ And what is the fuss all about? Accommodation (sharing) has been increased from Rs.10 per person to Rs.300 and that of single occupancy room Rs.20 to Rs.600. In addition, Rs.1,700 is proposed as user charges for utilities, water, electricity etc. At least a section of the media is also to be blamed for mis-representation, if not partisan, reporting. Thirty times hike, three thousand percent increase-have been the headlines. That the increase is a from a pittance of Rs 10 and Rs 20  is not sufficiently highlighted.

The hike is proposed after more than two decades of not revising rates. To think of even the revised rates in posh South Delhi area, one gets an idea of difference with the market rates.

All public funded universities and colleges subsidize education; Delhi is special, for it is the capital and the subsidies here are probably the highest in the country. With in Delhi, JNU seems to the favoured institution for highest level of public funding or put in other words, for lowest students’ fees and other levies. Even Delhi University or Ambedkar University charge between Rs.2,500 to 3,000 for their hostel rooms.

Education needs to be subsidized; it creates externalities and in Indian context, it is critical for providing access and equality of opportunity to all aspiring students. No quarrel with that, but there is no point in doling out concessions to the rich. It is blatant misuse of scares public resources. Cash strapped governments then cannot even ensure minimal physical infrastructure and learning resources. Then there is a problem of how to identify the rich and those who are not worthy of concessions. Not that it is impossible; a relatively new Ashoka University has shown how students fees can be linked with parents’ incomes.

JNU, in a bid to mollify agitating angry students, has decided to roll back the hike for BPL (Below the Poverty Line) students. Again, who is BPL is not the easiest thing to determine, at least in public funded University in India. Unions claim that 40 per cent of the students in JNU come from BPL background. This is difficult to believe going by the reports of students spend on mobiles, movies and flourishing night life just outside the campus!

Most of the states have almost withdrawn entirely from funding running and maintenance expenditure. That is mainly because salaries take away a large chunk of government grants. This too, is not desirable as it affects infrastructure and educational delivery. Contrary to what is popularly believed, governments are not over burdened by spend on education. Both UNESCO and Kothari Commission have stipulated that public funding on education to be at least 6 per cent of GDP. Actual spend is not even half of this benchmark. Absence of public funding is showing in terms of reduced access and equity and even quality in education. Hence, it is high time governments revisit their subsidy policy on education. On their part, higher educational institutions should deliberately and consciously try and raise funds from sources such as alumni, patrons and even corporates since CSR is now been made mandatory by law.

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.

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