Unjust cut

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Students protesting on the TISS campus in Mumbai on February 27 against the cutting of funds to the institute by the Central and State governments. Photo: Prashant Waydande

The main entrance to the TISS campus in Mumbai. Photo: Prashant Waydande

The strike on TISS campuses exposes the Central government’s policies that are eroding social justice.

IN what is a first ever occurrence, all four campuses of the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) went on strike on February 21. The first campus to do so was the “mother” campus in Mumbai, followed by the campuses in Hyderabad, Guwahati and Tuljapur in south-eastern Maharashtra.

There were many issues at stake in the strike. Over the years there has been a gradual move towards withdrawing financial aid to students and at the same time increasing fees. This time around it was the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) students who came under fire when the administration decided to roll back aid for those students who were earlier eligible for the Government of India Post-Matriculation Scholarship. The institute informed them that they would have to pay their full fees up front.

The announcement sent shock waves through the campus since it was applicable immediately and for the academic year 2017-18. Not only was the withdrawal of the scholarship a direct hit on underprivileged students but it also raised questions about those students who were mid-course and under the impression that they were eligible for the scholarship. This resulted in the TISS Students’ Union calling for a strike. The strike was supported by the S.C. and S.T. employees’ union at TISS, the faculty, student unions from numerous universities and by Left-leaning and Ambedkarite groups.

The demand is seen as a move towards disempowerment of the already underprivileged. Although TISS’ decision to withdraw aid made it to the news, the real fault lies with the Centre because it had failed to disburse the scholarship funds and has actually been trimming the budget for this.

Government in arrears

The scholarship money for S.C. and S.T. students comes from the Ministry of Finance, which releases it to the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, which in turn gives it to State governments. Until 2015, the State government passed this on to various institutions, but after the direct benefit transfer system was introduced, the State government paid the scholarships directly into the bank accounts of students, who would then pay their fees to their respective institutions. But a budget crunch has meant that the payment has dried up. In fact, the government is in arrears and has not paid the Social Justice Department since 2016. In the 2017-18 Budget, Rs.3,347 crore was allocated for the scholarship in question, while in the latest Budget this fell to Rs.3,000 crore.

Drop in enrolment

Earlier, TISS would allow students with scholarships to continue their education and pay their fees once the scholarship money was deposited in their accounts. But with the budgetary cuts and the delays in disbursement, the institute seems to have become wary of potential losses to its own coffers and hence its demand that S.C. and S.T. students pay their full fees up front. This means they would need to pay an average fee of Rs.70,000-80,000 a semester, an amount clearly out of their reach.

A similar situation occurred in 2015 when government scholarships for Other Backward Class (OBC) students were cut. At that time too, TISS asked OBC students to pay the whole fees. Ironically, while one of the primary aims of the Department of Social Justice is to use education as a social and economic enhancer, its inability to fund the project is likely to result in the exact opposite. Student enrolment from the underprivileged sections is bound to fall if they do not have the backup of a scholarship. Indeed, the Student’ Union claims that there was a 9 per cent drop in enrolment of OBC students after the institute insisted on their paying full fees up front. While protesting the aid rollback for S.C. and S.T. students, the union has resurrected the demand that OBC students also should not have to pay the full fees up front.

The Students’ Union also alleges that TISS fees are among the highest compared with other Central universities such as Telangana’s Hyderabad Central University and The English and Foreign Languages University or Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

After more than a week of negotiations, the TISS administration agreed to most of the main demands and also to the formation of a joint scholarship committee that would find long-term solutions for students that need scholarships. This resulted in the Mumbai campus calling off the strike on March 4.

Roll back of demand

However, although the TISS administration agreed to roll back its demand for the 2016-18 batch and to allow the students of the 2017-19 batch to pay their hostel and dining hall fees whenever possible, the union is demanding that these students should also not have to pay their fees up front. Moreover, the fate of MPhil and PhD students has not been addressed, nor was any decision taken about upcoming batches. In protest against this and against the larger principles that are being eroded by the budgetary cuts, that is the attack on social justice and the creeping move towards privatisation that the present government is making, the other campuses are continuing with the strike.

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