Universities in India are not in the pink of their health. While the private universities are run like petty businesses, state run universities depend on the government and University Grants Commission (UGC) for funds and in turn offer courses at very low prices. This is probably to meet some socialist ends – to allow some poor students to get a university degree which otherwise they would not.
But since these universities are unable to meet their expenses, they try to increase their fee.
Which is as it should be: at a time when prices of everything are going up, there is hardly any logic of keeping fees for university courses less than Rs 5000, as was the case in Punjab University, Chandigarh. But when it tried to increase the fees, violent student protests erupted. It was as if a matter of great national importance had been brought up. Students started throwing stones at policemen, injuring many of them. Some of them were rounded up by the police and charges of sedition, no less, were brought against them. Though the charges were later dropped, there was mud on the credibility of both the students and the police force.
Hundreds of things may be wrong with any educational institute. The mature way is to initiate a dialogue between the students and the authorities. But when students indulge in stone throwing, it certainly shows them in a very poor light. There was a need in this case to understand the financial position of the university – the Vice Chancellor had said on many occasions that the university did not have funds to pay salaries. In such a situation, if a university feels compelled to increase its fees, it certainly should be able to do so.
The subject matter of the protests was also suspect. The students did not protest about what affected them most – the quality of teaching or the fact that rankings of the university had fallen. Instead they chose the issue of fee increase, which would not affect the final year students anyway. The university had made a concession for poor students: those who had studied and qualified for their Class XII examination from a government school and have an annual family income of up to Rs 5 lakh, would be eligible for fee concessions up to 50 per cent of the tuition fees. In case the annual income of the family of such a student is Rs 2.5 lakh, he/she would get 75 per cent fee concession. Hence the argument that the university authorities had ignored the interests of poor students, was also quite faulty.
So why were the students protesting so violently? After all, prices of everything that affected them had increased relentlessly. If a group of students went out and had a nice meal, they would end up spending more than the yearly fees they were paying. Even school education was more expensive than university education. So why were there such strong emotions for the increase in university fees?
The answer perhaps lies in the way that Indian society treats education. Indians will gladly spend on cars and clothes but not on something that gives lifelong value. Even though it is accepted that education can pull people out of poverty, anyone trying to get a good education is looked down upon. School children bully their peers who are good in studies, while the environment in colleges and universities is hardly conducive to higher learning. That is one reason why none of our universities rank highly in global rankings.
But none of this concerns students. One gets the impression that our students and student bodies are too shallow to comprehend all this. What they find is an easy target – the increase in fees – and start throwing stones in the manner of Kashmir youths. It seems the desire is to protest about something and anything at all to catch attention. Student bodies, which are tools of political parties, push their agendas. The students are often made pawns in the bigger scheme of things.
The unfortunate fact is that higher learning is being debunked by Indian society in favour of mythology. It is somehow seen that cow protection and being vegetarian are the ways to making the nation great. None of this requires a college education.
But the fallacy of this argument should be apparent to all those who are trying to build careers. To meet the rapidly changing technological threats, India needs a scientific temper, not a falling back upon religion. Students, unfortunately, are busy playing the pawns. By the time they have to make their careers or write out statements to send to foreign universities, they will see the futility of protesting against their university about such a trivial matter. Since jobs are dwindling and many countries are closing their borders, it is going to become extremely difficult for Indians to either find jobs in their country or to escape to foreign shores. But then it will be too late to do anything about the worthless degree they have in their hand, all thanks to their spoiling the reputation of their own alma mater.
By Dr Dinesh Kumar